How can I get my team to step up?

A surprising reason lies behind why practice owners struggle to get teams to take more responsibility

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It’s one of the questions I hear all the time from accountancy practice owners. They want to grow their business but they just can’t get their team to take on more responsibility.

The truth is, very often the problem doesn’t lie with the team – it lies with the business owner.

Many business owners are power-hungry control freaks, and it’s not just accountants, of course; this is true across all sectors. They feel that unless they make all the decisions, everything will go wrong.

As a result, the team learn not to use their initiative or to suggest new ideas. So they end up having to ask the owner for help whenever anything goes wrong. And of course, that means the business owner becomes a bottleneck and the business has no capacity for growth.

It’s no wonder they don’t step up.

But as a business owner you can change this situation. What’s more, it’s possible to do it in a way that maintains your high standards or even improves them.

This extract from my book, Putting Excellence Into Practice, explains how it works:

A better way 

I’m privileged to work with amazing people who deal with any problems quickly, effectively and, in many cases, ingeniously. But it’s not just about dealing with problems, they also suggest and implement great ideas to prevent those problems happening in the first place (in other words, ideas for making the business better). At the same time, rather than continually being interrupted by the day-to-day operational stuff, I get to focus on the things I need to do that will also make the business stronger.

My team feel empowered to express themselves and – because of this – they feel valued and have a deep sense of worth (and rightly so!). But, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t recruit them from a secret ‘superhero’ recruitment centre. They’re ordinary people who do extraordinary things every day – and I’m going to share how you can develop your team to do the same.

Stepping up: the Initiative Ladder

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The diagram above illustrates the different stages people can be at when it comes to using their own initiative. Many reside on either the lowest or the second-lowest rung. If they’re a ‘go-for’ they simply wait to be told what to do: ‘Go for this!’, ‘Go do that’. If they’re an ‘ask,’ they might get on with the day-to-day routine stuff but will bring anything outside that to you. In other words, they’re still not thinking for themselves.

The next rung, ‘recommend,’ is equivalent to: ‘Bring me a solution, not a problem’. It’s the first target rung, and, when I recruit people for AVN, I explain that it’s the minimum level I expect. They need to take a few moments to think about the best way to solve (or at least improve) the problem and then bring their suggestion to me. Their recommendation won’t always fit with our values, of course, or perhaps there’s an additional factor that they’re not aware of, but we can at least have a conversation and they’ll leave with a greater understanding of the business and be able to offer better recommendations in the future.

To summarise, it’s about breaking habits. For many people, it’s a habit to ask rather than to think for themselves. The fear of recommending something that’s wrong can also inhibit people. If that’s the case, it’s your job to encourage and remind them.

Every time someone brings you a problem, ask: ‘What do you recommend?’ If their response is, ‘I don’t know!’, ask ‘If you did know, what would it be?’ Reassure them that there’s no such thing as a bad recommendation. Be patient and wait. Whatever their response, work with them on it.

Your team need encouragement

Start by providing positive encouragement – it’s great that they’ve made a suggestion. If you feel that their recommendation isn’t quite right, ask yourself why before you respond. What would happen if you followed it? Would it really lead to a negative outcome, or is it simply a different approach to the one you’d take? If you realise that actually it could get the right result, then – as long as it fits with your values and how you want your business to be seen – let them run with it.

If their recommendation doesn’t fit with your values, explain why. Be positive and, where possible, work with them to develop it so that it does. If you’re worried about negative connotations, give them the scenario: ‘I wonder what would happen if…?’

Help them to come up with a better solution themselves by asking thought-provoking questions rather than telling them the ‘right’ answer. The more you work with them to make their recommendations fit how you want your business to be perceived, the more their recommendations will be presented in this way.

True, this takes patience, but there’s no shortcut to building a great team. The rewards and benefits of taking the time to do so, however, are more than worth it.

Be the support

Once you’ve agreed on a solution, let your employee run with it – after all, they developed it! Reassure them that you trust them to do so and that you’ll support them. If things go wrong, encourage them rather than taking the task away from them. (‘Recommend’ may be the minimum level I expect a team member to be at, but it’s also the maximum until I believe they’re ready.)

Time to trust

Sooner or later, members of your team will be bringing recommendations that – usually – fit. This means it’s now time to take your trust further by moving them to the next rung of the initiative ladder: ‘Do it – report immediately’.

To do this, you’ll need to have a one-to-one conversation with each of them in turn as they reach this stage. Tell them that their recommendations are spot on and that you feel they’re ready to move to the next level. Encourage them to trust their own judgement – because you do – and to deal with situations themselves. Ask them to have a chat with you afterwards about what happened and what they did about it.

Don’t forget: no one’s perfect and even good ideas can go wrong. Mistakes happen. If something doesn’t work out, never chastise. Doing so will send that employee right back to the bottom of the ladder. Support them, but don’t take the problem back. Encourage them to take responsibility for resolving the situation and support them every step of the way. Remind them that you trust their judgement and their original recommendation. This will make them stronger.

Provide genuine praise

It’s easy to begin to take for granted members of your team who are coming up with and implementing solutions, but never forget to praise them. Everyone likes and needs to feel appreciated, and a simple but genuinely expressed ‘thank you!,’ ‘well done!’, or ‘you’re doing a great job!’ goes a long way.

Time to reduce your interruptions

Once you feel it’s appropriate, encourage team members to move to the next rung, ‘Do it – report routinely,’ by reporting on what they’ve done on a weekly or monthly basis during team meetings. That way, not only will you show that you trust them, but you’ll also gain more uninterrupted time in which to focus on improving your business.

Don’t let fear stop you

Sometimes when I’ve shared this concept, business owners have expressed concern that if they develop their team members too much they might start their own business in competition. Of course, this could happen (it may happen even if they don’t). But in my experience, it’s incredibly rare. After all, starting a business is no walk in the park and many more people leave their jobs because they feel undervalued.

Creating an environment in which your team can express their creativity, make decisions for themselves and feel supported and appreciated will improve their loyalty, their sense of ownership and their commitment to the success of your business.

Time to take action

Talk to each member of your team about the initiative ladder. Describe the impact it has on you every time a problem is brought your way. Explain that you want to help them develop professionally and that their doing so will free up your time to make the business stronger. Remind them that, in the long run, this will benefit everyone.

Download your free copy of Putting Excellence Into Practice.

Shane Lukas – AVN for Accountants

At the AVN Practice Growth Masterclass I share more strategies on being a good leader and building an accountancy practice where everyone can flourish.