The new world of work: Tips for success as an accounting manager

July 6, 2023

By Dawn Wotapka for Journal of Accountancy

As workplace expectations change, this advice can help firms and their people create an environment that attracts and retains employees.

For decades, accounting was a top-down profession where bosses demanded that employees do whatever it takes — including working grueling hours at the office over the weekend and holidays — to get the job done.

“In the past, good management was simply about getting your team to achieve their targets, sometimes by any means necessary,” said David Almonte, CPA, CGMA, a financial reporting and analysis senior manager in Providence, R.I. “It was less about the people and more about getting the task completed.”

While the accounting profession has been slowly shifting away from rigid hierarchies for years, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation sped the process along. Now, to find and keep the best talent, organizations need to fully erase authoritarian norms in favor of flexibility, empathy, and approachability.

Succeeding in this changed world requires modern skills. “Leading, in a management role, is about getting to know your people, asking questions, listening to understand versus to respond, [and] setting them up for success and growth in their career,” Almonte said. “Above all, great managers take care of their people.”

In accounting, demand for talent and skills is high, and job seekers can often pick the best of multiple offers. “Finding qualified staff ” was a top-five issue in the 2022 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey. Meanwhile, “retaining qualified staff ” remained an issue for firms of all sizes. In the current accounting job market, applicants have the upper hand. They can often pick from multiple job offers and can easily leave a situation that doesn’t work. As a result, “employees are no longer willing to settle for a work environment that doesn’t meet their needs solely for the sake of receiving a paycheck,” said Mason Barringer, CPA, a senior manager with DMJPS PLLC in Greensboro, N.C.

Given how difficult it is to hire — and retain — standout employees, effective managers are more important than ever. Try these tips to shine to your staff:

Build a team

No one can truly be successful alone, so it is crucial to build an effective team, said Jennifer McCabe, a consulting partner with Armanino LLP in Los Angeles. She suggested making this part of your hiring criteria. “Make sure you hire someone who either has a proven record of being a good team player or is really excited about being on a team and working on a team,” McCabe said.

Reward good team behavior and alert someone if he or she isn’t contributing to the greater good, she said. “You have to have the hard conversation to let them know they’re letting down the team.”

Don’t forget to invest in team building — either virtually or in person — something that many managers may skip or delay as a “nice to have.” Taking a break from the daily work will make “sure that your team knows each other so that they have the right vibe,” McCabe said.

Be approachable

You need to be a person your employees feel comfortable talking to, and listening is a great place to start. When people enter Stacy West’s office, she stops typing. “I am always acting like I have time for them even if, maybe, I don’t,” said West, CPA, partner and director of assurance services with DMJPS in Greensboro. “Having those who you do manage feel like they can come to you for anything is important.”

If you’re not approachable, you may miss the chance to answer important questions from employees. In those cases, “questions not asked or unanswered will affect the efficiency of the engagement and create more work after the engagement review has been performed,” West said.

Soft skills are a key part of approachability, said Tom Rees, CPA, an accounting professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “You still have to be technically sharp, but you also have to be good at establishing a rapport and be able to have difficult conversations,” he said.

Avoid micromanaging

You also need to give employees the space to do their job without checking in every step of the way. “Micromanaging does more harm than good,” Barringer said. “Strive to develop employees to take ownership of tasks from beginning to end, while still being available to provide support and guidance along the way.”

His approach is to be hands-off with the day-to-day work, while stepping in when necessary. “I like to give my team the ability to make decisions on their own, which I believe is a skill that every successful employee should have to develop,” Barringer said. “However, I also understand the importance of a good coach, particularly for younger staff, so I make sure I’m available for guidance as needed.”

Work alongside your team

While delegating is a critical management skill, be sure to jump in with the team however you can, such as by providing backup when it needs help. “Often your job is simply to make it easier for your people to do their jobs,” said Barry Maher, principal with Barry Maher & Associates, a leadership consultancy based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Work for them. Support them in every way you can.”

This involves assisting employees when they need it — even if they don’t admit or recognize that they do. “I’m willing to jump in and do whatever to help,” said West, who has been a manager for more than a decade. “I’m not a fan of managers who get the [higher] title” and then act like they’re better than the people who work for them, she said.

Learn from mistakes

Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong and allow your employees to grow when they mess up, said Alex Loewenstein, general manager with Paro, a startup that helps accounting firms overcome staffing issues, who oversees a business unit with more than 20 people. Mistakes are “a part of life, and that’s part of growing as a professional,” he said. “Say, ‘Hey, I messed that up’ or ‘That’s my fault.’” When it comes to employees, don’t hold any issues against them. “Once the issue is resolved, trust in that person going forward,” he said.

Be sure to avoid finger-pointing, McCabe said. “People flock to leaders who say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take the [blame] for this one. I’ll explain it,’” she said.

Offer development tools

Employees who aren’t developed and offered a clear opportunity to advance tend to leave more quickly, costing the organization money and forcing the manager to hire and train someone new. That’s why managers need to work with employees to help them develop and shine within their current role while also preparing them for their next one. “Find out what their short-term and long-term goals are, and together work out concrete plans for reaching those goals,” Maher said.

Development tools can include education assistance for an advanced degree, sending employees to industry conferences, and funding online courses, educational webinars, and professional memberships. The process can also involve mentoring: If someone isn’t strong in a particular area, offer guidance, tips, and suggestions for improvement, Loewenstein suggested. Be sure to “take a genuine interest,” he advised. “It can’t be self-serving. People see through that.”

Without chances to grow, Barringer would likely have looked elsewhere, he said. “It’s important to give employees opportunities to progress in their careers, not just from a financial aspect, but also a developmental aspect,” he said. “It allows employees to continually sharpen their skills and bring a fresh perspective to the table, which ultimately benefits the organization.”

Be tech-savvy

Being a strong leader involves understanding the technology that is driving the profession instead of letting others handle it. “Moving forward, great leadership and management will be about helping your team transition through the continued exponential growth we are seeing in the technology space, no matter the industry,” Almonte said. “Technology, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, may sound scary to many, but they are really amazing tools that can help your organization automate mundane tasks to help free your talent to do more value-added work.”

Respect individual strengths

Know that each person you manage is a unique individual with strengths and weaknesses. For years, many firms required good technical, personal, and marketing skills, a hard-to-achieve combination that may have left out people who have been shining stars at some traits and skills, but not at everything, West said. “That sometimes gives the impression that there is no room for career growth,” she said. “Now, people are being evaluated for their individual strengths and utilize those niche areas where possible.”

Be inspiring

Being inspiring is also an essential skill. “You’ve got to have leaders who are inspiring and [who] make people want to work at your firm and for you as an individual,” McCabe said.

To do that, “make it clear to [employees] that you truly believe that individually and collectively they have the capability to be the best. Then act as if that’s actually true. It probably won’t be long until they’re trying to live up to your expectations,” Maher said. “A little while longer and they’ll adopt those expectations as their own. They’ll work even harder to fulfill them.”

Be flexible

Managers need to understand that the typical workday of eight hours at a desk doesn’t work for everyone. Now, more than ever, employees desire to successfully juggle their personal and professional lives, both when and how they work. Some want to spend time at the office and then take a break for dinner before resuming work at home. Others want to work fewer, longer days in exchange for extra weekend time. The key is to let your employees work in the way that best suits them. “Work/life balance is more important than compensation,” Loewenstein said. “People want flexibility. Where that becomes a challenge is, historically, that’s just not how CPA firms have operated.”

What flexibility looks like will be different for every employer and, even, every employee, Almonte said. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” he said. “An organization’s culture, which is unique to each individual organization, will set the cadence for what will work and what will not.”


Now, in an era where top-down leadership is seen as outdated, being a good boss “is about creating a good environment where people want to come to work,” West said. “We can’t always control the client side, but we can control our own.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. Read the original publication at

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