insight magazine

3 Ways to Be a Better Manager

The best managers work on developing the people who work for them into managers themselves. By Suraj Naik, CPA | Digital Exclusive - 2018


Becoming a successful manager of people seems like a straightforward task. One: Identify the manager who you prefer to work under. Two: Do exactly what they do.

So why do organizations spend countless dollars training managers on how to work with those under their supervision? After all, managers are required to possess the technical expertise relevant to their field and organization. For example, Ernst & Young (EY) requires applicants to be licensed CPAs to even qualify for a manager role.

Yet a large extent of what supervisors do each day is manage people. Consequently, EY not only has continuing professional education for managers but counselors, counselor training, feedback training, regular coaching surveys and mentorship groups — all of which are designed to develop current and future leaders of the firm. Organizations spend countless resources on recruiting, training and retaining staff. But in the end, even if staff receive an outstanding benefits package, they will consider leaving if they are working under ineffective managers.

So how do great managers develop people? Three continuous activities seem to be most effective: listening and learning from one’s employees, providing useful feedback and preparing others for leadership.

Paying Attention

Listening to and learning from those we manage is critical. Opinions generally come from one of two types of employees: Brand-new, entry-level staff and experienced individuals. Whereas the green staff may be best at proposing how to onboard newly hired employees, an experienced supervisee may be able to provide the manager with better ideas on assigning roles for the project or filling out mandatory documentation. Actively involving staff in decision-making is an excellent development tool for future managers. Additionally, by not having staff merely complete an assignment, they will instead learn to analyze opportunities to simplify and improve the work product.

On the other hand, managers must tactfully draw the line when required. With my firm, for example, assisting new hires and orientation does have limits. Those joining the engagement in October do so during federal assurance busy season, so a proper orientation from leadership is not possible. Circumstances may prevent good ideas from coming to fruition, but to keep employees engaged, managers can explain why the plan is not feasible and offer a compromise or a better timeframe for the idea. For example, a manager could use the lunch hour to explain the firm’s goals rather than a traditional office setting. As a result, the project can stay on track, but the staff does not feel brushed off or that their opinion was entirely ignored.

Providing Feedback

Another key aspect of managing people is the ability to coach. We often consider end-of-year feedback and counseling as the end-all, be-all. And while there is some truth that one’s year-end rating often determines compensation and job advancement, good managers understand that coaching is a continuous process. Informal, timely feedback can develop employees throughout the year.

As a CPA, I know the hours we spent to earn the license and, consequently, we tend to mirror that effort in our work. I also know that struggling early in your career or with a new firm is common, and I experienced that first-hand by joining the federal practice with no federal audit experience. So how do managers inform high achievers that their initial work may need many revisions, while still recognizing their efforts?

Identification of the problem is only the first step; managers developing people must include both a potential solution and future recommendation. Managers must be truthful and state the facts as soon as possible. Not clearly explaining the problem or waiting too long to express an opinion will result in the employee repeatedly producing low-quality work. Many of these disconnects are not the fault of either party, and rather are a misunderstanding based on how different individuals receive and communicate information.

Frank discussions offering insight to encourage better work in the future can be accomplished in many ways. I had one manager evaluate my first interactions with clients by inviting me to practice conference calls and in-person discussions. Another manager preferred to note his review work-paper comments and requested that I “approve” their legitimacy in a subsequent sit-down meeting. Overall, the managers identified problems immediately with the same goal —they wanted me to succeed and show me how to do so.

Cultivating New Leaders

While listening to one’s employees and providing appropriate feedback are two important actions for good managers of people, the most important is preparing future managers. No doubt, firms offer hours of training to develop managers, but I believe organizations can only accomplish this goal by allowing those being managed to act as managers before they are promoted to that role.

I see well-liked, highly regarded managers routinely offer opportunities to younger employees at EY. As early as in their second year, staff usually take charge of an audit task or project and oversee a fellow staff to complete the task. They predictably struggle, as they would rather perform the work the way they learned it and also fix a supervisee’s tasks if not completed within the guidelines. But eventually, staff learning to become managers begin to understand that listening to others’ considerations and offering feedback are the most efficient choices.

Allowing space to let others supervise smaller projects might lead to mistakes and maybe more time resolving problems in the short-term. In the long-term, however, the manager can prioritize engagement-level concerns while the daily activities are performed by those staff.

Building Better Managers

Based on the opinions of far more knowledgeable writers and thinkers out there, there are a multitude of traits good managers possess. They have strong ethics, exude the “tone-at-the-top” mentality, credit their staff routinely, accept responsibility for project failures and so forth. Most agree, though, that being a manager requires a skill set composed of more than just the knowledge gleaned from four (very difficult) accounting exams. As a result, firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on competitive benefits, only to realize employees continue to leave with a poor manager at the helm.

In the end, managers who successfully retain employees listen, critique in order to improve and nurture and develop the leadership skills of others.

Suraj Naik is a senior auditor in Ernst & Young’s Government and Public Sector practice. He serves on the VSCPA Young Professional’s Advisory Council.

Reprinted with permission from the Virginia Society of CPAs.

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