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Managing Amid Uncertainty: Avoid Seven Costly Mistakes

When the business outlook is highly unpredictable, itís easy to make management missteps. Learn the most common pitfalls managers make in an unsettled economy, along with tips for avoiding them.

February 17, 2009
Sponsored by Accountemps

Economic uncertainty has prompted many accounting firms to rethink their business strategies. Although adjustments may be necessary in the current environment, it’s important to balance the desire for short-term improvements with their long-term consequences in terms of client satisfaction and employee engagement and retention.

When the business outlook is highly unpredictable, it’s especially easy to make management missteps. But much can be learned from past strategies — both those that worked well and those that missed the mark. True, in many ways the current environment is like none businesses have seen in decades, but there are nonetheless lessons to be learned from the past. Here are some of the most common pitfalls managers make in an unsettled economy, along with tips for avoiding them:

#1 — Thinking your staff can’t handle the truth. If you haven’t done so before, now is the time to truly treat your employees like business partners. Talking openly about the effect of the downturn on your firm can help staff members feel they have some measure of control over the situation. Discuss issues such as what happened during the last business slowdown. How did things turn around? What was learned from that experience? Explore these questions in staff meetings and brainstorm possible solutions and new ideas. Not only will you foster more of a “we’re all in this together” mentality, but you’re also likely to get some helpful suggestions.

#2 — Feeling people are lucky just to have a job. It may be true that many employees feel fortunate to have a stable position right now, but this doesn’t mean managers can ignore staff members’ needs for positive recognition and career support. Top performers, in particular, need extra attention. Not only are their contributions especially critical now, but your best people are always attractive targets for competitors. Give these employees compelling reasons to stay with you. Talk frequently with them about their professional goals and what motivates them. Ask what you can do to make their roles more satisfying today. This is particularly important if opportunities for advancement and salary growth are currently limited. Even if you can’t make binding commitments at this point, you can offer your most valued employees a vision of their future at your firm.

#3 — Not asking for employees’ help in expanding client relationships. Ask staff members to think about things they can do to help achieve business goals without sacrificing productivity. You may be pleased to discover how resourceful they are. When appropriate, also involve staff in generating new business. This can mean expanding relationships with existing clients as well as identifying and pursuing new prospects.

#4 — Making work ‘mission impossible.’ Hiring freezes and tighter budgets may mean that one person is doing the work of two or more people. If this is the case, help your employees focus their energies by designating which projects are mission-critical. Delegate remaining tasks, bringing in temporary professionals if necessary, or put these items on hold. This will help you avoid overwhelming your staff or setting them up for failure. Also, make sure employees feel comfortable asking for help. Often, your most reliable staff members are the least likely to speak up. You may not like having to step in to remedy the situation, but it’s better than the alternative: missing an important deadline or losing a valuable employee due to burnout.

#5 — Shifting the focus from the front lines. Client service counts all the more when times are tough. Are you doing everything possible to make sure your front-line professionals have the right attitudes and send the right messages? If these employees come across as indifferent or inexperienced, you could lose both prospective and existing customers.

#6 — Waiting to try new things. Even in uncertain times, playing it safe can backfire. If you have a promising new service offering or client niche you want to pursue, you shouldn’t necessarily wait for a turnaround to act. By taking well-calculated risks, you can get a jump on competitors and possibly carve out an additional revenue stream.

#7 — Not considering the economy’s effect on clients. Recessionary periods can present both challenge and opportunity. Take the time to understand your client’s changing needs and concerns. In an effort to develop certain services, you could be overlooking opportunities to mine more business from areas that clients view as a higher priority.

Just as you are focused on what the future holds for your business, remember that employees and clients are equally preoccupied with how the changing economy will affect them. By staying attuned to the concerns of these key stakeholders, accounting firms will be in a much stronger position to successfully navigate their way through the current economic climate.

For more management and career advice, listen to Robert Half’s podcast series, The Management Minute, at www.rhi.com/Podcast.