Motivating staff in times of change

Steve Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggested that “habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do) and desire (want to do). It’s a relatively simple process to give people knowledge through training and skills through practical implementation, but desire really comes from within. If your staff aren’t motivated to change, what can you do to change their attitude?

It’s pretty clear that the issues of knowledge, skill and desire are critical to changing behaviours and habits in the world of public practice accounting, especially as the profession moves from a predominant compliace focus to one that recognises value in both compliance and advisory skills.

Many young accountants are embracing change, especially if they are relatively new to the profession. However, for more experienced (and older) members of the profession, there’s a real issue of deciding whether or not they really want to take on new roles and responsibilities. As an experienced accountant told me recently ‘I see an exciting future for the profession, but I’m not sure whether I want to change myself, I’m quite happy with what I’m doing.

I certainly see a strong future for both compliance and advisory-focused accountants in public practice. Whilst compliance has become more price sensitive, it’s not going away. Clients still come to their accountant, in the first instance, to address their tax compliance needs. And firms need both managers and accountants to do this work in an efficient and professional manner. The role of the ‘compliance manager’ with specific skills of workflow and client management is necessary for a progressive accounting firm wanting to manage client relationships. And the advisory-focused manager is essential to pursue opportunities to really add value to those same client relationships.

Individuals are motivated by different things and in different ways. What can you do to really motivate your staff in times of change, to ensure that they take on roles and responsibilities that are appropriate for both the present and the future of your firm?

  1. Be clear about the future of your firm

It’s unrealistic to expect that staff will be engaged if they simply come to work to do their work. What does the future of your firm look like? What are your expectations of your people in delivering your vision of the future? If your staff don’t know what you’re thinking, it’s likely that they will not be interested in changing to meet your goals.

Consider involving your team in a firm planning day (after you have worked out strategic objectives with the senior members of the team, so you know you have their support). Set firm KPIs and cascade them down to each individual, so that each person understand their role in achieving the firm’s objectives.

  1. Involve your people in achieving the future

I’ve found that one of the most challenging tasks for effective leaders, especially in smaller firms, is to stop controlling people. Let your team take on more responsibility for day-to-day decision-making. Of course, they’ll make mistakes, but the benefits far outweigh any issues that may arise.

A good initiative is the establishment of a board of management involving key people within the business. Use the board to develop both strategic and operational objectives, then delegate actions to team and individuals. You’ll be surprised at the changes that take place in staff motivation and engagement.

  1. Give your people the chance to develop new skills

Many times over the past 15 years, I’ve heard the leaders of firms lament the skills and motivation of their people, only for the same people to leave and demonstrate great skills and motivation in a new environment. If staff are not motivated, the first place to look is at the leadership of the firm.

What are you doing to give your people the chance to develop new skills, especially in relation to workflow and client management? Consider delegating (officially) responsibility for client relationship management at a compliance level. Establish a training budget that gives each person on your team the opportunity to take responsibility for their own professional development.

  1. Listen to feedback from your people

If you have an accountant who appears reluctant to develop new skills and capabilities, then the first action is to find out why. Ask them questions about their goals and aspirations, find out more about their personal challenges and weaknesses, help them to develop their own professional path. Perhaps their future is not with your firm, or maybe it’s simply a matter of challenging them in a way that’s engaging and inspiring.

  1. Manage the change

Adopting policies is one thing, implementing them is another. If poor motivation is entrenched, you may need to look at the firm’s style of management. One of the most natural of human instincts is to resist change even when it is designed to be beneficial. The way change is introduced has its own power to motivate or demotivate, and can often be the key to success or failure.

  • If you tell (instruct or deliver a monologue), you are ignoring your people’s hopes, fears, and expectations.
  • If you tell and sell (try to persuade people), even your most compelling reasons will not hold sway over the long term if you don’t allow discussion.
  • If you consult, it may be obvious if you have made up your mind beforehand.
  • If you look for real participation (sharing the problem solving and decision making with those who are to implement change), you can expect commitment and ownership along with the adaptation and compromise that will occur naturally.

Finally, look at these simple Dos and Don’ts for motivating staff


  • Recognize that you don’t have all the answers.
  • Take time to find out what makes others tick and show genuine caring.
  • Lead, encourage, and guide staff – don’t force them.
  • Tell your staff what you think


  • Make assumptions about what drives others.
  • Assume others are like you.
  • Force people into things that are supposedly good for them.
  • Neglect the need for inspiration.
  • Delegate work — delegate responsibility.​

Click here for more information on how you can help your people develop their knowledge, skills and desire for change through HTST’s eLearning courses.

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