Accounting Firms Should Get Rid of Managers

Hey look, no one wants to be a manager. That's not too surprising. Managing is a thankless job. Just ask any manager. It's why when we think of managers we think about Lumberg from Office Space.

People still want to be promoted, naturally, but it is kinda silly to promote someone to a job they don't want. However, that's exactly what companies have been doing for decades, as Steve Wolfe of Addison Group, an HR consulting firm, told Bloomberg:

"Too often, companies promote their best salesperson to be sales manager, or their best engineer to be engineering manager, because that's just the track they're on," said Wolfe. "We know from decades of research that when that occurs, job satisfaction goes down and turnover goes up."

Indeed, millennials value job mobility more than other generational groups, the survey found, even if they don't want to jump through a company's preordained management hoops. Nearly a quarter of millennials are currently seeking a promotion at their jobs, compared with 19 percent of Gen Xers and nine percent of boomers. Millennials were also most likely to leave a current job if they weren't able to advance beyond their current roles.

Sound familiar? Sure it does. The majority of accounting firms built their business models around it. And while we've suggested that accounting firms come up with new career path options, it's already happening at other companies:

So how do you keep millennials happy if they're looking for advancement but not a slow march into middle-management? Many technology companies have adapted to this reality by shifting their definition of workplace success. Alphabet (formerly Google) and Oracle, for example, have designed career tracks that don't lead to manager positions, said Scott DeRue, University of Michigan Ross School of Business associate dean who teaches leadership development.

"Individual career paths run parallel to management paths at these tech companies. The key is, you can be just as successful in either path." It's not only that having everyone shoot for the C-suite is unrealistic, said DeRue, it's that the C-suite may not even jibe with their idea of an enriching lifestyle.

Big accounting firms do this already, of course. I had colleagues that started out in tax or audit and wound up in recruiting, learning & development and even business development. Not everyone will get to pursue those opportunities, but they are available for those who really want them. But can big firms get rid of managers completely? Probably not, but rather asking senior associates to become managers, it might make sense to appoint individuals to oversee the engagement1 that aren't accountants. That way, more experienced team members (currently known as managers) can spend their days serving clients with their expertise rather than checking up on staff every 90 minutes. Regardless of what's been done in the past, accounting firms — even big ones — don't need to label people. Talent will perform, regardless of what you call them.

As for small firms, they probably consider this idea "a bit of challenge," or "impossible,"  but they dismiss it at their own peril. While they fret over ROI, employees continue to leave their firms in droves for employers that provide more flexible with career paths. And besides, getting rid of managers isn't impossible at small firms. Jason Blumer's firm doesn't have managers and implemented a Results Only Work Environment years ago. I can hear the groans now, but the point is — THEY DON'T HAVE MANAGERS. It flattens the hierarchy and it gives younger team members meaningful access to the most senior people in the firm. It's not about who reports to whom; it's about who can produce results for clients. Anything beyond that is a waste of time.

Smaller accounting firms want talent and they want successors. Maybe the way to do that is to blow up the old structure and try something new. Or keep doing the same thing and get the same results. Whatever.

1 Call them project managers if you must.

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