Two years ago, when I was newer to the managing partner role and analyzing all of the challenges that lay ahead of us, I kept pondering and asking myself, “If we could collectively address one thing that would have the greatest impact on the firm, what would it be?”
We are a firm in an almost extinct category: We have approximately about 75 professionals in the mature market of Detroit, with plenty of large and capable competitors. However, we have always loved our independence and the space in which we work—with owners of growth-driven, middle market businesses. We have built a great reputation serving these clients. We also have built a well-known skills set in international tax and accounting, and we are recognized by firms all around the world for our expertise in this arena.
But there was one common element that cut across all the challenges we faced as a firm: Our ability to work as a team. Now, please understand that we have a great team.
My partners have excellent reputations and are passionate about what they do. I would stack them up against any of their counterparts at larger firms. We have worked extremely hard in the last few years to develop our next level of management—and the fruits of our efforts are paying off. We clearly have the makings of a team poised for the next generation of leadership. We also have a great culture and have consistently been recognized as one of the top firms to work for, for several years. We are very proud of these recognitions and accomplishments.
However, we have plenty of areas that need our focus: Major technology changes, increased specialization, strong growth initiatives, pathways to partner training…and the list goes on. These challenges are all significant, and as a team, we would need to work even closer and more effectively to realize them.
We’re asking, “How do we minimize, or better yet, eliminate, the missteps that can happen when you have such large initiatives affecting virtually everyone, each with their own special needs and challenges?” These changes, which are never easy to implement, can cause frustration, blame, procrastination, and victim thinking as we expend the hard work necessary to accomplish our goals.
How do we, instead, create an environment of ownership, creativity, service, and the next level of trust? I needed a team that was laser-focused, spending their time on what they do best, with little distraction.
Enter the concept of QBQ, otherwise known as the Question behind the Question. Created by the author John Miller, it was introduced to us by our leadership consultant, Stephanie Murphy of Advisa, based in Carmel, Ind. (www.advisausa.com).
QBQ is a tool that helps leaders at all levels practice personal accountability by asking better questions and making better choices in the moment. The focus is on personal accountability and the inherent truth that there is only one person that you can change: Yourself.
We started by having Stephanie provide reading materials and lead discussions to allow us to truly understand QBQ. The concept of personal accountability is not difficult, but executing it can be, especially at the time of greatest need when the stakes are high—and frustrations and pressures are too.
We started by creating a QBQ leadership charter that the leadership team committed to uphold. We then each identified certain behaviors on our personal performance plans that we will change. We also provided everyone with a QBQ buddy to discuss and evaluate their own progress.
For times of high pressure, when frustration can quickly set in, we created a catchphrase: “Flip the switch.” This catchphrase reminds us that our behavior is violating the principles of QBQ. Using the catchphrase allows us to get back on track and prevents us from going off course by spending much time on unproductive matters, as can happen if issues are allowed to derail priorities. We needed to be spending our time on effective collaboration.
As part of the process, we conducted a staff survey to measure engagement, a critical step in tracking progress. The results provided us with the benchmark we needed to define a simple yet unified goal to focus on. While we scored very well, there were a couple of areas that reaffirmed our need to implement QBQ.
To help move things forward, we established a specific team goal to implement in 90 days. Our plan is to continue to layer on goals in 90-day intervals for a year. We intend to take the survey at the one-year mark to compare our overall results year over year.
With some time into this process, we’ve been asking about our results thus far. Well, of course, progress can be difficult to measure with complete accuracy, but in discussions with our staff members, they have acknowledged that they have seen a positive change. This feedback is satisfying to hear! Team members report seeing more engagement and greater collaboration in addressing difficult issues among the leadership team. In many of my discussion with partners, they often discuss the importance of a QBQ environment and how the concept has changed how they approach more difficult matters.
As I reflect on the goal of building a more cohesive team, I have asked: “Is this the right goal, and has it been worth the effort invested?”
Clearly, it is—not only because of the results I have observed firsthand, but more importantly, the future compounding benefits this effort will bring as we raise up the next generation of leaders. Our next generation will model the behaviors of the current leaders, so we need to get it right.
I am reminded of the quote from Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Who wouldn’t like a culture of better collaboration, greater creativity, and more robust problem solving?
We will continue to press on with our QBQ initiative. I am confident it will help shape the success of our firm for generations to come.
Reprinted with permission from Public Accounting Report