Face the Stress of Success

Tax season lessons show success alone is no cure for stress.

Check the Stress-O-Meter, get the benchmarks.

by Rick Telberg
At Large

Just because you’re one of the best accountants in the business doesn’t mean you don’t lose sleep at night. In fact, achieving the highest level of performance in this profession can actually add to your worries, even as it adds to your bank account. Take a look, for example, at some of the data we’re examining from our Tax Season 2007 survey.

In the final questions of the survey, we ask practitioners to rate their firms using basic business metrics on a one to 10 scale, with 10 being “world class” and one being “lagging.” In our analysis, we filter the answers into three categories: Leaders, Laggards and the In-Betweens. To bring the results into sharper focus, let’s only look at the Leaders and Laggards.

Leaders, it seems, are about 20 percent more likely than Laggards to report the highest stress levels during the busy season. So why be a “Leader”?

For one thing, there’s a big difference in the reasons for the stress. Laggards are much more likely to link their sweaty palms and short tempers to particular colleagues, staffers, family members or clients, in other words, personal problems or conflicts.

Leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to cite business or professional issues, such as changes in the tax regs, or an unexpected surge of new clients and new work.

At one underperforming firm — a large one, by the way — a senior staffer complains, “Upper management does not follow through on its promises.” In contrast, a partner at a mid-sized CPA firm in New Jersey, who rated his firm as among the best, traced the rating to the firm’s “advanced” technology and the staff’s “team spirit.”

But, aside from the stress levels, do “Leaders” really perform better than “Laggards”? The answer is, yes, and in some important ways.

“High-performance Leaders,” according to our preliminary analysis, are 1.36 times (or 36%) more likely than “Laggards” to characterize the 2007 season as “better than last year.”

So, what makes it a “better” year?

One CPA said, “Better equipment!” Another said, “More organized, both me and my clients.” And still a third responded, “About a six percent increase in the number of clients.”

All of that does, indeed, sound pretty good.

Then we looked at the question, what makes for a “worse” year?

“Outside drama I have no control over,” according to one practitioner, who adds, “too many wasted hours fighting battles I didn’t start.”

Another professional — the owner of her own firm – blamed “the December 20, 2006, major tax legislation! The stupid telephone excise tax refund! How do you get all that detail from clients LAST MINUTE?!” In addition, she “needed more bodies.” She said she “interviewed the only two responses” she received to her state society help-wanted ad, but both interviewees “had let their licenses lapse! How can THAT be?”

A third practitioner, reporting a worse year, pointed the finger at “fewer employees, same workload.”

Each of those items sounds like a recipe for headache, upset stomach and sleepless nights. Our prescription: take two aspirin and start planning for something better next year.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to dig through your responses and comments for more answers. And know that you can still help, as we continue to invite participants to our Busy Season 2007 survey. Post your experiences and see the consolidated results from your colleagues.

Check the Stress-O-Meter, get the benchmarks.

[First published by the AICPA]