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The trials and tribulations of a practice manager

Why did I do it? I started with hopes and dreams. I believed I could make a difference. I no longer want to kick the cat. I want to kill it. My evenings have turned from a nice glass of wine to half a bottle of scotch. Why did it come to this?

Insights David Smith 25 June 2015
— 2 minute read

It’s never easy taking on the role of a practice manager – you’re neither partner nor staff. You can sit in this limbo land between both. In some firms, partners feel they can veto every decision and in others, staff will sometimes work around you and go opinion-shopping with the partners when they don’t like a decision. 


So many practice managers depart disillusioned, lacking either the authority to manage effectively or the support of partners who are often unwilling to delegate. It can be a very frustrating place to be.

Yet in some firms,they can be very effective and have very satisfying careers. Taking day-to-day practice management issues away from the partners has to be a good thing. Really, partners should have only a few roles:

1. Partners should love the clients to death, building deep relationships and becoming the client’s confidant and trusted adviser
2. Partners should love the staff to death, mentoring them and coaching them to be as effective as they can be 
3. Partners should create the appropriate business strategy, culture, governance and accountability frameworks for the business to operate effectively
4. Partners should build the firm’s profile in the business community, build their personal networks, speak at events – all to drive new business.

Everything else can be delegated. That means responsibility for the day-to-day operations can be delegated. This is where the practice manager comes in. Unlike the partners, the practice manager’s client is the firm. Their sole focus is the firm’s performance. Once the partners have created the appropriate operating frameworks for the business, the practice manager should then have responsibility and accountability for implementation and daily operations.

That means partners need to let go. Governance frameworks would still ensure they have oversight through management meetings. This, of course, is easier said than done, particularly in firms where there was no practice manager previously. It’s hard for business owners to take their hands off the wheel and let someone else drive, yet it is doing exactly that which is a key to success.

Of course, it’s not just up to the partners. Practice managers need to be masters of relationship management. They need to win the confidence of partners and staff alike. They need the skills to drive change, often in the behaviour of the partners themselves. They need the confidence to challenge the status quo, which can often be difficult when they may not have a full grasp of the work undertaken by the accounting teams. They need to be thinking beyond the here-and-now and create an environment where the leadership team embraces change and actively embraces new opportunities and threats.

Partners are often terrible at implementing accountability and appropriate performance measures (often because they don’t want to have the personal accountability). This is where a practice manager has a key role to implement and manage the accountability framework across the entire firm so that desired outcomes are achieved. A great practice manager, managing accountability effectively, can make a huge difference.

There are many successful practice managers. Everyone can improve, however. It was why we developed a specific workshop program dedicated to this special group of professionals.

The trials and tribulations of a practice manager
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David Smith

David Smith

is a founding director of Smithink 2020. He is the external practice advisor to many firms participating in firm management activities to provide an objective viewpoint and an understanding of strategies that have achieved success in other firms. For over 16 years David was a partner at PKF (now BDO) Sydney where he created a significant software business which was sold to MYOB. He is a regular speaking on topics relating to the future of the accounting profession, business strategy, process improvement and innovation. He is also the advisor to businesses that provide products or services to the accounting profession.