As the CEO of a 10-year-old tax company, I am intimately aware of the unique nature of running a very seasonal business. Many business owners who operate organizations that are consistent year-round think this means that we don't work a large part of the year, but that couldn't be further than the truth.
Think of it this way: there's only one Super Bowl. Does that mean the players aren't working year-round? No. It simply means that they're working year-round to prepare for one big day, which raises the pressure on the team; the stakes are high during the big moment.
So, how do you minimize the stress and strain of a seasonal business? Here are the four principles I use when managing my very seasonal tax business.
1. Set your business year up in two halves that articulate planning versus game-time.
My company calls this the "plan and prep" phase and the "go" phase, and each has certain months allotted and assigned from which I don't stray. For example, October 20th to January 20th is the time to make system changes, analyze and plan marketing campaigns for the following year, make major website changes, and do any significant hiring. The rest of the year is dedicated to tax returns. You need to use the time of year that gives you space and time to be introspective to do just that.
Do I stray from that model? Sometimes I do, and when I do, I can tell you I always regret it. So, I stay committed to having a certain time of year be about big changes, and the rest of the year be about tweaking, improving, and focusing 150 percent on customers and their experiences--not what's under the hood.
2. Plan vacation time accordingly.
This goes much further than only setting blackout dates for when the team shouldn't plan vacation time. Otherwise, you will find that your entire team wants to take the last week off before the blackout periods, all at the same time, which in and of itself is a source of stress.
3. Softer check-ins are vital, too.
If you send a "how's it going" type message to a team of accountants on April 1st, you know what you hear back? "Fine," and then they get back to work. Send the same message on November 1st, and you get a world of insight into how the team is feeling, how their family is, what's been going well, and not so well.
When people have time to reflect, they'll give you valuable answers. Use the downtime to get a pulse check for how your team is feeling, too.
4. Hire a team that is resilient during times of stress.
No matter how hard you work to minimize stress in a seasonal business, you need to be realistic, too: it's a part of the role. So, in your hiring practices and staff evaluations, make sure you are honest about addressing that need, and make hiring (and firing) decisions accordingly. Seasonal businesses will get busier at certain times of the year, and team members who don't thrive in those situations will always fall behind.
Seasonal business employees are much more vulnerable to stress and strain, and it's up to you as the business manager to set company policies and habits to limit that as much as possible. The key here is to acknowledge this seasonality and make sure that your team's workloads allow for planning time that is separate from your game time.