So many discussions have happened over the years on the topic of change for CPA firms. Most of these discussions have been focused on how to get partners, owners and/or shareholders to change. After all, if employees don’t see their leaders embracing change, why should they? Soon, the status quo becomes a way of life for many firms.
In the last couple of years, you have been saturated with articles, blog posts, webinars, tweets, and presentations stressing that you and your firm must change more rapidly than ever. Are you?
Change means discomfort and people fear discomfort. As leaders, you must push people through the discomfort until it becomes comfortable. And, it will.
Sean Glaze, of Great Results Teambuilding, tell us:
In fact, the first step in dealing with discomfort is fear.
People are first afraid of what makes them uncomfortable.
The second step is when people eventually become willing to experience discomfort.
The third step is when people become comfortable with the discomfort.
The final step is when people are excited by and crave discomfort. This is simply a sign that their zone lines have shifted, and they have established a much larger comfort zone than they previously enjoyed.
I’m not sure CPA partners will actually get excited and crave discomfort, but I do know that partners want what is best for their firm and just might realize that short term pain means long term gain.
Read this helpful article by Glaze, Why Discomfort is the Strongest Catalyst for Team Growth.
This is an important area when a partner retires, and it is the one that pays the bills. The annuity revenue stream that we enjoy from our clients is critical and it is the currency that most firms use to pay the unfunded retirement benefits to the retiring partner. You really do have to get this right.
The client transition plan needs to be orchestrated over at least two years, it needs to be written and it needs to be supervised and managed by the firm’s managing partner. More and more firms are requiring a minimum notice period for early exits, mandatory retirement ages and that the retiring partner work through a specific client transition process with the firm. There is also a trend toward penalties (reduction in retirement benefits) for the retiring partner if clients are lost because of inadequate notice and/or the client transition process developed by the firm is not completed.
Beyond the above broad parameters, what should the process look like? First, separate the clients into groups based on their ease of transition. This really comes down to two or three factors: the closeness of the retiring partner’s relationship with the client decision maker, the degree of involvement of other people in the firm with that decision maker and the size of the client. The 1040s and small business clients may be as easy as a phone call or a letter introducing the new person. Perhaps personal introductions are all that you will need for others. The larger business clients are more likely to have other staff and partners involved and sometimes may actually be easier than accounts where the partner has been the primary contact. For the close personal relationships, which are always the toughest to transition, you should plan on shadowing through at least two year-end cycles.
During extensive research for the HBR Leadership Handbook, they discovered that the best leaders with the most outsize impact almost always deploy these six classic, fundamental practices:
- uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
- building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
- attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
- relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
- creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
- “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.
While the leadership development industry is thriving, they found, in its fundamentals, leadership has not changed over the years. It is still about mobilizing people in an organization around common goals to achieve impact, at scale.
Read the article: The Fundamentals of Leadership Still Haven’t Changed.
Summer flew by. Fall was so busy with extended returns. Now it is November.
Fall is prime time for your competitors to approach your valuable clients about switching accounting firms. Hopefully, you are also doing the same. Year-end is approaching and it is the time of year when clients are most likely to make the move to another firm.
How many times have you touched base with your best clients throughout summer and fall? Have you sent them articles relating to their industry? Have you helped educate them about the new tax bill? Have you scheduled their year-end tax planning appointment?
Now is the time to give them a call. Even better, drop by their place of business just to see how they are doing. Every conversation with a current client usually leads to opportunities to provide additional services.
The traditional way a CPA firm finds and uses a management consultant is to ask around and find out the names of consultants that other firms are using or have used. Or, you might identify someone you have heard speak at a management conference then hire them to facilitate your partner retreat.
The firm has budgeted a certain amount for the retreat facilitation and after the retreat, the consultant moves on to other engagements and the firm often does not want to spend the money to have them do follow-up work or assist with implementation and accountability
Find a consultant that you think fits your firm, based on size, service lines, people needs, partner problems, etc. You find these people by hearing them speak but also by assessing them in relation to their writings, use of social media, and ability to keep pace with current trends in business.
Initially, they will facilitate your retreat or conduct a planning day or two with your partners or management leaders. Then they attend your monthly partner meetings or executive committee meetings (60 to 90 minutes per month via Skype or another virtual resource) to continually contribute and to hold you accountable. The firm budgets an amount for the 2-day planning session and another amount for the 12-month on-going involvement.
Result: You have a much better shot at actually getting things done, at moving your firm ahead, at recruiting and retaining top talent and developing a culture within your firm of continual change and improvement. That’s the culture the new workforce wants to experience.
Who does the hiring at your firm? In CPA firms, at least in those under fifty people, the recruiting and hiring activities are usually assigned to one particular partner.
Other partners and staff might be involved in various activities and interviews but usually one partner takes the lead. Sometimes, it is an experienced manager who leads these efforts.
I have observed that in many firms, this person has been playing a key role in recruiting for many years. They personally visit the college campus and conduct the formal interviews during the fall recruiting season. Sometimes they draft a manager or senior, who is an alumnus of that institution to accompany them and share the interviewing duties.
This leader also attends campus job fairs and “meet the firms” events. They may also be visible at accounting fraternity events and meetings. They work closely with the firm administrator in organizing many activities that are part of the recruiting efforts. Finally, they probably make the key decision in who receives an offer and who does not.
I want to suggest that you consider replacing this individual with another key person at the firm. I also think it is a good practice to only allow this recruiting leader to be in the role for no more than five years.
Why? Because people tend to hire people just like them. Of course, they do this without even realizing it. Studies have shown us that employers seek out candidates who are not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves.
You need a variety of skill-sets and personalities to build a successful firm. The most successful firms have programs in place to promote diversity within their firm. So, when it comes to a leader for your recruiting efforts – mix it up every so often.
In the CPA profession, we talk a lot about delegation. Usually, my conversation with partners is about how to get better at delegating. So many CPAs are very poor delegators.
Today, I want to address the multitudes of you (staff, managers, admin) who are receiving delegation. I recently read a very helpful article provided by MindTools. One of The Five Ways to Deal With Delegation is No. 2 – Check The Facts.
Check The Facts:
Give yourself the best chance of success by gathering from your manager as much information about the task as you can. He may lead the delegation process, but you’ll be able to balance your and your boss’s needs by asking him questions such as:
- What exactly is the task? What’s its purpose and value?
- Why are you asking me and not another colleague? Do I have the most relevant skills, or the most time available? Do I need training or resources?
- When does it need to be done by? Is the deadline realistic or flexible?
- Who else has an interest in, or influence over, the task? Who do I need to involve or inform? (Influence maps and stakeholder analysis can be useful tools here.)
- How would you like to manage and monitor this task? How often, or at what stages, and in what format, would you like me to update you about my progress? Also, how much freedom to make decisions do I have?
- Which of my existing work should I “park” to free up the time and resources that I need to complete this new task?
The answers will give both you and your manager a clearer understanding of what’s expected. And you’ll know whether you can accept the request outright or if you need to agree a compromise.
Those of you delegating, be sure you can supply the answers to all of these questions. Read the entire article to learn about No. 1, 3, 4 and 5.
The informative article also gives you tips on how to say “No” when necessary.
If you are struggling with staff retention and other human resources issues, maybe it is time to be more proactive and listen to your own people. Many successful and progressive CPA firm have established a Staff Advisory Board or a Team Advisory Council.
The advisory board is formed to assist the CEO or Managing Partner in leading the firm to future success. It can be defined as a group of employees who meet on a consistent basis to provide support and constructive feedback to firm leadership.
A common structure is to have team members serve for a specified term. In some firms, they are elected by the entire staff and in other firms they are appointed because of their mature perspective and past performance. The members should represent all levels within the firm and the size of the group should be kept relatively small.
In some firms, it has become a very sought-after and prestigious role. The advantage for the members is that they have the opportunity to work directly with the firm CEO on important topics for the firm. They get to know the leader on a more personal basis and have the opportunity to better understand firm operations.
A staff advisory board, comprised of engaged and knowledgeable members can be a real asset when deciding upon HR issues or possible changes to employee benefits.
It is important for the managing partner to meet with the group on a regular basis. Once a month is a common practice but it should not be any less than quarterly. Most importantly, the managing partner and other firm leaders must be willing to listen to the feedback and take action based upon some of the feedback that is received.
Some larger firms even have sub-committees under the advisory board banner. One to focus on salary/benefits, one for morale and maybe one for performance feedback.
Many young accountants working in public accounting have a strong desire to work their way up the ladder and become a partner someday.
There are a few problems with this scenario. First of all, “someday” is not nearly descriptive enough for young accountants just beginning their career.
Most non-partner accountants have no clue what they have to do to become a partner nor what they must do once they become a partner. Even worse, many current partners in accounting firm really don’t have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, even if they have been a partner for years.
You have heard it and read it many times, people entering the profession of public accounting want to know what their career path looks like, beginning on day one. They want to know what the next level, and all the levels after that, look like and how long does it take at each level.
I have observed that many firms have realized they need to document the career path process at their firm for their new hires. But, what about the current partner group?
I remember, several years ago, listening to Sam Allred of Upstream Academy describe a few things that CPA firm partners need to do:
Give up The Right to Remain Silent – When you become a partner, you must speak up at THE meeting (the partner meeting). It is not acceptable to nod your head and then go door-to-door after the meeting talking to the other partners. Not speaking up, in the proper forum, creates artificial harmony.
Keep an Open Mind – I relate this one to the 7 Habits, “seek first to understand and then be understood.”
You Give Up the Right to Make All Decisions – Sole-practitioners have this right. When you make the decision to be part of A FIRM, you give up that right.
Learn to Make the Proper Commitment – Saying/thinking, “I will stay out of the way” is not making commitment. It’s a case of “grudging compliance” vs. “spirited commitment.”
Willingness to Get Outside Your Comfort Zone – You cannot stand still. Becoming partner doesn’t mean you “made it” and now you can coast.
You Become a Leader for Change, Not an Anchor – You are helping row the boat, not sitting in the back and throwing out anchors when something doesn’t go your way.
Inside every accounting firm there is a naysayer. It’s the person who denies, refuses, opposes, or is skeptical or cynical about almost everything. It is the person who says, “we can’t do that.” Maybe your firm has more than one of these types. They always seem to see the glass half empty.
In progressive, well-managed firms, firms with strong, rich cultures, you will find people having conversations about the firm that are positive. Conversations that move the firm forward.
In these firms with positive cultures, when someone whines and says, “Nothing good is happening here,” someone else will often say, “Oh, what about the additional holiday they added last year?” or “Didn’t you just get assigned to one of the firm’s top five clients?” Negativity is diplomatically discouraged. And, if something truly negative is happening, management deals with it immediately.
Sometimes there are negative conversations and even less-than-tasteful jokes about some of the firm’s clients. Of course, you also discourage these kinds of comments. However, be aware and be realistic. Do some of your clients need to go elsewhere?
In firms that get it, you will find people who are keeping the vision alive. The vision lives in the conversations inside the firm. These positive conversations about the firm and the firm’s clients will help the firm grow and prosper.
Promote your positive culture by hosting a lunch & learn and ask your team members to identify positive things about your firm. Discuss them and then enlist your team in talking more about the positives on a daily basis.
Also, do the same exercise focusing on negatives at another lunch and learn session. Once the negatives are aired, select one or two and promise the team that management will address them.