I work with many CPA firms on strategic planning. Often, there is confusion about the dedication and focus it takes to carry out a strategy.
Here is a brief passage from David Maister’s book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker that helps clarify strategy.
To be different in the eyes of the marketplace, you have to be known for something in particular. It’s not enough just to be known. (That’s name awareness, which is not the same thing as being seen as differentiated). And you can’t have a reputation for being something specific if you only to it occasionally.
The very essence of having a strategy is being selective about choosing the criteria on which a firm wishes to compete, and them being creative and disciplined in designing an operation that is finely tuned to deliver those particular virtues.
If you are charged with leadership of a CPA firm or want to be in the future, read Maister’s book on strategy.
Most CPA’s are pretty effective and accomplished in the strategic planning process. We invest the time and money in a retreat, we focus on the future, get lots of ideas on the table, agree on objectives and goals for the next year, commit to an action plan and sincerely want to move the firm forward. But what happens to all of the good intentions after we leave the retreat? How many of us really make significant changes; really accomplish the objectives and goals? Unfortunately, not too many.
While we may be effective in the planning process, most of us struggle (or fail altogether) with the implementation of the strategic plan. We just don’t seem to be able to get it done and next year’s action plan may wind up looking a lot like this year. The entire strategic planning process literally lives or dies on how well we implement.
We all know the drill. We go back to the office, the to-do list is still there, the emails are piled up, the phone rings and we’re back to doing what we do – serving clients. That’s what we enjoy and we tell ourselves that we’ll get around to the “retreat stuff” when things slow down a little bit. Subconsciously, we’re also thinking that these strategic initiatives involve change and we all know that change is uncomfortable.
There are several common realities and paradigms in firms, including those in the preceding paragraph, that stand in the way of successfully implementing our strategy. They exist in most firms and our implementation plan should be designed to overcome them. Although these are not all-inclusive, if you address them you will significantly improve your odds for success. They include:
- “There are just too many things that we are working on to get it all done.” A common mistake is to come out of a retreat with a long laundry list of action items. We are doomed to fail if there are more than three or four strategic objectives that we are committing to. Remember the key word is “strategic” and that means they are significant to the firm.
- We all know that each of the action items need to be owned by someone and that there needs to be a completion date. Make sure that the champion is an individual and not a group or committee or more than one person. It is much more difficult if not impossible to hold a group accountable. And, make sure that the due dates are reasonable (not overly optimistic).
- Does the champion who owns an action item or strategy have the time to accomplish it, especially if it is significant? Or, do we just expect that person to get it done on top of their existing client and firm responsibilities? If this is a strategic priority, we must enable them to be successful and that means creating the time to accomplish it.
- Don’t be a lone ranger. The champion needs to get other people involved. If it is a sizeable initiative and important to the firm, build a task force to accomplish it. Make sure you bring some of your young people into the process. The millennials want to be “a part of it” in your firm.
- Is the action item a significant part of the individual partner’s goals for the year? Further, make sure that the individual goals of the entire partner group are aligned with the firm’s goals and strategies for the year. If you don’t set partner goals, that process should be an action item out of your next retreat!
- Is it nice if we accomplish the action items or is it mission critical? Does it have any influence on a partner’s compensation whether they achieve it or not? Many firms set the expectation and may even include it in a partner’s goals but the compensation system is not aligned. Accountability should include compensation.
- Keep the strategic initiatives from the retreat alive and “top of mind”. Make sure that a status report is a lead agenda topic for every partner meeting. Share the strategic initiatives with the team right after the retreat. You’ll be more likely to get something done if others are watching.
- Someone should own the overall implementation process and that is your managing partner. He or she should be the person driving the process and holding the rest of the partner group accountable to achieving the action plan. That doesn’t mean that the managing partner and/or firm administrator should wind up with the all of the action items on their plates.
- If you utilize an outside facilitator for your retreat, ask that they build into the process some follow up with the firm after the retreat. It can be as little as a couple of phone calls to check in and see how you are doing. We are all better if there is accountability. Your managing partner can provide that to the partner group but the facilitator can fill a similar role for your managing partner.
Make sure that your investment in strategic planning pays dividends for the firm. Your post retreat implementation plan may be the missing piece and the key to success. Don’t leave it to chance and don’t leave the retreat without it.
If you haven’t had a partner planning retreat this year, you are not alone. Many firms procrastinate when it comes to planning this annual session.
Often when I am talking with a managing partner about their upcoming retreat, they tell me, “We used to have them every year but we haven’t had a planning retreat for several years now.” It seems everyone is too busy or other firm initiatives or challenges have taken precedence. If you allow this to happen, partner communication will suffer greatly along with partner unity. It also leads to a culture of constantly putting out fires.
Even though it is late in the year, I urge you to schedule and conduct a partner planning retreat this year. There is still time to identify important issues and begin on an action plan even though November is quickly approaching.
More importantly, I urge you to plan ahead for next year – 2017. Here are some ideas, tips, and considerations for a successful retreat:
Identify dates in late April, May or June for your 2017 retreat. Make sure that every partner makes it a high priority on their calendar now. A retreat that happens earlier in the year allows time for the initiatives to be researched, outlined and completed before another year rolls around.
Contact a qualified CPA firm management consultant to facilitate the retreat and get the dates booked on their calendar (their calendars fill up fast after April 15).
Before the retreat contemplate, discuss and define the purpose of the retreat. If you get together every year just because you have always done it without a specific purpose in mind, time (and money) will be wasted.
Plan the agenda. It will be your roadmap for the retreat and prohibit people from getting “lost” along the way. The facilitator will usually survey your group or do telephone interviews to gain insight that will help you design the agenda.
Adopt a partner retreat commitment statement. This is a short list of rules and regulations governing retreat behavior. Some examples might be that all participants will set aside the uninterrupted time (mobile device activity only happens at breaks), participants will stay on topic, participants will not interrupt when someone else is speaking, etc.
Document the action steps. Focus on fewer initiatives and shorter timeframes. Change is happening so quickly in our profession. Accomplishing two or three things is more important than focusing on six or seven and accomplishing none.
Assign a champion for each initiative. Someone has to be responsible and take ownership. If everyone is responsible, nothing will happen.
The most important activity is not the actual retreat; it is the implementation of the agreed-upon initiatives.
I facilitate a lot of partner retreats. Yes, it is often like herding cats.
I find that some firms are disciplined about their retreats. They have 100% attendance, they stay focused on the agenda topics and everyone participates. I also find that some firms struggle with these concepts.
If you are planning a strategic planning session this year, here are a few reminders:
Set the strategic planning meeting or retreat dates with plenty of advance notice and get a firm commitment from stakeholders to attend.
Plan the agenda carefully to make sure you are using the time wisely.
Send out the agenda and other special reading well before the meeting date so that attendees can be informed and prepared.
Expectations matter. Clarify expectations in advance of the meeting and again at the start of the session.
Logistic details are very important. Make sure everything is in place and confirmed so that valuable time is not wasted.
Begin and end on time. If a topic needs further discussion, ask permission to extend the discussion time.
After the session, summarize the discussions and document action items. Send these to participants in a timely manner.
The most important step…. don’t procrastinate with implementation of the agreed upon action steps.
I will first give Bill Reeb due credit for the metaphor. Bill used a slide at a partner retreat that has stuck with me for a number of years. The slide showed a boat in the water in the middle of several islands. The boat was spinning because several people were rowing one direction, several were rowing the other direction and some didn’t have their paddles in the water at all. The boat had no chance of reaching any island.
Hopefully this doesn’t sound like your firm or partner group. But, unfortunately it is a pretty accurate depiction of a lot of accounting firms that I have known. The sad truth is that the choice of which island to paddle for is probably not the most important question. Actually, any island would be better than spinning in the boat.
The bigger issue is how do you get everyone to row the same direction or at least keep their paddles out of the water. You’ll get there slower if everyone isn’t rowing but at least you’ll get there.
If you think about your firm and the initiatives that you have undertaken in your practice where you have failed or achieved less than you wanted, how many people in the three groups in the boat did you have?
The moral of the story is that we spend a lot of time intellectually strategizing about a direction or initiative in our firms and far to little time talking about how we will each personally support it. Getting that buy in and personal commitment from your partners up front is critical.
Pick an island that you have a chance of reaching.