Engaged staff make valuable contributions and develop long-term loyalty to the practice. Firms today have a tremendous opportunity to tap into the potential of younger staff and managers. Based on my consultations with CPA firms across the country on leadership development concerns, here are some of the best practices I would recommend.
Make it a two-way street. There is a fundamental human need to be heard and understood, which is why it’s important for firms to provide opportunities for staff conversations. Too often, firm meetings are one directional downloads of information. Partners should flip that model and engage everyone in a conversation. Even when there are no new ideas, asking for more open communication provides a real opportunity to maximize your firm’s intellectual capacity.
I’ve seen how this approach can really work in practice. I work with one firm that uses an employee survey to review job satisfaction and other aspects of employee engagement to determine what workers value. The company that performs the employee survey then also measures the firm’s results against those of other firms of similar size. The partners really take staff engagement seriously and see it as a leading indicator of the firm’s success. In one example, they engaged their team in a strategic planning brainstorming process that gave them all the chance to talk about the future of the firm. After completing that process and engaging the employee survey, the firm moved from 30th in the survey measurements up to 5th for their firm size when measured against those other firms of similar size. They didn’t have to do anything drastic, such as add a new benefit or perk; they just gave their staff the chance to be involved.
Walk the talk. What we do is more powerful than what we say. A firm can preach teamwork, it can hang a list of core values in the lobby with teamwork front and center, but people will not take that message seriously if the partners are rewarded for individualistic behaviors, such as having their own books of business. If partners don’t work as a team, their staff will start to disregard the importance of working as a team. In order for a commitment to teamwork or any other value to succeed, everyone in the firm must be held accountable. That means each member of the firm has an individual development plan, engages in annual goal setting and gets involved in coaching and mentoring. When partners commit to coaching and meet regularly with mentees, staff will take the effort more seriously and engage more fully. The bottom line is that partners must set an example.
Be honest. Partners who made it through the recent economic downturn may have made promises to young recruits before the recession, and then found they couldn’t keep them once the economic situation changed. Some partners saw their 401Ks or other retirement plans decimated in 2008, so they may have put retirement plans on hold. As a result, the path to leadership may be longer now, or there may be fewer leadership spots available. It’s important to have regular conversations with promising potential future leaders about career advancement and to be honest about the fluidity of the situation. Young professionals aren’t looking for a guarantee. Most will simply be happy to have a conversation about what they can do to improve their performance and to be prepared to take on more responsibilities once they’re available. Talk to them about where they stand today and how they can prepare for leadership.
Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA, is director of strategic planning at Tanner LLC, an 80-person firm in Salt Lake City, Utah.