The Many Benefits of Developing a Firm Full of Leaders

July 5, 2017

What does it mean to show leadership within a firm? I think it means being someone who represents the practice, promotes its interests and takes pride in its achievements. Leadership is often associated only with the person or people at the top of the pyramid. But I believe that developing a firm made up of leaders can benefit every practice.

Inspiring Engagement
When we thought about leadership in my six-person firm, we focused on developing people who were engaged in what we did and who did a great job of representing our practice. We did that by taking a few simple steps that paid us back in great dividends. 
 
Get people involved early. We didn’t want to take on the role of trainer in our small firm, but we believed that on-the-job learning could have great value. We nurtured our new leaders by beginning to develop their soft skills immediately, inviting them to attend client meetings as early as their first week on the job. 

Include coaching. At first, staff members we brought to client meetings were mainly observers, but even that role helped them understand our business. We talked to them before meetings to explain what the conversation would be about and how we expected it to go. We did a debriefing afterward to review what had happened, discussing not just what we’d accomplished but also the interactions and soft skills involved. As staff members became more comfortable with themselves as businesspeople, we discussed how they could participate more actively in client relationships. 

Make it real. Our firm members came away from these meetings with a better understanding of our business and how we related to our clients. There are some organizations that offer classroom training in dealing with clients, even including lessons in etiquette while dining out. I think this approach can be helpful, but we found our real-life training was excellent preparation for taking on more responsibility within the firm and for representing us outside the office. 

 Emphasize their importance. An engaged employee who feels valued and who understands how his or her efforts contribute to our work will be motivated to give the firm their all. Rather than spending their first year or two tied to a desk, the staff member who has been involved in client meetings has a more nuanced understanding of what we do and is more excited about being a part of our firm. 

 Encourage their interests. Staff members respond best when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about. That’s particularly true of a new generation of recruits who are full of the entrepreneurial spirit. Our firm had a strong niche in real estate, so starting in the recruiting process we highlighted what we do and used it to attract people with an interest in the field. Once they were on board, we talked to them about related organizations they could join to get to know the field better, including local builders’ or contractors’ associations. We cautioned them not to expect to start signing up clients immediately, since it can take a year or more for participation to start paying off. It was a practice development effort, but it also showed our staff that they could be important to our success. Firm members may also be interested in leading efforts to enhance your involvement in community service organizations, such as the Rotary Club.
Reaping the Dividends
Our approach yielded us a range of benefits:
  • A stronger story to tell in the recruiting process.
  • Staff who were engaged in and committed to our practice.
  • A more visible presence in our community.
  • Firm members who demonstrated our firm’s professionalism and expertise in their dealings with business contacts.
The to-do lists for many small firms are pretty full, so adding another task may not be appealing. But I can tell you from personal experience that involving staff in client meetings and in your firm’s work in the business and local communities requires little investment of time or money but will be well worth your while.  
 
Carl Peterson, CPA, is the AICPA’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at cpeterson@aicpa.org or 651-252-4618.
 
Want more tips on improving staff commitment? Related PCPS resources include the networking and other resources in the Clients and Relationship Building section of the PCPS Firm inMotion e-Toolkit, as well as 10 Initiatives for Employee Engagement.