Plan Now to Try Something New in the New Year
People make New Year’s resolutions in order to challenge themselves to change. As we head into 2018, this is a good time to challenge change within your firm and think about what comes next. As I speak to firms around the country, they are often discussing changes to their business model or traditional structure that can spur new opportunities. Here are a few of the best practices I’ve seen among those firms.
Narrow your window. When firm owners think about long-term planning, they typically focus on a three-to-five-year timeframe. Unfortunately, given the pace of change, that’s much too long to wait. New technologies and other unexpected developments are having an impact on the needs and expectations of clients and staff in ways that are hard to predict. We may not be able to accurately anticipate what will be in our firms’ best interests five years down the road. Consider putting greater focus on the next year to 18 months, then update your plan regularly.
Topple the top-down structure. In many firms, the partners do the lion’s share of the work while staff take on low-level assignments. That can make your staff feel disenfranchised from the practice and lead to retention problems. In the 2017 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey, the concerns cited by several firm sizes (including small firms) were a lack of interest in the future of the firm or in being on the traditional partner track. To make change, begin by addressing ways to allow staff to make more meaningful contributions to the firm, including one suggestion discussed in the next best practice.
Engage staff on day one. In my six-person firm, we invited staff members into firm meetings as soon as they joined us to introduce them to our firm, our culture and our processes. We brought lunch to our weekly meetings and encouraged everyone to take part in the discussion. This is a small effort, but it can have a huge impact on your staff engagement and your firm environment. Many small firms offer similar services, but this type of inclusion in the process can really set your practice apart in the recruiting market. You will also benefit from the valuable perspectives of a different generation and from people who are engaging with various levels of client work.
Consider whether your compensation system is in the way. Firms often have a top-down structure because of a compensation system that rewards based on billable hours or realization. But is that system in your firm’s overall best interest? Focusing on billable hours rather than value billing, for example, can really stifle innovation in a firm. Among other things, it makes it tough for staff to develop a relationship with clients. Firms will have better realization and profitability if staff are able to develop the soft skills and client relationships that will enable them to bring in more business.
Give change a chance. I know of some firms that have given new approaches a shot, then ended the experiment within a few months if there were challenges. But when it comes to change, you can’t be short-sighted. It may take many months or even a couple of years to work the kinks out of a new practice or procedure or to recognize and enjoy the benefits. Try this: Make a list of the innovations that have been tried but failed in your firm. Would they have a better shot at success today? To get the answer, consider changes in your firm’s culture, staff or client mix and in technology. And when you try something new or revisit something that didn’t work, be prepared to wait a while before deciding whether if it’s worth embracing.
Bring in an outside voice. At one point, my firm held a retreat led by a hired facilitator. She did a great job of stretching us beyond our comfort zone, more so than if the meeting had been run by one of our partners. I also know of solo and small firm practitioners who meet with other CPAs in similar firms who aren’t competitors to offer each other insights and advice. Wherever you find it, a different point of view may help you discover new approaches.
Consider these ideas to inspire your own changes in 2018. Also consider turning to the resources in the PCPS Firm inMotion e-Toolkit. I wish all of you a happy and profitable busy season!
Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA is the Association’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-252-4618.
Note: Small Firm Solutions will go on hiatus during busy season. Look for our next issue in May 2018!