Change management is an indispensable part of today’s business landscape, yet it remains a difficult concept to grasp, or is, at worst, simply overlooked. Furthering one’s firm is always part of the equation, but whose responsibility is it to manage the schedule for change and evolution? Is it strictly a managing partner’s job? A shared responsibility among firm leadership? Or should the responsibility be more widely diffused?

In 2016, there still isn’t a clear answer as to who exactly controls the pace of change in a firm. However, there are a number of factors that every firm can keep in mind to make sure that their rate of change is outrunning their clients’. When a firm recognizes what particular factors to pay attention to, they learn why change management is important for not only anticipating the future, but making themselves more marketable.

 

SQUARE ONE

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to change management is deciding how to first initiate a conversation. But getting the ball rolling can be easier than you think.

Carl Peterson, vice president of small firms at the American Institute of CPAs, argues that when talking change management in a place with limited resources, you should seek a connection with similar firms in order to move forward together: “I think the best thing they could do is participate in networking groups. The AICPA has networking groups, and change management is one of those things that comes up all the time, and when they find out what other people are doing and learn to implement it, that’s probably one of the best resources.”

Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO of CPA.com, believes that the right state of mind is what drives change management inside a business. “I think, broadly, change management is all about having that progressive mindset,” he said. “What we’re seeing in successful firms — [no matter] what size or type — is it’s the progressive firms that are really making the most of these new opportunities that are possible due to this digital revolution that we’re in. They’re saying, ‘Let’s look at this through the different aspects of our organization: how we interact with clients, internal processing, how we’re delivering the service, the types of service that we’re providing.’”

Chris Alger, managing director in BDO Consulting’s Pittsburgh office, echoed this need for a progressive state of mind. “Strong, comprehensive change management programs are actually risk management programs focused on human performance and the human condition in the context of managed disruption,” he said. “Culturally, firms operating within a dramatically changing business environment need leaders that not only embrace change, but are capable of harnessing the value of the business opportunities created by these disruptive situations or forces. These firms will benefit from a formal center of excellence with core capabilities focused on providing the deep competence and methods that help institutionalize and cement the change culture.”

Alger says that such firms will be able to control change factors including, but not limited to, executive sponsorship methods and disciplines; stakeholder analysis and management (change preparedness); communications strategy, planning and execution; workforce development (training and education); and performance management, rewards and recognition.

 

WHO’S THE BOSS?

Since change management has not often been a conscious concern at firms, there’s rarely a single person identified as being in charge of implementing change. What may be more important than naming a specific spearhead of change, though, is to simply be open to evolution itself. If a leader, any leader, in a firm pushes a progressive mindset, it can set the tone for the firm and its future.

“Change management starts at the top, the idea of setting the groundwork for change,” said Peterson. “I think you have to have a managing partner make some of those hard decisions for the firm, but [there’s] really an opportunity to have inclusion of all staff levels. You can have input from all levels — it doesn’t just have to be the managing partner, it doesn’t have to be just the managers. If you think about the young professionals today, if they have input on what their future’s going to be, the environment or technology they’re going to use, it’s really going to build that team and that culture.”

Actively seeking out that champion of change in your firm may prove more fruitful than laying all expectations on the managing partner. When you find that open mind, our experts argue, it’s worth the investment.

“Your leaders can either act as defenders of the status quo or as enablers of the future way of doing business,” added Alger. “Positioning your firm as a proactive enabler of or catalyst for change can be a significant differentiator in the marketplace. But remember [that] the role of change agent or change manager is not in the DNA of most accountants. Thus, find out who are your natural change leaders and invest in their development and technical capability.”

“I think as you go to the larger firms, they’re having success with someone dedicated like an innovation officer in that role,” added Asgeirsson. “When you’re dealing with the small to midsized firms, you’re not going to have a dedicated resource, but I think you can identify a champion for innovation. I also think that it’s a good idea to have somebody who’s a younger member of the firm partnered with a more seasoned person who has the progressive mindset to doing things differently.”

 

THE ONLY CONSTANT

Change management doesn’t have to be as strenuous as many seem to think. A good leader with a progressive mindset — or one who seeks out that mindset internally — coupled with an awareness of how the business landscape is constantly shifting will lay the basic groundwork for successful firm evolution. Change starts not with an investment or practice, but a belief that it’s necessary.

“Humans are naturally averse to change,” said Alger. “Only a few fully embrace change in either their personal or professional lives. ... To an accountant, business change equals business risk, and risks are to be mitigated and managed. Seldom do you find strong agents of change in an accounting firm.”

“I don’t think we can follow that old path of every three to five years we’ll be making major changes,” said Peterson. “Change management should ultimately become part of your process as a firm. You do that every single year — you have a process in place where you can continually evolve and adapt and tweak. It’s an ongoing thing; you don’t want to be reacting to everything.”