Firm leaders should spend up to half their time on change

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Given the scale of the disruption facing the accounting profession — and the level of resistance to that disruption — firm leaders and managing partners may need to spend anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent of their time leading and managing change initiatives, according to change management expert Rik Nemanick.

“It will always take longer than you think,” Nemanick, the co-founder and principal consultant at The Leadership Effect, told the audience of 250 accounting firm leaders at the Rainmaker Companies’ annual SuperConference, held this week in Atlanta. “It requires energy, time, resources, and effort by you. Make the time to work on change, and free up other people’s time. Your current performance may suffer because you’re doing the hard work of making the change.”

Whatever the change the firm is considering, Nemanick warned leaders that they would need to jettison some of their current tasks to make room.

“You need to take time away from practice management or client work,” he said. “Don’t pretend that you can make change and still do all your old work — you need to get some of that work off your plate. You can’t delegate the change work. Delegate practice management or client work, instead.”

He also recommended setting aside regular 90-minute blocks of time to work on change initiatives. “You can slide them around your day, but you can’t cancel them,” he said, and they can’t be subdivided either, because it often takes time to engage with new and different projects.

Resisters versus Seekers

One of the first things change leaders needs to do, Nemanick explained, is to assess which category each of their stakeholders fall into in terms of how they feel about change and innovation:

  • Resisters: They say “No” to everything.
  • Guardians: They are invested in the status quo, but can be persuaded.
  • Enthusiasts: They are not necessarily excited, but are leaning toward you.
  • Seekers: They don’t need to be won over — but they may need to be reined in.

If you let them, Resisters will take up a great deal of your time and energy, Nemanick warned. Better, he said, to focus time and efforts at persuasion on the Guardians, not least because their questions and concerns will help you sharpen your ideas, and make sure that your change matches the firm and the way you do business. While Guardians should get the most time, change leaders can’t afford to neglect or fail to support their Seekers, either.

Overall, change leaders need to be aware that re-arranging habits and fighting inertia is long-term work.

“You need to dig up the old path and start laying down a new one,” Nemanick said, and offered a number of tactics and strategies to make that easier:

  • Build up “change muscles” by starting out with smaller changes to develop experience and processes.
  • Leverage the energy of your Seekers — in particular, involve them in your strategic planning sessions.
  • Listen to and engage with staff fears and concerns.
  • Allow staff to help design future changes, so they feel engaged.
  • Plan accountability checkpoints into the change process from the very beginning.
  • Celebrate early wins, so staff see the benefits of change.
  • Make the benefits of any individual change tangible to staff.
  • Make sure performance management and compensation systems are aligned with the desired change.
  • Hire and promote for adaptability and openness to change.

“You may not be feeling the pain of not making a particular change now, but you will,” Nemanick promised. “Some firm in your market will explore that change, or someone at your firm will ask for it.”

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