I have a friend, Sarah Smith Robbins, who is simply amazing. For starters, she is the mother of triplets.

(Pause for parental gasps.)

But wait, there's more.

Sarah is also the first university professor to teach college-level English composition in online virtual world Second Life. This means that every week, she taught one day of English comp in the traditional classroom - the one you and I probably learned in, with bricks, mortar and chalkboards that produce dust. She taught the second day of class online, in a virtual classroom that Sarah set up for her students in Second Life. On this second day of class, students didn't have to leave their dorm rooms. They would simply log on to SecondLife.com and steer their avatars to class, where they'd interact with other avatar-enabled peers, learn English comp and have a great experience.

If you know anyone south of 20, you know that the wait-list to get into Sarah's class was long. She had to design a series of hoops for students to jump through so she could whittle the class down to a manageable size.

Of all the things Sarah has taught the business world through her experience, the "creepy treehouse" concept is one of my favorites.That term was coined by educators Chris Lott and John Krutsch for "a place online that adults build with the intention of luring kids in."

For the purpose of this article, I'd like to expand this definition and suggest that a creepy treehouse is anything that one group creates to lure in a different group.

We've all seen creepy treehouses. The Jitterbug phone was designed for senior citizens who might be confused by too many buttons. When I asked my 84-year-old mother if she'd like one, she said, "What do I want with a cell phone?" Good point. She rarely leaves home. She doesn't drive. Like many of her octogenarian peers, she has an inherent distrust of technology. To her, the Jitterbug is a creepy treehouse - a threatening new technology that she doesn't want foisted on her.

Another example is the Honda Element.

Honda went to great lengths to build this car-SUV for Millennials. Millennials are those born between 1982-2001 who are turning 9-29 years old this year. But after its release, Millennials didn't swarm the Element. To them, it looked like a large eco-bomb, a too-big box for their too-few possessions. A creepy treehouse. (Lucky for Honda, Boomers loved the Element and snapped them up.)

 

IS YOURS A CREEPY TREEHOUSE?

Now, let's expand the creepy treehouse metaphor to your firm. In their book, Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done, former chief executive Larry Bossidy and consultant Ram Charan suggest that your firm needs to execute in three core areas: people, operations and strategy.

Sounds simple enough, but for CPA firms it gets more complicated. Here's why: Current partners have to lure the next generation of partners in. Your firm's current partners must build something that next-generation partners want to buy.

This is where you run into the potential of inadvertently building a creepy treehouse, something your current partners think is really cool and attractive to the next generation. But something that - like the Honda Element - your next-gen partners think is deformed, misshapen or repellent.

Here are a few questions to ask your partner group, to determine whether you're building a creepy treehouse:

1. Your people plans. Do your business-development and associate-recruitment plans target non-whites? Between 2000 and 2010, non-whites accounted for over 68 percent of all population growth in the U.S. At the same time, America's Caucasian population is aging.

For your firm, it means that your future clients and associates will be browner. If you don't have strategies in place that reflect America's demographic trends, you're not buying into next-gen too much.

2. Your strategy. Have you identified your next niches and specialty areas? According to the Intuit 2020 Report on the Future of Public Accounting, "Growing business complexity, knowledge requirements, regulatory and legal change, and client expectations will favor accounting specialists over generalists." Traditional fill-and-file services like tax prep will increasingly be done lower in the food chain, making room for higher value-added services in specialty areas. If you're not plotting out these areas, your next generation knows you don't have a plan. And they need you to have a plan.

3. Operations. Are you following and engaging your clients and prospects with social media? Gary Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur and author of Crush It! and The Thank You Economy, wrote, "Social Media = Business." Period. If your firm does not have a proactive, full-court strategy to follow and engage with clients and prospects via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora and other services, you're not even in the next-gen conversation. You're like Walter Cronkite trying to talk people into watching TV in a Tivo world.

If you're still not convinced that social media matters, consider marketing strategist David Meerman Scott's analysis comparing the stocks of Fortune 100 companies that proactively use social media to engage with customers versus those that don't. The socially engaged companies had stock prices 5 percent higher than their non-socially engaged peers.

Because your firm's continuation - and your partners' buyouts - rely on your next generation, it's critical that you do all you can to avoid building a creepy treehouse.

Instead, imagine if you could pull a Sarah, and design a firm that was so incredibly cool and differentiated that you had a waiting list of bright-eyed top talent lining up to try out for the partner track.

 

Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps firms develop and keep their top talent. Reach her at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com or (888) 922-9596 ext. 702.

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