Most firms agree on the importance of documenting a strategic plan, but few have plans that are easily communicated and integrated with technology, human resources, succession, training/learning and other plans. Having a plan for its own sake is not the goal. Accountability and execution differentiate great firms from those that are just maintaining the status quo. Not every firm wants to grow, but growth is indeed the lifeblood of a firm.While strategic planning is about the big picture, overall planning requires much more depth. Focus and ongoing improvement are critical to a firm's success. Partners are often the problem - as well as the key - to success. If partners don't buy in to the firm's vision and make a commitment to be held accountable, its leadership as a whole will be easily frustrated and ignore the planning process.

Some partners conduct a meeting (e.g., a firm retreat) that focuses on the past, rather than the future. The firm's challenges and strategies may be discussed at these events, but no one is typically held accountable to do anything about them. Does any of this sound familiar? If so, I am happy to tell you that there is a better way, and many firms are learning to think, plan and grow.

It is easy to get engaged entirely in client problems, and partners fail to spend enough time thinking about their own careers and the firm as a result. We recommend the Focus system. Begin by discussing your firm's fears, obstacles, accomplishments and unique ability requirements. Next, determine what is going to be communicated to internal and external stakeholders. It doesn't sound difficult, and it isn't if you follow the script. Many participants often get tactical before they have developed the big picture, however, so be wary of this.

Your end product will be a one-page plan that represents the firm's vision, mission, core values and strategic objectives. The planning process may appear time-consuming and difficult, but it can be accomplished easily with the right facilitator and tools. Don't try to do this alone. Engage an outside professional who knows the professional services industry.

Many accounting firms have vision and mission statements, and some combine the two. A common mistake is to make them too long, and no one remembers either as a result. If partners and staff can't agree or merely repeat the vision and mission statements from yesteryear, your firm faces a difficult obstacle to embracing a one-firm philosophy.

Core values and business principles are keys to fostering a healthy work culture and long-term success. We recommend documenting a business principles declaration that supports the firm's core values. Some of the more important values are:

* Trust;

* Innovation;

* "Grow or go;"

* Respect and teamwork; and,

* Accountability.

Some may question the "Grow or go" value, but firms must grow in order to provide opportunities for talented workers and meet the needs of clients. Professionals need to develop their own unique abilities, and should help develop others throughout their careers. Great leaders develop successors.

Five or six strategies are all that any firm requires - less is generally more - and each should be broad-based and enduring. Don't be confused that strategic objectives are different than the initiatives required to achieve them. Initiatives should be specific and measurable.

Like objectives, too many initiatives can cause an accounting firm to lose focus and chase too many opportunities with too few resources.

Finally, it is critical to understand that accountability is key to executing the plan. It starts with documenting personal, 90-day game plans, and continues with quarterly accountability reviews. Everyone, including firm partners, should have a 90-day game plan. Accountability is also enhanced through 360-degree performance assessments.

Accountability is a management function, and too often partners do not allow themselves to be managed. After a few quarters of using 90-day game plans and accountability reviews, you will find that people do a much better job of managing themselves; however, it is management's responsibility to allocate resources and develop people in order to meet the firm's strategic objectives.

Once you have mastered the Focus system, develop one-page plans for each critical area. These should all roll into the firm's strategic plan. These adjunct plans will drive buy-in and accountability throughout all levels of the firm. Today's workforce wants to understand individual significance and how they fit into the strategic plan. Along with training and learning, adjunct plans are key factors in the retention of quality people.

Firms that want to operate this way can begin to do so in a relatively short period of time. Most can develop a strategic plan in two to five days, depending upon the desired level of participation. Many accounting firms choose to involve only partners or a selected number of partners. We have found it advantageous to involve personnel from all departments and all levels. The old saying, "You can pay now or later," is true with strategic planning.

It does take longer to involve more people, but there is less resistance and quicker buy-in if they are allowed to participate. Experience shows that non-participants waste more time discussing the plan in private meetings than if they were involved in the process. It's human nature for people to be skeptical when they are not adequately informed.

Most firms are typically committed to planning for only one to two hours. Instead, partners should plan to spend one to two days for the process. (We use a time-saving audience-response system in order to gather perceptions and analyze a firm's culture.)

Here are steps to get started:

1. Set aside dates for the planning process.

2. Select a location away from the office.

3. Select an experienced facilitator who documents the results during the process. Waiting days or weeks for the plan drains enthusiasm.

4. Conduct the planning session and approve the plan.

5. Communicate the plan to employees and stakeholders.

6. Prepare personal, 90-day game plans.

7. Hold quarterly accountability reviews.

Trust comes into play as a core value. Firms with a high level of trust spend less time in the process than those with a low level of trust. Stephen M.R. Covey refers to this as a dividend or a tax. Your firm's culture will dictate which.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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