The accounting profession is blessed with many leaders at firms of all sizes who are dedicated to client service and hard work. Many of the characteristics that make these leaders successful now will be just as important in the future. A growing body of knowledge and an evolving industry, however, mean new competencies and careful planning must come into the mix for future leaders to excel.Succession planning and developing future leaders are issues that all accounting firms face today — especially as Baby Boomers leave or prepare to leave the profession. In many firms the runway is getting shorter and even reaching a crisis point in some cases. Too often I hear the question, “Who is going to buy me out?” rather than, “We are developing managers and future leaders.”
Several years ago I conducted a survey of partners from several firms to find out the criteria they are using to identify potential leaders and partners. The following are representative of their answers:
* Team player;
* Ability to sell business;
* Ability to manage clients;
* Ability to motivate people;
* Technical skills;
* Critical thinker;
* Good communicator;
* Passion for the industry;
* Ability to focus; and,
* Competitive skills.
I also asked the partners this question: “Did you have these skills when you became a partner, and do you have them now?” The answer was usually, “No, not all of them.”
Accounting firms have made mistakes when choosing new leaders in the past, and they will inevitably do so again in the future. Nevertheless, establishing a plan to identify and develop future managers and leaders is essential as firms face a scarce labor market, increased regulation and expanding bodies of knowledge.
Firms must be able to navigate the conditions present in today’s job market. Finding and keeping skilled professionals who are committed to adopting the firm’s culture is no easy task. Be certain to consider this reality when examining candidates for any leadership role. Who is going to be great at hoisting a vision that attracts new talent while keeping your best employees excited and interested in the firm?
Future firm leaders must also have a strong appreciation and interest in the critical role that information technology plays in accelerating the firm’s performance. Specific skills with every application are not the most important component. Rather, knowing when and what technologies to adopt, as well as ensuring follow-through with implementation, are the most essential competencies.
Because role requirements and demands are in flux, future leaders will be required to address several issues with better understanding than their predecessors possessed. Some of those issues are:
* Shared vision vs. shared services. In order to thrive moving forward, firms must adopt an operating model in which they share visions, mission statements, core values, business principles and objectives, rather than operating by simply sharing overhead. Professionals are attracted to firms with an appealing vision that places value on the contributions of each employee. Adopting this model requires planning, communication and a clearly documented strategic plan.
* Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. Having people in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. is a thing of the past. Get used to flexible schedules and measure performance on results, not hours.
* Training and learning. In addition to traditional CPE, training should include “soft” skills and technology. Today’s body of knowledge is too vast to expect your employees to “figure it out” like many did in the past. Most firms need to work harder at fostering a holistic training process. Great leaders champion a training/learning culture.
* Technology. Too many partners operate without adequate IT skills, a reality that results in frustration and wasted time. In turn, both the firm and individual fail to exploit the full range of possibilities. Firm leaders must be competent with ever-evolving technologies.
In my opinion, the criteria to be a successful leader are not changing as much as the paths and methods of attainment. In the past, most successful leaders “figured it out” — perhaps with a little help from a good manager. Opportunities and competition for talent within other professions were not as prevalent as they are today. Given the current conditions, today’s firm leaders should act now to accelerate the identification and development of managers and future leaders.
Here are some action steps to follow now that will make an immediate impact:
1. Agree upon criteria and select future leaders early in their careers.
2. Develop a three-year learning curriculum for all of your firm’s employees that includes processes, soft skills and technology.
3. Join a community of peers. You can learn a great deal from others outside of your firm who have already walked down similar paths.
4. Provide internal and external management as well as leadership opportunities. Look for global or national opportunities in addition to local ones.
5. Evaluate performance on results — not hours. Provide regular and honest feedback.
In most firms, the future firm is generally talked about at planning meetings, but the focus of resources goes to the current firm. Great leaders develop successors. Doing so requires balance, commitment and passion.
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
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