Retention and attraction of people is definitely the No. 1 challenge in all professions. The accounting profession will face a crisis if it does not make significant changes in the way it practices firm management.This is demonstrated most clearly in a recent survey conducted among firms across the country that reveals that less than one-third of them reported having a strategic plan. Of those that did have a plan, approximately 50 percent shared it with managers and staff.

When asked why their firms did not have a plan, the most frequent responses were:

1. We can't get the partners to agree.

2. We don't have the time.

3. We don't really know how to complete a plan.

While these are realities for some firms, they do not present significant obstacles if firms really believe that retention and attraction are their greatest dangers. Notice that I mention retention and then attraction, rather than attraction and retention. Firms that can't retain people are going to face an ever-increasing challenge in attracting them.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, "What does a strategic plan have to do with the retention and attraction of personnel?"

A lot!

What are your core values?

If a firm does not own a shared vision, it is difficult to retain and attract human capital. People want to know where the firm is going, and if they will be able to play a significant role and grow professionally.

Today, people have plenty of choices in choosing a career and in choosing an employer. Young people have grown up with an abundance, rather than a scarcity, mentality.

A vision, mission and core values are integral to a firm's strategic plan. Potential employees simply do not want to work for firms that do not align with their own core values. You may have a vision, mission and core values, but:

1. Do the partners agree and live up to the core values?

2. Do your employees know the core values and are they held accountable?

3. Do you share your plan and values with prospective employees and key clients?

These questions illustrate the notion of alignment. If partners aren't aligned, it is difficult to retain quality people and almost impossible to attract them. Mediocrity tends to define such an environment, and with today's market they are rapidly finding other opportunities.

Overcoming obstacles

Let's examine the reasons offered for not having a strategic plan. Probably the most revealing is that partners can't agree on the vision, mission and core value of the firm. Becoming a shared-vision firm requires planning, thinking and the allocation of resources to a limited number of priorities outlined in a strategic plan.

It shouldn't take that long to develop a strategic plan. Since there is no perfect plan, accept the fact that your first attempt may only be 80 percent to 90 percent complete. This will not limit your success. Over a three-year period, the planning process becomes easier, the plan gets better and the achievements escalate. Let's quickly review 10 characteristics of a shared-vision firm.

1. Governance - strong CEO or managing partner.

2. Planning (strategic, IT, HR, succession, training, etc.) - yes, with integrated partner and staff game plans.

3. Management focus -professionals in key leadership roles (CEO, CFO, CIO, HR, training, marketing, etc.).

4. Agreements - protect the firm first and then owners.

5. Retirement - funded or unfunded, but limited to protect the firm.

6. Succession - develop leaders at all levels, with plans in place.

7. Technology - view as a strategic asset, and an accelerator.

8. Training & learning - technical CPE, soft skills and leadership.

9. Owner compensation - goal-oriented, and Balanced Score Card approach.

10. Standard policies and procedures - documented and adhered to by everyone, including partners.

Not enough time?

The second excuse is generally attributed to time.

Many accounting firms spend months developing strategic plans, but with the right system and commitment of the firm, a plan can be developed in as little as two to five days. Remember, this is about progress and not perfection.

There are several tools and exercises that can be employed to engage people at all levels of the firm in order to build consensus and get buy-in to the most significant initiatives. Many firms develop multiple-page plans and schedules that are seldom read or referred to. When this happens, the concept of strategic planning and consensus-building really amounts to a waste of time.

Get in the game

A great strategic plan should be much like a game plan in sports. We recommend a one-page game plan that incorporates a firm's vision, mission and core values, as well as strategic objectives on one side, with the objectives repeated and measurements of success, initiatives, due dates and assignments on the other. Once completed, the plan document should be laminated and distributed to everyone in the firm. It should also be used as a recruiting and marketing tool.

In order to achieve understanding and alignment with the firm's core values, we additionally recommend composing a second document titled "Business Principles." This, too, should be only one page. It should expand on the meaning of the firm's core values so that owners, managers, staff and prospective employees can quickly accept or reject it. This document can also be used to ensure client alignment with your business principles.

When you have alignment, you reduce turnover and the potential for litigation and stress - while increasing your attractiveness as an employer and service provider.

Make planning a priority

Finally, many accounting firms say that they don't know how to develop a strategic plan. I believe that they know how but don't have the time - or, rather, don't take the time to make planning a priority.

I have also learned that facilitating the planning process within your own firm is a monumental task. We assist in the development of hundreds of plans every year, utilizing an outside facilitator to expedite the internal process and ensure success. A great facilitator will make certain that you remain focused and avoid any unnecessary discussion of tactics.

There are seven basic steps to get the process started:

1. Select a facilitator with industry expertise.

2. Set dates and invite participants.

3. Conduct a planning summit.

4. Communicate the plan to all employees.

5. Implement personal 90-day game plans.

6. Conduct 90-day accountability reviews.

7. Annually update the firm's plan.

Don't get left behind

I encourage firms not to procrastinate. Retention and attraction issues are not going to subside. Firms that possess strategic plans and an efficient planning process clearly have a strategic advantage over those that don't. They also have a valuable skill set (service) that is in demand by clients.

Remember, value is created through leadership (direction), relationships (confidence) and creativity (new capabilities).

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

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