Many CPAs believe that they are their clients' most trusted business advisors, but what about being trusted within the firm? Sadly, that trust often doesn't extend among partners and staff.In today's competitive environment for talent, employees leave partners and managers, not firms. Trust is often defined as "confident reliance on another person." If your partners and managers are not trusted internally, you may be fighting a serious battle that will prevent you from retaining and attracting quality talent.

The meaning of trust

Trust is dependent on a number of factors, and people are different. Therefore, it is challenging to define the components that contribute to the development, maintenance or even loss of trust. Some of the most important elements from a decision-maker's standpoint (deciding whether to trust) are:

* Who has the power? It is generally easier for a superior to trust a subordinate than it is for a subordinate to trust a superior.

* What is your tolerance for risk? By nature, accountants are not risk-takers; therefore, they are slow to trust. Natural skepticism is a part of the accounting profession.

* Are you well-adjusted and confident? People who are not well-adjusted tend to take a long time, if ever, to develop trust in others. Balance is important.

Trust is also dependent upon situational factors. Some of the more important of these are:

* Are you similar? People who come from similar backgrounds and environments tend to develop trusting relationships much faster that those who are diverse.

* Do you have the same interests? Common interests enable people to develop trust more quickly.

* Are both parties capable? People do not respect those who are not capable or are unwilling to learn. It is easier to trust a life-long learner than someone who is resistant to change and development.

* Are you good communicators? Frequent and consistent communications promote trust.

* Are both parties dependable and predictable? People do not like surprises and unpredictable behavior.

Examine your own firm

Given these elements of trust, how does your firm stack up? Does your culture promote trust? If so, you have a distinct advantage in retaining and attracting quality personnel.

If your firm's culture is not one of trust, you have three basic choices:

1. Leave.

2. Terminate those who are not trustworthy.

3. Change your firm's culture and develop a high level of trust.

The first two options may be difficult and emotional, or even out of your control. I prefer to focus on the third option, which necessitates transforming your culture. This is a process that requires consensus, communications and team-building.

The biggest mistake most firms make is to ignore the problems associated with trust by asking employees to focus on chargeable time and client service. This typically amounts to a short-term diversion of attention toward the client and away from the firm. Unfortunately, it doesn't solve the problem or improve trust.

Take action

One size does not fit all when it comes to establishing and maintaining trust. The table on this page provides suggestions about how to deal with the eight elements cited above.

Trust is earned; however, today's commoditization of traditional accounting services, coupled with severe competition for quality people, creates a breeding ground for distrust. Firm leadership must provide a clear reason for trust. Mediocrity and distrust must never be tolerated.

Trust-building techniques

Element Suggested action

1. Power: Provide reasons for management decisions and options. Communicate!

2. Risk: Spend time explaining options and the associated risks to your staff. Communicate!

3. Well-adjusted and confident: Be patient and utilize coaching. Manage!

4. Similarity: Stress the team and use "we" rather than "I."

5. Common interests: Communicate the firm's goals, strategies and vision to your staff.

6. Capability: Foster a training/learning culture at your firm.

7. Communication: Provide frequent, clear and direct communications.

8. Dependable and predictable: Under-promise and over-deliver on your commitments.

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

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