Happy, engaged and appreciated employees more or less equal happy clients, which typically equal strong revenues and profitability, wouldn't you agree?

And in order to successfully survive busy season, your firm needs these employees to give their all, right? If you are shaking your head up and down as opposed to side to side, then I urge you to read further.

Let me share with you something horrific that I recently experienced. The managing partner of a successful regional accounting firm told me that he feared losing one of his best and brightest stars  -- an up-and-coming senior tax manager with a highly sought-after skill set. This MP wanted to develop a back-up plan to replace this manager if she did indeed leave. His plan: recruit another senior tax manager with the same highly sought-after skill set.

Did I mention that this firm is in a highly competitive market where they are not necessarily a household name? I asked the MP, "Why do you think she is going to leave your firm?" With a puzzled look on his face, he said, "I just have a feeling she's not happy." The alarm went off in my head and I started to see stars. How could the managing partner of a successful regional firm be so out of touch with the pulse of the people? Worst of all, he didn't seem to care.

Sure, I love money just as much as the next person, and I could have right then and there sold an engagement that would net a nice recruiting fee. But that's not how I operate. Being careful not to put the MP on the spot -- or say what I was really thinking -- I asked him about the firm's employee retention initiatives in hopes that he would realize that talking to your employees is the most basic and often the most effective form of employee retention.

As I sat on the edge of my chair, lip quivering, eyebrows sweating, butterflies churning, fervently praying for a profound answer to my question, he uttered, "You'd have to ask my HR manager." I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. Then, just as I thought things couldn't get any worse, out from between his lips came a string of 25 words that will haunt me for the rest of my life: "Never mind the tax manager, we're already swamped, so we'll just deal with it after busy season. Let's touch base at the beginning of May." Did he really just say that this ultra-important, mission-critical matter could wait three months before taking action?

Oh, the horror!

Busy season is the perfect time of year for senior leaders in the firm to drive employee retention. Whether February 15 to April 15, or from early August to October 15, busy season is a draining time of year. If I were a betting man, I'd say 50 percent or more of those in the profession think about jumping to an industry post, or (gasp!) jumping to another firm whose leaders act more appreciative of everyone's blood, sweat and tears.

You've been in the trenches -- heck, you might still be there. Either way, you know how it is to be overworked, overtired, overcaffeinated, and feeling underappreciated. You know the pain that extends from the center of your eye to the top of your head; the one you get from staring at the computer screen too long. Late nights, overnights, weekend work, pressure, hotheads, and demanding clients and bosses take an immense toll on one's psyche. If you want to retain your best people, you've got to show them and tell them how you feel.

Now I'm not talking about throwing lavish events or big to-dos, but rather something as simple as walking into where the tax department sits and nonchalantly starting an informal group conversation. Something to the effect of: "How's everybody doing? Does this busy season seem much different than last year's? Have you been able to take some sanity time lately? I want you all to know that I sincerely appreciate your hard work and dedication. And feel free to stop by my office and say hello anytime."

While the staff may be caught off guard and catch a case of "cat got your tongue," leaving you listening to the sound of your own voice, this semi-intimate touch point will do more for retention than the mid-season all-hands-on-deck Guitar Hero party held at lunchtime.

I know what you are thinking. You're the managing partner, chief operating officer, practice leader, or other key leader in this firm and you don't have time for chit-chat during busy season. You have profit margins to watch and merger discussions to entertain. Besides, you agree that employee retention is the HR department's job. And to take it one step further, the firm can't afford to break the staff's rhythm and focus, right? That would only make things worse.

I'm reminded of a quote by Captain Frank Ramsey, Gene Hackman's character aboard the U.S.S Alabama nuclear missile submarine in the 1995 movie Crimson Tide, who says, "Confusion on the ship is nothing to fear. It should be taken advantage of." The same holds true for busy season.

Busy season and employee retention go hand in hand. You can't afford to wait until May to start retention initiatives. By then it'll be too late. And as an officer aboard the ship, the onus is on you to lead by example. If you touch base with your people more regularly, even during the craziest of times, you'll significantly increase your employee retention rate. Best of all, you won't have to worry about how you're going to make it through next busy season.

Geremy Cepin is practice director of executive search at Koltin Consulting Group. Reach him at gcepin@koltin.com.

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