For professional services firms, competitive differentiation isn't necessarily in the products and services they offer. it's in the talent -- the high-potential and high-performing individuals -- that they're able to attract, recruit and retain, which starts with building a world-class workforce that is motivated, engaged and delivering the high-quality services clients demand.

Building a high-performance workforce won't happen overnight. It takes time, effort and, most important, some tried and tested talent management best practices that can boost employee engagement, retention and productivity, and increase your firm's overall competitiveness. Subsequently, as your firm gains a reputation as a successful business and an excellent employer, you'll also become a powerful magnet for top talent, which is critical to building a world-class workforce.

Fortunately, achieving these positive outcomes won't require you to re-invent the wheel or to make a huge investment in your talent management programs. What you might want to do is take a serious look at your performance management practices, starting with goal alignment and multi-rater, or 360-degree, feedback.

 

GOAL ALIGNMENT

Every employee's role and goals should be tied to the firm's overall strategy -- not just to their manager's success. This will help in rationalizing conflicting priorities based on a higher-level common goal. Without goal alignment, everyone manages their own personal goals in a discrete way. Although an individual might be successful in meeting all their personal goals, their work might not in fact contribute to the success of the firm overall; it could potentially work against it. Goal alignment helps to ensure that everyone's individual contributions move the firm forward in the right direction.

For managers and employees, goal management is about more than just the annual assigning of goals and reviewing of an individual's performance. It's about getting every employee to use and develop their talents, skills and experience to help the organization meet its overarching goals.

For example, CPA and consulting firm Clark Nuber is focused on ensuring that they are an employer of choice for accounting professionals in Washington State. With the goal of addressing retention challenges and empowering its employees, the firm's HR team got buy-in to implement an HR software solution for managing employee performance, goals and development. Since rolling out a new performance management system, complete with goal alignment capabilities, Clark Nuber has been able to:

  • Empower high performers in the firm by providing them with a new level of visibility into their performance;
  • Provide partners and senior managers with reporting that closely links performance and other areas of the business; and,
  • Dramatically reduce the time involved for HR, managers and employees.

"We have a number of high performers and this is a real plus for them as they like to keep things up to date and ensure they are on track in terms of achieving their goals. This supports our overall focus on retention as our employees have visibility into the process and feel empowered," said Clark Nuber director of human resources Tracy White.
 

360-DEGREE FEEDBACK

In matrix-model organizations, such as accounting firms, where staff employees work with several different managers throughout the year, it can be difficult for management to see a complete picture of their employees' performance. To get a broader, more objective perspective on employee performance, strengths and areas for development, gathering feedback from multiple sources is important for providing the essential "big picture" view. This 360-degree feedback can provide a fairer representation of the employee's performance and it can help managers and employees better understand strengths and weaknesses as perceived by peers, managers, mentors, subordinates, or even external stakeholders, such as clients.

360-degree reviews are an extremely valuable tool for assessing the performance and potential of current and future leaders in your firm. Through multi-source feedback from partners, senior managers and associates, it's much easier to get a broader understanding of a leader's performance and the areas where they need to develop.

A great example of the power of 360-degree feedback is how the process has been used by Tenn.-based Top 100 Firm Lattimore Black Morgan & Cain PC. LBMC is recognized as a solutions leader in accounting, tax, audit, consulting, human resources, staffing, investing and technology. This leadership comes, in part, by investing in talent management best practices that keep the firm's nearly 400-person staff focused, engaged and delivering the firm's clients the high-quality professional services that they expect and deserve. Known for its feedback-rich, high-performing culture, LBMC was recognized by Accounting Today in its 2012 list of the Best Firms to Work For.

One way that LBMC reinforces its high-performance culture is through an automated multi-rater assessment system that gathers and analyzes feedback, not just from partners through managers, but down to staff employees, in both directions. For four years, this upward- and downward-feedback system has provided LBMC employees at all levels in the firm with the feedback that they need to develop, improve and prepare for career advancement.

"I think our feedback process helps drive engagement," said Jessica Utley, human resources director at LBMC. "Employees see how their position and the work they do every day affects the firm's bottom line. It also really helps us recognize and reward good performance and also identify behaviors that need to be changed through coaching -- and this all ties back to better employee engagement, which is critical for career development and business success."

Employers of choice -- including Clark Nuber and LBMC -- are setting themselves apart from the competition by implementing talent management best practices that attract, engage and retain top accounting talent. Will other firms follow their lead? Why wouldn't they?

Nancy Wilkinson is a certified human capital strategist and regional manager of professional services at Halogen Software, a leading providers of employee performance management software for accounting and other professional services firms.

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