From singers to chefs, America is obsessed with identifying its next big stars. For viewers of TV shows like American Idol or Top Chef, it's all about an hour of entertainment. But in today's competitive business environment, the ability to identify a future industry or service line superstar can help your firm pull ahead of the competition.

The smart money in accounting today is on specialization. Managing partners know this. But they may not know how to spot and nurture potential leaders. When this happens, the rewards - like enhanced visibility, personal advancement and firm profitability - can be great indeed.

HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

Discerning superstars in the rough is not an easy thing to do. You won't find a giant "S" emblazoned on their chests. In fact, many promising candidates have never had the opportunity to lead a segment and have no idea of their own potential.

For individuals who have spent their professional lives on the tactical and delivery end of things, honing a specialty and growing it is unknown territory. But being fairly advanced in one's career is no reason it can't be done. Some of the most competent segment superstars I have known have gotten a relatively late start.

Where do you begin in your search? Look for strengths and characteristics including these:

Analytical skills. It may feel counterintuitive, but analysis is essential to growing a service line or industry - understanding a segment and its potential starts with mining and interpreting data.

Strategic skills. A successful segment leader must become an expert in strategic thinking. Linking analytical background with a contextual framework is essential to determining the potential of a given segment for growth. Strategic thinking is often an acquired skill, as one progresses in his or her career.

Leadership skills. Sure, some leaders are born, but many more are created. To quote Jack Welch, the former chairman and chief executive of General Electric, "Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion." Substitute the term "segment leaders" for "business leaders" and it's spot on.

Remember, though, you're not looking for a fully formed leader.

The individuals who may eventually lead your cost segregation or not-for-profit segments may have never been in a position to learn or practice the required skills. It's a matter of properly engaging and exercising the analytical, strategic and leadership muscles in the right people to create star-powered performance.

I wish I could tell you that segment stars can always be predicted. But I've been proven wrong too many times. Take your best shot and be prepared to be surprised!

IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Once you think that you've identified your most likely stars, make sure that they continue to show signs of progress such as the following:

Strong early returns. Look for tangible progress in terms of an uptick in activity - making research calls and developing market presence. Draw conclusions from the market findings and critical thinking - they're the best sign that your future star is likely to continue to shine brightly.

Making the change. You'll want to see indications that the individual can switch from a focus on internal matters like deliverables and tactics to external concerns like market needs and innovation. One of the best tools to spark this kind of thinking is the book Tuned In, a six-step process for understanding what buyers want and establishing strong connections to your market.

A service line or industry leader should be able to combine knowledge about a buyer group with an understanding of your firm's capability. Simply put, a segment star must become an expert in strategy development that leads to segment growth. This includes nailing the key strategic elements - innovating services, finding channels of distribution and defining targets.

Demonstrating thought leadership. Segment leaders need to develop and convey a point of view about what's going on in their markets. They need to be able to articulate issues and solutions in a way that resonates with buyers in language that buyers understand. This thought leadership should be conveyed verbally or in print - for example, through articles in relevant publications. The resulting communication must illuminate the segment and its issues, not merely trumpet the firm's attributes.

PATIENCE REQUIRED

On TV, finding the next great star takes little more than a couple of episodes and some frantic texting by passionate fans at home. But in the business world, the hunt for top talent requires patience. Segment leadership is an evolution - a progression through competencies that take time to develop.

The good news is that, in my experience, it's not necessary for a leadership candidate to be a fully formed expert in the segment. I've seen several cases in which an individual with no more than a working knowledge of the segment but strong leadership potential made a huge contribution. In other instances, an excellent rainmaker failed to develop into a robust segment leader. They were unable to manage long-term strategic growth, conduct needed financial analysis and assemble a top team.

One individual I mentored through his rise as a leader in the manufacturing segment had shown relatively little promise as a firm rainmaker. But commitment fueled his perseverance through each of the gates as he gained competency in conducting research calls, identifying buyer groups and choosing relevant channels of distribution. His segment and his career have taken off brilliantly.

In summary, seek individuals who are interested, passionate and committed. Leverage those qualities with analytical and strategic abilities. Choose segment leaders who have a deep desire to understand your buyers and can learn how to research markets, innovate offerings, communicate and deliver the services they want.

In our next few articles, we'll highlight examples of industry and service line leaders who have become stars and superstars.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co. (www.crosleycompany.com), providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at gcrosley@crosleycompany.com.

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