The straight-and-narrow roads that once guided young professionals in their accounting careers have long since been intersected by alternate pathways.

"The professional career path has a lot more, and different, facets to it than it used to," explained Guy Gage, owner of PartnersCoach, a coaching and consulting firm for professionals. "You used to come into a firm and assume everyone was on a partner track, but that's not the case anymore."

Instead, changes in the profession, like a shift to consulting work, competition in niche industries, and the workplace expectations and habits of Millennials, have paved new roads for professionals, and whether or not the ultimate destination is partnership, firms have to respect and nurture these routes or risk losing employees altogether.

"The old model is very paternalistic, where the deal was, you come work with us, put your head down, and we'll tell you when you're ready to be promoted or considered for partner," Gage continued. "But there's been a huge shift, directed to individuals selecting their preferred direction, and back to owning their career."

Alan Langelli took the wheel of his own career when a former boss, Norm Snyder, contacted him to join the technology industry services group in his current firm, Top 50 Rockville, Md.-based Aronson LLC. Then a senior manager on a self-described "vague" partner track in a Pittsburgh firm, Langelli jumped at the opportunity, which came with the likely possibility of taking over Snyder's partnership when he retires within the next five years.

"I was initially, and still am, very excited," Langelli, now a director, shared. "It's two-fold - from a career advancement perspective, it became a very clear opportunity ... . And the bigger piece was being able to specialize in and work with technology companies."

Already aware of Langelli's talent, Snyder discovered that they shared similar client plans, making Langelli the ideal hire for Aronson's expanding technology group.

But recruiting Langelli also satisfied a concern raised by the firm's board about a year earlier. "As is typical with public accounting firms in general, it was a succession issue," Snyder recalled. "There were a number of partners, of which I was one, that were, theoretically, within five years or less of retirement. The board here at Aronson put in place a plan basically requiring each partner to effectively to come up with their own plan for succession. To the extent that people were already in-house and identified to take over, they could already be existing younger partners or managers or, in my case, for the technology practice, there wasn't a manager who was there who could take over that."

Snyder credits a certain amount of "good dumb luck" for the chance to bring Langelli into the fold and onto a clear, supported career track at Aronson, which Langelli acknowledged can be a rarity in accounting firms these days. "A lot of partners are unsure how to go about succession planning, whether they are unwilling or unable to change. This definitely is a unique and great opportunity for me," he said.

 

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

Leadership development -- essentially a series of these growth opportunities - should begin with comprehensive soft skills training and early exposure to the wider business community.

"Leadership development and talent development-all of those are behaviorally based," explained Gage. "So you have to be developmental with the approach. Start out early in a person's career, right out of school, and talk about what it means to be a professional. Young professionals are really good at how to be a student, but not how to be a professional."

While basic professionalism, from dress to demeanor, is covered in orientation sessions, only hands-on experience will nurture business acumen -- and help retain eager graduates.

"Expose them to the clients' business to develop them professionally as a business person," advised Angie Grissom, owner and president of accounting consultancy The Rainmaker Companies. "That's a problem we have with turnover in the accounting industry, that [new hires] go into it and see their friends [in other fields] getting to do really interesting work, learning about business, and flown in to do interesting work early in their careers. Often, in accounting, you have people working on tax returns, audits, but not understanding how businesses work, and missing out on interesting things to develop as a professional. When an industry looks attractive because their peers are doing neat things, they think, 'Am I falling behind on not learning about the business world?' You need to expose them to that business world."

That early contact will also streamline the firm's future client transitions, which Aronson recognized in its succession plan. "The firm wanted to start doing that, and could see the importance of, after retirement, the clients being able to transition, and hopefully having already been transitioned, and hopefully had a relatively seamless transition," Snyder said. "You don't do that by sending out a letter in September: 'By the way, Dan Smith is leaving, I'm starting in September. I'm Frank and you met me once at a cocktail party and I'm going to be your new partner.' It's a baton, but that relationship is passed more over time."

Time is also fundamental in building young professionals' necessary skills and experience. Thus, firms should limit newer hires to merely dipping their toes in the biggest client pools as they train for full immersion. Farther down the pipeline, however, participation should be mandatory.

"You would set goals for managers to attend four to five of the top client meetings a year and participate in those," advised Grissom. "I also ask partners to empower the next tier of leadership with projects ... put ownership on the next tier of leaders. Develop them by them figuring out what's weak in the current process and what's not, and building their leadership muscle."

According to Gage, future leaders should also bulk up on five key skills -- technical competence, client service, business development, talent development and leadership capability -- without abandoning their unique strengths.

"The skill base should be aligned to individual style; this is what the next generation is looking for," he explained. "For recruiting in 2009, you heard a lot of questions like, 'Tell me what your career path is.' People coming out of school are much more attuned to quality of life - what are the opportunities, the career path, and how are you supporting me? [Leadership development] is as much a hiring and retention program as it is a succession program."

 

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

The answer to many of these questions can be unlocked through mentoring, provided future leaders select the right ones.

"Some of the best leaders are very poor mentors," Gage warned. "Mentoring takes an approach that is different than the one traditional strong leaders take. Some leaders are direct, confident, assured visionaries and flag-bearers. Their message is: 'Come along, follow me, I know the way.' Those kinds of people tend to not be very good mentors."

With the right training, they could be, though common communication barriers persist. "Sometimes partners are afraid to talk to their professionals because they're afraid of what they'll find out," Grissom explained. "It's the same mentality of when they're afraid to survey clients, and are afraid of what they might say. If partners make the effort to be available, they can have lunch with professionals on a regular basis, and ask: 'How's it going? What's one thing that's going well and one thing we can improve?' People shy away from that, because they feel someone else is doing it."

Accounting firms "need a very effective and substantive mentoring program," Gage added. "Most times, mentors sit down and say, 'How are things going? Fine? What do you think of the latest golf scores?' Have mentor training as part of the pipeline so mentors can ensure application, follow-through and accountability."

When mentors are trained to ask the right questions and mentees have the answers, the synergy can be powerful, if rare. "Ideally, those come together, of 'who I want to be and what I want to do' and what the firm needs,'" shared Gage. "So they line up into a single river, and you now have a powerful river. But what happens is, the question isn't asked, of who you want to be and what you want to do. And if it is asked, a lot of people are unsure how to answer the question, or exploring what those are."

A high potential's uncertainty can be self-destructive, but so can complacency. Langelli recognizes this, despite his rosy recruitment. "From the moment you identify someone, so many things could happen in the meantime that could cause confusion," he said. "Once you identify that person, you should have some internal dialogue with that person, but the other piece is to be fully committed to it, from a partner perspective and the person being afforded this opportunity."

Snyder confirmed that Langelli's partnership has never been guaranteed, though he's squarely on track. And having a visible, well-communicated track at all gives him a head start on his peers.

"The leaders are already in your firm, you're just not doing a good job of recognizing and raising them," Gage said. "That's why firms are struggling, and selling out, and looking for an exit strategy."

Long before posting these exit signs, firms should re-evaluate the map.

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