The general administrator role takes many

forms: office, human resources, marketing or IT manager; chief operating officer; firm administrator - and even managing partner. But firms, especially smaller ones, should consider a consolidation of these operations to save the necessary partner time to grow their practices.

"Every hour saved to a partner amounts to $300 they could bring the firm via billable work," said Janine Zirrith, firm administrator at East Brunswick, N.J., CPA and consulting firm Wilkin & Guttenplan. "It's important to free up the partners for things important to the firm: growth, strategic planning and initiatives."

Zirrith, who started with the firm as an office manager shortly after its inception in 1985, meets every two weeks with the firm's managing partner, Ed Guttenplan, to go over an agenda in which the first items are "refreshers on how we make sure we are both functioning at our highest and best use," shared Guttenplan.

They divide responsibilities accordingly, allowing Guttenplan to focus on all-important firm development. "You want the managing partner to operate effectively and you have to have the firm administrator help on the execution side," he explained. "Otherwise I'd be running around doing the things I shouldn't be doing."

Zirrith's performance in her critical role, in which she handles everything from staff training and marketing to building renovations and disaster recovery, resulted in her "growing up with the firm" to her current partner position. This places her among a "considerable number" of members of the Association of Accounting Administrators who are now at the principal and partner level, according to executive director Kim Fantaci.

Firm administrators are "like marketing directors - a support function not seen 25 years ago, but we see them today," Fantaci said. Until the recession, the role of administrator was looked at as an overhead position, she noted, until firms realized that the management functions of the job needed to be assumed by a professional.

Still, in attempts to increase the bottom line in a tough economy, firms often don't know what they have until it's gone. "When firms have someone in that role for so many years, they forget the difference between having someone or not having someone, and they end up paying for it" when they let that person go, said Fantaci. "Partners go back to taking care of the daily operations, and are not helping grow the practice."

The recent rash of mergers and acquisitions, which experts project will only increase in 2012, has also claimed AAA members, as newly formed firms usually choose one employee to carry on the admin functions.

 

SUCCESSION PLANNING

The HR and training capabilities of a good firm administrator are critical for the increasingly timely issue of succession planning.

It's vital to be "hiring the right people within the organization and giving the appropriate education, counseling and mentoring [to help] them grow up in the firm," said Deborah Sessions, chief operating officer of Atlanta firm Porter Keadle Moore, who has been in an administrative role there for 25 years. "That's what's important - how you continue firms and establish that firms can live on past current partners. The focus today on business and client development is such a hot button, but we hire people because they did really well in school and promote them because they handle clients extremely well and are able to take care of clients' needs in audit, tax and consulting ... . When they progress in the organization, [firm management] needs to learn to mentor people underneath [them] in business development and through an identification process of future leaders."

Often, the admin's greatest strength in succession planning can be broaching the slightly taboo topic in the first place. "It's a conversation that I don't know has always been had within firms," Sessions said. "But pretty progressive firms are doing those things."

Zirrith not only helps map this plan, but is an integral part of it. While managing partner Guttenplan has yet to name his specific successor, the partner group deemed Zirrith part of that future team.

 

THE RIGHT FIT

The qualities that elevate Zirrith and other admins to this kind of esteem are as diverse as their myriad responsibilities. Chief among them, though, are confidence and the ability to earn respect. "Administrators need to be able to present decisions, options and opportunities related to firm personnel in such a way that partners are receptive to them," said Sessions. "Other staff and administrative people will respect that, and respect is a big deal; that goes with authority."

That deference should also come from higher up the chain. "Self-confidence is critical; in order to make an impact, [firm administrators] need to keep the ship steered on a straight course and sometimes provide course corrections on the way - including to partners," advised Guttenplan. "They need the confidence to look them in the eye and explain what they are not doing right and course-correct, and not be intimidated by that. It's helpful for me; I want someone to stand up and tell me if something I've proposed needs to be course-corrected, and not back down because of my position at the firm."

At the same time, good firm administrators should constantly take stock of the staff's personal lives and needs. "They know when someone is overwhelmed or underwhelmed, when someone has personal issues," said Fantaci. "They are the person that's kind of your hub and your wheel."

Among partners, administrators should play referee, Fantaci advised. "Firm administrators, in a lot of cases, bring partners together, bring them to a good, level playing field. ... If multiple partners are going in multiple directions, they are not going forward."

The two visions that should be meaningfully aligned, though, according to Guttenplan, are those of the MP and the administrator. "How you philosophically run the firm, and the value proposition - you should be totally aligned on those things," he said.

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