Whether firms manage, lead or ignore them, big changes are afoot in the accounting profession, and the best course of navigation will be collaborative. That journey begins with communication.

"The first step for firms is a proficiency in what is going on," advised Barry Melancon, president and chief executive officer of the American Institute of CPAs. "[Firms] need to understand it and converse about it other than, 'We have a problem to solve with standards implementation, a problem client, etc.' They need to at least have a conversation about what's going on and a general awareness."

These conversations will undoubtedly center on what Melancon and the AICPA have identified as the profession's current megatrends: greater regulation, a greater degree of complexity and the mega-trendy cloud. "We are in a period of hyper-change, a cloud transformative period much like the introduction of the microcomputer in the early 1980s," Melancon continued. "From the 1980s to today, it was incremental, but the implications of the cloud, those service lines -- and you add regulatory change and law changes -- we are in a hyper period of change. The firms that are most successful embrace and manage it like a business."

These firms educate their people, empowering them with a conversational knowledge of every one of these big changes. "What you're doing, as a firm, is making sure the people and the organization are continuously learning and helping contribute to being flexible and future-minded," explained Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and The Business Learning Institute, a Maryland-based change-management and networking resource center.

"You need to have a strategic planning process that's done manually or whenever there's a big change in the environment," he continued. "You can't wait to do it every five years, whether you need it or not, and you need to have learning systems to promote just-in-time and on-demand learning."

For technology updates, Doug Sleeter, president of consultant advisory network The Sleeter Group, recommends Lynda.com and Khan Academy. For more holistic change, he recommends "chunks."

"Use the power of all of us, and all be involved in how change comes about ... by assigning members of the team to different parts," Sleeter explained. "It's 'chunkification:' Divide and conquer, and chunkify the problem. Each member of the team should have a personal business plan, because each one is a change leader. It's not just mid-level managers, it can be the receptionist - everyone can have a role in this change and be assigned one of the chunks and educate themselves."

Once the educational foundation is set, aptitudes in specific service lines should be identified and leaders anointed. "At this level, you need individuals who are proficient in a particular area," Melancon explained. "At CPA firms, I've found the opposite. There's a new tax law and they say, 'Sally, you get really immersed,' as opposed to thinking about it from a business-line perspective, and building a business plan around it."

At this stage, he continued, firms too often pump the brakes when hitting that old generational divide. "When you designate the people, generational issues come into play," he continued. "In the typical CPA firm environment, we have Baby Boomer partners that permeate all different-sized firms. They come to the table with different ideas and thought processes, and some are really close to retirement and don't want to go through the agony of leading in a new area. Then, some are saying, 'The firm's continuing existence is important to my own succession plan,' and do everything to embrace new business lines and activity. Different generations of partners see where the future is going from a longer-term perspective."

 

TALKIN' ABOUT YOUR GENERATION

Throughout the business and leadership training he conducts, Hood has recognized this generational friction as the No. 1 change-management issue -- though he, and Sleeter, prefer the term "change leadership" for that very reason.

"People don't like to be managed, they like to be led," Sleeter elaborated. "If your boss tells you what to do, you'll do it, but if your boss leads you to a better solution, you'll really appreciate it and love that."

"What I keep hearing from young professionals consistently," Hood shared, "is, 'You're treating me like my parents, telling me what I should be doing and how hard you had it. You're saying you want me to tell you what I think, but I don't feel like you're listening.'"

Baby Boomers should do more than listen, however, and harness the flexibility and talent of this generation that, Sleeter explained, doesn't have change-resistant "baggage."

"In cloud computing, for example, I have seen several firms designate relatively young up-and-comers to lead this business line," Melancon said. "Firms are taking different generations from the partner group who are going to be in charge of this consulting or business activity, which I think is very important. Get people who you know have great skills to build the future of the firm."

Firm leaders must have patience, however, "in the sense that they need to recognize embedded processes and employee behaviors," according to Sleeter. They also need what Hood describes as the ability to "fail fast and learn."

"With Generation Y, give them some time to think it through from their frame of reference," Melancon advised. "I've seen people who have done it pretty effectively. One CEO explained that he picked one area, and picked a person that was 28 and said, 'Fight to be in charge of this, build this business, and come back and tell me how big of a business you can build.' He thought it could be a million-plus, and built the business plan himself and created [the service line] from the ground up."

 

DO YOU FOLLOW?

In extolling the virtues of this cross-generational collaboration, Hood cites IBM's 2012 Global Chief Executive Officer Study, which found that the second-most-valued employee organizational attribute of the 1,700 CEOs and senior leaders surveyed was a collaborative environment (a close second to ethics and values).

"Today, because of the speed of change, the ability to collaborate will speed up your ability to learn and adapt," Hood explained. "Social media is a perfect example of that."

In addition to the Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook accounts that both Sleeter and Melancon agree leaders should not only have, but truly leverage, Hood recommends the new audience-response tool Conferences.IO. He has used the online system to help firms with their onboarding, and to facilitate question-and-answer sessions during his conference keynotes, leadership academy sessions and staff retreats.

Through Conferences.IO, participants post real-time questions to a dedicated URL via their Internet connection or mobile device, where other attendees vote up or respond to the queries, and hosts address them. An important feature, Hood added, is the option to ask anonymously.

"People have questions they're not asking," Hood said. "When they are anonymous, they ask anything they want, and there's more of those tools out there. The technology that is disrupting us can be our friend and help us, manage us. It's pretty cool."

In other words, the very technology that is changing the landscape of the profession can be utilized to traverse it, but only if firms are willing to lead instead of push.

"Imagine [my] team back in Maryland following what you're doing, learning together and feeling like they're part of something," Hood continued. "Especially with all this uncertainty in the market; every day you're hearing negative stuff. We need to put our organizations together around common visions that are exciting and inspiring people to do their best."

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