In 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane into the Atlantic Ocean. In the moments before the crash, experts believe that Kennedy didn't know that he was facing a violent, watery death.

In his essay, The Art of Failure, Malcolm Gladwell details Kennedy's last-minute maneuvers: "He banked his plane to the right, farther out into the ocean, and then to the left. He climbed and descended. He sped up and slowed down."

These behaviors indicate that Kennedy, flying in the darkness without a horizon line, was frantically trying to find the lights of the coastline. If he had more experience he would have instead focused on his plane's instrument panel, and kept the plane's wings level. What's more, even though he was losing altitude at over a thousand feet per second at the end, he couldn't feel it.

From outside the plane, Kennedy's descent would be obvious. But inside the plane, at night, it's not.

Gladwell writes, "The physics of flying is such that an airplane in the middle of a turn always feels perfectly level to someone inside the cabin."

Outside of our firms, leading consultants see a serious future leadership shortfall. A shortfall that many partners - safely tucked inside firms and not focused on the instrument panel - are missing.

 

THE INSTRUMENT PANEL

To steer their firms out of the recession, partners are focused on marketing, sales and the bottom line. And rightly so. But to keep a firm nose-up in the long-term, leaders must look at their five-to-seven-year horizon and ensure that they have a bench of talent that will be partner-ready.

Sam Allred of the Upstream Academy in Helena, Mont., counsels, "Ideally, firms would have two prospective partners (bench strength) for every partner in the firm, and at a minimum level they should have a one-to-one bench strength ratio."

By that standard, many accounting firms - while looking for the bright lights of revenue - are silently, almost imperceptibly losing altitude.

In an informal survey among human resources professionals with "high-potential" programs, the ratio of high potentials to partners ranged from a low of 61:110 to a high of 24:37.

What's more, many firms waste time and energy on "high potentials" who never pan out. A recent Harvard Business Review article studied over 20,000 high potentials and found that 30 percent delivered on their "high-potential" label and became leaders. Of the remaining 70 percent:

33 percent weren't willing to make the sacrifices required for the top jobs.

30 percent had the will and ability to become leaders, but did not feel a strong commitment to their organization. This is a shame, because employee engagement can be strengthened.

7 percent simply didn't have the ability to succeed in leadership roles.

Look back at the list above. Which "high potentials" in your firm fall into these categories?

Now consider the investment you make in your partner development and "high-potential" programs. At many firms, $10,000 or more per year is invested into each "high-potential" employee. What if 70 percent of that investment was going down the drain because you were making a few, hard-to-notice mistakes?

 

DEVELOPMENT THAT WORKS

In a survey of partner development programs that work, I notice three characteristics:

1. High potentials are evaluated on more than just their track record. The old adage, "Past performance predicts future performance," applies to people who do the same job over and over. Since high potentials will be asked to take on additional leadership responsibilities, their past performances are a poor indicator of their future success. Firms must also assess:

The person's capability to become a leader. This is best determined through challenging assignments and evaluations.

The person's commitment to the firm, also called "engagement."

The person's willingness to do the job that partners must do.

Taken together, these three attributes are more important than past performance in identifying future partners.

2. Partners must be involved. The research is clear: If high-potential development is delegated to managers or business unit leaders, the "high po's" develop less quickly. What's more, when partners talk candidly with rising stars about their potential, their engagement rises.

Susan Hodkinson, chief operating officer of Soberman, an accounting firm in Toronto, reinforces the need for partners to speak candidly with high potentials. At Soberman, most partners are directly responsible for one or more high potentials.

Hodkinson said, "At first, we were afraid to use the 'P-word' (partnership) when talking with our high potentials, because we were worried that it would be interpreted as some sort of promise. But our leadership team agreed that if we can't talk candidly about partnership, it's impossible to know if one of our high potentials is really ready - or interested - in the responsibilities."

3. Future partners must be treated like the valuable assets they are. I'm not talking about larger offices or shoe shine service. I am talking about the inexpensive yet invaluable access and experience that rising stars need to build a meaningful path to partnership. This includes:

First dibs at difficult stretch assignments. At Johnson & Johnson, high potentials are asked to come up with an entirely new product or service that they must introduce into the market.

Knowing the firm's strategy, and having access to partners who can respond to questions. At one California-based organization, high potentials and senior leaders have a private blog where they share thoughts, ideas and questions.

Being recognized for their contributions to the firm. At some firms, high-potential employees who take on special projects have the initiatives named after them, or get written up in company newsletters.

How deep is your bench? And does it have the right people, building a strong set of leadership skills?

 

Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps CPA firms develop and keep their top talent. Reach her at (888) 922-9596 ext. 702, or rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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