by L. Gary Boomer
Once again, the American Institute of CPAs has identified staffing as the No. 1 issue that is keeping managing partners awake at night.
While identifying the problem is the first step in resolution, most firms have done little to make themselves more attractive to the best and brightest talent. How many CPA partners have a son or daughter in public accounting? If you can’t or won’t recommend the profession to your own children, how can you sell it to their peers?
There are several things that firms of all sizes can do to make themselves more attractive to the best and brightest talent. These same improvements can make firms a better place to work for existing partners and staff.
The AICPA Council has approved funding for student recruitment at both the high school and college levels. This is a great idea and a part of the solution, but most firms must improve internally in order to attract quality people.
It is unrealistic for firms to sit back and expect the AICPA to solve their problems when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees. Employees today are not as different as many partners think. They definitely are no different than most partners’ children when it comes to employment.
Young people today look for challenging opportunities, the ability to grow through training and experience, work/life balance and economic rewards. Let’s look quickly at key areas in which firms can improve in order to make themselves more attractive to prospective employees (and clients).
● Strategic plan: If your firm does not have a strategic plan, develop one immediately. Without a plan, what do you tell prospective employees about the future direction of the firm? For that matter, what do you tell your existing partners and staff?
Bright people expect well-thought-out strategies and a game plan. Mediocrity tends to accept whatever comes its way. The plan does not have to be a 50-page document. In fact, most strategic plans need to be condensed to one or two pages for communication and consistency. The process of developing a strategic plan is more important than the plan document.
● Recruiting: Do you know what talents and skills you are looking for? Do you have a job description? Are you using state-of-the-art testing methods such as the Kolbe Index, in order to attract personnel who meet the job description, as well as those who will work as team players?
Too many firms still do not utilize professional human resource people in their recruitment efforts, and they start the employer/employee relationship in high-risk mode.
● Testing. Testing of personnel prior to hiring can indicate the potential for success and the ability to work in a team environment. Most accountants think of testing from a technical perspective.
While technical skills are important, they can be taught — and learned — if you have the right people on board. Tests such as the Kolbe Index can be a valuable resource when building a firm that requires teamwork. Too often we see a group of “Mini Me’s” who are clones of the partner or person responsible for hiring. Kolbe is a cognitive test that measures a person’s drive and instincts.
● Training/learning. Employees today enter the profession with the expectation of growing through a training/ learning experience. This represents far more than the technical competence that is represented by traditional continuing profesional education.
It requires an organization whose leadership is committed to training and learning. This is a two-way street, where those who train can expect to learn from the process. All people who are at the partner level should be able and expected to train, as well as to learn from the experience. A training/learning environment will differentiate your firm from the competition in today’s marketplace.
● Challenging experiences. Technology has changed the employee development path in most firms. Therefore, partners should not expect new staff coming into the firm to go through the same fraternal rituals as they did.
Being able to prepare a tax return manually is not necessarily indicative of success. New employees desire client contact and responsibility — at least the best and brightest do. Much of the training smaller firms provide has been on the job. Therefore, the types of jobs and the people who are responsible for the jobs have an incredible impact upon new employees.
If managers and partners are not good leaders and managers, they will “turn off” the best and brightest employees.
● Technology. Bright employees expect state-of-the-art technology and integrated systems. Providing new employees with old technology does not send the right message. The cost of a new notebook computer today is a small price to invest in a valuable employee. It will send a positive message to the new employee — as well as increase their productivity — if they’re properly trained.
● Work/life balance. One of the reasons that the children of many CPAs in public accounting do not enter the profession is the lack of work/life balance that they experienced from their parent who was in the profession while growing up.
Firms must plan and use better management techniques in order to avoid burnout. A few firms have gone to triennial sabbaticals for all partners (90 days) and people who have been in the profession for over five years (30 days). All firms would benefit from such programs, as they promote the one-firm concept, as well as giving employees a chance to rejuvenate.
● Hire non-accountants. Smaller accounting firms often make the mistake of hiring too many accountants and not enough professional support staff. You don’t need to be an accountant to be successful as a training/learning coordinator, HR professional or information technology specialist.
The larger firms have hired non-accountant professionals in both chargeable and non-chargeable roles for years. This goes back to job descriptions and hiring the right people for the job. Often, smaller firms utilize accountants in these positions, due to the fact that they are viewed as part-time functions.
● Manage the firm as a corporation. Leadership and governance are both important to the ability to attract and retain quality personnel.
The partnership form of governance confuses employees. Generally, employees receive inconsistent and often contradictory communications in the partnership environment. Select a strong chief executive and give her the power to lead the firm. With a good strategic plan, firms do not need to reach a consensus on every issue in order to effectively and profitably manage.
● Growth and marketing. Firms that expect to attract quality employees must be in the growth mode. There must be room for advancement, or bright people will not stay with the firm. Turnover is actually good, as long as the bottom 10 percent are leaving each year. Too often, the stars leave for better opportunities due to the “log jam” at the top of the firm. This requires management, goal-setting and holding people accountable.
Every employee (including partners) should have a 90-day game plan and be held accountable for its success. The game plan should focus on four areas: financial performance; training/learning; processes; and client satisfaction.
This actually takes less time than where the partners or a group of partners meet annually and subjectively evaluate personnel. Immediate feedback is far more effective than an annual review. Performance reviews should not be conducted at the same time as compensation reviews.
While these tips are not magic formulas, they are proven ingredients for improving your firm. This requires a combination of improvement strategies. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen rapidly with good leadership, a strong plan and commitment from the partner group.
Now is the time for firms to address the issue of attracting and retaining top quality personnel. Don’t expect the AICPA — or others—to solve your problems for you.
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