Great Firms Have Passionate People

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The word passion comes up frequently in the context of business strategy for accounting and advisory firms.

I still remember when Jim Schiro was first elected chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers in the 1990s. During his first address to partners, he told us that “passion” was one of his three strategic initiatives for the firm. He recalled the enthusiasm of entry-level staff and stressed the importance of keeping that freshness and enthusiasm as a part of the firm’s culture, especially at the partner level.

To quote Jim’s words: “If you were born excited, stay excited; if you weren’t born excited, get excited.” This was a not-so-subtle message to the partners to live a culture of passion and cascade it to staff at all levels. It certainly worked. It’s quite a tribute to Jim that we can recall his precise words decades later.

Passion does not always mean a visible display of enthusiasm or sheer extroverted energy. It means deep dedication to the job, to results and to people. Passionate people wake up each morning excited to go to work and are energized by what they do. They go the extra yard in all situations for both clients and colleagues. They may be calm and thoughtful, or they may be dynamic and vocal. What they have in common is an enduring belief in the importance of their efforts, evidenced by commitment and focused hard work.

Partner Behavior
In a CPA firm, the behavior of the partners drives the firm’s culture. If the partners are passionate in all respects, the staff will also be passionate. Many firms have pockets of passion in particular offices, industries or service lines. We have observed this often while conducting focus groups and leading workshops. In fact, we can recall a few cases where managing partners asked us to walk the halls of different departments and absorb how the “feel” the office changes depending on whether or not passion is present. In every case, the difference was striking. This is why partner behaviors are a key aspect of firm business strategy. If you are a managing partner making leadership appointments, passion should be at the top of your list of critical personal attributes for leaders, exceeded only by integrity.

Not surprisingly, several managing partners have told us that they wish more of their partners were passionate. When we hear this, we quickly validate their desires and explain that passion can be learned successfully, provided that in addition to delivering training to the partner group, the managing partner is willing to step up to the plate by asking partners to be more passionate, displaying passion personally and rewarding partners who are willing to change when increases in passion bear fruit.

Focusing on the Firm
Passion requires direction and focus. It’s important for professionals to be passionate about the firm, not just their clients or personal achievement. In this respect, passion is different from ambition. It means focusing energy around doing the right thing and speaking about “we” rather than “me.” This is a critical point. Some of the most political professionals who are willing to go the extra yard for their own glory claim to be passionate about their work. What they really are is anything but passionate in the way business strategists define the term. Passionate professionals empower and support others and, in so doing, lift the broader firm.

When we interview members of firms’ executive committees as part of our strategy work, it is easy to tell real passion from turf-focused messaging and behaviors. The passionate partners don’t talk themselves up. Instead, they come to the interviews with an understanding of where the firm falls short. They truly want to see positive change for the benefit of all.

By now, it should be obvious that passion inspires trust. If you are surrounded by colleagues who do the right thing enthusiastically, thoroughly and consistently, you will trust them. As a partner, you will be comfortable delegating to staff who care deeply about the work they are doing. You will be confident that they will deliver a first-rate work product back to you, “tied-up-in-a-bow” as we like to say. Similarly, as a staff member, you will have trust in partners who trust you and yet stay close enough to the work to give you the guidance you need to do a great job and learn from stretching your abilities. It’s remarkable just how much of a motivator passion is.

Passionate professionals pick each other up. Professionals who are not passionate let each other down. It’s just that simple. And rest assured, clients know when their accounting firm is staffed with passionate people. Here is a telling observation: difficult discussions with clients go much better when the people talking to the client are passionate about their work, thus inspiring client trust. We’ve seen this over and over again and experienced it personally earlier in our careers.

Likewise, passionate professionals are far more likely to have difficult but necessary discussions with clients early—before the situation worsens and the discussion becomes more difficult. It takes passion to avoid procrastination.

Developing Passion in the Workforce
Teaching passion to your staff requires a systematic approach. It can’t be done in the classroom or through blended learning approaches. You need to use established behavioral instruments to measure the underlying behaviors among those in your firm who display passion, beginning with partners. Then these behaviors can be built into a career framework that shows expected behaviors at different levels of advancement. This approach represents a major departure from traditional competency models that rely on behavioral libraries not linked to the passion markers within your firm’s culture.

You also need to focus on recruiting staff who display passionate behaviors. Once you know the behaviors you are seeking, you can adjust your behavioral interview guide to include questions that surface and measure these behaviors. Then train your recruiters to use these questions properly to identify candidates who will become passionate staff members. In the case of lateral hires, it also makes sense to include questions in your reference-checking template that get to the issue of passion.

The Fun Factor
Passionate work environments are great places to work. It’s a shame that annual rankings of firms as great places to work don’t measure passion. It outranks almost every other category in this area. Just think about it. Most other attributes that contribute to work culture are much easier to deliver.

Examples are maternity leave, availability of part-time work, ability to work remotely, flexible dress codes, formal training and relaxed work schedules between busy seasons. What’s a good example of something that is hard to deliver? Mentoring is the best example, and it depends very heavily on partner passion.

Passion makes work fun. It creates an energy and purpose that can’t be faked. It’s for this reason that one prominent firm recently invested substantially in educating staff about the value their clients’ businesses are adding to the economy and, in many cases, to help improve the world. This changed the way partners and staff viewed their work and added to the level of passion at the firm.

One final thought: Millennials are passion seekers. They want to work for passionate people in passionate firms. They are also your future. This is another great reason to make passion a part of your firm’s business strategy.

Richard Stanger is the CEO or StangerCarlson LLC. Carolyn K. Carlson is the President of StangerCarlson LLC. They can be reached at and, or (646) 797-4000.

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