If you're a regular reader of my "Ask Rebecca" feature on the Accounting Tomorrow blog, you may have seen this inquiry I recently received from a concerned partner:

"As the economy in our area (Houston) starts to pick up, my partners and I are wondering whether our high-potential employees will stay with us, or whether they're going to leave. We know they're getting offers - one is gone already - but we want to do everything we can to hang onto them. What can we do to make sure our high potentials stay with us, and don't take another offer?" It was signed, Will They Love Me or Leave Me?

You can read my response to "Will's" question at the Accounting Tomorrow blog (www.webcpa.com/acto_blog/-54875-1.html). Here, I'll expand on my response, and outline a tried-and-true method of engagement that firms of any size or configuration can use to hang onto their top talent: involving them in process improvements that will have long-term impacts on the firm.

WHY 'BEST PRACTICES' FAIL

We all go to conferences where we learn about best practices to keep our top talent happy and on track. (Disclaimer: I speak on best practices in human capital frequently.) But the dirty little secret is that while these best practices can spark ideas for your firm, they cannot be transported from firm to firm and have the same efficacy everywhere.

Just like one chemotherapy drug can completely arrest the spread of cancer in one patient and do nothing in another, best practices in employee engagement are unpredictable when administered across a range of firms.

Dustin Hostetler, a Black Belt in process improvement who works for Lean CPA (a division of Rea & Associates Inc., in New Philadelphia, Ohio) puts it this way: "What works optimally for one firm does not automatically work perfectly in another."

There are other reasons "best practices" in employee retention have a high rate of failure. The two most obvious are:

Blind spots. Firm leaders and HR professionals often can't see or don't understand what really matters to top talent. Case in point: The American Institute of CPAs' PCPS "Top Talent Survey" revealed that partners believe the top retention tool for high potentials is compensation. When high potentials were asked what was most important to them, development opportunities were listed first. Compensation was listed fourth.

Lack of participation from top talent in designing or redesigning the new approach. To save time and money, many firms throw consultants or technology (or both) at problems like hanging onto top talent. Leaders think, "We just need a better tracking system," or "We need to do a focus group." Both are impartial - or flawed - methods. If you want to hang onto top talent, you must engage them in the discussion and the design of solutions they'll inherit. Hostetler speaks from experience helping firms implement lean practices: "The only way to address and understand core issues in your firm is to use a cross-functional team from different areas in your practice - the people who walk the walk every day."

ENGAGE THEM IN THE FUTURE

There have been powerful results in firms that have unleashed cross-functional teams to solve firm problems. Whether the challenge was designing a business strategy to pursue a new niche, streamlining workflow, or developing a process to keep top talent, the most powerful results occurred when firms followed these simple guidelines:

1. Use a cross-functional team of employees who can bring diverse talent and ideas to the table. Make sure all of your high potentials have opportunities to serve on these teams, but don't limit it to high potentials only. If you need the buy-in from admins in the firm, engage them, too!

2. Use an objective, outside facilitator to help the team stay on task, work through any stumbling blocks, and summarize the team's progress and decisions.

3. Put internal and external clients in the center of the process. Any recommendation that comes from a cross-functional team must have 100 percent buy-in and satisfaction from internal clients - e.g., the next person who touches the tax return. You can't have 100 percent external client satisfaction if your people don't have the process you've asked them to follow.

Asking your high-potential talent to work on issues critical to the future of the firm has several benefits. For partners, it removes a lot of project work from their plates, and delegates issues to a more diverse group of thinkers in the firm. For top talent, it gives them a deeper stake in the firm, and helps them see themselves as future firm leaders.

In the words of one young partner at Crowe Horwath, in Elm Brook, Ill., "If I hadn't been involved in a process like this, I don't know if I would've stayed. It was so engaging. I was so into it. I figured, 'If they trust me with this, maybe they really do believe in me.'"

In the words of one young partner at Crowe Horwath, in Elm Brook, Ill., "If I hadn't been involved in a process like this, I don't know if I would've stayed. It was so engaging. I was so into it. I figured, 'If they trust me with this, maybe they really do believe in me.'"

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

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