In previous debates, we have covered topics ranging from partner accountability to effective delegation and succession planning. Many of these topics have one thing in common — effective change management. So how do you create sustainable change in the firm? According to Strategy + Business, only 54 percent of all change initiatives are successful. In this article, we debate what impacts successful change management the most — strong leadership and communication around the change, or the engagement and buy-in from the firm’s individuals. How do you avoid episodic change and the dreaded attitude of “This too shall pass!” that can run rampant in many firms?

She said: First, firm leadership needs to have a clear focus on the desired outcome. Research, strategic planning and a review of the firm’s history should be developed in the early stages. If the partners are not walking together toward a common goal, there won’t be change. Once the objective is defined, firm leaders need to transparently present the idea and give reasonings and statistical evidence to their team as to why the change is being made, and concrete examples of the impact these changes will have on the firm.

He said: Firm leadership also needs to remember that change cannot be dictated from above and expected to naturally trickle down. When it’s not strategic, change can oftentimes be viewed as demanding, which leaves people feeling uncertain and lowers morale. In the past, we have made a major error in thinking that compensation can drive a firm to a new place. We know now that change happens when we have a successful culture within the firm and everyone is on the same page. That is why it is so important for leadership to allow their team to provide feedback and ask questions when initiating any change. Care must be taken to motivate the individuals. What does it mean to them?

She said: It comes down to having strong leader involvement from the beginning. The real change will happen when a leadership team can be the first to model any behavior that is expected. They must be able to “walk the walk.” This is why it is so important for the partners to be on the same page and communicate the same message across all practice areas. Sometimes one change can spark ideas for other initiatives to be established. But this can be distracting and can cause people to lose focus and fall flat. Leaders must have a clear direction and reason behind the initiative and continue to communicate the expectation across the firm.

He said: But leaders cannot do it just by themselves. For individuals to change, it is critical that we look deeper in the firm. We know that behavior only changes where the work gets done. Partners have to ensure that their people take on board the new ways of doing things, of dealing with clients and each other, and don’t fall back to the “old” ways because it’s easier. It is also important to speak with individuals who may need a one-on-one conversation. Checking in with staff periodically to see how things are going, what struggles they may be encountering and what changes can be made will ensure things do not fall flat.

She said: Before a firm can be ready for any feedback, the leadership team needs to make sure that they assess abilities and assign roles based on these abilities. Leadership needs to be on the same page as to what qualities they are looking for and what the firm needs to move forward. Change plans must include identified key internal leaders who are motivated and have the abilities to see the changes through. Partners need to ensure that these leaders are identified throughout the firm and have the vision and the training needed.

He said: While there are steps to developing effective change management programs, you have to remember that change is not linear. A change in one area can cause unplanned changes (good or bad) in another area. Learning to anticipate weaknesses and barriers can better equip you to deal with them and give you a better shot at success. Do not let this stop the momentum of moving forward. Reflect with the team or individuals and make the adjustments as needed. Change does not happen overnight and it does not always move forward. Be flexible in knowing that two steps back can also mean moving five steps forward in the long run. And engaging everyone in that process is essential.

They said: Having a strong leadership and communication strategy as well as the engagement of the team is important for effective change management. It is not enough to be strong in one area and weak in others — you have to have the right balance of both. Successful change management impacts growth, client service, recruiting and retention strategies, people development, new service lines and vertical launches, succession planning and role changes. It also earns you a better reputation internally and externally. With the right balance, you will be known as an “OK, here we go!” kind of firm, instead of a “This too shall pass” kind of firm.

August Aquila is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or Angie Grissom is president of The Rainmaker Companies, which exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or

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