The aging of the Baby Boomer generation has created succession issues for the accounting profession, but many firms and partners aren’t addressing it the way they should — that’s if they’re addressing it at all.

He said: We tend to lump all succession planning issues under one heading, but that is a mistake. It can mean a lot of different things. Ironically, succession planning for a sole practitioner is less complicated than for a multi-partner firm. Larger firms have a management process that lends itself to succession planning. Department heads, industry leaders, team leaders and others have to be able to continue to operate if the lead partner is no longer there for some reason.

She said: Maybe, but succession issues are top-of-mind at most firms today. Almost every professional we work with is concerned about creating a sustainable practice with leaders who can keep the firm afloat.

He said: A lot of firm leaders may be thinking about it, but I don’t think it’s a top issue for most firms. Here’s why: Over the last several years, I have spoken at several accounting conferences, and many sole practitioners and two-partner firms told me that their plan is merely to shut the lights someday. They are not worried about succession planning.  Their plan is to work as long as they can, and then just ride off into the sunset.

She said: Yes, but that is actually a plan. They know what they want to do, and they will make the choices that can make it work for them. It’s different at multi-partner, multi-generational firms. They need more sophisticated plans because they face more complex matters. To ensure that the firm continues to exist, they have to consider issues like partner trust and communication, talent development, buy-ins and buy-outs, transitioning clients and bringing in new partners. Some of these topics are difficult to talk about.

He said: Unfortunately, too many firms do not take your points seriously. Partners tend to think they can wait until tomorrow to plan, but all too often tomorrow comes first. The problem is that succession planning is not a one-day event. It’s a process. Firms that do not make it a key operational business process may find their only option is to sell to another firm.

She said: Sometimes the question is more about the lack of knowledge or resources for creating a strong succession plan. Multiple issues can affect successful planning. We have all seen firms that are forced to sell because they’ve outgrown a dominant leader who didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. Sadly, strong, domineering leaders like that do not create a culture of trust. Frequently, they attract people who are not strong potential leaders. More humble leaders tend to attract stronger professionals who trust them and want to mimic their leadership styles. Good leaders know that trust is a key component to successful planning.

He said: There are plenty of resources available to practitioners, including books, webinars and seminars. I agree with your point about domineering managing partners, though. They illustrate the point that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to succession planning. Older partners who don’t believe their younger partners can keep the firm going and hence want to sell the practice present another kind of problem. They want to secure their own retirement, and opt to sell the firm for security. Although it’s sometimes a good decision, it’s a real shame they don’t have enough confidence in the people they made partner.

She said: That kind of confidence is not built overnight. Confidence in your people, in your business model, and in your strategy takes time to build. Sometimes, changes need to be made along the way. It takes a lot of work to create a firm that is built to grow. Succession planning is about intentional decision-making that creates a solid foundation that can be built upon. It must be considered from the beginning. It simply cannot be an afterthought.

They said: We both agree that succession planning is important. Whether it’s a simple plan for closing the doors or a detailed plan for long-term sustainable growth, the critical thing is that there is a plan. Partners need to be able to openly discuss any issues that come up around the plan, even when they are challenging to confront. If they cannot do that, the firm’s sustainability may be at risk due to a lack of trust among the partners. Making thoughtful decisions along the way and emphasizing building a high level of trust among partners are key elements of a successful plan. If partners put the firm first, there is a better likelihood that the firm will grow. This is what legacy firms are all about.

Finally, while we can’t cover all the issues that can impact a successful succession, we can tell you that creating as many options for the firm as possible is the best way to ensure a successful plan. If your firm ends up with limited or no options, you may find yourself forced to make a decision that is not best for the firm or its partners.

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

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