Practice Profile: HeimLantz is coaching it forward

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When HeimLantz introduced coaching sessions to its staff five years ago, the result was such a “dramatic difference,” according to CEO Carter Heim, that firm leadership knew the obvious next step.

The firm’s internal coaching services, provided by Bob Shannon of First & Main Business Advisors and following the “scaling up” strategy of executive coaching company Gazelles, inspired Heim to become a certified Gazelles International executive coach himself. Then, conversations between Shannon and Heim unlocked a new business opportunity for both their firms.

“We started working with [Bob Shannon] in April 2013, and the executive team worked with him for a solid day every month,” Heim recounted. “A year and a half ago, we were experiencing significant success with all this. Bob said, ‘You should consider doing it for clients; clients need it and you can be good at it.’ We had been referring three different organizations to Bob, so we knew the need was there. He said it could be something we could work together on, and create a succession plan for him. I talked to leadership, and they agreed. The executive team [said] it did fit with the long-term goals [of HeimLantz] and it would accelerate the movement of the goals.”

The agreement led to HeimLantz acquiring First & Main Business Advisors in January 2018 as a new service line offering for the firm, with both Shannon and Heim serving as certified Gazelles coaches.

The philosophy of Gazelles, founded in 1997 by Verne Harnish, encompasses a few business approaches that appealed to HeimLantz, both internally and as a client service. These include the “scale up” principles for business strategy and planning, and the “one-page strategic plan” model for outlining core values, purpose, goals, actions and accountability. Overall, Gazelles coaching focuses on the four key areas of people, strategy, execution and cash.

“The framework is pretty well-proven,” said Heim. “The four decisions framework — cash, execution, strategy, people — what happens in business, any problems, are all in those areas, all related to one of those four.”

Getting to the core

Influencing all four areas are a firm’s core values, which HeimLantz has identified for itself internally — collaboration, strong relationships, personal responsibility, execution and innovation — and which it helps the clients that it coaches identify for themselves.

With these clients, Heim has found “people really like the idea, getting clear on it, and talking about it, bringing up where it works and where [they] didn’t do it. If there are problems, you can identify where they dropped one of the core values — that truly is where they drop the ball.”

These values are especially helpful in addressing the people piece of the framework, as HeimLantz has found in its improved recruitment and retention efforts.

When hiring, HeimLantz uses the topgrading process — a series of detailed, chronological interviews — to give the firm more time to learn about the candidate and their values.

“It’s a combination of culture, topgrading and bringing in, and developing, coaching internally — bringing all those processes together has dramatically changed the retention rate, which is very high,” Heim reported. “The culture fit is important in the recruiting process. With topgrading, we have three one-on-one interviews after they have gone through the telephone interview. One of those interviews occured … and the feedback to the COO was they were concerned [the candidate] was not in alignment with core values, and that was the end of the interview process.”

If that identification sounds simple, it’s because it can be, even when recognizing a current employee who doesn’t fit the firm culture, according to HeimLantz partner Tommy Lantz. Of course, the next steps are not as easy.

“It isn’t about telling someone they’re a bad person,” Lantz explained. “The organization has certain needs, [and there can be] collateral damage, where you lose other key people you need to keep. There can be other problems, and the person you need to have a talk with is not happy either. It’s in the best interest of all. It’s a hard conversation, to let people go.”

When deciding to let go of employees in the past, the firm would use a talent assessment, placing people where they fit on the two axes of core values and effectiveness. “Someone in low effectiveness, low core values alignment, we’ve found with our firm, those people are identified pretty quickly, [and] the organization helps bring a resolution fairly quickly,” Lantz continued. “People who are highly effective but really don’t fit — you start to look at it, and it’s the person everyone talks about — ‘The person is really strong, good at sales, strong technically but … .’ We bring the [talent] assessment up, get leaders to talk about it, and each individual experience is not a one-off, but a pattern.”

Encouraging execution

Coaching other companies to have these tough conversations is easier when HeimLantz has already had them, and can point to their positive results.

With a few months of executive coaching under the firm’s belt, HeimLantz has five companies it serves in that service line, and those clients share similarities, according to Heim.

“People who have a vision for what they want to build, or grow to,” he explained. “They are experiencing a growing pain or come to move past what the owner knows or the owner can do. They are very one-leader-centric, and need other expertise and realize it. They see it, and tend to value advice, and are trying to learn. They get to the point where they realize they need to have someone else… They are trying to do something bigger than build the best mousetrap.”

“Complementary to that,” Lantz added, “the owner or owners have that vision in their mind, bringing clarity to strategy to the rest of the team, which is a challenge. They want to grow, and be successful and profitable, however they define it, to have people, strategy and processes in line… Typical of why clients come to us, many organizations have experienced some success and growth, but hit a flat period, hit declining profitability. Some characteristics were they were not successfully executing on initiatives, or they’d start them and have very little staying power.”

After the tough conversations comes the sometimes even tougher step of executing change. HeimLantz’s executive coaching clients usually have a leg up in knowing that a transformation is necessary.

“Those [clients], the incentive there is to change,” Heim explained. “The people are wanting to change, usually because they are in pain, frustrated, and thinking about changing. The process dramatically changes organizations. I was with the first one we started with, and two months ago, going over first-quarter initiatives, revealing what they were, what they had accomplished over the last eight months —” Heim paused to imitate the surprise in their voice when they realized, “‘We’ve done a whole lot!’”

These meetings, which HeimLantz conducts bimonthly with the executive coaching clients — one half- or full-day meeting, and one in advance of that to plan the agenda — are critical to keeping clients accountable.

“It’s interesting, working with the group, to figure out what the core values are,” Heim continued. “The test is, would you fire someone over it? We’ve had it come up a couple of times. One leader said, ‘I’m not sure I like where this is going. You’re going to make me do something about this!”

Indeed, they will, because HeimLantz has experienced success in following through.

“There always seems to be an elephant in the room no one wants to address, an elephant impeding results and progress,” Lantz shared. “It’s about getting out of your own way. This forum, executive coaching, really draws [that out]… brought some clarity to the group. The person has to do some difficult things, that are needed for the organization, [that] needed to be done.”

A wealth of opportunity

Growing pains played a part in HeimLantz’s recent expansion of its wealth management practice, launched around 2002 “with a heavy planning focus” by partner and wealth management advisor Kathie Sulick.

“Over the past few years, we’ve focused on the integration of wealth management in the CPA practice,” Lantz explained. Currently, wealth management and its team of four full-time people contribute to about 15 to 18 percent of the practice. “It has been both a challenge and a success. Especially over the last year, our team of four is focused on that. They’ve been really integrated with many client meetings, current and prospective client meetings. Every time there’s a prospective client meeting, we bring along a member of the wealth management team. Over the last year, it’s been a success.”

HeimLantz has been transitioning to more advisory-based business in general, Heim explained. Tax work composes about 40 percent of the firm’s business, down from its previous 60-plus percent majority. This evolution has pushed some of the firm’s CPAs out of their comfort zone, Heim observed.

“The obstacle, internally, is when you think about CPAs, and any kind of advisory service — CPAs come from an expert mindset, with the idea they are supposed to have the answers. When you start the discussion with a client about financial planning, [it’s] ‘Do you have a plan?’ What if they say, ‘No, can you do it for me?’ [The CPA has to say], ‘No, but you have to talk to Kathie and the other people in wealth management.’ If they don’t have the answers, they don’t talk about it quite as much. How do you get comfortable with it? That’s part of the progress of the last couple years, to get people more comfortable. It’s not that they’re financial planners, but they talk about needs clients have and why they might start thinking about it.”

These difficulties extend to marketing the service, according to Sulick. “The biggest challenge is people don’t associate CPA firms with wealth management,” she said. “They think of CPA firms as a niche of tax and audit. With the integration of new and prospective clients and team members, we try to do that integration.”

Not selling — solving

Both wealth management and executive coaching provide opportunities for deeper connections with clients, appealing to one of HeimLantz’s core values, “Creating strong relationships based upon mutual honesty and integrity.” The honesty part comes into play with the more challenging discussion topics, which are frequent in both service lines, whether identifying problem employees or planning for a business owner’s death.

The conversations with prospective clients tend to be smoother, according to Lantz, because they have often already witnessed one example of success.

“We’re very transparent with our own firm strategy,” he said. “Many team members and managers are working with clients, and meeting with referral sources, who see the impact to the firm. They are having discussions with the firm, and it becomes very easy, when they see the success we are having internally. It’s an easy conversation to have; we’re not hard-selling at all.”

“It’s really not about selling, but about solving problems,” Heim chimed in. “If people are having frustrations, it’s about figuring out how to solve problems for the organization.”

HeimLantz is enthusiastic about continuing to grow its coaching services. “The obvious thing for us is, Carter primarily provided the service, executive coaching, which we rolled out within the last six months, though it was always on our radar screen,” Lantz explained. “Now it’s outward facing, with marketing and branding. Some of the success probably surprised us. If you think about it from the standpoint of strategy and bandwith, Carter can’t do each one of these every day. We’re exploring another young partner going through the same process, the Gazelles certification. The next level of leadership — we think that’s critical.”

At a glance

Firm HeimLantz

Headquarters Annapolis, Maryland

CEO Carter Heim

No. of partners/staff 5/39

Year founded 2001

Services Accounting, advisory, assurance, business consulting and management, estate taxes and planning, executive team coaching

Industry specialties Professional firms, government contractors, nonprofit organizations, construction, real estate, technology

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