Future firm leaders need a mix of personal guidance and outside support to keep them on track.

Partner development can be a hollow proposition at some accounting firms. Often, paths to partnership either run parallel to the firm's succession plans -- and can be just as muddled - or are similarly nonexistent.

Current partners create early roadblocks by not taking leadership development seriously, according to Troy Waugh, chief executive of the Rainmaker Companies, a Nashville, Tenn.-based alliance, consulting and training provider for the profession. "They see it as not something that has to be solved immediately," he elaborated. "Since it's not immediate, they put it off, and one day they turn around and they have no one left ... . And who leaves first? The best ones. You're left with the average employees if you're not careful. I've seen a number of situations where there's no partner development in place. Then there are two or three managers who look up, and don't see the possibility of advancement at the firm. They go down the street and open their own shop and then they're bigger than the old firm."

Waugh personally witnessed this at one firm a month ago. "I looked around, and five firms in this city - all of their partners came out of this firm. [That firm] created five competitors."

Firms that want to hang on to these potential trailblazers can start small, on a personal scale. Waugh advises partners to take a training course or "just get a simple book on coaching and mentoring." (See sidebar for reader suggestions.) From here, a mentoring program can develop - but it must be a committed one.

"Firms that have a mentoring program -- sometimes half the partners or more do mentoring with staff members as the last thing on the agenda, rather than the first," he explained, mentioning one firm in Arkansas as an example. "They had the mentoring program in place, but not the discipline. The partners were supposed to meet with the managers and staff on a monthly basis, but I'd say 80 percent of the partners had not met with staff in over a year."

 

MATCH GAME

Commitment is integral, but so is a good match. Deloitte partner Paul Silverglate confirmed this from the research he conducts, both as national director of the firm's initiative for the advancement and retention of women, and as co-developer and partner lead for the firm's women-as-buyers training program. "You have to create the mentor environment where there's a mutual respect - and like -- for the mentor and mentee," he said. "There can be a formalized program in place to get it kick-started, but you have to feel comfortable that if a match didn't happen, you can keep going until you find a match."

This was the case for one employee of Sarasota, Fla.-based Kerkering, Barberio & Co., which was recently named to the American Society of Women Accountants and American Woman's Society of CPAs' 2012 Accounting MOVE Project list of the Best Public Accounting Firms for Women, in part because of its ratio of female partners (seven out of 13) and managers (78 percent).

"We've only had a couple of people ask to make a change, and it's because something in their life changes and a different person might be more responsive to that," explained chief administrative officer Tracy O'Neill. "One request came from someone who knew they were planning to have a family. [She] asked for a mentor who had become a shareholder while she raised her children."

A personal fit is just as vital as a professional one. "A good mentor does not do business things for a staff member," Waugh said. "They invite them in their home, do social things with them, invite them to parties at their house -- include them on a personal basis, not just the business side. To truly be a mentor, you're helping that person grow in all aspects of his or her life -- personal and professional." This is what separates the mentors from the coaches, he added.

At Akron, Ohio-based CPA and consulting firm BCG & Co., both are needed for its Future Leaders initiative. The program starts with the partners spending a day going through everyone in the firm and assessing bench strength. Potential future leaders are identified and then placed in one of two groups: those who are five to seven years away from partnership, and those on a longer track, often because they are newer to the firm. Those on the shorter track are assigned both a mentor outside their department who focuses more on personal development, and a more technical-minded coach within their department.

This identification process can be contrary to the thinking in some firms, said BCG managing partner Dave Brockman. "Firms in the past have been very concerned that they don't single people out to do something special, that someone will be upset from not having the same treatment," he said. "We adopted a philosophy where we really have to throw that out the window and work with each individual, and see what their future will look like. Should future leaders get extra perks and attention? Absolutely. Our job is to bring them along as quickly as possible."

What makes someone a future leader? According to Waugh, there are five things these prospective "business owners" should be able to ensure for their firm:

• Clients are well-served;

• Staff members grow and develop;

• Partners attract new, quality clients;

• The risk profile is maintained; and,

• The firm profits.

The one underlying skill required to achieve all five is good communication, Waugh added. "With communication skills, it's not just talking -- it's crucial that person is a good listener, and can frame really good questions," he explained. "If a person is a high potential and struggling with communication skills, get them in Toastmasters for a couple of years."

 

MEET AND GREET

Speaking engagements outside the walls of the firm are a requirement of BCG's other leadership and business development program, BCG Leads.

The two-year program identifies one or two people from each department and brings them together for monthly meetings to discuss management skills, review books on the topic, and centralize participants' commitments to outside boards and organizations.

"People skills are really critical, and an analytical ability," explained Brockman. "Critical thinking is very important, and communication skills -- written and verbal. Being able to communicate ideas and thoughts is very important."

In addition to the personal development aspects of community involvement, up-and-coming employees can benefit from BCG Leads' networking element. "Right now, I'm on four different boards and committees," said Jennifer Hertzig, BCG's marketing manager and a recent graduate of the program. "It's more exposure for the firm and myself."

Western New York firm Freed Maxick CPAs sponsors and encourages employees to join the local Chamber of Commerce's Buffalo Niagara 360 program for young professionals. Michael VanRemmen, a tax supervisor who has been with the firm nearly four years, participates in the program's educational events, networking opportunities and community outreach. "When I started here, most partners sat on a board of a local charity, which led me to believe it was going to add value somehow," VanRemmen said, adding that through the program, he is establishing long-term business relationships with future decision-makers.

Both of BCG's programs were established to satisfy the firm's succession plan, along with its less formalized retention goals. Young, high-talent employees "want personal attention, and for us to take interest in their development and growth," Brockman said.

"I'm pretty needy," Hertzig agreed, explaining that she is on the cusp of Generation X and Y and has found reason to stick around. BCG Leads "helps me have more commitment to the firm," she continued. "I see the rough parts and I want to stick it through. They have the future mapped out for you."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access