Leadership isn't developed in a day. It takes a lifetime.
In today's accounting firms, more focus needs to be put on leadership than simply on charge hours. With the current shortage of accountants (experienced and inexperienced), firms must be creative in how they solve their staffing requirements. Small firms will start to look like large firms, where a smaller percentage of their overall staff is accountants.
Your initial tendency may be to go back to what made you successful ... hard work and long hours. While there is nothing wrong with hard work and long hours, it is not the solution to the staffing problem in today's market.
There is no one solution that will fix the shortage in most firms; therefore, firms must be creative and look at a variety of solutions and strategies.
Integration of work life and culture
The younger generation says they want balance. I believe that this is better interpreted as integration of their personal and work lives. Many firms have tried to accommodate this with part-time employees, while others have been so bold as to allow employees to work from home and on a flexible schedule.
While these types of programs have been successful in some firms, they have been challenging in others due to the lack of good systems, processes and training. Firms are going to have to refine their work schedules, expectations and programs in order to maximize the potential of future employees. This may also include integrating work with school in order to get people into the profession earlier.
Internships have been looked at with mixed results over the past several years. With the advent of the five-year requirement in many states, universities have been able to offer more internship programs and many firms have been willing to hire during both the busy tax season and the summer months.
A benefit to the firms is that they often get better-quality employees from these programs and get the chance to see if the student fits their culture and vice versa. Many students do not look further than the firm that they interned with if they get a permanent job offer at the end of their internship program.
One word of caution: We recently heard of two interns who decided against accounting as a career due to the hours and nature of the work they were given during their internship program. Give them meaningful jobs and avoid the unreasonable hours. Remember that this is a seller's market.
From scholarships to faculty chairs
For years, firms have given scholarships at local universities, and even at personal alma maters. While this is honorable and appreciated by the students, the faculty members are the ones who identify the talent early in their college careers.
Many of the faculty members are rewarded with faculty chairs. Historically, these chairs have been funded by the largest of firms. In doing so, the firm funding the chair has increased contact with the university and faculty.
Many of the brightest students are referred to the supporting firms early in the students' academic career, i.e. sophomore or junior years. For this and other reasons, firms don't get to interview the top students if they wait for on-campus interviews. Many of the top students have already made their decisions by the time campus interviews are conducted.
Today's students and people entering the work force want significance. This means that they want to know how they fit into the firm and what contribution they will make. This requires the firm to have a clear and communicable plan.
Furthermore, the employees want to know what is expected of them and how they can excel. This requires firm management, and many firms simply don't take the time to manage their people. Employees need 90-day game plans and frequent feedback (preferably every 90 days).
It all starts at the top; therefore, it is imperative that firms have a strategic plan that is consistently communicated. Too often, firms have as many variations of the plan as they have partners. Employees don't like working for firms that lack focus. Teams succeed only when the players have a unified vision, no matter how much talent and potential there is.
Relieve partners from management
Just as leading companies don't hire accountants for directors of human resources, marketing, training/learning or information technology positions, neither should accounting firms. A common mistake for many firms is to allocate those duties and responsibilities to multiple partners.
A much better approach in a small firm is an elected managing partner and firm administrator. In larger firms, management positions should be filled with professionals who have been trained in these areas.
You don't have to be an accountant to serve in these capacities. In fact, they require different skill sets than most accounting jobs. In today's market, accountants are more valuable focusing on accounting. A culture without significant amounts of overtime may be foreign to many partners, but this is the culture that entry-level people desire and demand. Good teams are comprised of people with multiple talents.
Confidence and morale
Partners should assume the responsibility of leadership, but many don't. Leadership in today's firm requires partners to assume the responsibility for the allocation of resources in order for employees to execute the firm's strategic plan. Too many partners are concerned only about their own chargeable time and book of business. They do not spend adequate time in developing others, training, marketing and sales.
There are no "Lone Rangers" when it comes to leadership. The one-firm concept requires partners to function differently than in a firm comprised of partners sharing overhead. Mentoring and coaching young people can be a two-way street and beneficial to all parties. However, it requires time for prioritization and planning in order to be effective. People who are able to boost the morale in a firm are invaluable. You need these people on your management team.
Other smart professionals
Every firm's goal should be to hire smart and motivated people. A strategy that some firms are using is to hire smart people and train them to fit the requirements.
With the demand for accounting and auditing people at an all-time high, one strategy is to hire smart IT professionals and team them with auditors. Firms are using more data extraction and analysis tools like IDEA and ACL in the audit process. IT professionals understand the extraction and analysis tools and require less training in this area.
Develop audit teams with accounting and IT skills. The teams will cross-train and expand the capacity of all team members. Who you are is who you attract. If you are not attracting the right people, then it may be time for some self-evaluation - or perhaps even a change in firm leadership.
Systems, processes and training
While it is ideal to have all smart and motivated people, it may not be possible in every situation. By developing systems, processes and training, employees can be more productive. Firms can also better control their costs and maintain better margins.
Developing systems, processes and training requires investment in the firm, as well as continual improvement. It also requires a firm attitude that is open to change. Good leaders understand that activity is not necessarily accomplishment. They also are willing to learn themselves and continue to improve.
There are many strategies available in making your firm a more attractive employer. These are just a few of the basics that many of your peers are using to attract and retain quality people.
But remember: Personnel only determine the potential of your firm - success is determined by leadership. Your firm controls its own destiny.
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