Before joining Sensiba San Filippo as a partner in the firm's Manufacturing and Distribution Group in 2007, Karen Burns had joined two other accounting firms as an experienced hire, and neither of them had much in the way of an onboarding process.

The first was a local firm, with no process at all; the second was a Big Four firm, which had no formal process and offered little beyond a day of orientation, Burns recalled: "A senior associate sat down with me for two hours to show me the software, and then said, 'Let's go.'"

While it's common for firms to spend a great deal of effort onboarding entry-level staff - nurturing them through internships, partner lunches, extensive training, and the like - most expect experienced hires like Burns to hit the ground running, or at best provide a minimum of informal and unstructured orientation. Given that they're more expensive, and that they're often hired to boost critical practice areas or even lead entirely new ones, it seems strange to pay so little attention to making sure experienced newcomers successfully adapt to their new firm.

It's not a mistake that SSF makes.

"When the market was still pretty hot, we were adding people from large international firms and the Big Four and regional firms, so we said, 'Let's get better at this, because we're doing it more frequently, and to fail at it is extremely painful,'" said managing partner John Sensiba. "It's very expensive to fail."

SSF, which has 100 staff and partners at four offices in the Bay Area, concentrates primarily on audit, tax and consulting work for small and midsized businesses, with a number of specific industry focuses. It also audits a fair number of benefit plans, and a few years back brought on a consulting group that focuses on public company services, including SAS 70 and Sarbanes-Oxley work. "We've seen some expansion just over the past six months," Sensiba said, "and we expect that to continue."

And should the firm need to hire upper-level staff to meet that expansion, it has a process in place to make sure they don't turn out to be expensive failures. Called Smooth Start, it is a structured, yet flexible, 180-day program in which two mentors guide new hires through a series of three 60-day phases, each with its own requirements and milestones. But the heart of it is the first step that experienced new hires take at the firm - a step backward.

 

BACK TO GO FORWARD

In Phase One, experienced hires operate one level below the one they were hired for: New managers work as seniors, for instance, and new partners as managers.

The point is for new hires to get used to the way the firm operates, and to learn its work processes. "We give them non-technically challenging work, so they can get used to the culture and process - letting them experience the firm," Sensiba said. "They may know things that we want them to un-know."

That often involves doing hands-on work in the field, though it's not a question of testing the person's skills. "When you're Smooth Starting, it's not because the technical experience you've had isn't relevant," said Burns, who was the first new hire to go through the program when it was formalized in 2007. "Coming into any new organization, it has it's own culture, the way things are done via processes, the people you're working with, the clients you're working with. There's a lot to be learned about the culture of an organization, not just do I know a debit from a credit."

Having an early period where expectations aren't high gives the new hire room to learn the ropes. "They're not getting frustrated, because not everything they're submitting is getting kicked back because it's not how we expected it to be," explained Ernie Rossi, the firm's partner-in-charge of audit, who formalized the Smooth Start process and was one of Burns' mentors. "Some of our systems may not be as intuitive, if you used a different tax or accounting or T&B system. If you're struggling to get the work done because you're used to left to right and we do it right to left, those little things can be frustrating."

"We just want you to learn and absorb the firm and the firm's procedures," said Jerry Krause, an audit partner who helped Rossi inaugurate the Smooth Start program, and served as Burns' other mentor. "We want to create an environment where you can just learn, without the pressure of, 'I've got to have charge time, or work with this client, or go do marketing.' We don't want you to get distracted and feel you have to go do that."

A demotion, however temporary, may not seem appealing to potential hires. Sensiba said that they make sure higher-level job candidates know this is how their first six months at the firm will be spent. "No one has ever said that it didn't sound like a good idea to them," he said.

Still, Burns acknowledged, "If you've already been in your career for 15 years, and are feeling pretty good about your career, for someone to tell you to take two steps back is a little offputting. It's really more of a blow to your ego, and then you kind of get over yourself, and then you think, 'Maybe there's some merit to this program.'"

The merits she discovered went beyond just having time to learn SSF's processes: "I had a little 'Aha!' moment where I said, 'Hang on a minute, ding-a-ling, you've been working so hard at [your old firm]; what's wrong with relaxing into a level where you've already been? You know how to do this.' It takes the pressure off. I can do this job pretty effectively, and have dinner with my family."

 

BACK TO WORK

Needless to say, expensive expertise isn't hired to relax. "After you get the assimilation part down," Burns said, "you can begin operating at the level where you should be operating."

In Phase Two, the new hire really starts to take on their role as a manager or partner, though they won't work on multiple assignments. They begin teaching and attending classes, to get an idea of their teaching skills and to gauge the sophistication of their technical skills, to see if there are any gaps that need to be filled. As managerial-level staff, they'll also begin to get used to the firm's administrative rules and procedures. If they've been hired as a partner, they may begin to attend partner meetings.

In Phase Three, they move on to doing what they were hired to do - working on multiple engagements and teams, participating in business development, and going through the proposal and sales process. The main difference between Phase Three and the rest of their working life at the firm is that they'll still meet with their mentors.

The mentors are a critical part of the process. They meet frequently with the new hire, often on a daily basis in the first month, and at least once a week for most of the program, with plenty of phone calls and impromptu meetings along the way, to make sure things are on track, and to adjust the timetable as necessary. "We don't believe in sitting on things until there's a scheduled meeting," Sensiba said. "If you need a course correction, we handle that in real-time."

One of the mentors is always the new hire's supervisor; the other is handpicked. "They have to have some synergy with the people they're mentoring," Krause said, whether in terms of personality or level of experience.

Having two mentors doubles the chance that one of them will be reachable if the new hire has a question or problem. It also allows the mentors to compare and confirm their assessment of the new hire's progress, and to make sure they're following the plan. "What it does is it holds us accountable between ourselves to make sure that it really happens," said Krause.

At the end of the process, the now-not-so-new hire gets to turn the tables: Having spent 180 days learning how the firm does things, they're required to submit a report with suggestions for improvements based on their experiences elsewhere. "There's always a better mousetrap," said Rossi.

 

SMOOTH FINISH

While its timetable can be compressed for particularly adaptable new hires, Smooth Start remains pretty time- and effort-intensive. "You more than get the time back from the ability of the person to get up to speed and fully immersed in the firm," said Krause.

Sensiba noted that the firm is always trying to improve the program, to make it more visible and transparent - and to share it with other firms. "It's a defined way to be successful at the firm, as opposed to the ad hoc way at a lot of firms," he said.

As for Burns, she's fully convinced of the value of Smooth Start, not least because she knows former colleagues who've had more difficulty assimilating at other firms. "It definitely should be everywhere," she said.

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