Whether or not an accounting professional is on the partner track, several other partnerships are necessary along the way to achieving their individual career goals.
These partnerships, as the adage says, go both ways, with the accounting firm serving as a facilitator to link accountants with mentors and sponsors to guide them along the specific paths that they have identified.
The best guidance begins with clear communication, which firms have recognized in stepping up their soft skills training for staff at all levels. With that solid foundation, these critical relationships flourish and professionals are given the proper technical training and continuing education to satisfy both their passion and their potential.
MARKING THE MILESTONES
The most successful programs begin early. California-headquartered Top 100 Firm Gallina has a program that matches every member of the firm, from intern up to partner, with a performance manager. The firm also exposes staff to both tax and audit for the first two years. "We give them a wide variety of exposure to everything they're going to touch, straight out of school," said Katie McConnell, Gallina's director of recruitment and development. "They gravitate toward what they're best at, where their skills lie, and what they're passionate about."
Two years is the typical crossroads for young professionals in firms. "At the two-year mark, [young professionals] are looking ahead at potentially being promoted to senior, and what they need to do," explained Heather Sunderlin, director of employee services at Virginia accounting firm Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer. "If they are high performers, at two years they're itching to continue growing and dig deeper. High performers come in the door as staff and say, 'When's my next promotion?' We need employees to be passionate about what they're doing."
Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer also pairs young staff with mentors when they join the firm. "From the moment they start, whether as interns or full-time staff, they are assigned a mentor they're required to meet with on a regular basis," Sunderlin continued. "They have regular face-to-face meetings and with groups when working on a job. They may talk to a manager in a niche or supervisors or managers working in that niche for a while. We communicate across the board at all levels."
That communication function of the human resources department is vital, as Sandi Guy, director of human resources at Top 100 Firm CBIZ, explained: "If I have a high performer resigning, the managing partner calls me saying, 'We're doing something wrong!' So I peel back the layers -- they were compensated well, advancing through the organization well ... ."
What Guy usually discovers is miscommunication between the resigning professional and their supervisor. In the case of one woman who left, "We were talking and she said, 'I want to take one of these different paths,'" Guy shared. "The manager didn't know any better. There was no malice, no motives involved, but the manager said, 'You won't be able to do that, you don't have the skills ... .' But they were misinformed. Your managers -- especially your managers - and above should know everything going on."
This includes specific opportunities for advancement. "You have got to promote your internal opportunities to make sure people know," Guy said. "If someone sits in our Kansas City office and wants to get involved in the construction industry, it doesn't mean they can't get involved [because of where they're located]. It's about, 'If you want to raise your hand, here's how you raise it.'... Wouldn't you rather advance and develop the people you already have?"
PICKING YOUR DESTINY
Those people must stick around long enough to be advanced. Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer credits much of its high retention to tasking every employee, down to the staff level, to plan out their individual time budgets for the year. "They set the number of billable hours and are involved in how those billable hours will be scheduled," explained Sunderlin. "When they are taking time off for, for example, an exam, there's a realistic look at their hours. It helps the employee to not be set up for failure ... . We look at [the budgets] on a regular basis and report on them monthly. Employees are incentivized on those budgets. Our turnover is very low; employees are involved in their destiny."
That destiny hits a critical point after the employee raises their hand for a new opportunity, in their subsequent dialogue with their supervisor.
"I would say the biggest tip is to make sure the management team is also aware [of the opportunity], and knows how to engage in the conversation," Guy continued. "If you haven't developed the manager, it could all fall apart."
Development at all levels sustains these traditional mentorship programs, and is also foundational to a new program that Top 100 Firm McGladrey launched last fall, Career Axis.
Recognizing the need to bolster the firm's state and local tax and international tax practices, McGladrey designed the program to internally identify and recruit to those practices, according to Gina Golden, the firm's senior director of learning and professional development.
The program has a nomination and selection process, with 15 people chosen for its inaugural year, as well as a critical one-year transition period. Typically, "You take [young professionals] from a core practice and shove them into another role," said Golden. "They say, 'I'm a little lost, what happened to my current clients,' and they have two roles. What I like about this program is there is a one-year phase-in approach."
During that period, the accountant maintains their current career advisor while also getting assigned a sponsor in the practice they are transitioning into. Continuing the theme of open, two-way communication, both the advisor and sponsor also work together until the year is over and a new career advisor is assigned in the new practice.
"In general, what we're trying to do is find some career development opportunities for employees, with things that align with our strategic growth plans, and things of interest to the individual," Golden explained. "We took time to develop a plan that's really not a one-shot wonder, but designed for long-term benefits."
The training that McGladrey's tax professionals receive is a hybrid between internal and external courses, learning the fundamentals outside the firm and the intermediate and advanced topics within.
Gallina has a similar hybrid approach, using consultancy Upstream Academy for their leadership training while offering internal continuing education. "We like doing CPE in-house because we find it makes people stronger; you have to be experts in the field if you have to learn the material to teach it," McConnell explained.
McGladrey hosts large annual conferences for all three lines of the firm's business, at every level, with customizable courses. "What we've developed over the last couple of years aligns very well with the development of a full professional," Golden shared. "The curriculum is designed to meet development needs and to serve the clients ... . Instead of a set curriculum, you customize the curriculum ... so one individual attending could have 70 courses to choose from."
On the flip side, outside training offers the opportunity for networking and brand recognition within the relevant industries. Gallina staff that attend California Society of CPAs or American Institute of CPAs conferences try to speak there as well, McConnell said.
These programs, courses and events work toward the joint professional development goals of both empowering individuals with knowledge and better serving firm clients through that expertise.
"People go into a certain line of business, and as our clients become more sophisticated, so do the people that serve them," Golden observed. "The last five to 10 years have seen, in the industry, people getting more specialized. We try to develop people in technical expertise, and to be good business advisors - be trusted advisors. Have general business sense, acumen, but also a deep technical expertise. We're trying to develop both of those."
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