Accounting firms have long understood that most of their assets go home every night; the big question in these talent-starved times is how to make sure they come back in the next morning — and Ohio-based Top 100 Firm Clark Schaefer Hackett is ahead of the pack on that score, with a set of internal structures and processes that are a model for firms looking to boost recruiting and retention.

As part of a strategic planning process in 2013, the firm’s leadership created a vision for its future that necessitated a new approach to staffing and firm culture. “We envisioned the firm we wanted to become,” explained chief human resource officer Jon Horn. “As the ‘war for talent’ continued to grow, and the pool of highly qualified candidates continued to shrink, we recognized the need to make a more concerted effort to attract and retain the best employees.”

The approach it eventually developed combined a whole range of carefully thought-out tools for professional development, a set of clear and transparent career pathways for employees at all levels, and, perhaps most important, a significant emphasis on a firm culture of building strong relationships, both with clients and among staff, that begins even before an employee has joined the firm.

To identify and start creating that culture of “remarkable relationships,” as Horn describes it, the firm took a number of steps, including internal surveys of staff, competitive analyses of other professional services firms, research in academia and other broader areas of the profession — and hiring two HR professionals, Horn himself, and director of learning and development Brad Self.

Their research fleshed out an approach that the firm would eventually summarize as “Change-80-5,” where CSH pursues cultural change to increase staff engagement; stronger employee engagement will lead to stronger client engagement with a goal of 80 percent, which should drive the 5 percent organic growth rate the firm has targeted.

“Over the past two years, we’ve been trying to focus not just on the client relationship, but on understanding that we can only achieve excellence in serving clients if we first care for and serve each other,” said director of go-to-market services Chad Person.

Building stronger relationships, however, requires intentional relationship-building skills — and that kind of “soft skill” is not traditionally a strength of the profession.

 

SKILL DEFICITS

As Brad Self recalled, “Coming into public accounting, it amazed me that it’s such a relational business — you’re building relationships with clients and that’s what grows the business, and yet the focus has been so much on the technical aspects and the technical acumen of tax and assurance, and there’s very little work on the ‘soft skills’ of relationship development competencies.”

In studying other firms, as well as the hundreds of project assessments that CSH does on its own staff, which outline the strengths and areas of development for each person on a project team, they discovered that technical skills were rarely an issue, but relational development skills were. “The technical skills are there, but the relational skills are sometimes not fully developed because that’s not where the focus has been in their career development,” Self said.

With that in mind, the firm started developing ways to teach those skills to staff, and created a set of six core competencies (technical, interpersonal, communication, management, business development, leadership) for each job level, with specific training programs to address each competency.

Underpinning these competencies are the “CSH Way” — the firm’s deeply ingrained client service philosophy and approach, as laid out in the appropriately titled book, The CSH Way — and CSH Max, an HR development plan that gives employees a comprehensive career life-cycle support system, helping them grow and develop throughout their entire time at the firm.

That attention to an employee’s whole career starts even before their career begins.

 

AN UNUSUAL WELCOME

With its culture firmly in mind and a clear idea of the soft skills and behaviors it wants to see in staff, CSH has developed behavioral interview processes and questionnaires that allow it to hire exactly the type of people it is looking for, and bring them in through a unique onboarding process.

On their first day, many new employees will already have been contacted by the “buddy” the firm has assigned them: “These are a four-week partner who meets the new employee at the front door when they walk into the office and really is a buddy,” Self explained. “They help them through the logistics of lunch and where to park and where their cubicle is, and are really a friend, more or less. It also gives that person a really comfortable feeling about the firm they’re working for.”

Besides their buddy, new employees will meet their onboarding cohort, a group of people that can range in size anywhere from five to 25 or even 35 people, including both full-time employees and interns.

To kick things off, “We spend a full day doing personal professional development, which really surprises a lot of people,” Self said. “We do some basic individual leadership development, we talk about their core values, we talk about good communications skills. I love giving them the analogy that you are starting with a clean slate, and you have an opportunity to really make an impact on and influence the new people you’re going to meet here.”

Much of the next day is spent delving into the firm’s culture, including the CSH Way, and after that, the new employees break off into an extremely hands-on introduction to their work at the firm: “We reproduce what their office will look like, we bring in their laptop and two monitors, and we take them through a hands-on, real-life experience of what they’re going to do for their first few weeks,” Self said. “They’ll work with our software packages in a simulated environment and do exactly what it is they’ll be doing in the real world — not tied in to our database, of course! The whole idea is they can hit the ground running.”

 

CLEAR PATHS

After their initial onboarding, employees are assigned a coach — usually someone from their group who will be able to answer technical questions.

“Our coaches are specifically trained to build relationships,” Self said. “For instance, we train them to make sure that your body language doesn’t put people off — so when they come to you with a question, you don’t make them feel like they’re disturbing you.”

That’s part of the intentionality of the relationships the firm is trying to build with its employees, which continues in its mentoring program, according to Self: “Every shareholder and principal in our firm mentors one of our managers for a year. It’s not necessarily about skill and performance; it’s something much deeper — it’s about building the relationship, taking you under my wing and introducing you to people I know in my network.”

But while the firm gives staff personal guidance throughout their careers, it also gives them a clear roadmap to follow on their own. “One of the things we found in our surveys with our people, and particularly with our Millennials, is that they are looking for a very clear line of sight: ‘What do I need to do to be successful at my current position, and what does progression look like to the next level? Can you lay that out for me?’” Self said. “So a clear line-of-sight path has been very, very critical to meeting the needs of our folks as far as they progress, and it also provides really important direction for high performers.”

The firm has a complete career progression model for every position, from Staff I to principal, with specific performance expectations tied to the firm’s six core competencies. (Click for a sample.) That allows CSH to develop training programs that are geared to those performance expectations, and it also gives employees a clear idea of what they need to do at every given step in their career.

One critical point that Self stressed was that the steps are not tied to a timeline: “This is a performance progression model, not a tenure progression model. If you have a high performer, they don’t want to be tied to years of service. It’s not that they’re going to go from staff to shareholder or principal in two months or two years, but this is a performance model, and that really resonates with a lot of the people who are looking to progress. If you want to disappoint someone, tell them, ‘You have to sit here for five years and then maybe be considered for that next level.’”

 

STRONG RELATIONSHIPS

Though still relatively new, the firm’s initiatives are already paying off.

“We measure engagement twice a year with a formal employee engagement survey, and we’ve seen consistent increases in engagement every year,” said chief HR officer Horn. “Client engagement has also seen consistent improvement toward a goal of 80 percent of clients indicating they are engaged. … Even in the midst of the current war for talent in the profession, we certainly are holding our own in retaining talent.”

Going forward, CSH is working on initiatives on race and gender diversity, as well as diving deeper into the dynamics surrounding Millennial employees and their expectations. They also want to explore ways to improve the profession’s reputation in certain quarters, according to Self.

“It was surprising as I met with other firms and talked to people in universities and the academic arena to hear the stigma that hangs around public accounting,” he said. “The academic world is saying that people should use public accounting as a stepping stone to a ‘real career.’ We need to change that. … We want to start talking to these universities about pushing more of a career opportunity — it’s not just the Big Four; don’t go to a firm just to get a name on your resume; go to a firm that aligns with your values and where you’re going to feel like you can grow the most.”

Making that case will require building stronger relationships with the academic community — but then, stronger relationships are what CSH is all about.

 

AT A GLANCE

Firm: Clark, Schaefer, Hackett & Co.

Headquarters: Cincinnati

President: Carl Coburn

No. of partners/staff: 27 / 368

Year founded: 1938

Services: Audit, assurance, risk management, benefit plan consulting, forensic and litigation support, valuation, transaction services

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