With the early waves of Baby Boomer partners retiring or getting ready to hand over the keys to the firm, a diverse panel of partners and firm owners said constant communication with high-potential staff about growth opportunities, coupled with making firms appealing to younger professionals via investing in cutting-edge technologies, will serve to ease transition issues with regard to leadership succession.

“If you want to be the employer of choice, you have to be an attractive firm," said Scott Kies, managing partner of Arizona-based Heinfeld, Meech & Co., where the average age for the 12 partners is 39. “Dynamic young talent will not go to a stagnant firm. And you must communicate with them. I lost some really good staff over the years and found out that they received no feedback or communication on how good they were. So now I make it a point to meet with the partners and high performers.”

“When prepping future leaders one of the most important things is to let people know what you expect,” said Laura Concannon, owner of Vardavas & Concannon, a six-person firm in Maryland. “They can’t deliver if you don’t tell them what’s expected of them. Some firms hate to give their people annual reviews, but it’s imperative. In a small firm, one of the challenges is to empower the people who are there and delegate. But there are only so many people you can delegate to. I can’t be everywhere.”

Kies and Concannon were part of a panel in a session entitled “A New Perspective: Succession Planning Reversed,” at the AICPA Practitioners Symposium and Tech + Conference, in Las Vegas.
Aaron Dawson of Opsahl Dawson & Co. and his wife assumed the reins of an established CPA practice in Vancouver, Wash. Now only five of the original 17 people are still with the firm, which has returned to its previous staff count of 17.

“The owner did a great job transitioning us into the firm,” said Dawson. “He introduced us and let us lead the client meetings.”

He explained that he knew some changes had to be made because the firm was stagnant, so he implemented the firm’s paperless strategy, which some of the older partners did not immediately embrace. He also went to the local college, introduced himself to the accounting professor, and said his firm would like to employ some of the star students. “She said no one had ever done that before,” Dawson said.

Dawson also began a flex time program to accommodate working mothers.

“As you grow larger, it becomes more difficult to communicate the opportunities of partnership,” said Kies. “We developed a partner training track for the senior managers, which clearly defines that path. In some firms there’s an air of mystery as to what a partner is.”

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