The 2018 Best Midsized Firm to Work For: Wilkin & Guttenplan

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Wilkin & Guttenplan is dedicated to employee satisfaction long before staff even walk into the New Jersey-based CPA firm’s doors; in fact, the firm makes it a critical component of the hiring process.

“As we hire people, we hire talented people, without predetermining the slot they go in,” explained managing shareholder Edward Guttenplan. “As we hire talent, we’re going to help you be the best person you can be. We want to play to your strengths — you’ll be happy, and we’ll all be successful. Today, the kids we hire, [we say] don’t tell us now if you want tax or audit, we’ll figure it out. It’s different from the model of, ‘We have an opening, we seek to fill the opening, and that’s it.’ We have an opening, and we’ll take on talent, and help them find a way to soar. It takes a little logistical maneuvering, but that’s why employees like it here — they do what they love.”

Of course, many entry-level employees know exactly where they want to focus, undoubtedly helped by their experience as interns — as roughly 90 percent of new hires start with the firm as college interns. Occasionally, even those who are certain may change departments, and often, Guttenplan shared, new hires will want to try out both tax and audit in order to find the best fit: “Our overall recruitment and intake strategy is, if you’re talented, we’ll find a way to make it work. We say that every step of the way.”

This has been a guiding philosophy since Guttenplan established the firm 35 years ago with Ed Wilkin, who Guttenplan had met at a previous firm and shared a vision with for a greater practice. “Working together, we felt there was a better way to treat people than what we were experiencing,” Guttenplan recalled. “Probably two things set us apart — we were generally committed to staff, and believed that having the best staff was the answer to building a practice, and then great client service was going to follow with that kind of foundation.”

Since laying that groundwork, Wilkin & Guttenplan has grown to 120 people in three offices — East Brunswick and Martinville in New Jersey, and Manhattan in New York — with five acquisitions and mergers (and one de-merger) along the way, but mostly organic expansion. The firm has also grown to be the No. 1 Midsized Firm to Work For, but that’s nothing new — it was No. 1 in 2010, as well, and has regularly appeared on Accounting Today’s Best Firms list for the past decade.

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Along with more flexible career paths, Wilkin & Guttenplan was committed to customized work schedules from the firm’s inception. “Thirty-five years ago, we readily had on staff working moms with part-time schedules,” Guttenplan said. “If you’re talented, we’re going to take advantage of the hours you have to make it win-win. It wasn’t flexible schedule A, B, C, but geared toward every particular person.”

That was progressive for the time, and Wilkin & Guttenplan aims to remain on the forefront of new trends and technology. That requires good communication, the firm believes.

“We’re avid listeners to our staff,” Guttenplan explained, “and overall committed to the continuity of the firm. Everyone in the organization wants to see the firm survive in the future, beyond the retirements of senior leaders. We listen to young people. One thing is, we have a future council [comprised of] myself and one other partner, and we meet with staff, younger staff. We say, ‘This is going to be your firm in 10 years, where do you see it going, what do you see doing? What does a role-model partner look like to you? Let’s hear your vision for the future, and we’ll give you the wisdom of what’s possible.’”

The answers are not particularly surprising given the profession’s currently evolving landscape, with new technologies of particular interest, and leading to the formation of the firm’s eight-person innovation committee.

“One assignment [for the committee] was, look at all these things, including blockchain, robotics, go to conferences if you need to, and see where it intersects with the practice,” Guttenplan shared. “We have one person chasing down cryptocurrency, another robotic process automation, and using robotics in the audit process. Real things are happening, and they are given the freedom to shape what happens. It’s great when young people do it — they don’t have the obstacles some that are older have, that say, ‘I’ve tried something like that, it doesn’t work,’ or ‘I’ve got a million things on my plate.’”

The firm is currently evaluating the integration of this technology into its audit processes, and has even mobilized its “substantial IT department” to assist.

Guided development

While Guttenplan believes employees appreciate these ways the firm empowers them, he also knows certain perks can be just as important to overall job satisfaction. Employees enjoy unlimited paid time off, closed offices on summer Fridays, and Saturdays in the office being optional.

“It all works, let’s get the deliverables, the service to the clients, and the rest will follow,” Guttenplan explained. “It’s enabled us to do a better job in delivery, and with a lot less stress. Five years ago you had to come in on Saturdays. This changes the paradigm. It was a pilot program three years ago. There’s a high level of trust here, people trust us, partners trust staff, staff is treated right with compensation, and all that is open, we’re candid with all those things. Trust is one of the hallmarks in order to do these things.”

At the same time, some employees need guidance in taking advantage of these freedoms, Guttenplan acknowledged.

“Some may need coaching to be more effective at it,” Guttenplan elaborated. “As an example, for a stretch of time, people were working less hours than we would have expected them to. We saw what was happening, had discussions of what needed to get done, and expectations. The other thing that we are constantly in the mode of is development of staff.”

This translates into internal competency-based programs, the firm’s professional growth academy, and a formalized coaching program for all full-time employees.

The goal of all these initiatives, of course, is to help with employee performance, and Wilkin & Guttenplan recently overhauled its process of evaluating this critical metric, getting rid of the formal year-end process in favor of more ongoing communication. “We have pretty much on-demand, continuous feedback,” Guttenplan explained. “At the end of the year, the process for assessing performance is not tied to a piece of paper someone had to look at.”

In order to make the new process effective, “We have two things — an HR person monitors to make sure people get regular feedback, at minimum, quarterly. And people can ask for formal feedback, and launch that by going on to the intranet and sending a form to someone they want feedback from. I can do that for someone I want to provide feedback for, to initiate that process. If you start using pieces of paper detailing people’s performance issues, and areas for improvement, you dumb down what you want to say, because you don’t want to go on record.”

Instead, the new process encourages more candid, in-person conversation, Guttenplan continued, with the firm suggesting the evaluators make a list of talking points they can refer to during the discussion. “We don’t want them sending a written evaluation to someone, and not meeting with them. They can make a list of bullet points to talk with, and explain it carefully, without any paranoia with what they have on paper. It’s liberated people to make more effective feedback.”

The firm also implements 360-degree upward evaluations, which are “all candid, not anonymous. We’ve worked hard on that … to give those above them candid feedback on their performance.”

This more open method of employees delivering feedback — especially to their superiors — has required some finessing. “It’s taken a while, but it’s working,” Guttenplan shared. “It’s about a philosophy that we need to be candid with each other about performance, not punitive — it’s how we get better. When we launched it at first, people were a little reticent. The HR team along the way looked at some of those [evaluations] before they got to the recipient to help them say things better. If they have trouble saying what they want to say, or are unsure, they can go to HR or someone else to help you say it.”

Firm leadership also offers encouragement.

“We talk about it a little in staff meetings. Partners raise their hands, say, ‘We want to hear what we can do better.’ I reinforce that to them, I’m sort of the watchdog, to make sure it happens, and there’s no repercussions for saying what’s on their mind,” Guttenplan explained. “All of those things create a culture of trust, candor, transparency. It’s all about helping us be better, move along in our careers, and meet goals.”

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