The perceived decline in partner accountability in today's CPA firms has led to a great deal of discussion about how to maximize firm performance through more proactive management of its individuals.

Most of that advice, understandably, has been aimed at formalizing and refining execution in our partner accountability systems - being more "businesslike" in our approach -- as the most productive path toward better performance. And yet we are increasingly plagued with procedural specialist practitioners' detachment from our increasingly horizontally defined and integrated growth strategies -- and at an alarming rate.

No one would seriously question the value of well-executed management tactics in high-performing companies. In companies big and small the world over, profoundly committed employees demonstrate an attraction to these management environments as a positive company commitment to their own deeply rooted desire to grow as professionals, laborers and technicians. Those accountability systems are a blessing to the deeply motivated and connected worker.

But when employee commitment is low, as we see with many of our colleagues today, the usefulness of ever-clearer goals, even-more-frequent mentoring check-in meetings, and increasingly larger carrots and sticks for success (or the lack of them) should be called into serious question.

Accountability systems in management are a great help to engaged and focused employees. But they are a source of alienation, frustration and disillusionment for employees who don't feel as though their work environments are places for them to grow, in the way that they each uniquely define growth.

 

A WIDESPREAD PROBLEM

It isn't just us. Employee satisfaction surveys in the wider economy have consistently demonstrated a gradual decline in employee attachment to the workplace for nearly two decades now, with no end in sight. As our business systems fragment into more and more technical sub-specialties -- hardware, software, auditing, big data, payroll, income taxes, retirement plan administration, and portfolio management, to name a few - the shrinking number of people working in them have largely lost relevance to one another. And that spells trouble for our ability to easily inspire the group commitment that we need to profitably grow our profession into its more diversely resourced and well-integrated future.

In this environment, where the self-actualizing growth needs of individuals are so badly misaligned with our firms' strategic growth needs, management tactics intended to do great things can actually do great harm - much like stepping on the accelerator might do to a car engine that has run out of oil. So finding out what is causing that detachment -- and what can be done to re-invigorate specialist practitioner engagement with our increasingly diverse growth goals -- is an important precondition to dialing up the intensity in our management accountability programs.

But whose job is it to deal with this commitment thing? Is it something we should expect employees to bring to the workplace when they arrive? Is firm culture really only the arithmetic sum of all of our employee's "attitudes?" If that were true, we would have only to look to our recruiting and hiring systems to find the most committed and engaged employees available.

And once hired, is it really just a matter of being really nice to employees to discourage them from leaving us? Sometimes it feels that way, but we should know by now that inspiring them to group accomplishment -- so that they feel compelled to remain in the fight together -- is the only real choice that we have left to us.

But if it's true that commitment is the "new accountability" -- and that it is our firms' leadership that bears the responsibility of defining a unifying goal that compels and inspires inter-practitioner relevance and engagement -- where do we start?

 

THE GROUNDWORK

Below are three recommendations for beginning to lay the cultural foundation for growing relevance and commitment among your diverse partners. We'll need these efforts before accountability execution tactics aimed at productive self-regulation can become the naturally motivating mechanism for self-measurement that they are intended to be.

1. Stop trying to restore relatedness as a corporate asset -- it's not coming back. The notion of relationship management in professional services has historical roots that still permeate our shop floor discussions about long-term sustainable organic growth for our firms. Sadly, relatedness is becoming inherently problematic as a foundation for corporate glue in both our client and human capital environments.

One's place of employment used to serve as one of the important pillars of the middle-order needs of human beings, best illustrated in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Just above the basic needs for food, shelter and basic bodily function -- and just below the need for self-actualized growth -- lies the group of needs that human beings have to be related to one another.

The explosion of communication capability on the Internet has created the opportunity for people to satisfy those needs anywhere and everywhere. As a result, we will never again have the luxury of relying on our firms to provide the quasi-family commitment that helped keep employees and customers bound to one another.

2. Get a better understanding of what culture is -- and is not. Significant human capital effort is expended every year attempting to influence employee behavior as a way to create more productive firm cultures. These efforts are based on the belief that the actions and reactions of human beings need to be monitored, manipulated and shaped in order to improve overall group performance -- to create a behavioral norm, one employee at a time, until such time as critical mass is achieved.

But it is quite possible that -- rather than being an uninvited temperamental actor that is forced upon us by alphabetically successive generations -- culture might really only be the product of normal, predictable human response to rising competition among important socioeconomic constraints in the world economy. Culture doesn't cause anything at all. It is a result.

But if human behavior is the equation's constant, the rising constraints in the economy are the variable, and culture is the result of the formula, what are we to do?

A quick math lesson should lead us to the variable in the equation -- adapting to the competing constraints in the economy -- as the only real option that gives us the opportunity to improve long-term practitioner commitment. If we can focus on the commitment opportunities presented to us by the culture equation's variable, accountability systems will be less likely to break the motivational backs of our beleaguered brethren.

3. Rise above your value proposition -- you need something much bigger. The concept of a value proposition is inherently rooted in quid pro quo: "I'll give you this if you pay me that." It's a planned and structured trading of resources presumed to satisfy both the buyer in terms of value received and the seller in terms of profits realized. The foundation of that system of value delivery is profoundly wounded in today's professional services firms for a lot of reasons that simply aren't going to go away with an improving economy.

A value proposition is not your "why." It simply defines an equitable business deal. Increasingly, as the means of production become more and more universally available, your professionals will have increasing opportunity to add value to transactions without the need to do it through your firm. As a direct result, firms will increasingly need to establish and nurture a compelling social contract in order to capture its diverse human capital components in a joint mission -- one that individuals cannot fulfill alone.

As an example, just imagine an economy where each and every medical clinic was required to develop its own value proposition, to differentiate itself in the marketplace in order to provide value. As consumers of medical services, it would strike us a ludicrous. The social contract of medicine is to do whatever it takes to continually improve public health!

Each clinic cutting a separate deal with the public as to what that means would actually dilute the value of the medical profession itself in an amount equal to the value proposition's increase -- becoming vendors of medical procedures instead of the guardians of a sacred mission, and all with the exact same products and services.

The necessary migration from relationship management (in pursuit of a value proposition) toward evidence management (in pursuit of the completion of a social contract) is necessary in order to provide the glue that will bind our clients and employees together to create our growth-filled and accountable futures.

While the philosophy of inclusion accounts for inviting everyone to that future, a fully functional leadership narrative capable of inspiring the "new accountability" can only take root after we've answered the question: Inclusion in what?

Paul Fisher is the author of Beyond the Days of the Giants: Solving the Crisis of Growth and Succession in Today's CPA Firms, and the founder of New Giants Consulting, an organization dedicated to growing the value-creation capabilities of the "new giants." Reach him at paul@newgiantsconsulting.com.

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