What they’d do differently: MPs share leadership lessons

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Many newly minted accounting firm managing partners find themselves having to chart their own path with little guidance — so it’s no surprise that, some years into their tenure, they may wish they had done things a little differently.

In a panel discussion moderated by Rainmaker Companies president Angie Grissom at the recent 2018 SuperConference, three successful firm leaders shared their hard-earned lessons on what the short- and long-term priorities of new managing partners should be.

First, they all agreed that they wished they had taken a strategic approach from the very start.

“I spent a good year or two being very operational, but when you’ve done that for a while, it’s hard to break out of that and become strategic,” said Ralph Garcia, who was managing partner of Florida-based Pender Newkirk when it was successful merged into Top 100 Firm Warren Averett several years ago, and recent retired from Warren Averett. “You can fix more problems when you’re running toward something — following a strategy — rather than running away from something.”

Frank Savarese, of Weyrich Cronin & Sorra, reported a similar experience: “When I first started as MP, I was more focused on nuts and bolts, and then over time I developed strategy.”

“Part of that is working to engage your people,” he continued, stressing the importance of making sure they’re on board with the firm's strategy. “If your team understands what you aim to do, they’re more likely to participate.”

As part of that need to raise their focus to higher-level issues, all the managing partners on the panel reported that they do far less client work than the average firm partner.

“I feel this need to still feel like I’m connected,” said Pat Early, of Indianapolis-based Somerset CPAs, “so I probably have 500 to 600 hours a year that’s tax-related, or M&A and estate planning, but I don’t have any clients that are my ongoing responsibility.”

Garcia said that he had less than 100 charge hours, but was still involved in finding and keeping clients, while Savarese said that he had between 400 and 500 hours of client work a year.

All for one

All three managing partners are strong believers in the “One Firm” concept.

“The one-firm concept is best, but it’s also really difficult,” said Savarese. “Partners need to bear in mind that the firm always comes first, not the partner.”

Among other things, it’s important to keep partners from creating their own silos — and to make sure everyone realizes that everyone has a role to play in building the firm. “We don’t let people do kingdom-building,” said Early. “The people who bring in business are important. The people who manage business are important. And the people who develop and train staff are important.”

“We changed from eat-what-you-kill to we’re-all-in-this-together, and that required a lot of trust,” noted Garcia, whose firm made the move in the difficult years after 2007. “The payoff from moving from eat-what-you-kill to the corporate model is huge. Over the course of the two years that we did that, our retention and engagement went through the roof. We were named a Best Company to Work For.”

Lessons learned

As final advice, Early warned against the indiscriminate pursuit of growth at any cost.

“I was so focused on growth that we made some decisions to grow revenue that involved people where there might have been integrity issues. You start trading off integrity for little bits of revenue,” he said. “I would have focused from the very beginning on integrity, rather than revenue, and I wouldn’t have had as many problems as I did.”

Garcia recommended looking for advice as early as possible. “I didn’t have a good benchmark for becoming an MP,” he remembered. “I would have gotten a mentor earlier and done more reading, and looked outside of the profession. Some of our best decisions came when we looked outside the profession — talking with our clients, looking at other industries.”

And Savarese warned not to underestimate the difficulty of the position. “The thing that was hardest for me to understand is that leadership is very hard,” he said, recommending that would-be and fledgling MPs read as much as they can — and keep at it. “I’m a big reader. Once or twice a week you’ll find an article that’s really relevant. It’s the only way to stay current.”

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