One thing that all successful companies have in common, no matter the industry, is strong leadership, and that’s also true of accounting firms.

When leaders do their jobs well, employees perform better. Research has found that leadership is a top driver of sustainable engagement and greatly influences the employee experience and their performance at work. While natural leaders are hard to find, excellent leaders can emerge when firms invest time and resources in leadership development.

But, we know this is easier said than done. Half of the organizations polled by Brandon Hall Group for its leadership development study said their leaders do not have the skills to effectively guide their organizations today. Seventy-one percent of respondents said their leaders aren’t ready to take the organizations into the future. Only a quarter of companies reported having a willing successor identified for one out of 10 critical positions.

The hours spent on developing talent might not always be billable time, but having ready leaders in place to join your group will help propel your firm forward and help create an environment where employees can bring their best to work.

First thing’s first—plan

The first step is to create a leadership development plan and figure out where your talent is going to come from. Some firms choose to recruit external talent, while others choose to develop leaders from within. There are pros and cons to each approach, but there is strong evidence to suggest that building from within provides the best return on investment.

The key is to have an in-depth understanding of your current talent pool. Build a skills assessment portion into your review process so HR and other decision-makers can get an accurate view of the skills and competencies you already have in house. Having this information on hand can help to make quick decisions when vacancies open up.

Despite where your talent comes from, developing leaders early on is important. Here are three key factors to be aware of when developing new leaders.

1. Understand what you want from your leaders

Before naming someone to a position, ensure the person filling the void is the best candidate and not just the most senior. Good leaders are those who are able to motivate others, overcome obstacles and have a knack for building trusting relationships. They can also make unbiased big-picture decisions. Research from Gallup found that only one in 10 people naturally possess a combination of skills, including the ones I just mentioned. But, two in 10 have at least some of these abilities already and can learn the others with some training.

Identify your high-potential employees at all levels within the organization and take a critical look at their competencies. These are the people who are most likely to possess the skills and personal attributes most suited for leading others.

2. Start development early

When a senior partner retires or moves on, the best firms already have someone waiting in the wings to take over their accounts and oversee their team. Provide practical training, mentoring and development opportunities to your high-potential employees and work with them to ensure they are progressing on an optimal career path. Doing so will make for a seamless transition into these high profile roles.

3. Provide balanced training

While classroom-type training is common and a good start, it shouldn’t be the only means by which your up-and-comers learn. Education and training needs to encourage employees to think and explore possibilities, not memorize pre-packaged information. Incorporate ways for people to develop skills throughout their career with personalized programming in the form of video content, mentoring and coaching programs, and cross-functional development.

Employees will need opportunities to put what they’ve learned into practice—be it leading more projects or more hands-on opportunities with large clients. This will prepare them for future roles and allow the company to ensure they are a good fit.

Leadership development is about establishing a strong talent pool of employees with the right skills and competencies that support your people and your business. Good leadership development should be extended to current leaders as well as those rising through the ranks. Continued support for managers and partners increases the odds of them being the type of leader to get results and staying engaged themselves.

Thinking critically about who will be tomorrow’s leaders and putting a plan in place to ensure they are ready when the time comes is good business. Ongoing development for employees and leaders at all levels will lock up your company’s future and mobilize it for success.

Shanna Laughton

Shanna Laughton

Shanna Laughton, CPA, CA, is the manager of global tax and payroll at Halogen Software. She has over 15 years of experience in public accounting, and providing tax and payroll solutions to organization across various industries.