Managing today’s CPA firm is challenging to say the least. The first challenge is to ensure that the partners/owners desire to be managed. Firm leaders are often challenged by rugged individuals who have not committed to being managed or sharing a firm vision.
If you are fortunate enough to have a group of owners who do desire to be managed, your focus can be on five major areas of the firm:
1. Strategic planning — developing goals for the firm and its personnel.
2. Allocate resources based upon the strategic plan.
3. Transformation agent — a system of accountability is the quickest way to produce desired results.
4. Resolve conflicts.
5. Drive revenue strategy.
This may sound simple, but for those in the firm leadership role, it requires time to think, plan and grow. In many cases, the CEO is also expected to have a book of business for economic or security reasons in addition to their responsibilities as the CEO/managing partner. Often, this is a primary indicator that other partners and owners don’t really want to be managed.
The composition of a leadership team generally dictates the time requirements as well as the focus on the unique abilities of each team member. Depending upon the firm’s size and vision, it is normal to have a chief operating officer or firm administrator, HR, talent development, technology and business development skills on the management team. Some firms are now expanding the team to include a chief innovation officer. We will review each of the five areas in more depth with the goal of developing the optimal leadership team for your firm’s requirements.
Choosing a future destination for the firm is not always collaborative. Christopher Columbus didn’t ask his sailors, “Where do you want to go?” Instead, he said something like, “We’re going to the New World and it is going to be fantastic.” The process of planning can be as important as the actual plan when it comes to buy-in and communications.
The planning process should involve representation from all areas in larger firms and may involve most personnel in smaller firms. The firm’s core values are the foundation and the plan should focus on no more than five strategic objectives. Each strategic objective should be further defined with measurements of success, specific initiatives, due dates and the responsible party. This is best done in a one-page format (front — core values, vision, mission and strategic objectives, and back — measurements of success, initiatives, due dates and assigned party/ies) so it is easy to communicate and distribute to internal and external stakeholders. A tip: Laminate the one-page plan and everyone will retain a copy for future reference.
The CEO has continuous responsibilities in the planning area and may want to develop one-page plans for each service area, technology and talent that roll into the firm’s overall strategic plan.
Resource allocation is extremely important. The firm’s budget provides the financial resources, but there is also the issue of priorities and staffing. You should have the right talent leading and staffing your initiatives.
Many larger firms are evaluating the position of chief innovation officer with the responsibilities to:
- Support best practices;
- Develop skills;
- Support business units in new products and services;
- Identify new market spaces;
- Help people generate ideas;
- Direct seed funding; and,
- Provide shelter for promising projects.
These responsibilities change in importance over time. Finding leaders capable of counterbalancing the natural killing instinct of business units and a more innovation-friendly organization isn’t easy. Technology plays an increasing role as firms automate and increase their business capabilities. This requires a powerful executive who understands the business, and emerging technology, and has a strong desire to transform the business in order to add client value.
To embrace change simply isn’t enough in today’s disruptive environment. Change means to continue doing the same thing, only introducing some degree of variation. Transformation means doing something radically different. It requires innovation and is driven by multiple disciplines and diversity. Here are some guidelines:
- Focus on the client;
- Ideas come from everywhere;
- Think big, start small;
- Don’t be afraid to fail forward;
- Be a platform that can float all boats; and,
- Don’t overfund.
Being a transformation agent requires accountability. Greater accountability leads to game-changing results. With accountability, people at every level of the firm embrace their role in facilitating the change and demonstrating the ownership needed for transformation, personally and for the firm.
Great transformation agents often forget about today’s problems and focus on future challenges. Wayne Gretzky is known for his statement about skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it is. With faster, better, easier and cheaper technology it is easy to see how automation of a firm’s back office, business channels, HR and performance management, marketing, sales, workflow, scheduling and legal can change the game for any firm. Too often firms only think of automating services and accounting applications.
RESOLVE CONFLICTS AND LOGJAMS
Conflict is normal in business, but most CPAs prefer to avoid or even ignore conflict. Great leaders must be willing to address and deal decisively with conflict. Firms will have conflicts with clients, partners, employees and strategies, but dealing with them quickly and decisively reduces the cost and emotional capital required to resolve the conflict. Strong core values are the quickest and easiest way to make your decisions. Here are some summary examples of strong core values:
- Trusted relationships;
- Development and growth;
- Respect and teamwork; and,
Having the ability to make a decision is often referred to as “edge.” As a leader, you often don’t have all of the information to make the decision, but you must make the decision and move forward with the confidence that you will adjust when necessary.
Selling is about directing the choir, not singing a solo. It is your responsibility as a leader to define what is possible. It may stretch your people further than they thought they could go. It can be a lonely role with a lot of resistors. Remember that most innovation looks like a bad idea in the minds of those who want to retain the status quo. Once you have done it, then they want to scale it.
Thinking exponentially and globally does not come naturally. Most people have been trained to think incrementally and locally. One example I use to demonstrate is the doubling of one penny every day for 31 days. Do the math and you will be surprised at the total.
A firm’s capacity for change shapes its speed of growth. Don’t be surprised if some of your people can’t make the required changes. What got you to your current level of revenue won’t get you to the next level. You will need larger clients, more value-added services that focus more on strategy and performance, rather than compliance. We call this the ability to play above the line, with compliance services being below the line. The ability to package and price services from below the line with those performance and strategic services above the line are key to retaining margins and being future-ready.
With increased revenue come the opportunities for advancing talent, enabling your firm to attract and retain quality people. Your ability as an effective sales leader is dictated by your ability to increase the capacity of your organization to transform. Be sure your compensation model is linked with performance and value production, not billable hours. The new advisory services that firms will need to offer to continue to stay relevant aren’t supported by the billable hour mindset.
Your focus should be on time, money and risk. Look at the data, not individual partners’ book of business. This requires setting guidelines for client filtering and targets. People and clients with a fixed mindset may limit your ability to grow, while people and clients with growth mindsets will accelerate your growth. Here are eight important mindsets that will determine your ability to grow:
2. Big future;
3. Team player;
4. Willing to change;
5. Life-long learner;
6. Lean Six Sigma processes;
7. Growth; and,
8. Being connected to relationships and resources.
In conclusion, the CEO/MP has no shortage of possible responsibilities. It’s vital that their energy is hyper-focused on the most important aspects of the firm. If your CEO/managing partner is focusing on strategic planning, allocating resources, being a transformation agent, solving conflict and logjams, and driving revenue, your firm will experience exponential success.
L. Gary Boomer, CPA, CITP, CGMA, is the visionary and strategist at Boomer Consulting Inc.