Four steps to building up your firm’s niche skills

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Less compliance work. More advisory services. We’re all hearing this message in the profession. To offer innovative consulting work and move into a genuine advisory relationship with clients, not only do firms need to develop the requisite skillsets, more importantly, they need their best and brightest people to stick around and provide these new services.

One strategic advisory area that firms are struggling to acquire and develop the skillsets is data analytics. Let’s explore how to design a new niche using data analytics as our example niche. Data analytics is the critical piece of a puzzle whose end goal is offering clients new and insightful advisory services. Hiring a few data scientists or buying an expensive platform, however, is not the answer. Developing DA knowledge, and ultimately confidence and expertise, in your highest potential employees, those in whom you’ve already invested so much, is. And it can be done.

If properly designed, a strategic training initiative for any new niche will move firms into the advisory stratosphere, retain their best people and drive profitability. Now, how to design it? We’ll have to work with a few assumptions:

  • Leadership buy-in has been obtained. Without buy-in from the top, an initiative like this goes nowhere. Leadership will need to have a progressive mindset and allow their best performers time away from billable activity.
  • An initiative owner has been identified. This owner, typically a newer partner or senior manager with a keen interest in the new niche and an innovative perspective, drives accountability of the initiative from the inside.
  • HR is closely involved in structuring the initiative. Performance review metrics must be calibrated to allow for investment in non-billable education time. This requires trust on the part of the staff participating in training and support from and coordination of leadership and HR.

If the skillset required for work in this niche is already highly developed, our assumptions can end here. However, when it comes to a niche, like DA, where the firm’s expertise is often not fully developed, we should assume a DA “helper firm” has been engaged. Where does the DA expertise come from? Ideally, you’re looking for a partner who understands the internal structure of a CPA firm and has DA expertise. A helper firm can guide you in designing pieces of a DA strategy, like a training initiative, or the entire roadmap.

Working with these assumptions in mind, four steps will help you begin skilling up for work in a new niche:

Step 1: Identify a “team of DA champions” to participate in a train-the-trainer rotation. Begin by selecting high-potential candidates to be trained as DA Trainers. You know who they are. They get promoted ahead of their years. They are sought out when there is a problem that needs solving. They are in high demand. And they are the first to leave when not fulfilled.

Talent can certainly emerge from unlikely places and you may find an ideal candidate amongst your more average performers. A program like this will lead to a slightly different career path; some may become intrinsically motivated by this and surprise you.

Step 2: Craft a 12-month calendar of learning. A DA helper firm that has taken the time to get to know your firm and where you are on your DA journey will bring knowledge of industry best practices and prove critical in identifying content that will drive the most value for your firm. To design an effective learning plan:

  • Organize information in a variety of formats to appeal to different learning styles.
  • Tap into the many open-source (free) options for education.
  • Make learning self-directed, able to done anytime and anywhere, as much as possible.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to practice concepts with real data and become comfortable extracting insights. Working in learning pods, groups who work together on real business problems, is especially effective.

Ultimately, learners should identify at least one real client case study that allows for DA application (a process that can be replicated is ideal). This case study provides an effective learning environment in which to work with the helper firm and, once expertise is acquired, then provides an opportunity for training others in the firm.

Step 3: Curate a library on the firm’s intranet. Because a train-the-trainer format will concentrate knowledge among a few experts during the early phase of the initiative, you’ll want to make information available to those outside of that group with a keen interest in DA. A well-curated library, should include items such as:

  • All training materials;
  • Relevant articles;
  • A searchable database that includes client case study examples and DA “resumes” for each trainer as they develop the requisite skillsets; and,
  • A roadmap to becoming involved in the next train-the-trainer rotation

Step 4: Showcase your progress. Blazing this sort of trail is going to make your firm stand apart as an industry leader. Share success stories internally to ignite excitement and encourage increased DA adoption.

Then let your clients know the progressive steps you’re taking to provide them with the best advisory service possible. Skill up your managers to find opportunities to use these new skills, not only to make their audits more efficient, but to drive efficiency for clients as well. This makes you indispensable to your clients.

Then go one step further: Promote the ingenious efforts you’re taking in your recruiting and marketing efforts. Use social media, newsletters, whatever it takes.

Reaping the rewards

Taking the leap into the future of the profession with data analytics, or with value-added services in any innovative niche, will accomplish the two most important goals of most managing partners: attracting and retaining talent and driving profitability.

Let’s talk talent first. It’s no surprise that the youngest staff people often come equipped with the strongest technical skills. Career fairs and interviews conjure visions of putting those skills to work in exciting careers. Instead, new staff are often met with mundane tasks like carrying forward prior year procedures. This needs to change. A training program for your new niche will attract, engage and likely catapult these new staff people into a satisfying, challenging and long-term career path with your firm. They naturally become your thought leaders of the future.

The profitability side of the equation is straightforward. Yes, investing in an initiative like this will be a cost center at first, but your firm will be poised to experience an exponential return on investment in the near future. Once your people have acquired the skills and experience, the firm is positioned to go to market with new service offerings and the sky is the limit. Now, what are you waiting for?

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Accounting firm services Employee engagement Employee retention Client strategies Professional development Analytics