Why do so many firms fail to get to the next level? Arguably the principal reason is the lack of a quality partner group that can perpetuate the firm.

It all begins with who you select to be your partners. Too often, many firms choose partners because of needs as opposed to qualifications. I refer to these admissions as “slot shots.” It’s easy to understand why “slot shots” occur (partner retirements, organic growth, acquisitions, etc.), but taken to an extreme, this practice truly undermines the future of a firm.

If your partner group has slipped into mediocrity and you want to make your firm great again, start by raising the bar for your new partner admissions. Moving from senior manager or principal to non-equity partner (yes, firms should have two classes of partners—non-equity for entry level partners, and equity for the highest performers) should be a consideration after someone functions two or perhaps three years as a senior manager or director.

Overall, the key question to be addressed when admitting a new partner is: Does the non-equity partner candidate's “enterprise value” contribute to perpetuating and growing the business, maintaining and enhancing technical excellence and driving client and staff retention?

Here are some criteria and guidelines to consider:

1. Client Relationships and Client Service Excellence

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Being the primary contact with key decision-makers in the client organization.

• Demonstrating the ability to negotiate fees and change orders.

• Retaining clients.

• Participating in activities with clients beyond field work.

• Exceeding client expectations.

• Demonstrating sound business judgment and an entrepreneurial spirit.

• Assisting partners with a great deal of current responsibilities.

2. Technical Capabilities and Distinctions

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Excelling in a technical capacity that will grow the firm’s practice and staff.

• Being respected as a technical resource to help promote and develop talent by sharing knowledge.

• Technical competence that is confirmed by the appropriate firm leaders.

• Being viewed as an auditor with an acute sense of risk management and audit judgment.

• Making significant contributions to approaches to resolve technical problems.

• Being sought out internally and externally for technical input and guidance.

3. Personal Attributes

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Being recognized for integrity in everything they do.

• Clearly representing the firm’s values and being respected by partners and employees.

• Being involved in firm activities including sustained and meaningful involvement in community and civic organizations.

• Being a team player.

• Work that reflects commitment quality.

• Demonstrating the resilience and agility to operate in dynamic environments.

• Being recognized for responsiveness to clients, staff and other partners.

• Serving as a role model to others.

4. Staff Development

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Serving as a successful mentor and staff developer.

• Committing to the attraction and retention of great talent.

• Being viewed as a critical element for keeping the office and team together.

• Effectively deploying and utilizing team talent.

• Effectively leveraging and delegating team assignments.

• Fostering a strong sense of team work.

• Developing motivated staff while maintaining a “firm first" view.

• Driving the team to exceed client expectations and drive bottom-line results.

• Completing timely and effective evaluations and career counseling sessions.

• Serving as a role model.

5. Business Development

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Originating a combination of new business and cross-selling in the minimum amount of $500,000 over the last three years. Quality control candidates generally are excluded from this requirement.

• Successfully being involved in new business pursuits and assists.

• Demonstrating an ability to cross-sell services.

6. Office Leadership and Firm Management

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Making an impact at the firm, industry or functional level.

• Being viewed as a leader within the office.

• Making significant contributions to the leadership of the firm or office.

• Being sought by senior leadership and office partners to handle leadership responsibilities, enhancing operation and effectiveness.

• Demonstrating the ability to think strategically.

7. Communications

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Possessing strong written and oral communication skills.

• Demonstrating strong presentation skills when meeting with clients and potential clients.

8. Administrative Responsibilities

The candidate needs to demonstrate a track record of performance in:

• Adhering to firm administrative policies.

• Regularly attending and participating in manager and director meetings, office and firm events.

• Responding in a timely way to requests for information, evaluations, billing and collecting, time and expense entry, etc.

• Creating a positive influence in the office.

Resisting the temptation of making someone a partner who doesn’t meet these criteria and guidelines will be difficult to do at first, but once your existing partners realize the importance of raising the bar, attitudes will change, particularly if you are keen on remaining independent. Unfortunately, many small and midsize firms have lowered the bar so much for a very long time. As a result, they have concluded that their preferred strategy is to merge up with a larger firm.

Dom Esposito

Dom Esposito

Dom Esposito, CPA, is the CEO of Esposito CEO2CEO LLC, a boutique advisory firm consulting with small and midsized CPA firms on strategy, practice management, mergers and acquisitions.