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One of the biggest conversations taking place in accounting firms is around the topic of leadership. Where are the next generation of leaders who will carry the profession into the next decade? How do we identify emerging leaders? Are millennials going to be ready to take the reins when the time comes? What can current firm leadership do to arm their younger staff with the skills and knowledge necessary to lead?

Ultimately, easy answers to these questions don’t exist, but there are some things that you can do now to pave the path for your firm’s future. The firms that are ahead of the curve start training their team members from the very beginning. Continuing education is in the DNA of any accountant, and a required investment to stay abreast of what is going on in the profession (and to maintain licensure too). It is just as vital to start training your next generation on how to lead and develop business early too, creating a culture and mindset at your firm that emphasizes the importance of these “soft” skills with the same passion as CPE.

“Leadership can be defined in a variety of ways, but when it boils down to it, it is all about influence,” said Vicki Flesher, owner of InterAct Training Group. “Good leaders have a vision and can communicate it to others in a way that makes them want to follow you.”

So why is it so important to start training young leaders from their first day on the job? According to most experts, it takes, on average, 66 days to develop a new habit. So once your new hire has been at your firm for just over two months, they have already established habits and behaviors in relation to the position they have at your firm.

“If you start developing the right habits from the start, it's going to make your job much easier,” Flesher explained. This is because it is much harder to “unlearn” a behavior than to learn a new one. All levels of training should align with the firm’s strategy and the individual’s evaluation criteria and adjust as they progress through the ranks. It really is unfair to expect someone to suddenly embrace a leadership role, particularly one that requires business development, simply because they have done their job well for the prescribed number of years. Putting this type of pressure on team members is one of the factors that is causing so many to leave public accounting for corporate positions. But if you give them the tools they need to do their current job as well as their future job, the transition will be smoother and the impact on the firm will be positive.

Making it work

There is no one approach that works for all firms, but there are commonalities in effective programs. Training that includes elements of accountability and regular reinforcement, along with clearly set expectations, is much more effective. Sending emerging leaders out for training can be a great way to learn new skills, interact with others in similar roles and establish lasting relationships. But if the skills they learn aren’t reinforced when they return, the change isn’t likely to stick. A combination of outside training with experts along with internal programs that introduce new topics, reinforce learned behaviors and hold everyone at the firm accountable tends to create more lasting results and a culture where leadership is a core value expected of everyone, regardless of age, tenure or position.

There is no doubt that creating these programs and firm culture will cost time and money. However, what is the cost of not providing team members with these skills? “Not teaching your employees how to communicate and lead has a cost,” Flesher said. “Any firm can do this by scaling the training, identifying the skills that their team members need to succeed and make it a constant part of your firm’s culture.”

This is particularly true for millennials who will be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. As a group, this generation wants to learn, and if they don’t feel like they are growing in a job, they will leave to find another one without a second thought. With unemployment rates at historic lows, and fewer people entering the accounting profession, it will be those firms that are willing to invest in their people that will rise above the rest.

Ultimately, this type of investment and culture shift can be a true differentiator for firms, with all the benefits that come with rising above the crowd. Successful firms are focusing on creating a holistic client experience by adding more consulting and advisory services and value for the client. But to truly deliver outstanding client experiences, you need to have leaders at all levels of your firm, those who understand the firm’s vision and are empowered to make decisions. Without laying this foundation and providing continuous leadership training for all of your team, your client experience will suffer due to turnover and lack of common vision.

The profession is changing, and the firms that recognize this, and make accommodations for it, will be more profitable, serve clients more effectively, keep employees longer, and succeed for the long haul.

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