Staff retention at midsize firms charts new waters

An article in WebCPA talks about the steps midsize firms in particular are taking to ensure their young people stay put:

More midsized firms are starting to address this issue by paying attention to what younger people need to stay engaged. Some are including younger staff members in more significant firm decisions through advisory boards; others are pairing younger staff with older partners in mentoring relationships; and some have even postponed accepting large proposals until there is an assurance that a particular department can handle the increase in hours and staff demands.


Giving younger staff a chance to be heard on firm decisions is a great idea, and one that is taking hold in my office of late. I have recently been involved in the formation of an IT Committee composed of young staff that work in the field, and we are working on ensuring the field staff have what they need IT-wise.

We found that IT resources in the firm are too centralized to respond quickly to staff needs and we are doing something about it, with the guidance of a partner of course. The inertia of centralization isn’t a new problem but hopefully our committee will be able to effect positive change and improve productivity in the field and client service.


As for pairing younger staff with mentoring partners, our firm already has a mentoring program in place. I’m not paired with a partner however, but a manager. I think it would be better to have two or more mentors — one at the manager or senior manager level(s), and a partner.

Younger, new staff often feel like the partners don’t know who they are (and that’s often the truth), so having them become more involved in the beginning will really help staff feel valued and encourage their development and loyalty to the firm. It’s a net benefit for all parties involved, really.

Client Acceptance

More important in my opinion to accepting new clients and ensuring the capacity is there, is the issue of client retention. It’s far more demoralizing to work on a client that is abusive towards the auditors than it is to work long hours. In fact, I have a client that is incredibly long hours for 3-4 weeks straight and it is one of my favourite clients! Why is that? The client’s staff makes the work fun and enjoys the audit!

That being said, the effort to ensure staff workloads are appropriate is undoubtedly appreciated.

The three strategies the article touches on are all important in the fight to keep young staff on board at midsize firms. It’s great to hear that firms are starting to implement them in earnest, as it indicates that staff like me will continue to feel valued and challenged as we build our careers and serve clients.


Using wikis or blogs to manage knowledge in firms

A recent article on WebCPA confused and inspired me:

Accounting firms need to become more intelligent businesses by better leveraging the time and knowledge of their professional staff, according to a survey…


Firms with a formal knowledge management program benefited from its implementation.

Hmm… Intelligence, good. Leveraging knowledge, check. Formal knowledge management program, bingo! Wait a minute, “formal”? Why must it be formal? With all the tools kicking around these days like wikis and blogs, does knowledge management really need to be formal anymore? Was that ever the best way to manage knowledge?

I think it becomes formal, informally. Wikis are self-organizing, and great at managing knowledge bases. Look at Wikipedia — better at organizing the world’s information than Google.

Wikis aren’t great at building community or starting conversations, however. This is where blogs shine. As for knowledge management specifically, blog posts are tagged, categorized, and searchable.

By formal, what they must really mean is traditional, hierarchical, top-down, autocratic systems that mean well but end up stifling the creativity of those they were meant to help. We really don’t need any more of that in accounting firms!

So, firms: Set your knowledge (and knowledge workers) free. If it organizes itself automatically in wiki or blog form, it’s yours forever.


Traditional partnership model being tossed aside

The way most professional services firms are organized is the partnership, which more often than not is based on the premise that the people who bring in the most business earn the biggest cut of the take. Some firms have begun to question the wisdom of this model, and are moving to an organization that splits up the income evenly amongst all partners.

Is this good for growth? In what dimensions is growth measured? Revenue or profit? Client satisfaction? Is revenue growth a proxy for a satisfied client base? What about other goals like developing and retaining top talent?

A recent survey conducted by Grant Thornton of mid-size professional services firms inquired about the two opposing partnership models as well as value pricing, which is another idea finally seeing the light of day.

Mr. Moore says there are storm clouds on the horizon and firms that don’t address the changing environment risk failing.

One of those clouds is the focus on an eat-what-you-kill business model. It promotes stars and rainmakers, those who bring in the bulk of business, who are tight with clients at the expense of the health of the overall business.

I don’t see a problem with promoting stars, and neither should firms that want to grow and prosper. Bringing in business is good on all levels of the firm, from the lowliest junior staff to the managing partner, and there’s no reason why firms should stop encouraging this.

Mr. Moore says more law firms need to adopt a team-based model that stresses firm-client relationships over individual-partners relationships and which deploy alternative billing schemes.

I think we’re already doing this on some levels. Clients build working relationships with the lead partner but also the tax partner and other concurring partners brought in for their specialized skills. Senior managers and managers are increasingly being brought in right from the beginning, and even senior staff if they have certain special skills.

I’m not against the main premise of the article — the so-called “eat-what-you-kill” model attracts a certain type of person and promotes a certain type of culture. And an organization that is essentially the opposite will affect the opposite. It will foster greater teamwork as it attracts those more inclined to lean on their teammates.

But I’m not convinced that those are the firms that will outlast the other ones just yet. Nor am I sure whether I would prefer at this point in my career or later on to work at one of them.


Bring in specialists to build niche practices

An interesting article in WebCPA talks about how some small firms are building niche practices by bringing in “Champions” from the outside: Someone with an established reputation and contacts who can hit the ground running and jump-start the program in a new organization.

Going outside the firm has many advantages:

  • Target growth areas to focus marketing efforts and segment the market. Want more clients in a certain industry, or are certain industries growing in your area? Get a specialist and develop a niche practice.
  • Allow the specialist to devote 100% of their time to the niche. Let the champion do what he or she was brought in to, which is to focus on his or her specialization and become the leader in the field.
  • Allows existing partners to continue to service their client base. Maintain existing client relationships and still be able to cross-sell specialist services.
  • Avoid the lengthy process of developing internally. In some cases, you have people already in the firm that have the desire and competence to take on a specialization, but it still takes time to build experience and a client network.
  • It becomes easier to recruit other field leaders and develop further niches. Driven, bright people want to work with others who are similarly ambitious. Just look at Google.
  • Existing staff are energized by the new possibilities for their own development. Once you’ve brought someone in to kick off the program, start building from within. Allow the young people to learn from the master(s).

This type of thing has the potential to make recruiting in general easier:

“Junior members of our firm developed a sense of pride when invited to join the niche as a member of the group. It allowed them to go beyond developing only professional standards in their early years, and learn about industries. For seasoned staff, it was a vehicle for them to become famous in the firm, and provide them with something more than the traditional path to manager or partner.”

Challenges reported by the firms employing this strategy primarily deal with that of culture and personality. The outsider needs to be able to fit inside the culture of the firm, even as they push its limits.

I can attest to the fact that this strategy has the intended effect. There are groups within my firm that have champions and they have experienced strong growth and opened up opportunities for people like me. Having the option to move into several specialist groups if I decide that audit isn’t for me in the long run is a good thing.

(Via Accountants Round Up.)


Variety and experience at mid-size firms

I’m going to have a fast-paced week again. This week I’m working on two clients from jobs that have wrapped up field work and two clients whose field work has yet to begin.

On the two post field work jobs, I’ll be auditing the consolidation of several large private companies and clearing review notes and documenting big picture issues on the audit I just wrapped up last week.

On the two pre field work jobs, I’ll be supervising a group of junior staff working on some small company compilations and reviews and beginning the planning on an audit that goes in February, and interim work that starts the week after this one.

It’s tiring but it’s exciting to have this much variety and experience already in my career. Makes me glad I chose a mid-size firm.