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Jennifer Wilson
A dozen public accounting ideas that don’t work anymore

What CPA firms need to do to keep pace in a changing world.

June 3, 2013
by Jennifer Wilson

I recently heard an excellent sermon on the importance of letting go of the past so that we can each pursue our intended future. The speaker referred to a book by Robin Meyers in which he asserts that there may be an eighth deadly sin: nostalgia. From what I gathered, Meyers suggests that we go astray when we believe that “the vices of the present prove not only that all is now in disarray but that this ‘awful’ age is inherently inferior to some golden age that came before it.”

When I heard these assertions, I was overwhelmed because they crystalized an issue that seems to plague so many CPA firm leaders: an attachment to some bygone “good old days” that might not have even been that good. When we focus on what’s “wrong with today’s (fill in the blank),” it allows us to delay making the significant—almost radical—changes needed to address modern realities and embrace a future when things will be very different.

I am all for learning from our past and passing on traditions to future generations—provided they are truly workable. In public accounting, I believe some of those workable traditions we must strive to preserve include:

  • Running firms to make a profit—to maximize shareholder return where possible, provided it doesn’t come at a cost to clients or the firm’s sustainability.
  • Delivering high-quality client service—the foundation of a professional services firm.
  • Treating each other with respect and being constructive—crucial for functional relationships.
  • Investing in learning to hone our abilities—so we can be the best technical and business resources for our clients.
  • Maintaining professional ethics and integrity—the hallmark of the profession.

But I also believe that there are at least 12 public accounting firm concepts whose days are genuinely numbered. These include:

The “old” way

The “new” direction

An emphasis on face time—being “seen” in the office.

Being available and accessible to co-workers and clients regardless of your location.

Focusing on hours-based measures.

Focusing on results- or deliverables-based measures.

Mandatory Saturdays during busy season.

Get the extra hours in when you can each week, with the focus (again) being on results-based measures (see my blog on this subject).

Having the path to partner be defined by tenure or years of experience.

Fast-tracking the best and brightest and compressing their path to partner.

Holding back “better technology” from younger or lower-level staff.

Technology-enabling every member of the team.

Earning the right to give feedback to senior firm leaders.

Flattening out the organization and soliciting—and listening—to input at every level.

Building out more office space, moving to more private offices at higher levels in the firm, and other space-hogging ideas.

Moving to an anytime, anywhere work environment where those who don’t want to come to the office are connected and supported and the demands on physical office space are reduced.

Dressing in “full professional dress” every work day.

Dressing business casual on many days and wearing full professional dress when working at or with clients who dress that way.

Insisting on verbal discourse—either face-to-face or by phone within the firm and with clients.

Communicating based on the preferences of the audience—where younger clients and team members prefer digital communications.

Expecting to retain clients based on the fact that they’re using one of the firm’s “annuity” services.

Recognizing that clients want something more—insight, support, guidance—and that their loyalty is tied to the value they perceive.

Planning for staff to stay with the firm from December through April, regardless of the opportunities they’re offered.

Understanding that staff may leave at any time and that open communication with each team member is critical and that busy season contingency plans must be made.

Thinking that up-and-comers will be patient and wait their turn as you did.

Realizing that the best up-and-comers have many options and a more “instant success” expectation. Waiting without a clear timeline and plan from you is probably not an option.

The most common reasons I hear firm leaders give for holding on to the past and avoiding these changes are:

  • Wanting to retain the ability to be “right” and make the new way “wrong.” An example of this is the strong conviction that many of my Baby Boomer contemporaries hold, which is that digital communication is ineffective and even “bad” for us—with significant societal consequences. I agree that face-to-face and telephone conversations can be very effective—but only if the other party is willing to show up or pick up the phone. Have you tried calling a 25-year-old lately? Did they pick up their phone? Can we all agree that the young people of today are the clients and partners of tomorrow?
  • Desiring to defer the work or pain of change until we’re well on our way. We hear a lot of existing partners say that they’re not against the firm making the changes needed—provided it happens after they retire. But for most firms to retain their people and position for a successful future, many of these changes need to be made now. And we need the intellectual capital and experience of our elder partners to help navigate the business model changes we face. Deferring change may place the long-term health of the entity—and its ability to fund retirements—at real risk.
  • Being uncertain of how to effect change. We can all agree that the exact method for effecting these business model changes is far from clear-cut. But there are firms who are leading in each of these areas. Seek them out—and then hear them out—to see what you can learn from their efforts and experience thus far.

Helen Keller shared this incredible insight about our attachment to the past: “When one door … closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Are you and your firm’s leaders so busy looking at the “old” door that’s closing that you’re allowing your competitors to slip through the new door ahead of you? Let’s put the past in the past—it wasn’t as great as we romanticize it to be anyway. Embrace the future—and the change it will bring—and ensure the sustainability of your firm well into the future.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.