Jennifer Wilson
Five farm strategies to grow your firm

Cultivate your crops, and tend your sheep.

July 21, 2014
by Jennifer Wilson

The impending retirement of our nation’s Baby Boomers is driving a staff shortage that will be unlike anything we’ve seen before. In recent weeks, I have had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of practitioners at partner retreats, AICPA conferences, and CPA firm alliance, network, and association meetings. Those conversations have convinced me that we are just beginning what may be our most challenging period for driving firm growth.

We have entered an employees’ market—in both public accounting and the finance sector, where clients are seeking bright CPAs to succeed their controllers and CFOs. Worries about finding clients have shifted to worries about finding people and developing capacity to serve new business.

To help firms grow and ensure a sustainable future, I’ve been encouraging leaders to follow five farming strategies:

  • Plant seeds. Focus on a “grow your own” people strategy that starts with seedlings recruited from your local colleges and/or universities. Focus on a few campuses and differentiate your firm by having your experienced alumni and more recent graduates:
    • Make friends with the campus career services people. Offer to review résumés for college students. Participate in the mock interview process. Volunteer HR resources to aid the campus administrative personnel in their mission to support job placement. Become known to them.
    • Develop relationships with professors. Invite them to your firm. Engage them to help your CPA exam candidates with an all-day cram session before they take each part. Offer real-life case studies for their courses and guest speakers to teach about your firm’s specialties.
    • Engage accounting clubs and Beta Alpha Psi. Get to know their presidents each year. Sponsor their activities. Invite them to your office for a tour or special event.
    • Attend all on-campus recruiting functions
    • Hire interns each period. And consider doing so even during the summer. Make sure their experience is first class and genuinely enriches them.
    • Place successful interns in your firm. Some firms are making offers during the sophomore year. Secure these people early because this “new crop” represents your firm’s future.
  • Nurture your crop. Assign your new recruits buddies to ensure successful onboarding. Invest in their learning. Plan and execute traditional CPE, coaching, and one-on-one informal and experiential learning, in which young accountants participate in activities that will speed their development and allow them to visualize the many facets of, and options available as, a CPA. Assign a single point person to tend the crop of new recruits. Have that person act as the coach and project manager to guide the group of new recruits through their CPA exam preparation process. Don’t leave this to chance! Develop one-size-fits-one study plans and support your people through the process of passing all four parts and heading to licensure.
  • Separate your high-yield performers and raise special sheep. As your people mature, the rising stars will begin to emerge. These high-potential performers—or “special” sheep—are usually your lowest maintenance and most independent. They don’t demand a lot of time and investment. Instead, if you’re like most, you’ve been focusing 80% of your HR time on the 20% of your team that yields the lowest results and has the most issues (the black sheep!). Flip this and make the special sheep your firm’s highest priority. Invest the lion’s share of development time in your firm’s most important performers—those with the potential to grow, learn, and lead. 
  • Assign your sheep a shepherd. The shepherd should be a partner or manager with an interest and gift in developing others. Each shepherd should make sure his or her sheep know how impressed your leadership team is with their performance and how important they are to the firm’s future. Then, each shepherd should develop a tailored career development plan for his or her special sheep, checking in with them regularly to provide support (and keep the competitive wolves away). The shepherd should also identify unique opportunities for the special sheep’s learning and development and act as an advocate for them in the promotion and raise process. Above all, the shepherd should take responsibility for the ongoing career success of his or her special sheep.
  • Ensure a real return on your investment. In this tight labor market, the cost of managing your crops and tending your sheep is steadily increasing. As the supply of great people tightens and demand for your services increases, the price you can get at market for your services should rise. Be sure you’ve analyzed your firm’s rates by level and discipline against various CPA firm benchmarking studies, including the National Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey, sponsored by the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) in association with the Texas Society of CPAs, to ensure your price at market enables you to get the right return on investment. If you’re winning most every proposal or new prospect, it’s a clear indication that you’re simply not charging enough.

You can no longer rely on the market to supply your firm’s future talent. Instead, invest in these “farm” techniques to truly grow and shepherd your own. When you do, you’ll ensure the sustainable future of your firm.

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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.