Jennifer Wilson
The eight attributes of high-functioning firms

Has does your firm stack up?

May 19, 2014
By Jennifer Wilson

Every year, CPA firms across the country invite me to view the inner workings of their operations. It’s amazing the array of firm and individual personalities that I encounter. Even more interesting is the range of variation in how different firms function.

Some firms are high-performing. Their leadership teams assess situations, develop strategies, and make and execute decisions with relative ease, speed, and success. A great many others, however, function with a drag that pulls against their momentum, causing the business of leading, managing, and executing to take longer, burn more energy, and produce less-than-stellar results.

Why do some firms flourish while others struggle? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while. In the process, eight attributes have emerged that high-functioning firms all seem to share. Let’s explore those.

  • Vision. The most successful firms operate with vision. They pay attention to market trends and demographics. They seek new ways of operating, better technology, smarter processes, and better talent. They are committed to driving their firm forward, improving, and reaching a future “destination” that will be better for the firm, its people, and its clients. Leaders encourage many viewpoints when defining the firm’s vision, and they carefully enroll their entire team in achieving it. People in high-functioning firms create, communicate, and move together toward their vision for a better future.
  • Trust. High-functioning firms operate with a level of trust that speeds decision-making and raises confidence in risk taking and change management. The leaders operate transparently, with nothing to hide. They build trust by keeping their word and not promising too much, by admitting mistakes, and by sharing the good and the bad with their people. High-functioning leaders follow agreed-upon governance procedures. They trust their partners and people to do the right thing and execute their clearly defined responsibilities. People in high-functioning firms trust others and are trusted.
  • Respect. In high-functioning firms, people treat one another with respect. Humor is present but respectful and isn’t used to jab or belittle anyone. People respect one another’s unique talents and abilities, with diversity and different perspectives appreciated and sought out. People do not behave as if they are above or better than one another. When there are problems, people do not gossip and instead discuss the issue directly with the person with whom they have an issue. Bad-mouthing is considered politically incorrect behavior. Yelling is never acceptable. People in high-functioning firms respect others and expect respect in return.
  • Responsibility. High-functioning firms encourage their people to take responsibility for mistakes and failures. Blame is not assigned and throwing someone under the bus is considered extremely uncool. Instead, people acknowledge things that could have been done differently, and teams are encouraged to learn and emerge from failure better than they were before. When things are difficult, people are encouraged to ask themselves, “What can I personally do to improve this situation?” People in high-functioning firms take personal responsibility for the outcomes they affect.
  • Humility. While high-functioning firms encourage their people to take responsibility, they frown upon people taking (or hogging) too much credit for success. When wins occur, people look for ways to acknowledge all of those who contributed. Glory seeking is not the norm. People allow others to recognize their contributions and trust that “credit” will be given appropriately. High-functioning firms discourage displays of “big ego” and encourage credit to be spread to all those deserving of acknowledgment.
  • Generosity. High-functioning firms also act with generosity, a trait closely tied to humility. They encourage their people to place the needs of the firm, the team, and the client ahead of individual ambitions. They compensate their people well and tie rewards to successful outcomes. They encourage their people to think beyond their walls and give back to the community. High-functioning firms value and exhibit generosity.
  • Positivity. Culturally, high-functioning firms face each day in a positive manner. They expect to succeed, but they also expect setbacks. They face challenges with grace and resolve. Firm leaders remind their people (by their behavior) that there are rarely life-threatening emergencies in public accounting. People are encouraged to maintain a positive perspective when things don’t go their way. Complaining is not prevalent. Problems are acknowledged but followed with ideas for change that will improve the situation. High-functioning firms strive for positivity.
  • Communication. High-functioning firms value communication. Leaders think strategically about the messages they communicate, who should receive them and when. There are many avenues for collecting and delivering feedback. Performance feedback is valued, and time is spent making it meaningful. Upward feedback is encouraged. Firm leaders receive performance appraisals. Project postmortems are held, and firm-improvement suggestions are requested. High-functioning firms emphasize and welcome communication.

High-functioning firm leaders don’t expect perfection in all of these areas, but they value these firm attributes ahead of the interests or opinions of any single individual—no matter how powerful. And when someone materially strays from these cultural norms, he or she is coached into improvement or encouraged to seek an alternative employer—even when the individual is in an ownership position.

So, how high-functioning is your firm? Enhance the ease and speed of your decision-making, the quality of your execution, and the degree of success you achieve. Identify those attributes where your firm can do better, raise your leadership’s awareness, and identify specific steps you can take to improve today. 

Rate this article 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Send your responses here.

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.