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Jennifer Wilson
Eight ideas to develop future leaders

Follow these tips to make the most of your brightest young CPAs.

September 9, 2013
by Jennifer Wilson

“Any firm that can outperform its competition in building and creating skills will gain a significant competitive advantage.” —David Maister, True Professionalism

With significant retirements on the horizon, the “brain drain” facing most firms is considerable. What are you doing to invest in your up-and-coming leaders to ensure that they're ready to lead your firm into the future? In this article, we'll explore eight critical ideas to incorporate into your people development strategies:

  1. Plan to compress learning and progression. Given the increasingly tight labor market and the retirement of so many mature leaders and client service professionals, make sure that your leadership team is committed to speeding up the learning experiences offered to your up-and-comers and also to accelerating their progression. Give up old stories about it taking 14 to 16 years to make partner. You need to progress your people based upon merit and potential, not tenure.

  2. Teach your people practice economics—early and often. Be transparent about how your firm drives profits and teach your people the traditional measures used in the profession. They cannot maximally contribute to economic success without understanding the integrated financial elements.

    When you teach practice economics to your younger team members, assume nothing and teach them the fundamentals of how realization, utilization, and billing rates are calculated. When you teach these ideas to your brightest, expect them to have many questions, and be open to their ideas for possible changes, including de-emphasizing old activity-based measures (billable hours, for instance) and beginning to emphasize results-based ideas instead.

  3. Ask as many questions as you answer for your people. Help them think for themselves by asking them the right questions that cause them to reflect. Too often, we blurt out answers to our people's questions because it's easier and faster and allows us to move on. But this often robs our “students” of the chance to explain what they've already tried, read, or tested, or what they think the answer is and why.

    When you slow down and invest a few questions in your up-and-comers, it will cause them to take more responsibility to think on their own before they come to you. And their answers will enable you to assess how well they're progressing so you can adjust your coaching and teaching approach accordingly.

  4. Invite your people to shadow you and require shadowing activities of every partner and manager in the firm. Allow your people to “ride along” to prospect, referral source, and client meetings so they can see how these meetings typically progress. Invite them to come along with you to conferences, networking events, and other community activities and introduce them to your connections. Ask them to participate with you in difficult conversations you have with clients and/or employees. Give your people the gift of seeing how you and other leaders in your firm approach these important leadership activities before expecting them to tackle these activities independently.

  5. Assign them a special project. Ask key people to take on something special or different from their daily norm. Whether it's serving on a key committee, acting as a buddy for a new employee, developing staff training on a particular topic, facilitating a group meeting, or leading an important initiative your firm would like to progress, give your people the chance to stretch and grow.

  6. Send them to a leadership conference or a longer-term leadership program. There are so many great programs at the national, state, and CPA association level. When you send your up-and-comers to a venue where they hear the perspectives of national speakers, network with peers, and learn important leadership and management concepts, you elevate their viewpoint and broaden their thinking. Giving your people the gift of external perspective can truly be to your firm's benefit—provided you're willing to listen to their ideas and implement change based on what they learn and recommend.

  7. Shoot straight. Give your people honest feedback about their performance and career path. Don't soft-pedal their performance reviews or check-in meetings. Constructively suggest areas where your future leaders can improve, learn, and grow. Be open to straight talk and honesty from your up-and-comers, too. Listen to their ideas and seek opportunities to improve based on their insights or feedback.

  8. Invest your time in them. Invite your up-and-comers to lunch or coffee. Find out their interests and help them pursue them. Debrief after meetings and projects and ask them to share their insights, concerns, and ideas for improvement. Share your story. Discuss experiences that provided your most significant learning. Disclose the secrets to your success. Give generously of your time and wisdom.

You might be asking, “If we do all of this, what if the people we invest in leave?” This question always reminds me of a quote shared with me by a good friend and learning coordinator. Henry Ford seemed to point to an answer when he said: “What's worse than training someone and having them leave? Not training them and having them stay.”

Your best and brightest want to progress—and fast. When you invest in their learning and development, you stand a real chance to engage them and ensure the success of your firm for generations to come.

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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.