Help Future Leaders Fill Your Shoes

Perhaps the most often discussed question and concern among older CPA firm partners is, “Who is going to grow the firm and lead it into the future once we are gone?” As they look up and down their staffing list, they are struggling to find people that have the passion, drive, work ethic and desire to lead the firm and take it to the next level. Generational differences have partners befuddled. Perhaps, too often, they are seeking replicas of themselves.

Meanwhile, CPA firms are facing challenging issues. Sophisticated buyers are demanding more than the traditional services firms have offered. Stiff competition for quality people not only makes the recruiting function challenging, but also means firms must step up their game in order to retain good people. All this is occurring while
the Baby-Boomer leadership of the firm is getting closer and closer to retirement. So what can a firm do to ensure its long-term viability? You want talented staff with passion? What are you waiting for?

First Step – Find the Right People

Successful firms will find good people, no matter what generation they come from. These firms utilize personality profiles and well-trained interviewers to locate the right people for their staff. Personality profiles allow firms to get a glimpse of what makes the prospect tick. Do they work best alone or are they more effective working in a team? Do they require a lot of detail to make decisions? Are they sales oriented? Knowing a person’s character traits will help a firm place them in a position where they can utilize their strengths and be successful.

Make It Exciting and Fun

Think back to when you were a staff person. Somehow, armed only with a good education and whatever work ethic your parents laid on you, you entered the CPA profession ready to build your career. What was it that made the work interesting, motivated you to strive for advancement and kept you coming back every day?

When I was an office manager, and later as chief executive of a regional firm, I often wondered whether we were doing the things that would cause our staff to be excited about building a career with us. I knew it was easy for staff to get buried in the minutia that comes with getting the work done.

Successful firms have built a culture that encourages their people to help grow the firm and, in return, offers a meaningful secure place in it for them. They make the work interesting by taking the time to paint the big picture. Consequently, the staff better understands how what they are doing has importance and relevance. They assign challenging work to their staff that continually stretches their abilities and knowledge. Early on, they include staff in decision making, teaching them to think for themselves and not let it up to others. They provide training in the soft-skills, leadership and business management. And they make it fun.

Be a Person of Influence

The technical training I received in college provided me with little knowledge of growing a business or training, supervising and leading people. As I look back, I remember the partners and managers that influenced my development. They displayed a genuine interest in my success, often taking the time to explain the big picture, talking situations through with me, and challenging me with new assignments that stretched me.

Partners who are concerned about the succession of their firms need to take action. Ask yourself, “If I were in the staff person’s shoes, what would I want from the partners in the way of attention, coaching and advice?” Decide today that you will be a person of influence. Start by seeking to understand how each generation thinks. Use that knowledge to help them become better at what they do. Your job is to raise up leaders.

Some of the areas to focus on include:

– Assigning your people meaningful work. They want to know that what they are doing will make a difference.

– Having your staff communicate with the client as much as possible. It will build their confidence, get them comfortable with interacting directly with the people they serve and teach them to listen to their needs.

– Encouraging people to step up and take responsibility. Partners often complain that young staff do not readily accept engagement responsibility. You can have a direct impact on your employees’ progress by clearly establishing your expectations with them, devising a plan of development and coaching them through the process.

– Training your replacement. Put them in positions to lead others. Hold them accountable for completing engagements timely and on budget. Have them give feedback to the members of their engagement team. Be available to mentor them through this process.

A Rewarding Experience

Influencing others to succeed is perhaps the most rewarding part of being a partner in a CPA firm. It is an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the development and lives of your people. In addition to the self-satisfaction it brings, it also strengthens the firm by providing leaders at every level and goes a long way in solving issues with engagement management, firm growth and profitability, and partner succession. You will have the comfort of knowing the firm you helped build is in good hands.

Reprinted with permission from September 2009 edition of Accounting Today

About the author: Timothy I. Michel, CPA is a consultant to CPA firms and a former managing partner of a Top 100 CPA firm. He helps CPA firm owners create value in their practice by drawing on his own experiences to assist them in identifying and overcoming obstacles and focusing on opportunities to increase growth and profitability. For more information, visit the website at or contact Tim directly at