Platts’ Perspective: Firms Are Put To The Test On Just How Agile They Are

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on into month two of social distancing and work-from-home orders, firms around the country are finding ways to adapt. Although it may at times feel like learning to fly while building the plane at 30,000 feet, MPs in many firms are seeing the resilience and adaptability of team members shine through this otherwise dark chapter.

But that’s not true for everyone, and astute leaders need to recognize the disparity that may exist in their own firms.

For some, embracing remote technology and managing their own time is empowering and uplifting, and they are maximizing their productivity. For others, staying focused and keeping priorities straight is proving to be a real challenge.

For some, social distancing and working from home has allowed them to reconnect with those they love, and technology has allowed them to grow even more connected to their coworkers. For others, isolation has led to bouts of stress, anxiety and loneliness, and social scientists have reported a disturbing increase in domestic violence during this pandemic.

For some, there is a new level of enthusiasm for the technological changes that have been thrust onto their firms, breaking through the barriers and obstacles that existed before and pushing them solidly into the future with new ways of working. For others, getting back to a normal routine in familiar settings with the usual processes is the ultimate goal.

For some, the disruption of everyday life has led to an energizing search for new educational opportunities or even a recommitment to their New Year’s resolutions. For others, simply surviving the pandemic and returning to a familiar routine will be a triumph.

Our hope is that a majority of the good men and women who make up the public accounting profession fall into the first group – agile, resilient and ultimately dedicated to creating permanent change for the better. But we all need to look out for those in the second group – they will need extra help getting through the coming weeks and may feel disconnected from the progress once this is over.

While we encourage all firm leaders to wrap your arms around everyone, please be sure to pay special attention to those who may need a little extra TLC to get through this. Stay safe, and most of all, stay focused on the end goal.

Platt’s Perspective: The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle – For Remote Work And Many Other Activities

For years, a debate has raged within some firms on whether to allow remote work or insist that everyone be present in the office. Younger workers have been pushing for flexibility, and some older partners have been resisting it. How can we make it work? Who gets the privilege of working from home? How will we know they are working when they are not here? How do we manage the staff?

Well, my friends, the genie is out of the bottle. COVID-19 has quickly pushed everyone into the deep end of the pool, and those who planned for it just continued on, while those who were still debating remote work may be doing their best to figure it out on the fly.

Even as we all find ways to adapt to changing the way we work and interact with one another, a growing chorus of thought leaders from all disciplines is suggesting we will not be going back to “business as usual.” Unlike a passing storm when everyone seeks shelter until the skies clear, this time, when we come out of our bunkers, the landscape will have changed. New ways of doing business will emerge. New business models, pricing models, service models and delivery models will forever alter the way you will conduct business going forward. Client interactions, staff interactions and the focus on recovery by truly listening and helping those in need are all changing, and hopefully for the better.

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

I’m an optimist by nature. I believe most firms will adapt and change and be better once they are fully operational again. I believe that the shift to more advisory services, which has been growing slowly every year (for decades I may add!) will kick into high gear as many firms step in and help their clients recover from an economic downturn that no one predicted would come so quickly.

Consider three immediate changes emerging from the current environment:

  • Conversations are already different, both in tone as well as in the technology used to conduct them.
  • Social media, which for years psychologists have indicated has contributed to increased feelings of isolation, suddenly becomes a tool to truly help us be social again.
  • The focus on “we” instead of on “me” is a welcome change and something that will serve us all well in the future.

No doubt there will be difficult times ahead as we crawl out of this natural disaster. To the many who adapt and embrace the radical changes that lie ahead, we stand ready to bring you stories of success, adaptation and evolution that are sure to emerge. To the few who hope that we return to the status quo, we wish you luck in putting the genie back into the bottle.

More Platt’s Perspectives

Platt’s Perspective: Trade 30 Minutes Of “Doing” For 30 Minutes Of “Coaching”

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Partners are too busy to do anything but get work out the door during tax season. Or so they say. Over the years I’ve informally surveyed thousands of partners, and the majority believe less than half their work hours are devoted to what they consider to be “partner-level activities.”

The reasons are as varied as the individuals. For some partners, grinding through staff-level work brings them cozily back to their comfort zone. Some still don’t trust the quality of subordinates’ work. Others are short-staffed and don’t believe there is anyone who can take on the work. And for some, prioritizing the highest and best use of their non-billable time can devolve into “what can I check off my to-do list?” Too often, that work is not a partner-level activity that will help the firm move forward.

For all the discussions about pushing work down, these informal survey results haven’t changed – the percentage of partner-level activity hasn’t shifted over the years. It certainly hasn’t shifted at all in the two years since I wrote a Platt’s Perspective on this very topic. Everyone is just too busy to do something that, if done right, will make them less busy. That’s some crazy logic.

As you enter into yet another tax season, consider this tactic to consciously change course: swap out 30 minutes a day of “doing” for 30 minutes of coaching. Identify the work you know you shouldn’t be doing, identify someone who could take it on, and spend 30 minutes with them to review how best to get the task done. There is “mentor” time, there is “learn” time, there is “do” time and there is “monitor” time. Yes, it is true that the first couple of times you do this, you and your protégé may spend more time on the activities involved in mentoring, learning, doing and monitoring. But quickly you can go from 30 minutes of doing to 30 minutes of mentoring to 30 minutes of monitoring. Then 20 minutes of monitoring. Then 10 minutes of monitoring. Then it’s just a quick review and the work is off your plate for someone else to get done.

You will have succeeded in not only delegating work and knowing it can be done, but you will also have empowered a subordinate who, with your help, has just added a skill to their growing repertoire.

When you can swap out 30 minutes a day of “doing” in exchange for 10 minutes of “reviewing,” you’ll ultimately recover many hours over a year, raise your percentage of time doing partner-level activities, build a stronger team, and maybe even find time to take off a couple of days to go on a vacation with the family.

Platt’s Perspective: 24/7/365 Access – Is It Good Client Service Or Are We Kidding (Killing) Ourselves?

I recently served as a panelist at a conference, and the organizer was trying to coordinate logistics in advance. He sent an email on a Tuesday at 11:11 p.m. – clearly a time that worked for him. One of the panelists responded at 2:18 a.m., three hours later, and another panelist weighed in four hours later. I had business to attend to that morning and didn’t respond until 10:04 – less than 11 hours after the initial request. As the last person to respond, I admit that my initial feeling was that I let everyone down since I was so “late” to the conversation.

I get it that the responses from the other panelists came at a time that was convenient for them and most appropriate for their schedule. I get it that the “anytime, anywhere” work environment means that we all get communications like this at any time of the day, and that we should expect that going forward.

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

This not-so-unique experience quickly turned to curiosity as to how these kinds of communications – while exceptionally flexible and convenient for the sender – may affect the receiver. When you shoot off an email to your staff at midnight because you just thought of something and didn’t want to forget it, is it accepted that way, or does the recipient feel stressed that he or she let you down by not responding until 10 a.m.?

What about when a client sends you an email at 11 p.m.? Do you feel compelled to respond before the sun comes up? Are they expecting you to? Is it a hallmark of great client service or is it a recipe to stress yourself – and your staff?

There are clearly no right or wrong answers to these questions, but you should develop good answers for your firm. If 24/7 access and the promise of an immediate response is a competitive advantage you believe in, and one that is a core value, then go for it!

I’m not against responding to emails whenever it is convenient. But I do wonder, as technology and expectations continue to speed up, if it is the right expectation to set. Society may have already answered that question for us (“It’s inevitable, get used to it!”), but maybe there’s another way to look at it.

Maybe it can become a competitive advantage to not move so quickly. After all, research has shown that a client values a professional’s opinion much more when delivered in a timely but considered manner – rather than an immediate response. These are all good questions to ponder. I wish I could spend more time sharing my opinion, but it’s now 11 p.m., and I’ve got some emails that just came in that I need to respond to . . .

Platt’s Perspective: Disruption Is Affecting Associations As Well

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

While firm leaders are working hard to address disruption in the profession, CEOs of associations are doing the same – planning their next moves to strategically stay ahead and best serve their members.

Associations have been around for more than 50 years, and the basic premise – to help members grow and better compete – hasn’t changed much. But with the needs of firms constantly changing, the landscape of mergers and acquisitions removing longtime members, and newer firms being challenged to find a home because of geographic restrictions, the world of association management can be as topsy-turvy as that of the members they serve.

As a former association executive myself, I recognize the challenges that many associations are facing: they are generally not-for-profit organizations with a relatively small staff and a volunteer board serving a diverse group of firms that are all following independent pathways.

Consider some of the changes happening in the association world recently:

  • Moore Stephens LLP (UK), the founding firm in the Moore Stephens International association, announced it is in merger discussions with BDO. How might that affect Moore Stephens International, if at all? In 2014, Baker Tilly UK, the founding firm in Baker Tilly International, made a similar move and joined the RSM network, and Baker Tilly International kept marching right along.
  • Many associations have wrestled with how best to achieve a grand goal of global branding – in a cost-effective way – without reducing the independence of their member firms or the brand value of the individual firms in the markets they serve.
  • Over the past 24 months, a number of association CEOs – with decades of experience – have retired or will soon be retiring, giving the association volunteer leadership the opportunity to create new/different strategic directions.
  • Several associations are reviewing their organizational structure, adding or enhancing the role of a global CEO. The global leader oversees and coordinates the activities of the dedicated group of regional leaders, who are highly tuned-in to the unique needs of their members.
  • Generational differences point to younger firm leaders being less inclined to join associations / peer groups / business organizations than their older peers were, adding a level of complexity to the conversation of why join an association.

According to the 2018 IPA survey, one of every 20 firms that identify themselves as a member of an association indicate they are considering leaving the association in the next 12 months. Those firms tell IPA confidentially that they are just not getting the support, direction, resources or vision of the future from their association that they feel they need to succeed in the next few decades.

I’m bullish on the future of associations. As firms grind their way through their own strategic visioning to determine what they want to be in the future, I’m confident associations will follow suit. There may be some associations going by the wayside, there may be mergers of current groups, and there may be completely new business models created to meet the fundamental needs of members. After all, like the firms they serve, the associations themselves are not immune from disruption.

Platt’s Perspective: A Side Of AI And Technology Developments That No One Is Talking About

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

I have attended many conferences, partner retreats and association meetings over the last few months and, as you would expect, THE topic that is top of mind for many firms is technology innovation and how automation will change what we know about providing accounting and tax services. But I find one thing very troubling in all these conversations – they tend to be myopic and don’t address what I believe to be the more “clear and present” danger. Let me explain.

Many firms are rightly thinking about automation, new service opportunities and how they can be more efficient in what they do. All recognize that they cannot compete financially with investments in these technologies being made by the Big 4 and many of the Top 20 firms. And while the conversation about what might be possible in the future is of academic interest, far too many are dismissing it as, “While that might be reality for the Big 4, we don’t serve American Airlines as a client and our clients don’t need that level of sophistication in their tax and audit services.”

Yes, it’s true that you aren’t auditing American Airlines. Yes, it’s true that the vast majority of your clients don’t need these sophisticated systems to audit their accounts. And yes, it’s true that it will be several years before many of these disruptive technologies are affordable and available to firms of your size.

But here’s my biggest concern with that thinking, and why I feel compelled to sound the alarm. What happens when the largest firms perfect the technology to the point of significant cost savings in servicing their Fortune 500 clients? The answer is THEY WILL MOVE DOWN MARKET because now it will be affordable and profitable to do so. They will be able to very profitably serve the Fortune 1000. The Fortune 5000. Local construction companies. Mom & Pop grocery stores. YOUR CLIENT BASE.

It is this threat to your future that I believe isn’t being talked about with the intensity and volume I believe it should be. What will happen when your longtime client goes through a generational change of leadership and they feel that – for a similar fee as yours – they would prefer having the name, cache and resources of a Big 4 behind them? And with the technology innovations, it won’t be long before the Big 4 can profitably compete for a piece of your client base. Let that sink in for a moment.

Implementing all the new technology that is being talked about today will certainly provide your firm with cost savings and operational efficiencies. But what are you doing today to ensure that the relationships with every current and future decision-maker in your client companies are rock solid to ensure that when the Big 4 come knocking – and they surely will – your client doesn’t open that door?

I encourage all MPs, executive committees, state society leaders and consultants to the profession to include this perspective in their discussions of the future, because this is a conversation we are not hearing anywhere, and one we believe is a “clear and present” threat that needs to be planned for.

Platt’s Perspective: On Slaughtering Sacred Cows

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

It’s no secret that change doesn’t come easily. The best change agents are fundamentally curious, not only wondering why a system or a process is done in a certain way, but digging deep to uncover the root cause. Using the “ask five ‘whys’ ” technique in their exploration, the best leaders will often get past the surface answer and expose what is at the core of a “fundamental truth” about how business is done in their firm.

As an example, consider a common complaint in firms today – staff turnover is high and often the wrong people are leaving. Why is that? Professional staff are often frustrated because they don’t know what it takes to get ahead, and they make a decision – often in a vacuum – based on what they think is their best career move. Why is that? In many firms there is not a well-defined or well-communicated path to advancement from staff person to partner. Why is that? Because often there is not just one path to success, and by defining the path, partners feel they are boxed in to one approach. Why is that? Because when they were coming up, partners had to define their own path and demonstrate their own entrepreneurial “chops” to get ahead, and often feel that handing a defined plan to someone is short-circuiting what it takes to get ahead. And why is that? Because ultimately partners believe that the staff haven’t yet paid their dues and should not be given a free ride.

This ultimate partner belief – that staff haven’t paid their dues – contributes to high turnover rates and may no longer serve the firm the right way. This type of a belief system is an example of a sacred cow of the profession.

What other sacred cows should be analyzed? See how many of these beliefs you recognize in your own firm:
1. Our pyramid-shaped business model is the key to a successful firm going forward.
2. There is no time for additional value-added work during busy season.
3. Partners own the relationships.
4. Partners are best to run the firm.
5. As a partner, no one else can do what I do.
6. Minimum hours are required during tax season.
7. Face time is critical, the team needs to be in the office.
8. Entry point to a client is compliance services.
9. Technology can’t replace what we do.
10. We need to treat all clients like “A” clients.
11. Career success = Partnership.
12. Firm success = Net Income per Partner.
13. Traditional metrics tell us all we need to know about our success.
14. We are a service organization, not a sales organization.
15. High quality work will ensure that we keep our best clients.

Without a doubt, many sacred cows exist in firms today, and the list above is just a fraction of the many (outdated?) belief systems that dominate the profession. Ask your partner group and key staff to identify their own list. Slaughtering these sacred cows can be a liberating experience for all involved, and will make room for a new set of beliefs that will better serve the firm by propelling everyone into a more successful future.

Platt’s Perspective: Diving Into The World Of Big Data

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Last month, the IPA leadership team took the opportunity to attend the four-day Gartner Data Analytics Summit in Dallas. Nearly 4,000 data engineers, data scientists, chief data officers and other dedicated analytics professionals gathered to discuss the latest trends in predictive analytics, Big Data, blockchain, business intelligence platforms and artificial intelligence.

With thousands of the smartest people in the field sharing best practices and success stories, we were overwhelmed with where the technology is going and excited about the amazing possibilities for the future.

Identifying, capturing, storing, analyzing and harvesting massive amounts of consumer data is the holy grail for most companies. The majority of attendees came from Fortune 500 companies with multi-million-dollar budgets dedicated to leveraging and customizing services and products to individual customers. (As an example, think about how Amazon or Netflix “suggest” your next purchase based on past behaviors.)

It’s not surprising that the accounting profession is far behind corporate America in taking advantage of available data and harnessing it to build the enterprise. The bigger takeaway for me is that so few firms even recognize what kinds of data they have, never mind its value and potential.

Most firms don’t have the resources to hire data analytics professionals and implement new technologies at the scale discussed at the Summit. A handful of firms can capitalize on some of these opportunities, and are making strides to do just that. But where does this leave the other firms? What should they be doing right now to get on the bandwagon?

Leaders can:

  • Acknowledge that this trend of micro-experiences [Amazon- and Netflix-type recommendations] for customers is not going away.
  • Recognize that Fortune 500 companies are targeting your clients using these data analytics efforts, which are shaping their view of how business is conducted.
  • Understand that you can access much of the same kind of customer data today – the challenge is how to harvest it.
  • Stay up to date on the latest in analytics, artificial or augmented intelligence, blockchain and other new technologies, and play out scenarios among your leadership team as to what you could do with the new technology once you have access to it. Better yet, bring in your younger leaders to take control of that discussion.
  • Embrace the idea that your knowledge of clients, their challenges and their opportunities can be used to create a lot of the unique-to-each-customer experiences that larger companies are trying to deliver. You have an advantage over companies like Amazon or Disney because you are much closer to your customers and you understand the nuances of what they are looking for. Make sure you maximize this advantage.

What was the biggest lesson garnered at the Gartner Summit? The accounting profession needs – once and for all – an ‘all-in’ mental shift. Firm activities should not be viewed as a series of transactions (“we do tax returns and audits each year”) but as part of a continuous, trusted relationship with clients. Through these connections, firms can uncover issues specific to each client and help find solutions, even if the answers lie outside the world of accounting. Then – and only then – can your firm deliver personalized services on par with what your best customers are already receiving from the Fortune 500 companies that are spending millions of dollars to serve them today.

Platt’s Perspective: Don’t Like Disruption? ‘Expect An Earthquake Every Three Years’ Says McKinsey CEO

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Disciplined. Compliant. Orderly. Methodical. Those are the driving personality characteristics of most left-brained accountants that I know. Doing things the right way. Debits equal credits. There is a natural order to accounting, and that has tended to attract many similar-thinking people to the profession.

It also has created a profession filled with practitioners who are, at their core, fundamentally resistant to change. Any leader who has undertaken a change effort has encountered this group – not on board at best, actively resistant at worst. “Why do we need to change, everything has been going well so far, so why fool with success,” is the cry most often heard from the group.

In the past, shaking up the status quo even once a decade was a painful process for this group. Dominic Barton, CEO of global consulting giant McKinsey, recently told The Australian Financial Review in an interview that large companies will need to massively restructure to the point that they will “expect an earthquake every three years.”

With high partner compensation numbers, there’s a tangible lifestyle measurement at risk. After all, there have been calls for change before, the profession has made small, incremental adjustments to its trajectory, and “we’re doing just fine as we are, thank you.”

But this time it’s different. This time, the pace is lightning fast. The image that comes to mind is my own experience of skydiving for the first time. Door open, a white-knuckled grip on the doorframe, feet firmly on a small step. As the instructor encouraged me to “climb out,” I warily slid one hand on to the wing strut. “Keep going” the instructor urged…“Keep going – I’ll talk you through it.” As I finally lifted my feet off the step, the realization that I was no longer tethered to the safety of the plane, hit me. “LET GO!” the instructor bellowed, and I let go.

As I watched the plane fly away, my heart stopped for a moment until I heard the whoosh of a parachute opening above my head. And then silence. Beauty all around me. A feeling of genuine exhilaration. As I glided down to Earth, I felt an accomplishment and satisfaction. My final thought was “I jumped out of a plane and landed safely on the ground.”

For those leading the change, recognize that you are flying the plane filled with some white-knuckled staff and partners who are perfectly comfortable inside the safety of the plane. Never underestimate the significance of encouragement to get your group to sit in an open doorway with feet hanging out at 10,000 feet above the ground; to be the voice of “keep going,” “keep going,” “keep going.”

Understand how critical it is to them to hear your calm and confident instructions to “now LET GO!” As you talk them through their maiden flight and land them safely, they will gain the courage and the confidence to go back up in the plane again – if McKinsey is right – another three years from now as you continue to create an organization whose core competency is the ability to adapt to change.

Platt’s Perspective: How Much Of Your Partners’ Time Is Spent On Partner-Level Activities?

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

For years I’ve asked a simple question of my clients: “Think about all of the hours your partner group collectively spends on firm business each year. Raise your hand if you believe that more than 80% of those hours are spent doing partner-level work – however you define that.”

When I get no responses, the next offer is “70%?” A hand or two goes up. “Sixty percent?” Maybe a quarter of the hands are visible. “Fifty percent?” Without fail, about half the hands are finally in the air when presented with the 50% option. To spare the rest the embarrassment of raising their hands at levels below 50%, I stop there.

In this unscientific – but consistent – poll of firm leaders, the conclusion is that partners spend more than half their time on work that should be delegated.

The reasons are varied. For some partners, grinding through staff-level work brings them cozily back to their comfort zones. Some don’t trust the quality of subordinates’ work. Others are short-staffed and can’t delegate work. And for some, prioritizing the highest and best use of their non-billable time can devolve into “what can I check off my to-do list?” Too often, that work is not a partner-level activity that will help the firm grow.

The result of all this? Profitability may suffer. Staff engagement suffers because staff know partners will jump in and change things anyway. Strategic planning and brainstorming suffers at the partner level because there is never enough time to work on the business. Partner growth and development suffers because partners are not being challenged. Ultimately the partner’s value to the firm suffers because compensation levels are incompatible with their staff-level activities.

As client needs become more complex, partners will need to step up their game. As staffing leverage continues to grow, as it has for more than 15 years, partners will no longer be able to hide behind staff-level work. As the profession continues to evolve, firms will demand their owners meet the complex demands of the future, and continually raise the bar on what being a partner really requires.

If you want to make an impact on your firm this year, have your partner group commit to increasing their time doing partner-level work from 50% to 60%. It seems like a little step, but it is entirely achievable and will help build the confidence to keep going to 70%, 80%, 90% and beyond.