Common Traits of Highly Successful Firms

By Alexandra DeFelice 

Too many firm leaders experience "Groundhog Day" when it comes to reliving old challenges that prevent their company from moving to the next level of success.
 
That message kicked off a session entitled "Common Traits of Highly Successful Firms" presented by Sam Allred, founder and director of Upstream Academyat the Winning Is Everything conference in Las Vegas.
 
Examples of old challenges Allred highlighted include:
  • Willingness to serve C- and D-level clients for "substandard rates."
  • Failure to rapidly develop the best staff into leaders.
  • Willingness to retain poor performers.
  • Tolerance for complacency among partners.
  • Lack of written career plans and "perfunctory performance reviews."
  • Not addressing A/R over 90 days.
"The firms in our profession fit a bell curve. The difference between a weak firm and a good firm is as great as the difference between a good one and a great one," Allred said. "High-performance firms have a low tolerance for weakness. If they see something that's not working, there's a relentless attitude to change it."
 
Following is what Allred dubbed as ten traits necessary for making the leap to greatness:
 
1. Be passionate about high performance. Have the mind-set to be better every year. All firm members should ask themselves how they're moving the dial.
 
2. Conduct exceptional client service. Don't be historians. How often have your partners proactively contacted clients with ideas on how to take their relationships to another level? Discuss what you can do to improve the service you provide your clients. This should be an every-other or third-year exercise.
 
3. Expect high payments. Get paid for every minute spent with a client unless you decide to give part of that time away for free. Thinking you can't bill clients or raise your rates because of the economy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
 
4. Care who's on the bus. Recruit, promote, and retain staff in a strategic way. "Be willing to throw parity out the window and treat the best of the best differently," Allred said. Have the courage to make business decisions, and then carry them out in a professional matter. Don't make people decisions first (it's business, not personal). 
 
5. Avoid the "C" traps. Avoid complacency, casualness, comfort zones, and cruising. When partners choose to be comfortable, they force everyone below them to be comfortable and do the same thing year after year. Growth can't happen in a comfort zone. 
 
6. Perform at a high level. Look at six areas: business development, leadership, financial performance, partner effectiveness, team development, client management. No one will be excellent in every area because people are wired differently, but they should be excellent in four areas and good in at least the other two. A problem facing the profession is what Allred referred to as "one- or two-trick ponies," those partners who are exceptional in one or two areas, but stink in the other four. For example, they bring in a million dollars a year, but don't want to live the core values of the firm and/or most other employees don't want to work with them.
 
7. Write and execute detailed plans. A written plan is the anchor for accountability. 
 
8. Have "Level 8" processes. Recognize the things employees do that are important and must be done exceptionally well. Allred used the example of recruiting and retaining staff now that firms are once again seeing an exodus of employees. When recruiting, try to test how your prospects would fit your firm before they sign on the dotted line. Get a group of candidates and put them through the paces with exercises as part of an all-day leadership academy. Use internship programs as a funnel to watch for prospective employees and interact with them. Feel out who would be a good addition to the firm and hire people who you believe could ultimately be high-performing partners.
 
9. Have a strong business development culture. Profitable growth creates opportunities for everyone in the firm, and partners should expect to win more than their share of key opportunities. First and foremost, they should help everyone below them hit their targets. Train people correctly, and that doesn't mean taking a class. Business development has almost nothing to do with cognitive learning, Allred said. It's a skill that's developed through experience and observing how senior rainmakers interact with clients and prospects. "People say they don't want to be a business developer because they don't want to sell," Allred said. "The best business development professionals realize it's about helping, not selling." 
 
10. Develop a firm-wide culture of open, honest dialogue. Allowing for debate results in better decisions and greater commitment from all involved. When you have "artificial harmony," it doesn't encourage debate, which is how the best ideas are born. Conduct honest evaluations at all levels and create a culture where constructive feedback is welcome and expected.
 
About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at adefelice@msnainc.org.

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