By Edi Osborne
As a lover of horticulture, I see many parallels between the lessons I learn in my garden and those I learn in life. We are not so many generations away from our agrarian roots that many of these “lessons” still linger in our business nomenclature. In business, we often refer to the parity between nurturing employees and harvesting profits. We have come to accept the parity of pruning dead wood to stimulate new growth.
Nature also teaches us that different species of plants respond to vastly different growing conditions. You need only look at an agricultural zone map to determine which plants will thrive in your region. Read a little bit and you’ll find ideal growing techniques for nearly every plant on the planet. Reading even further, you find that we are still discovering new species of plants every day and that many species are adapting and morphing into something altogether different as a means of survival.
Like nature, the business climate is constantly changing and adapting. Call it global warming or climate change . . . call it cloud computing, globalization, the Gen X & Y factor, or whatever other buzz term fits. A shift in the nature of today's human capital is forcing a new approach in business.
In the past, accounting firms thrived using the “viticulture” strategy for growing people. The viticulture strategy requires that you graft young vines onto hardy root stock, nurture them, prune them, and train them until finally after 4-5 years they start producing fruit/grapes. If you continue to nurture those vines, you can expect 20+ years of strong yield before it is time to graft on new vines again. Although this approach has served the profession in the past, Mother Nature is forcing a disruptive change on the profession. To thrive in the future, firms will need to adapt the “rhizome” strategy.
About Rhizomes . . . .
When we moved to our home in the country seven years ago there were five good sized clusters of bearded irises. (see the small cluster just to the right of the tree).
I was excited that, with little else growing in the yard at that point, at a minimum, I could expect to see some beautiful color in the summer. Much to my disappointment, we had a few blooms but not nearly as many as the size of the clusters had caused me to dream about. I set out to find the reason for the poor showing and address it before I lost out on another summer of color.
Following my quest for the reason, I learned the bearded iris is a rhizome. Rhizomes grow new baby rhizomes off the parent until they become so crowded that they exhaust all the soil and nutrients in a given area. Looks can be deceiving since iris rhizomes tend to grow a lot of green leaves in that over-crowded state. You can be lulled into a sense of security, as I was, that your rhizomes are healthy based on the volume of green leaves, only to have a very meager showing of flowers come summer.
Oh don’t get me wrong, the leaves have a nice form and can fill a spot in your perennial bed, but if you want rhizomes that produce spectacular flowers each year, you have to “re-set and re-tool” their surroundings periodically.
The bottom line on rhizomes . . . we grow them for the flowers, not the leaves. Just as we grow employees, not for the spot they fill in the firm, but for their premium output.
In practice, a rhizome can replicate itself tenfold in just a couple of years: they yield a very big bang for a gardener's effort.
Grape growers would argue that their vines eventually get to a stunning level of production around their seventh year and continue thereafter. This is not a knock on grapes: I love grapes and the nectar they produce. It’s just that NextGen accountants, like rhizomes, would never make it to their premium flower bearing state if left in one spot forever. Those firms that recognize the need for a shift in human resource practices from a viticulture approach to the rhizome strategy will attract and retain the best and the brightest the profession has to offer.
Re-set and Re-tool
We are not talking about moving your rhizomes from one continent to the next. Sometimes just the act of lifting, splitting, and spreading the rhizomes from a one foot square area to a four foot square area, with the addition of some good soil amendments, is all that is required for the rhizome to thrive.
In people terms, here are a few tactics required to adopt the rhizome strategy:
1) Sit down with your NextGen team members and plan out their growth strategy every couple of years and provide them with new training, tools, and opportunities to support that growth. Most firms do this but not until someone reaches the level of senior or manager – I am saying don’t wait that long with NextGens.
Example: It might surprise you how often young people feel like they are just marking time until someone finally notices and acknowledges their contribution. The old saying, “no news is good news” does not fly with this generation. No news translates into “you don’t really care about me. I’ll go find someone who does.”
2) Start involving NextGens with client responsibilities sooner rather than later. One of the clearest indications of trust is allowing your younger team members the opportunity to sit in on client meetings. Doing so also raises their level of engagement in the firm.
Example: Recently a partner shared a story about one of the firm's young people. He brought the junior out to meet with the client when they delivered the financial statements. The client found an error that the partner had to graciously and embarrassingly address. On the way back to the office, the junior admitted he had seen the mistake before the meeting, but didn’t think it was that important. The junior went on to say, he would not let that happen again. When younger team members feel like they have a relationship with the client, the quality of their work improves, as opposed to being a faceless, nameless worker bee in the back office.
3) Let your NextGens take the lead on new technology initiatives. This is their realm. They will surprise you with how quickly they adopt new technology.
Example: The best way to learn something is to teach it. Giving a NextGen the task of learning a new technology and having the responsibility to teach others is a great way to let them shine and spread their technology wealth across all levels of the firm.
4) Let your NextGens be actively involved in strategic planning for the firm. Remember, if you want them to stick around, they need to feel they have a say in the firm’s future.
Example: A managing partner shared with me his insights on this subject. In the past he had felt, as many managing partners do, that the younger team members wouldn’t really be able to appreciate or contribute much to a firm strategic planning process. That was until one of his seniors called him on it. He said, “On the one hand you want us to stick around for 20 years to buy you out. On the other hand you don’t trust us with helping to shape the destiny of the firm. Why would I stick around in a firm I didn’t have any personal stake in?”
Bottom line . . . Take a moment and review your human resource strategy. Our up and coming workforce is not wired for slow and steady viticulture growing techniques. Only those firms that recognize they are dealing with a new species of workforce and are willing to apply the rhizome growth strategy will be in a position to attract, retain, and flourish in the future.
Today’s millennial-aged professionals, with their insatiable quest for advancement, much like a rhizome, can quickly exhaust the soil around them and fall into a state of complacency; still producing leaves but not flowers. As a result, NextGen Accountants often exit firms that are still operating under the viticulture growth strategy in search of fresh soil and surroundings in which they can flourish. NextGens will never be content to sit in one place for 25 years. Nor will they be happy having to wait 4-5 years before they can really stand out in the firm. They want to be growing and producing right from the start.
It may seem like a lot of work to re-set and re-tool employees every couple of years, but here’s the good news about rhizomes:
1) Rhizomes are very drought tolerant and disease resistant, unlike grape vines that require constant tending.
2) In the right growing conditions rhizomes will continue to thrive for dozens of years (my five clusters of irises were planted 30 years ago) It’s not unusual for gardeners to pass on their rhizomes from one generation to the next.
3) Gophers and deer don’t like them whereas grape growers fight a constant battle to protect their assets from poachers especially in the early years when the vines are most vulnerable.
4) Rhizomes are easily transplanted and although you may lose a few in the transit, 95% make the transition and are far better for it.
5) Unlike vines that require year-round attention, once you re-set rhizomes, you can let Mother Nature take over for the next 2-3 of years before you have to re-set them again.
6) They almost thrive on neglect once they are re-set in their new environment. What they can’t survive is being left in one spot forever.
Rhizomes, when treated properly, produce a vibrant show and replicate themselves very quickly. We started with five clusters of irises seven years ago. After lifting, splitting, and re-planting we now have hundreds of irises spread throughout our garden that bloom prolifically each year.
About the author:
Edi Osborne, CEO Mentor Plus is recognized as a leader in the area of performance measurement and management to the profession. Mentor Plus’ Performance Measurement Plus and Strategic Performance Management workshops, as well as the $COPE Advisor and Firm Forward Program. Contact Mentor Plus for details: www.mentorplus.com