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How to Build Tomorrow's Leaders Within Your Firm

Nov 9th 2015
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What makes a good future leader, and what can you do to keep them regularly happy and buzzing away at your firm? Focus on “the middle.”

At the recent Thomson Reuters Synergy 2015 conference, Sandra Wiley, shareholder at Boomer Consulting, shared tips and strategies to help differentiate firms from their competition and keep their “middle” strong.

In her workshop, “Retain and Grow Your Middle,” the focus was on those employees between the three- and six-year mark or those people in firms she described as “the level of people in our firm that have been so hard to keep and so hard to find.”

Wiley said the issue of talent is not just generational. She named three reasons why many firms are having pain in the middle area.

1. Decline of traditional management. Hierarchal structure has worked for almost 100 years. Today things are changing. “When you think about how we are managing companies today – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft – they are managing differently,” said Wiley. “It's starting to bleed over to all companies, including accounting firms. The new model of management is circular where small groups of people self-manage. Management today is about being one of the people, it's not about being bigger, better, stronger than you are. It's collaborative management. That's going to really dramatically change how we run a CPA firm.”

2. The social Internet revolution. This is about being able to socially connect. Social media is how people are interacting today. “The intellectual capital on the Internet is out there for everybody,” she said. “The idea of not sharing is gone.”

3. The millennial generation entering the workplace. Millennials and Generation Xers expect a lot more from the workplace. “I love interviewing millennials,” Wiley said. “They ask, how soon can I move up? What's my salary? What education are you going to provide? I ask questions like ‘do I get a chair?'” Wiley described millennials as more diverse, well-traveled, and with better experience in community service than baby boomers. “They are different. We can find the brilliance in different, but you have to look for it a little bit.”

The best strategy to develop the middle, according to Wiley, is by identifying the best of the best. To identify the best, she recommends looking for those who have the following traits or a willingness to help them get there:

  • Great communicators. These are people who can stay off their phone long enough to have a conversation.
  • Talent, but not perfect. Wiley said these are the people who have an initial talent and with a little help they can be even better.
  • Know themselves. Find people who have unique abilities and who know their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Relationship builders. While many millennials may not have work relationships, chances are they have many school- and service-related connections and a strong network. Figure out if someone genuinely enjoys people because that will go a long way.
  • Collaborators. Millennials are strong collaborators. â€œThey are awesome with finding and seeking out and collaborating with other people because they have been doing it their whole life,” she said.
  • General connectors. Millennials will want to get to know you and your firm. Getting to know them and how they work is not a competition.

Many attendees in the workshop agreed with Wiley and were challenged by hiring strong managers – those at the middle level of the firm who are not new staff, yet not upper-level management. Millennials don't want to work the same way baby boomers did – and expect a diverse, flexible, remote workplace when moving into a job.

“Cast your net wide and do it 365 days a year,” she said. “It's part of your budget for the rest of the year. This is not going to get better. You have to be recruiting all the time.”

Here are Wiley's ways to help your firm be a next generation firm.

  • Leadership training. Invest in your people's development on any ongoing basis. Pay special attention to those who have been in the firm between three to five years.
  • The learning lattice. Acknowledge that people's paths aren't linear. “We have to develop a way for people to grow, and at some point, they may want to take a break, go to a different niche, go to management,” Wiley said. “Create some strategies on how to keep in touch with them.” One firm's managing partner calls certain star people who left the firm on a quarterly basis to just catch up. That firm is seeing a 50 percent return rate.
  • Technology infrastructure. The bottom line is, if you want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, you have to be a technology company. “I have more people tell me that I have a better computer at home than in the office. Don't be that firm.”
  • Communication. Give evaluations at least three times a year: once before tax season in January, again in May, and then finally in August. Wiley said to review past performance and look forward. Be specific with feedback – if they are doing well, tell them why. If they need to improve, tell them how. The employee should take initiative in setting these meetings up. Avoid reviewing more than four or five people and expect to talk about what you're doing, client work, salaries, and profitability.
  • Delegate and let go. â€œIf you want to know why managers are leaving, we give them the responsibility but not the authority to get things done,” Wiley said. “It hurts them. Let go and walk away.”
  • Don't ask them to work 24/7. Some firms believe that if they provide phones to their employees they should be available 100 percent of the time. Not true.  If you are the type of leader who sends emails late at night or very early in the morning, consider pre-scheduling your emails to go out during working hours.
  • Allow for collaboration. Millennials want to start doing the good stuff now. They don't want to be in the back of the office doing tax returns for the next two years. Bring them to client meetings, send them to conferences, and get them out there and engaged.
  • Relationship connections, Though many millennials have learned how to connect in college and high school, they may need direction on how to connect to the right people in business. Get them comfortable meeting with people at all levels, especially business owners and CEOs. Take emerging leaders to client meetings and have clients meet their emerging leaders. One firm partner brought their emerging leader and asked their client to do the same. Succession planning at its finest.
  • Trust is a must. â€œThey are going to see a fake in a second,” Wiley said, adding that firms should not give gratitude to someone because you were told to. Be honest and genuine.

Finally, Wiley said that if firms have a naysayer in your leadership group who doesn't get this, you have to get them some education or get rid of them.

“This is not fluffy stuff,” she said. “I know you are busy people, but this is imperative. If you want a firm going forward, you have to make sure you take care of these folks.”

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