Spotlighting Women in Advisory Practice: “Keep a Smile on Your Face and Keep Positive!” says Julie Smith, Practice Manager at Harper & Co.

In celebration of Women’s Month, we are honored launch a new weekly blog series, “Spotlighting Women in Advisory Practice”, that will feature five women who have transformed their accounting businesses, moving beyond being solely tax providers to expand their relationships with clients to become a true business partner.

Julie Smith, Practice Manager at Harper & Co., started at the firm after the owner, Glenn Harper, CPA, approached her about a job because Smith had exhibited the skills he needed.

Previously, Smith had worked at one the nation’s largest pediatrics hospital’ graduate medical education program; and the change from working at the large company to the CPA firm came after her first child. Smith desired to have the situation that the new opportunity provided.

In additional to the potential of having a better work/life balance, the opportunity to know that she could make a difference, have a voice and would be “able to make that change and seeing the results” was appealing, Smith says, adding that the role includes thinking strategically on how to grow the firm and determining what is it the firm should do differently to better compete.

Seeing Opportunity: Business Model Transformation

During a tumultuous time that included a partnership dissolution, Smith and Harper, the firm owner, received an invitation to attend a Partner Summit. That, plus Smith’s passion for education, gave her the vision for how she could help transform the business by pursuing an advisory practice model. At first, the owner was hesitant, but Smith recalls, “literally the first 10 seconds into [the Summit], he is hitting me… saying I want that, that’s exactly what I want.” Upon returning home, they were able to share with the rest of the firm this new advisory direction the firm would be taking and the way in which the firm would differentiate itself in advisory services.

Although the necessary change needed for the firm to transform to an advisory model itself was scary, some employees were on board, swept up in the full-scale enthusiasm (and anxiety) that filled Smith and Harper, who then used every opportunity to affirm to the employees that this is how the business now works. Employees were encouraged that they are a part of the team, Smith explains. “We were completely transparent.”

Julie Smith, Practice Manager at Harper & Co.

The business model transformation allowed every member of the staff to grow. Having an advisory practice allows for many more touch points with clients. Through radical listening to clients, each member of the staff is involved in client service and responding to the clients’ pain points, instead of only one or two people at the firm having to do all this work.

As the result of the transformation to an advisory practice, the firm had to enable a massive collective learning effort. Smith and Harper led the creation of a ‘best practice’ library, a repository of information that offers any new hire needed information that can be quickly accessed, leading to improved efficiency. For example, the administrative staff is now empowered to speak to clients directly because staff members know most of the ancillary tax filing process and can engage in radical listening to assist with solutions to clients’ pain-points.

“One of the things that has led us to being highly successful, is the transparency with staff and having them along on the entire journey of the roadmap to an advisory practice,” says Smith.

Clients’ Journey from One-Off to Engaged Small Businesses

The shift in their business model allowed Harper & Co. to transition their client base to one that includes many small businesses, those companies with one to seven employees. What has been surprising is to learn that many clients were seeking what the firm now offers in its advisory services — education, transparency, and transfer of knowledge, such as assistance in running clients’ businesses better. Under the new advisory services operating model, the staff can now speak with ease to clients about maintenance fees and impending tax liabilities and how to plan for them.

Smith explains that one important part of being a successful woman business leader is going after what you want and having the ability to clearly state those desires. Communication has been key, Smith says, for creating the successful business and personal relationships she’s developed with staff. Indeed, the firm’s success depends on her and Harper’s ability to foster an environment of honest communication and transparency, she says, adding that the need to be fearless when it comes to changes and attitudes goes a long way.

Smith says she accomplishes this by keeping her personal motto in mind: “Keep a smile on your face and keep positive” — no matter what’s happening when you walk through the doors at work.

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