The secret ingredient for growing an advisory focused CPA firm: TEAMs

By Julie Smith and Ryan Conn

This is part 2 of a collaborative article. Not long ago, we found ourselves talking about the questions we get from other practice leaders about how to execute change- big change- successfully in our firms. 

We’ve both led our respective firms through change over the past three years, moving from traditional tax firms to advisory focused businesses experiencing exponential growth. 

In part 1, we talked about what it’s like leading a CPA firm from traditional tax factory to advisory focused firm. But, the real secret ingredient both of us discovered to drive exponential growth- and execute change- is a great team.

Our acronym for TEAM

Transparency. Leaders must be open with what the vision is and what the plans are to get there.

Empowerment– If the leader is the smartest, most capable person on the team, they are doing something wrong. Allow each team member to grow in their roles. Let each person who has specific knowledge be the authority, and encourage the sharing of knowledge with others in the firm. 

Action. The first step is to map out a plan, communicate it, and hold yourself accountable to move forward. Communication is important. It must be the right kind of communication…positive but with a clear expectation that we are holding ourselves accountable. If we make a mistake, it’s ok. We learn from it and move on. And we celebrate all of our successes together along the way. 

Make each other better. This doesn’t mean as a worker. This means a better person. A better human being. Empower them to be responsible for making everyone around them better. Make it fun to come to work. In our firms, we support hybrid work environments fully. However, we found that despite that, people want to come into the office. They thrive off positive collaboration and energy that they get there.

Where do you start when you have some but not all of the right people in the right roles?

The perfect TEAM doesn’t start when leadership makes a decision to change. To the contrary, many resist change. So how do you determine who is in the right role to align with your vision and who is not?

Day 1- observe. Understand everyone’s strengths and areas of opportunity. More importantly, learn how to motivate each person. This will take at least 30-45 days. Get to know the personalities, what success looks like for them, what their pain points are, and what their goals are. Get in the trenches and do the hard work with them.

Ultimately, there are going to be people that don’t buy in to change or to the firm’s vision. They will either join in, or the gap will get bigger. Natural attrition is actually a positive thing. If a person is no longer aligned with a vision, that’s ok for them to leave and seek what success means to them elsewhere. 

Remember, one bad employee can cost you your best employee. 

Free pass.

Have a one on one meeting with every single team member. Set up the meeting by saying, “You can tell me whatever you want to say today. Our time together in this room is a complete free pass to tell me anything that is on your mind.” However, make it clear that this is a one-time chance at a free pass.  

Listen. Prioritize. Are they just venting, or is there a need for action? Show them it’s their time to open up, and their thoughts and observations matter. 

Identify a champion. 

Who is the ideal person to begin the move forward with? Excitedly share your vision and what the future looks like. Excitement builds, and every little moment has to be celebrated. They will feel more valued. 

Hardest obstacle in this process…

For both of our firms, the pandemic  brought an unprecedented amount of work. More work than any of us had managed before. We loaded up our teams. This was an easy time to question, do we just put off our commitment to shifting to an advisory practice until after the pandemic settles down? 

No. But, we can tell our teammates that it’s ok if we are not excellent right now at managing the workload coming our way. Do your best. If a mistake is made it’s ok to sacrifice little things if it is for achieving excellence in our vision to serve more small businesses with the proactive advice they need and deserve.

Both our teams rallied.

Give your TEAM grace. 

“We are all just human. We only have so much bandwidth, and we have your backs.”

There will be toxic employees in any firm. Do everything you can to rehabilitate their toxicity. If it’s personal suffering, be empathetic. Give them the time, space, and respect to get back into the right headspace to perform and be positive. If it’s a bigger disconnect, it’s painful for the rest of the staff. As we said in our part 1 article, you have to be willing to cut ties- even if they are a highly credentialed person. If they poison the firm, you have to make the tough decision.

The TEAM that eats together…

Celebrate everything. 

Birthdays. Deadlines. Random occasions.

At Harper & Company CPAs Plus, it’s not uncommon to head out to a Buckeyes game for the afternoon just for fun on random occasions. It’s also a firm staple to bring lunch or snacks in and put them on the giant table in the middle of the firm floor. People come together to talk, laugh, eat lunch, and collaborate.

At Shelton & Associates, leadership decided that every birthday should be celebrated with lunch and a favorite dessert. The team took it to another level. While sharing a birthday cake or dessert, the entire staff gathers and goes around the room to say something great about the person celebrating their birthday. 

Building a sense of community is foundational to building a TEAM. 

The beauty of a TEAM.

When you have a TEAM, you’ve solved your talent shortage. You no longer have a ‘recruiting challenge. You teammates are your best recruiters- and your best retainers. When you need to hire, let them know what you need, and ask them to help spread the word in their personal and professional networks. You’ll be surprised at the results!

The true beauty of a team is the positive forward momentum they are able to achieve together. The true measure of success for your team is when they are executing their roles and enjoying the progress. The result is that the team is executing change for the firm.

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