Developing a Truly Progressive Next Gen Culture – Part II

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / Feb 26, 2019

Our Chicago roundtable, consisting of the most prestigious and largest local CPA firms in the Windy City, recently convened a conference that brought the house down.  Our goal was (a) to address the #1 challenge to CPA firms today – managing all staff issues from recruiting to retention to developing NextGen leaders and (b) to bring in THE #1 authority on these issues to speak to us about state-of-the-art practices.  Jennifer Wilson was our speaker and wow, did she hit it out of the park!  Jen, who leads Convergence Coaching, is regularly recognized by Accounting Today as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting and by INSIDE Public Accounting as one of the Most Recommended Consultants To CPA Firms.

Having the right staff and using people in the right way – highest and best use – and keeping your best people is still the #1 challenge that firms face.  Jen addressed this issue with magnum force.  Here are her pearls of wisdom – Part II.


We’ve all heard that young people crave technology.  A quick turn-off to staff is a stodgy firm with out of date technology.  Many firms think they are tech-savvy but in reality, they don’t walk the talk.  Having the kind of technology that gets young people excited starts with budgeting the kind of money it takes to stay technologically advanced and exciting.  One way to convince partners who are reluctant to spend the right amount of money on technology is to look at benchmarking studies that show the percentage of IT expenditures compared to revenue (4-5% of revenue)  If you’re firm is below the norm, fix this right away.

Many firms have partners who refuse to stay current with technology.  Partners unwilling to use technology properly is a “firing-squad” offense.


This is on the rise at CPA firms.  A lot of old school partners are reluctant to embrace it and must get over this.  The hard thing about remote work is that it forces firms to manage…and CPAs struggle with how to effectively manage and motivate staff, whether they admit it or not.

CPA Firm Staff: Managing Your #1 Asset includes major contributions from two experts in managing CPA firm staff:  Jennifer Wilson and Jeremy Wortman.  The book addresses ►talent management ►recruitment & retention ►flexibility ►importance of the boss ►mentoring ►leadership development  ►performance feedback 


(A classic line from the Pogo cartoon).  At many firms, problems arise not because of outside forces or unsatisfactory behavior of firm personnel, but by the detrimental conduct of the partners.  Great example:  Years ago, I led a roundtable of CPA firms for whom female partners comprised only 4% of all partners.  I asked the partners what they thought the problem was.  After 20 seconds of silence, one partner looked at me and asked:  “Are you suggesting that the problem is us?”

The way firms should be treating and managing their staff is quite different from when most partners were staff themselves.  CPAs are naturally conservative and averse to change.  Compounding this are two flaws (and there are many more) in the traditional CPA firm operating model.  First, partners are way too busy.  They are working IN the business instead of ON the business, mostly because they are incredibly busy getting clients, chalking up ridiculous levels of billable hours including a lot of delegable staff-level work and keeping clients.  This limits the amount of time partners spend mentoring staff.  Second, ask yourself this:  What’s the most critically important performance attribute of partners that gets directly and clearly compensated the least?  Developing staff by far.  How can we expect partners to manage and mentor staff effectively if they aren’t paid much for it?

Most firms have partners that approach their duties with staff passive-aggressively.  Without overtly stating it or admitting it, they essentially opt out of managing and developing NextGen staff.  What should firms do about this?

  • All good things start with a small nucleus. This becomes infectious and the core grows.
  • Partners unwilling to change should be kept as far away from staff as possible. The results of study after study on what motivates employees:  The number #1 factor is the employee’s relationship with his/her boss.  Remove “painful” bosses from direct staff contact.
  • Old-school partners often cite as a reason for opting out of NextGen practices the fact that they are “close to retirement.” One or two years away is close, not seven!

Here’s a good way to convince partners to adopt NextGen tactics:  It’s not only your staff that are NextGen, but your clients, too.  This is a good way to “sell” your NextGen-challenged partners to change. A great way to get people to change is to show them others that are doing it.

People are attracted to passionate, engaged leaders.  If your firm’s leadership isn’t lit up and inspired by your firm, its vision, clients and people…how can you expect your people to be?  Sabbaticals are a great way for partners to recharge their batteries.  Also, partners need to avoid complaining to staff, using sarcasm, cynicism and hopelessness.

A key to retention is staff engagement.  Getting people to avoid thinking “it’s just a job.”  What can firms do to get staff to show more ownership?  It starts with the partners.  Many are not letting their staff have ownership, especially with clients.  Firms need to work hard to teach their staff what it means to be a professional.  What leadership is.

A great way to engage staff is for them to have one or two good friends at the firm.  (This comes out strong in Rosenberg’s research as well.) Firms need to provide lots of opportunities for the staff to socialize.


Professors are telling students that they will have seven different vocations – not just jobs – during their careers.  Other research reveals that 68% of employees (all jobs) between 18 and 34 are likely to be looking for a new job in the next twelve months.  Firms need to understand this and work extra hard to engage their staff and make their work and their jobs meaningful.

A key to retention is making the staff feel engaged and to give them ownership in their work.  To retain staff and to attract recruits, firms need to strive to be unique, special and different compared to other CPA firms and even, to companies outside the CPA industry because these could be your staff’s next employer.  It’s not easy for typical local CPA firms to be unique, special and different.  Some tactics:

  • Flexible work policies.
  • Reduce mandatory work periods, especially in the tax season.
  • Initiatives for women.
  • Remote work.
  • Find out what your staff really like and get them this kind of work.
  • State of the art technology.

Firms don’t have to have dozens of these; one or two is quite sufficient.

Here’s an innovative retention strategy:  Survey new hires frequently.  At a minimum, survey them after two weeks, 90 days and 6 months.  Ask them “what did we sell you on and have we delivered?”  This changes over time.  These surveys are more effective if administered face to face by the recruiter rather than online.

Stay in touch with new hires and resolve problem areas before they cause the person to quit.

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