New Partner Development: 8 Best Practices
I’ve had a great career as a management consultant to CPA firms (it’s not over yet!). I love what I do. I’m skilled at it. My expertise is professionally recognized. And oh yeah, the money’s good.
Enter Kristen Rampe, CPA.
I was first introduced to Kristen in 2015 when she had a question about how firm ownership played into partner compensation. We discussed the nuances during our first in-person meeting at a Greek restaurant in Chicago.
In 2019, I asked Kristen if she was interested in acquiring our 16-book series on all the areas I consult in with CPA firms, tapping into 20 years of experience. We quickly inked a deal.
Since then, we have been working together as a team on virtually all of my consulting projects. If I were 10-20 years younger, we would have legally formed a partnership. But since I’m older than dirt, we have partnered in substance, if not form, and our relationship has flourished. More importantly, she has acquired impressive skills for managing CPA firms that I wish I had when I was her age.
How this affects you: 8 best practices for new partner development
Thousands of CPA firms today are in the midst of executing succession plans, of which the main component is the mentoring of younger professionals by senior partners. Although CPA firm consulting is different than providing CPA services, as far as mentoring and developing successors, the process is nearly identical.
I want to share with you what I have done to make Kristen an even better consultant than I am. ALL of the techniques below are applicable to CPA firm partners mentoring future leaders.
1. Use case studies.
I have always believed in the transformative effect that learning with case studies, based on real client projects, can have. Listening to a professor’s lecture may have worked when we were students, but it’s ineffective in adult learning. Using real client projects, I created case studies in areas such as partner compensation and firm profitability. I used these studies to brainstorm the fundamentals of CPA firm practice management. To this day when I complete a project I think Kristen can benefit from, I quickly create a case study, email it to her and we review it together a short time later.
2. Understand why you are mentoring.
This may seem obvious but hear me out: I’m no spring chicken. At some point, I will retire. As a one-man show, I don’t want to simply ride off into the sunset, my work vanishing with it. I have built a legacy, a national reputation, proprietary processes and specialized expertise that has lasting value. I want this to continue after I retire. That’s why I am partnering with Kristen so that she can continue doing what I have built up for 20 years. One more thing: When I decide to retire, I don’t want to go cold turkey. I will work part-time at some point. Grooming my successor is the perfect way to give me the flexibility to do that.
3. “No one can do it like I do.”
Bull****. In my succession planning work, if I’ve heard this once from senior partners, I’ve heard it a thousand times. I’ve spent the past 20 years developing my skills. It’s ineffective and unfair to expect her to “be like me.” She needs to develop her own style and learn in her own way. It’s a constant process. I have tried to be flexible and open to Kristen doing things her way. Sometimes she can be a pain in the butt, but when she does things her way, she always get to the right solution. Sometimes her solutions are better than mine! I learned this years ago: “Good people make mistakes. Great leaders allow them to fail.”
4. Get every project off to a good start.
For every project we work on, we begin by planning the project together. We each review the data and facts of the case and compare notes, making sure we are on the same page.
I have interviewed hundreds of CPA firm staff over the years, asking them to describe their firm’s training. After they say “What training?” they explain how training often is done:
They walk into their office one morning and find a pile of workpapers on their desk with a note from a partner they have yet to meet. The note reads something like this: “Hi Jane. We haven’t met yet but you’ve been assigned to ABC, a client of mine. I’m real busy now but I want to get you started. These are last year’s workpapers. Review them carefully. Then call the client’s controller, Sam, to introduce yourself and schedule a time to come out. Keep me posted of your progress. Call with questions.” Some of you reading this must think I’m exaggerating to make a point, but others can see yourself here. Get every project off to a good start.
5. Use this incredibly powerful 4-step approach to training and mentoring.
Perhaps of all I write about in this blog, this is the biggest takeaway:
- Step 1: I do, you watch.
- Step 2: I do, you help.
- Step 3: You do, I help.
- Step 4: You do, I watch.
The biggest leap is going from Step 2 to Step 3. To be an effective mentor, you must have the courage to make this leap.
Our book How to Bring in New Partners is written for firms fortunate enough to have staff with the right stuff to be a partner. This book addresses all of these areas and more, including: ►how do firms develop staff into partners and when are they ready ► should we have non-equity partners ► what is the process for bringing in a new partner ► how do new partners get compensated ► what should the buy-in amount be.
6. Give performance feedback.
The One Minute Manager (Blanchard and Johnson) is best book on management I have ever read – ever. It only takes an hour to read and it’s told as a story. It’s all about training and mentoring people by giving them great performance feedback. The highlights:
- It takes only 60 seconds to give positive feedback. Avoid common CPA firm thinking like “why compliment them for doing something they should know how to do” or “if they don’t hear anything from me, that means they’re doing a good job.” Catch them doing something right.
- The 60-second reprimand. If they do something that doesn’t meet your expectations, tell them right away. When you do it, focus on their work, not their behavior. Being a good mentor requires administering “tough love” every now and then.
- Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
7. Plan for repetition – Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.
This was popularized by Gladwell’s blockbuster book Outliers. As Gladwell tells it, the rule goes like this: it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials, like being a partner in a CPA firm. Now, forget about whether it takes a hundred repetitions, a thousand, or the unrealistic threshold of 10,000 hours. The point is that people learn best not by doing something once or even twice, but again and again, until it is mastered.
8. Get used to disagreement – mentoring requires disagreement.
Years ago, I regularly attended the partner meetings of a client. One partner would say something, another partner would refute it and the first person would say “good point.” This happened repeatedly at every meeting, with different partners each time. It drove me crazy that they were so fastidious in their timidity. Mentoring, like partnerships, is most successful when there is a certain amount of healthy argument and disagreement and they go through a process of working things out. If the mentee agrees too much with the mentor or never criticizes the mentor, the mentoring is less effective.
The Promised Land – your protégé is a faster gun than you are.
Ego has no place in mentoring. The goal of mentors should be to help their protégés be more competent than they are – to feel great when clients prefer your protégé over you. Mentoring your successor is not a linear process. There will be highs and lows. “We don’t grow when things are easy; we grow when things are hard.” (Joyce Meyer).
There is no better feeling than working at something difficult and succeeding, and then being able to say “it was worth it!”
As partners approach retirement age, they naturally focus on who can take their place and eventually write their retirement checks. Prospective new partners often have a lot of questions about what becoming a partner entails. Many firms either aren't sure how to bring in new partners or have outdated approaches for doing so.Learn More