Developing a Truly Progressive Next Gen Culture

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.


Firms are making contact with and commitments to students earlier and earlier – even as early as the sophomore year.

We all know that internships are the major way that college grads are recruited.  Too many firms avoid internships in late spring and summer because their work is slow.  But this is when students really want the internship because they want a summer job.  Firms are missing out on these opportunities.

Firms need to work harder on making their firms attractive to recruits.  They need to ask themselves:  “Why would someone want to work for us instead of other firms?”  Most firms haven’t answered this question and are content with saying baloney like “we are a family-oriented firm.”  Come on!  Everyone says they are family-oriented.  Young people wonder if public accounting in general is too old school.  Make sure your firm doesn’t come across as old-school.  If you have partners that are unabashedly old school, keep them away from the staff, especially in recruiting.

Someone in your firm must “own” recruiting, especially if the firm does not have a full-time recruiter.  When you own something, you are the person who has to take care of it, fix it when it breaks and keep it thriving.  You know that the opportunities and problems are squarely yours to deal with and you are totally committed to them.  If no one owns recruiting or is in charge of it, it will succumb to other tasks and treated as a secondary initiative with client duties always coming in first.

Most firms recruit on a start and stop basis:  They start recruiting when there is an opening and stop when the replacement is hired.  Firms need to “relentlessly recruit.”  Firms need to develop way more resources for recruiting; firms with over 80 people should have a full-time recruiter on board.

CPA Firm Staff: Manging 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 


Get employees to refer acquaintances to the firm.  Lots of firms offer these “bounties,” but like so many incentives, what matters is not just announcing the policy but doing it well and with energy.  Make the stipend meaningful to catch the staff’s attention. Incentives should be 5 digits, not 4.   And firms should continuously remind staff of the policy.

A rigorous follow-up system helps.  Keep track of your alumni, especially those people you loved; check in with them to see how the new job is working out.  Check in with recruits who took other jobs.  Assign someone in the firm to do the checking in.

We all know that Linked-In is a great recruiting tactic.  But many of us often don’t connect with people in our own firm.  Adding firm personnel to our Linked-In contacts broadens your coverage to all the contacts of these other people.


Communicate, both verbally in counseling sessions and in writing, what is expected to advance from position to position, especially what it takes to become a partner.

It’s critical to include the development of soft skills in your training, criteria for path to partner and partner goals.

Mentoring is one of those tactics where it’s not sufficient just to have the program.  Firms must do it well.  One thing that causes mentoring programs to fail is making it too formal.  We all know what it’s like to come home from work and ask your nine-year old how school was.  The inevitable answer is “fine.”  This is no different for mentoring staff.  If a mentor makes a mentoring appointment on a certain date and time, the session is more likely to be formal, awkward and stilted.  Instead, mentors should periodically walk over to their protégés and ask how things are going.  And don’t conduct mentoring sessions over lunch, an environment that is not confidential, too noisy and awkward.

Firms aren’t going to have many female partners if they don’t have at least one to start.

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