We’ve Seen the Enemy and the Enemy is Us

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / Feb 15, 2016

succesiion planWhy do only 20% of all CPA firms make it to the second generation?

In short, firms suck at succession planning. (1) Partners often lack effective mentoring skills, (2) Very little accountability for mentoring, (3) Partners fail to give mentoring the same high level focus as their client activities, (4) Firms have inadequate leadership development and mentoring programs and (5) Partners’ affluence makes them feel that failure at leadership development will not jeopardize their livelihood.

It’s an unfortunate situation that I see far too often.

I’ve developed my own list of the most common, frustrating (to both my clients and myself) and nearly insolvable situations. Here’s one that’s on my short list:

A multi-partner firm (usually 5-10 partners) has two distinct groups of partners: The drivers (usually the senior partners) and the newer partners (who struggle mightily to earn the confidence and trust of the senior partners and perform at their level). Resentment builds on both sides:

The senior partners grow increasingly frustrated at the newer partners’ perceived inability to  “be like me,” and gradually lose confidence in them. The newer partners experience this tension and become disenchanted when the senior partners don’t give them any love.

Often, a Catch-22 situation arises: The newer partners grew up in the firm as staff, reliably servicing the senior partners’ clients. They get promoted to partner, but continue to function as managers on the senior partners’ clients. The senior partners, often subconsciously, perceive the newer partners in a support role and the newer partners can’t escape this image.

The worst consequence of the above is the senior partners’ gradual refusal to delegate work to the newer partners because they don’t trust them to do the work properly, timely, and to the clients’ liking. This creates a dilly of a succession planning conundrum.

Who is responsible for this awful situation? The newer partners or the senior partners?
I will suggest to you that the senior partners are the culprits. Why? One or both of the following: (1) The firm’s bar for promotion to partner was too low and (2) Failure of the partners to passionately and energetically focus on mentoring and leadership development.

Tim Christen, the highly respected MP of Baker Tilly and incoming Chairman of the AICPA, says it well: “The most important thing you can do for your own success is make the people below you successful.”

The lesson to learn:
To avoid the awful lose-lose scenario described above, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Make it crystal clear what it takes to make partner. Keep the bar high. Use the non-equity partner position as a partner-in-training program. Non-equity partners should not automatically get promoted to equity.
  2. Create a firmwide leadership development program that provides young staff with the training to become future leaders.
  3. Train mentors (not just partners) how to mentor.
  4. Evaluate partners not only on classic production metrics, but on the extent that people advanced in the firm under their tutelage. Partners cannot “opt out” of this.
  5. The partner compensation system must provide incentive for success at helping staff advance.You get what you measure.
  6. Partner accountability for developing people (other than comp).

A classic line from the cartoon Pogo is: “We’ve seen the enemy and the enemy is us.” Partners, if you are disappointed in the leadership and business development skills of your younger personnel, you have only to look in the mirror. It would be nice if we could “will” the firm to develop leaders. It would be nice if all young staff could find it within themselves to develop into leaders. But these things rarely happen. It’s up to the partners to make it happen.

Many of you reading this blog will identify with scenario I have described. Now is the time to recognize it and do something about it. Turn yourselves into leadership enablers instead of complainers.

Industry watchers agree succession planning is one of our profession’s key challenges. To understand not only the causes of this crisis but the solutions, consult our monograph CPA Firm Succession Planning: A Perfect Storm.


  1. Calia on February 17, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Do you have any tips for someone that is trying to step up and get away from the support role? As you mention, it is easy to get stuck in that role. The control over the client in not given away. Sometimes partners would advise client on various issues and not keep the person that suppose to be in charge in the loop. I don’t know if it’s lack of trust or just a habit or they really want to be in charge. It is difficult to take charge when the client see the senior partner taking charge.

    • Marc Rosenberg on February 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      Most people in your situation have to be real honest with themselves. If you truly want to get out of the support role, one of two things must happen: Either convince the partners clinging to the clients to let go and transfer the relationships to you, or gradually phase out of the support role and build up your own client base. Are you prepared to do one of these?

      This leads to the next question: Do you have business getting ability and/or potential? If yes, then you may wish to get out of the support role and build your own client base. If no, it’s more difficult to remove yourself from the support role because then, you risk being unproductive. In this scenario, you have to make a daunting career decision: Are you better off staying with the firm in a support role and making a nice income? Or, are you so unhappy with the support role that you are willing to leave the firm over it, which will most probably result in a pay cut in the beginning.

      Someone once said the best way to negotiate is to sincerely be prepared to walk away if the deal or arrangement is not satisfactory. You may not look at your situation as a negotiation, but its pretty close. Perhaps the best outcome for you is to convince the “clinging” partners to let you take over the client relationship. Have a heart to heart discussion with these key partners and explore their willingness to let go.

  2. Jim Bennett on February 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    It seems like there is such a lack of good career oriented jobs for young people these days. But yet in some firms these great jobs, with an ownership stake too, can’t seem to be filled. What a waste!

    • Marc Rosenberg on February 18, 2016 at 10:24 am

      Partners in CPA firms love their jobs. No, they don’t come home every night and say “gee, I love my job.” But they’ve got it made: High income levels, challenging work, clients that love them and vice versa, being an owner of an entrepreneurial business and, pardon me if I’m a little cynical, they have virtually no accountability. But many partners and their firms fail miserably at conveying this great situation to the staff. That’s a darn shame.

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