When it comes to improving employee retention and increasing profitability, my firm, San Francisco-based Eichstaedt & Devereaux, believes that investing in and developing our future leaders builds the foundation for success. Instead of top-down firm management, we use a grass-roots employee involvement program to engage employees in the firm’s business. To involve employees, we identified several strategic firm initiatives and delegated authority to employees across all levels of the firm through task forces to develop those initiatives. This ongoing process encourages our employees to generate ideas, put plans into action, and create further beneficial initiatives for the firm.
Our firm’s mission is to offer the highest quality service to clients and be the best technical experts around. As a partner you can offer those services, but you also have to teach your employees to do the same thing for your clients. You need people who are highly motivated, engaged and excited about what they’re doing. We believe that the idea of employee involvement, getting them involved in the firm’s business, plus technical training, is what drives a high billing rate and ultimately profitability.
Since we started the program in May 2007, our employee-driven teams have created formal recruiting, mentoring and training programs. They’ve also created a mission statement and an employee recognition program. Collaboration and accountability has increased across all levels of the firm, and employee feedback indicates an appreciation of the leadership development opportunities. Employees tell me that they like participating in some of the nonclient, nontechnical aspects of building the firm and shaping their own futures.
This article explains some aspects of our employee involvement program and offers tips for starting an employee involvement plan within your firm.
IDENTIFY PROGRAM INITIATIVES
Based on informal employee feedback, our firm identified several areas to work on as our main program initiatives. These areas were also aligned with our firm’s strategic plan and objectives. Recruiting, mentoring, training, communication, and generational issues were some of the main areas we chose as our plan initiatives.
CREATE TASK FORCES
Each initiative is implemented through small “pods,” or task forces. The purpose of the pods is to delegate authority by spreading out the decision-making process and encourage input from people closest to the problems. The pods foster a collaborative environment. At our firm, each pod comprises one leader and five to seven members from different levels and functional areas within the firm. The pod leaders are responsible for organizing meetings, facilitating discussions and delegating tasks. Pod leaders also report back to the executive board monthly.
Originally, I helped launch the pods and was instrumental in selecting pod leaders based on their leadership potential and desire to contribute to the firm’s success. The pods are now largely self-driven with little oversight by me or the executive group.
“We (deliberately) weren’t given a lot of direction at first for the mentoring pod, which left us open to be creative. One of the first things we did was to put together a questionnaire to gauge what people wanted from a mentor,” said pod leader Tracy Hom. “The No. 1 thing they wanted was more feedback on job performance. We then had to figure out what it would entail to implement a formal mentoring program and how to keep tabs on the mentoring relationships to find out if they were working.”
When selecting firm initiatives and teams, it is important to get enough people to generate discussion and new ideas. However, if your group is too big, it might become cumbersome. When we started the program, we had about 35 people, and seven initiatives, so it allowed everyone to participate. We’ve never forced anyone to be on a pod; everyone wants to participate. New employees learn about the program during our orientation process (our orientation process was improved by an employee-driven task force) where they have the opportunity to express their interest in joining a pod, if they wish.
The administrative structure of our pods is fairly informal. Since the program is still relatively new for us, we’ve only had one or two people switch pods. Most people have gotten interested in an area and stayed there. We haven’t encountered a problem with not having enough participation or having to rotate to allow everyone a chance to participate in the pod of their choice. However, we might ask employees during the annual review process if they are interested in switching pods.
GAIN TOP-LEVEL SUPPORT
Support from the top is vital to any employee involvement program’s success. The program may be initiated by anyone in the firm, a member of the human resource group, a professional or partner. In the beginning, I spent quite a few hours talking with folks, gathering information, developing the plan and then pitching it to the partner group.
Initially, the partners were concerned about employees spending time on nonchargeable activities, but ultimately they decided that the benefits of having happier, more engaged employees would offset the time costs. The partner/executive group gets regular updates in their monthly meetings from pod leaders. This ensures a strong communication and monitoring process from the top, and allows any potential issues to be addressed in a timely manner. Partners are directly involved in pod initiatives and regularly attend pod meetings.
GET EMPLOYEE FEEDBACK
One of the most important things we’ve learned through our employee involvement program is how important it is for employees to be heard, to have a voice in the firm. Gathering employee feedback helped us better understand the challenges and goals of individual employees from their perspective.
From the outset of the program, we emphasized prioritizing issues and setting realistic goals. Everyone agreed that doing a quality job on a few initiatives and making sure they succeed would serve us better than trying to tackle too many things and compromising quality. Since employees are involved in the process, they are able to manage their own expectations.
PROMOTE EMPLOYEE PARTICIPATION
People have a fundamental need to contribute to the firm’s success and see the tangible results of their work. Success largely depends on empowering employees as they take larger roles in shaping the firm’s culture.
Within a few months of her employment at Eichstaedt & Devereaux, we asked Crystal Lee to lead our recruiting initiative. Having both human resource and public accounting firm experience, she had participated in campus recruiting activities as a firm representative before and had a good idea of where to start.
Her team began by brainstorming and looking into other firm recruiting programs. Two quarters later, they were going onto campuses and recruiting. “We started off with about nine schools that we were interested in,” Lee said. “Through trial and error, we learned which schools worked best for us—now we only go to four schools on a consistent basis. These are the schools that gave us the best overall experience in terms of the type of student we were looking for and what we wanted to spend to recruit on each campus.”
TRACK PROGRESS AND COMMUNICATE RESULTS
Each pod tracks progress and results and communicates information to the rest of the firm. For example, activities and achievements of the pods are incorporated into the monthly newsletter, which is written by the communication pod. Leaders report in at scheduled firm meetings. Cynthia Bonavia recalls her first report as leader of the firm’s “rewards” pod (this includes both monetary and nonmonetary rewards, employee recognition, benefits and community service) on the results of their work/life balance employee satisfaction survey. The results brought to light some issues that the partners were previously unaware of.
“It was a bit of a challenge, but the partners realized that the point of the pods was hearing what people have to say. It got a lot smoother after that,” Bonavia said.
The generational issues that were revealed as a result of our rewards pod survey have increased awareness of the generational differences that exist within our firm. We are beginning to understand our unique work/life points of view and are looking for ways to bridge those differences within our workplace.
It is important to make sure that employee involvement is recognized and rewarded. This helps weave employee involvement into the culture. When teams produce tangible results that benefit the firm, those responsible deserve recognition. Everyone has reason to celebrate positive results.
STARTING AN EMPLOYEE INVOLVEMENT PROGRAM IN YOUR FIRM
Whether formal or informal, your approach should be customized to your firm’s needs and objectives. A more-formal program might mean organized teams that set specific goals aligned to the firm’s strategic plan. An informal approach might focus on open communication and idea sharing across the organization. Teams can be temporary and focused on tackling a specific short-term problem or long term and focused on driving key initiatives over an extended time.
Whatever approach you choose, just doing something that involves staff members in the business of the firm will engage them and contribute to their overall satisfaction as firm employees and perhaps as future leaders.
When leaders involve everyone in moving the organization forward, it builds synergy and commitment at all levels. Our firm’s employee involvement program has become integrated into the firm’s culture and is now a self-driven process that gives employees a voice and empowerment within the firm. “Coming into this firm, I knew people who worked here and had heard good things about it. Our firm’s employee involvement program confirmed to me that the partners cared about everybody—that they appreciate their people and want to make them happy and keep them around,” Bonavia said.
By fostering a culture of involvement, firms can engage employees at all levels in the business of achieving quality service, increased productivity, and realized purpose. Effective programs also provide opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders. “Being given the opportunity to be a part of the growth of the firm and to work on an area that I was really passionate about, makes me feel like I’m a part of the family and looking out for the firm’s best interest,” Lee said. “It has worked out well for me in terms of my wanting to stay in the profession.”
Let an employee involvement program become the blueprint for your firm’s success.
Ways to Gather Employee Feedback
Employee feedback can be gathered through surveys, focus groups, brainstorming sessions and one-on-one meetings. Confidential surveys often result in more candid feedback than other means. Hold focus group meetings and brainstorming sessions to generate new ideas. Meet with employees to provide constructive feedback. These activities will set the stage as a firm develops its employee involvement culture and formalizes its program and associated initiatives.
Five Examples of Employee Involvement
Five areas to actively engage employees in the business of the firm:
Personal. Mentoring, training, and career development.
Firm. Visioning, recruiting, balancing generational differences and succession planning.
Client. Client service, client meetings, and firm-hosted events.
Profession. Involvement in CPA professional organizations and inspiring new leaders.
Community. Volunteering in the community and sponsoring firm-wide charitable events.
Employee involvement programs delegate authority to employees across all levels of a firm by involving them in strategic initiatives. Employees are encouraged to generate ideas, create beneficial initiatives and put plans into action.
Employee involvement programs can be initiated by anyone in the firm, but support and involvement from the firm’s leadership is critical to success.
An effective employee involvement program must be developed with the participation of employees and an understanding of their needs. Success largely depends on empowering employees as they take a stepped-up role in shaping the firm’s culture.
Identify the initiatives on which your firm will focus. Recruiting, mentoring and training are examples of areas where employees can become engaged and are usually tied to a firm’s strategic plan and objectives.
Program initiatives can be implemented through small task forces consisting of representatives from different levels and functional areas. Delegating authority spreads out the decision- making process, encourages input from people closest to the problems, and fosters a collaborative environment.
Track the progress of each initiative and regularly communicate the results to the rest of the firm. When teams produce tangible results that benefit the firm, those responsible deserve recognition. This also helps weave employee involvement into the culture.
Cameron Kauffman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the COO at Eichstaedt & Devereaux LLP in San Francisco.
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