Many firm leaders think that young CPAs lack the necessary business development skills to move to the next level or become a future leader of the firm. However, young CPAs are often not given the opportunity to develop those skills on a daily basis. Business development is a difficult thing to teach, and it’s unrealistic to expect the skills to come naturally to many CPAs.
By having leaders set expectations for them upfront, younger team members will quickly realize that business development is a necessary part of their professional growth (see the AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) competency model for small to midsize firms, which focuses on business development as one of its five core competencies and provides competencies to develop by level within the firm).
It is important for young CPAs to practice business development skills in settings that are low risk. Some great ways to grow those skills are deploying young CPAs to local high schools and universities, getting them involved in young-CPA-related events and by giving them responsibilities for financial literacy programs and internal training programs. The first two approaches have the additional benefit of helping the firm with staff recruiting.
LOCAL HIGH SCHOOLS
Public speaking is a frightening experience for some. It is not a skill that is easily taught, but it is a skill that grows over time—with practice. Get young CPAs into math and accounting classes in high schools to discuss why it’s cool to be a CPA. These appearances will enhance their presentation skills and teach them the art of selling from the front of the room. Young CPAs will have two to three years to hone this skill, so when they become technical experts in particular topics or fields, the presentations become second nature.
Also teach your young CPAs the networking power of getting to know the teacher and finding out who the top students are. The young CPAs can follow those students through their college careers, offer advice and mentoring, then recruit them for internships. All of this is done before any other firm even knows those students exist.
To track progress, seek feedback about your employees from teachers and ask to see the lists of recruiting prospects young CPAs bring back to the office.
For small and midsize local firms this step is a great sourcing tool for the future. I practiced in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up there. Most of the recruits at our local firm were born and raised in Buffalo. As a local firm, we knew that our greatest chance for success was getting a recruit who was born and raised in our area. By getting to the high school and creating a pipeline to the firm, we had access to candidates well before any other firm. We kept track of them when they went off to college and brought them back after graduation.
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
Also get young CPAs speaking at colleges and universities. Most campuses are always looking for local speakers to talk to students about careers, life in public accounting, and new and interesting things people are working on. Check to see whether the schools in your area have a Beta Alpha Psi chapter. Those groups typically hold monthly meetings and need outside speakers. Much like high school presentations, campus visits provide a great opportunity for a young CPA to hone presentation skills while also raising the visibility of your firm among potential recruits.
If your firm already has a presence on local campuses for recruiting, involve your young CPAs. Many schools have a “Meet the Professionals Night” that offers an opportunity for young CPAs to work on their firm elevator speech. Selling your firm to an employment prospect is very similar to selling your firm to a client prospect. If you have your firm’s top salesperson alongside your young CPA, the young CPA will absorb some of the tricks that rainmaker uses.
Typical “Meet the Professionals” functions are like a vendor trade show. Working these types of events helps develop networking skills as you first try to draw a potential recruit to your booth, and then try to “sell” the individual on the firm using an elevator speech that can be delivered within two minutes with confidence, passion and speed.
If your firm has a marketing professional, that person can work with young CPAs to develop that elevator speech.
The AICPA has worked hard to increase the U.S. awareness of financial literacy. The Feed the Pig campaign and 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy initiatives provide valuable information on the importance of saving and planning for the future.
There are a few ways to integrate a financial literacy program into your firm’s marketing strategy and leverage young CPAs for business development. First, create an integrated program with local businesses. A firm can mine senior partner contacts at local chambers of commerce, business groups and nonprofit events to gain access, and offer pro bono services to provide seminars on financial literacy to the local business community. Let the senior partner book the event and have your young CPAs present. This will move your young CPAs from practicing presentation skills on students to practicing on business clients.
Another way to integrate financial literacy into business development is during the client proposal process. Firms are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. One “giveaway” can be adding financial literacy training for the client’s employees as part of your proposal to new clients. Young CPAs can present the training at slower times of the year. This builds goodwill with a prospective client while giving the young CPA the opportunity to present toa group that may not be as financially savvy as the local business groups may be. It will be important to emphasize to the young CPA to stick to the script provided in the training and, if employees are asking for more help, suggest they seek more guidance from a financial professional who can sit down and evaluate their entire financial situation.
The AICPA has several tools, speeches and sample presentations in the Financial Literacy Resource Center on aicpa.org. With these tools, there’s little to no setup or preparation needed to provide financial literacy presentations. Such programs allow young CPAs to give back to their community and clients, offering a very valuable lesson and resource.
YOUNG CPA INVOLVEMENT
Many state societies and local chapters have young CPA committees designed to provide a community for people to gather and get involved in the profession. These events provide an opportunity for young CPAs to network with their peers. Many current partners built their success on the peer network they started years prior. Former classmates, workmates and professional organization peers will move to different positions and, over time, take positions with greater responsibility. Young CPA activities can help foster this networking at a young age.
Firms big or small will have regular internal training typically developed by a manager or above. Young CPAs may tend to have more time to dedicate to researching and preparing these types of internal training opportunities. As we look for our young CPAs to develop an expertise in a particular discipline or niche, we can start them on the path by having them research and prepare a technical topic for a firm presentation. It doesn’t mean the young CPA has to present it, but he or she can do the upfront work to prepare the seasoned manager or partner to present the technical topic to the firm. Better yet, have the young CPA co-present that topic with the seasoned practitioner.
Firm senior leaders will need to be actively involved in the initial implementation of this system if it is new to your firm. The firm must understand that this culture shift inside the firm is supported fully at the top. Many firms today have midlevel managers who were never asked to participate in business development and may not be as supportive of creating this system for their direct reports.
Business development goals should be part of your firm’s performance management system, and every person should have at least three to five specific measurable goals for which he or she is accountable. Here are some examples of specific business development goals:
Conduct two high school visits and present on careers in accounting, and obtain two names of top students from teachers.
Conduct one financial literacy training presentation for the local chamber of commerce.
Conduct two financial literacy training presentations for employees of clients.
Actively participate in the local young CPAs chapter by attending three related events.
Participate in at least two local university “Meet the Professionals Nights.”
Conduct a presentation at one local university on life in the first two years of being a CPA.
Research and prepare a two-hour presentation on one of the professional standards updates. Co-present one topic out of the presentation for 15 minutes.
The firm’s culture will transition quickly to one in which everyone participates in business development, giving your young CPAs the tools and opportunity to progress.
NEXT STEPS FOR BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
As staffers move from the associate to the senior level, they will continue developing the skills necessary for business development. They will reach each level of success at different times in the first few years, and as they are ready you can start to integrate them into the next steps of business development by giving them these accountabilities:
Participate in the internal proposal process to understand the typical items included in a new client proposal.
Be alert to existing client issues/opportunities and raise the issues with the partner to present to the client.
Contribute to the internal discussion and generation of new ideas on sales opportunities to better understand the ideal new client and potential new client profile.
Participate in one prospect meeting to understand the new client pitch process.
Once the individual has successfully mastered each of the above items, he or she will be ready to start prospecting for clients to bring into the firm.
Video: Lessons in Business Development
Successful CPA firms set expectations early for new associates to begin honing the skills needed to land new business and check in often on how staffers are progressing, says Mark Koziel, director–Specialized Communities and PCPS/Firm Practice Management at the AICPA. In this video, he shares low-risk strategies for building confidence and experience in selling skills.
Expecting young CPAs to arrive at your firm ready to drum up new business is unrealistic in most cases. Most will need to build their skills in low-pressure environments. As you map out their training, set clear expectations and hold them and the managers they report to accountable.
Speaking about the accounting profession at high schools and local colleges or universities exposes young CPAs to what it takes to speak to and to influence a crowd. It is also a way to identify bright students who are interested in accounting and to build your firm’s database of potential interns.
Deploying young CPAs to client businesses to offer financial literacy basic training can enhance their presenting skills while giving the firm a giveaway to offer.
Charging young CPAs with researching and even presenting technical briefings for the firm gives you a front seat on their progress.
Mark Koziel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director–Specialized Communities and Firm Practice Management teams at the AICPA.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Kim Nilsen, editorial director, at email@example.com or 919-402-4048.
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The PCPS Human Capital Center offers a template, which includes videos and pointers on explaining CPAs and what they do, what’s special about accounting and CPAs, average salary offers and more, at tinyurl.com/5tlgd4k. Also find a short guide with presentation planning tips at tinyurl.com/6ewzm5b.
The Financial Literacy Resource Center provides information and turnkey resources for CPAs to use in volunteer efforts, tinyurl.com/4efe9k8
Private Companies Practice Section
The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at aicpa.org/PCPS and the PCPS Human Capital Center, which contains a firm competency model, performance management tools and resources, and an owner development section, at aicpa.org/PCPS/HCC.
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