Meyners Mines Its Talent

A firm realized it had to have systems in place for growth and did something about it.
BY PHAEDRA BROTHERTON AND MICHAEL HAYES

   

The JofA will track the progress of a practice-development initiative under way at Meyners and Co., LLC, an 80-person, seven-partner, 45-CPA firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The firm saw training its people in a range of communication, focus-sharpening and goal-setting methods as the first, essential step to increasing business. This is part one.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
WHEN MEYNERS AND CO. LOST one of its rainmakers, it decided to spread the responsibility of getting clients and new business by training nonrainmakers in the art of marketing professional services.

THE FIRM FIRST NEEDED TO INCREASE its capacity to handle more business. To get employees to commit to taking on new accountabilities and learning additional skills to do this, it found a consultant that could help them with a cultural makeover.

MEYNERS PROVIDED INFORMATION on finance, operations, administration, marketing, growth and business goals as well as its specialty and niche market affinities to help the consultant identify where potential barriers to practice development existed.

TO GET STAFF WORKING TOGETHER the consultant gathered feedback to refine the firm’s core values and mission and make sure everyone had a clear understanding of what the firm’s values are.

TO HELP DO THIS THE CONSULTANT conducted training named after and based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. The interpersonal and leadership skills the seven-habits principles engender are the underpinning for Meyners’ meeting new demands for employee focus, smooth communication and, ultimately, outreach to clients.

THE TRAINING GAVE EMPLOYEES processes and tools to help them put the habits into practice and hold themselves accountable for using them.

PHAEDRA BROTHERTON is an Arlington, Virginia-based business writer who specializes in career, management and workplace issues. Her e-mail address is Phaebro@aol.com . MICHAEL HAYES is a senior editor on the JofA . Ms. Hayes is an employee of the AICPA and her views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any factual situation. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstance of each case, the general information provided herein is not intended to substitute for the advice of professional counsel.

any firms have a “rainmaker” or two who bring in the bulk of new engagements. For Meyners and Co., LLC, it was an arrangement that worked just fine as long as its stars stayed put. Alas, in June 1999 one of the firm’s major business generators—a tax partner with a long client list—retired abruptly after suffering a disability. His departure highlighted a need that had been brewing and led the firm to take a hard look at how it would improve its pipeline to new business. To win more work and find the resources to service it ultimately would prove to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back saga of determination.

“Our partner group was working at capacity,” recalls Meyners’ litigation services partner Thomas Burrage, CPA. “Between client management, the marketing we already were doing, human resources issues and other business matters, there was no time or energy left for any additional clients or roles.” The firm decided it would spread the responsibility of recruiting clients by training and assisting its nonrainmakers in “the art of marketing professional services,” says Burrage.

What You Pay For
In 2001 there were 53,651 U.S. CPA offices with total receipts of $38,601,265,000. Payroll as a percentage of receipts was 39.3%.

Source: Employee productivity statistics, BizStats.com .

A FALSE START
For its first try, Meyners turned to a nationally known professional-services consultant, which held an all-day marketing training session for the firm’s partners and managers. As part of implementing those newly acquired sales skills, each participant was to describe his or her activities and successes to the consultant, who would record them and report progress back to the group, thereby reinforcing what worked. Unfortunately, because there was no real shift in outlook, there weren’t many successes—and the project failed.

“The same individuals who had been producing results prior to the training continued to produce. Those who hadn’t didn’t begin to,” says Burrage. In addition, the process of keeping the consultant informed took time away from other important business activities. Meyners dropped the operation.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
A year or so later, managing partner Bruce Malott was at a seminar where a presentation by a practice-development company caught his attention. He and his colleagues took a closer look and concluded that the Swansea, Illinois, Growth Partnership (TGP) understood the challenges unique to a CPA firm. “Its members were formerly marketing directors of substantial firms,” Burrage explains. Meyners hired the outfit to help the firm design a plan to grow. The project is long term and has been under way for more than a year.

TGP’s protocol involved first compiling information about Meyners, its employees, clients and systems. To do this, the consultant asked Meyners to answer its preaudit kit, consisting of a 60-item questionnaire for the managing partner—which covered finance, operations, administration and marketing—and a shorter set of practice-development-related questions for the other partners. The purpose of the preaudit was to get a feel for the firm’s culture, identify “where potential barriers exist” and prepare for a first visit.

Next, TGP went to Meyners to interview partners and employees alike and learn more about who they were collectively and as individuals. The consultant also gathered data about the firm’s growth and business goals as well as its specialty and niche market affinities. The next step was a retreat attended by Meyners’ partners and TGP to discuss the findings and take an in-depth look at the firm’s competitors and where it stood in relation to them.

LIGHT DAWNS
With the groundwork done, TGP presented its marketing plan and strategies for growing the firm. One tactic it suggested was to prepare a list of prospective clients from a targeted industry, and then contact them through a series of three to four mailings prior to making a cold call. Although Meyners liked the idea, it hit the partners that this would bring in more work than they could handle. It was then they fully realized they didn’t have the time, the people or the systems in place to put the consultant’s ideas into action. There would be no quick fix.

In the give-and-take of the moment, the partners aired their concerns about putting pressure on themselves to bring in and service more business. The consulting company recommended that Meyners think about how to use the talent it had in-house. Its advice: Develop a firmwide system to encourage growth efforts by getting all employees involved. Motivate and nurture staff to play a more active role in marketing the firm’s services and supporting the additional business.

Meyners needed to start by looking at two important aspects of practice development. These were

Specific firmwide marketing goals and strategies, such as getting an engagement team to work together to identify what other services a client might need.

A system to train, inculcate firm values in and create incentives for the staff people who do the work and carry out the strategies.

DO YOU TAKE THESE VALUES?

Meyners already had developed its core values and mission (see exhibit , below) with help from Practice Development Institute (PDI), a Chicago-based marketing/communications firm. In alphabetical order, its core values are

Collaboration.
Commitment to balancing self, team and client responsibilities.
Commitment to quality and responsive customer service.
Commitment to the greater good.
Continuous and never-ending improvement.
Creativity.
Fun.
Innovation.
Integrity.
Mutual respect, honesty and trust.
Profitability.
Risk taking.

Meyners needed to ensure that staff members embraced the firm’s values and goals as their own to prepare for the intense activity ahead. Making sure both staff and partners clearly understood them was the first step. Coral Rice, a TGP partner who specializes in organizational development, says: “The core values hung everywhere in the firm, but often there were misunderstandings about what they meant. Everyone had his or her own interpretation of how to act in accordance with them.”

Using e-mail to communicate from her office in Illinois, Rice took the staff through the core values. She sent them out, one at a time, to all staff members, requesting each to reply within a week’s time with a definition of what that value meant to him or her. Staff members also were asked to describe behavior that demonstrated a particular core value. Employees e-mailed their definitions and descriptions back to Rice. For each value, the consultant compiled the group’s input into a unified definition with examples and ran them by the partners for an OK.

Applying the same steps, the group worked out what acting on a core value looked like at different levels in the workplace hierarchy. For example, for “collaboration,” staff came up with specific behaviors for each level of employee, from entry-level to partner.

Level 1 collaborative behavior was expected of all employees, and was defined as sharing knowledge or ideas about a particular task or subject with another employee. That might be as simple as a person at the front desk telling another staff member when an express mail package had been picked up.

Meyners and Co.’s Corporate Values Poster

Level 2 collaborative behavior applied to midlevel or professional employees (team leaders/senior accountants) and consisted of delegating responsibilities and communicating expectations to team members.

Level 3 collaborative behavior applied to executive-level or partner-level employees and consisted of activities to encourage communication between departments, both to share ideas and to minimize friction among staff. For example, a partner might ask his or her managers to consult with employees to plan the staff members’ continuing education for the year. To come to a decision, they would discuss what skills the firm wanted strengthened as well as what each employee wanted to learn.

LEARNING TO LIVE THE VALUES
Once Meyners’ people agreed on what the firm’s core values looked like, the next step was to internalize them. To help do this the consultant conducted training named after and based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, 1989). The seven-habits principles of personal and communal effectiveness are closely aligned with the firm’s values, Rice says. The interpersonal and leadership skills they engender are the underpinning for Meyners’ meeting new demands for employee focus, smooth communication and outreach to clients.

“The course teaches processes and skills that allow individuals to organize their lives using their own set of values. Training our staff in these skills and principles will help us develop our desired corporate culture,” says Burrage. In addition, when staff perceive themselves as empowered, they clear away obstacles to doing an outstanding job, he says.

The habits—a series of steps (each one is precursor to the next)—are

1. Be proactive.
2. Begin with the end in mind.
3. Put first things first.
4. Think win-win.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
6. Synergize.
7. Sharpen the saw.

Periodically during the training, which consisted of two one-and-a-half-day workshops, the consultant divided staff into groups to discuss the concepts being taught at the moment. This brought together individuals from different parts of the firm and expanded their sphere of contact beyond the confines of their day-to-day activities.

The first session covered the first three habits, which focus on personal- and leadership-development skills. Employees learned to develop an individual mission statement and a process for managing time and setting priorities. “After learning each habit, we discussed how to apply it to our lives,” says Burrage.

“Be proactive,” for example, touched a nerve for Terisa Blunt, CPA, a Meyners audit manager who recognized a need for more assertiveness in her daily life and incorporated habit one as part of her mission. “Being proactive means focusing on things I have influence over,” says Blunt. Staff members could choose a reciprocal mentoring relationship with another employee—tantamount to an in-house personal coach—and Blunt has found the reinforcement and feedback helpful. She says some of her enthusiasm for the seven habits is because they fit her outlook.

Janet McHard, CPA, supervising senior accountant, cites “put first things first” (habit three) as most meaningful to her for help in balancing day-to-day work, career and family. Burrage, too, has found “put first things first” particularly valuable for reminding him to schedule time with his kids and permit himself a weekly trip to the library. For long-term goals, McHard says that “begin with the end in mind” (habit two) helps her set priorities and deal effectively with daily pressures.

The second part of the training covered habits four through seven, which address how people interact. To put them into practice, employees participated in large and small group sessions, playing a variety of games in teams and taking part in role-playing exercises that emphasized empathetic listening, team building and collaboration.
Finding personal applicability in the habits helped persuade staff that the cultural housecleaning they were going through was more than a rhetorical exercise. Stephen P. Comeau, JD and manager of litigation and valuation services, had participated in leadership seminars in the past and was a skeptic. But the program presented techniques and insights that “help you to focus on the right things in trying to mature as an individual and as an organization,” he concedes.

The seven-habits training was designed to give Meyners’ employees tools to use on an ongoing basis and procedures for “holding themselves accountable for engaging in the process,” says Rice. One practical exercise takes people through a series of six steps to determine their priorities, for example. It helps them connect with their mission by reviewing their roles, defining their goals, planning their weekly activities and assessing how well they do each week.

When the training was completed, Meyners asked participants to evaluate it anonymously. Out of 65 people, only two or three said they didn’t find it useful, Burrage says. Overall, employees were optimistic about the changes in the company and about their abilities to contribute. One employee who has been with the firm for several years and watched it grow to 80 people from 35 finds the training an antidote to the distance that occurs when companies get bigger. Others are encouraged that management has exerted itself to get them involved. “In the past, many of us have waited for change to come from the top down. Now we’re each encouraged to help effect it,” says Blunt. “Success is up to us.”

ALL ABOARD
Meyners appears to be succeeding in getting its employees on board with the changes. In January the partners held their annual Focus Day to update staff on the firm’s progress, its market position and strategic plan. The staff’s reaction was positive, says Burrage. Senior accountant and CPA Annie Grubelnik sees a wide range of benefits and says, “With this, we all can go down the same path together in trying to improve our work and personal lives.”

But much still needs to be done. The firm let everyone know that there would be demands to learn fresh skills and take on new roles, such as marketing services and responsibilities in new niche areas. To accomplish this, the firm will give employees the training they need to do their redesigned jobs. These changes will require modification of Meyners human resources systems to evaluate and compensate staff for meeting the objectives.

“Our next step en route to bringing in and servicing new business is to finalize our job descriptions and develop performance-review and pay-for-performance systems,” says Burrage. “In my opinion, we’re a much healthier organization as a result of the efforts so far, but the proof will come when we begin marketing and see profitability improvements.” Meyners’ partners and staff will put the new compensation system in place over the next 12 months, and the JofA will take another look at them then.

SPONSORED REPORT

How to make the most of a negotiation

Negotiators are made, not born. In this sponsored report, we cover strategies and tactics to help you head into 2017 ready to take on business deals, salary discussions and more.

VIDEO

Will the Affordable Care Act be repealed?

The results of the 2016 presidential election are likely to have a big impact on federal tax policy in the coming years. Eddie Adkins, CPA, a partner in the Washington National Tax Office at Grant Thornton, discusses what parts of the ACA might survive the repeal of most of the law.

QUIZ

News quiz: Scam email plagues tax professionals—again

Even as the IRS reported on success in reducing tax return identity theft in the 2016 season, the Service also warned tax professionals about yet another email phishing scam. See how much you know about recent news with this short quiz.