Stopping the Brain Drain

Encourage your best and brightest to stay happy and stay put.

  • SMALL CPA FIRMS ARE FEELING THE PINCH from a shortage of qualified staff. It is important for firms to do what they can to keep the best and brightest employees from leaving.
  • FIRMS CAN ASK STAFF WHAT THEIR SALARIES should be and work with them on an annual compensation plan. The firm also can involve staff in running the firm by asking how they think it could be better managed.
  • ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL MOTIVATORS is a personal note of appreciation and congratulations for a job well done. Small bonuses based on staff performance are a good incentive.
  • MANY OF THE MOST TALENTED CPAs LEAVE firms that show no consideration of their life-styles, do not let staff work directly with clients, are cheap, do not have a strategic plan and seldom show appreciation for a job well done.
  • MOST OF ALL, FIRMS SHOULD RECOGNIZE the value of a good staff. Without it, a firm will not be able to keep its clients.
ALLAN S. BORESS, CPA, CFE, is a consultant to the accounting profession on practice management and business development issues based in Coral Springs, Florida. He is the author of I-Hate-Selling, published by AMACOM, a division of the American Management Association. His e-mail address is

t is devastating for owners of small and midsize CPA firms, when, after investing time and money to train young staffers and groom them to become partners, employees leave for a job in industry or for a larger firm. Small CPA firms simply cannot afford to pay as much as Fortune 500 companies, consulting companies and large firms, and managers everywhere agree that it is difficult to find and keep talented young CPAs.

To counter this, some CPA firms provide employee stock-ownership plans and generous benefits packages. But not all firms can afford such incentives. Partners at firms need to recognize that building loyalty is more than a matter of income—it takes sensitivity and creativity to retain staff. Studies repeatedly have shown that employees are more likely to stay with a firm that challenges them, helps them to develop their potential and recognizes their needs outside the office.

As a consultant to firms, I've seen many CPAs grapple with staff retention. By following the examples of firms that have successfully held on to their more talented staff, you too can keep your winners and prospective partners.


Jim Howard, managing partner of Smith and Howard, a firm of 41 professionals in Atlanta; Lou Grassi, managing partner of Grassi & Co., a 60-member firm in Valley Stream, New York; and Rita Keller, principal and firm administrator of Brady Ware & Schoenfeld, a 70-member firm in Dayton, Ohio, have faced the same problems retaining key staff members that the rest of the profession is experiencing. Grassi boasts of losing only 5 staff people out of 40 over the past five years in the most competitive staffing market in the country. All three firms share basic staffing strategies in five areas that have brought them success:

1. Compensation. According to Jim Howard, the best way to find out how to compensate staff is to ask them what they want. "In our firm, I have staff write me a one-page letter annually, to describe the compensation plan that will motivate them to help the firm reach its goals," says Howard. When people create their own compensation program, they become self-motivated. Such goal-based compensation plans are tailored to the individual employee, and can include a bonus, extra vacation time or even gifts, such as a new PC. "My experience shows me that people know what will motivate them and, more often than not, they come up with a fair salary," says Howard.

Howard's firm decided to do away with the standard tax-season bonus based on hours of overtime and workload and divide the bonus pool according to effort and contributions to the firm based on the discretion of the partners.

2. Firm management. I've always thought it was good to ask staff how they thought the firm should be managed. Involving staff members in running the firm lets them influence the direction of their careers and the firm's path.

Smith and Howard asked their nonpartners for help in running the firm. The partners implemented many of the staff's ideas, including various marketing and promotion ideas, higher-level technology training and a time-bank plan that awards them holidays.

"At Grassi & Co., everyone is involved in running the firm," says Lou Grassi. "All staff are involved in managing critical areas, because all are involved in a committee, be it technical, process improvement or relationship enhancement. Every partner is a leading member of one committee, so each is setting the right example for staff."

According to Rita Keller, the partners want their staff involved in firm and systems management. The goal—get the client to say "Wow!" She adds: "Our staff is involved in recruiting as well because we believe some of our best recruiters for entry-level positions are young staff at college job fairs. They visit college campuses and sell the firm better than the partners because they relate better to younger people."

3. Psychology. A personal reward is one of the most powerful ways to satisfy an employee's need to feel important and wanted. As CEO or managing partner, I would sit down with my fellow management team on a weekly basis and discuss staff performance. Those people who had had a great week heard about it from me or got a note of thanks. As a result, not only did we have exceptionally low turnover but also the firm's workspaces were covered with notes and cards that often made an excellent impression on job applicants and potential clients.

Giving regular parties for staff is a great way to build a team approach for the firm. Many firms have get-togethers; we allow the staff to select the location and to plan and carry out the events without management interference. These gatherings are open to spouses and significant others, and we encourage staff to invite firm alumni. Every party functions as an ongoing reunion, fostering a feeling of both team and family.

"You can never say 'thank you,' 'please' and 'great job' enough," says Keller. "This helps staff overcome the daily grind that they often feel, as well as many of their own family demands." According to Grassi, it is most important to say "thank you" whenever appropriate. "We remind them constantly we couldn't be the firm we are without them," says Grassi. "This helps keep staff happy amidst a very demanding work schedule."

4. Communication. "Our internal communication makes staff feel involved," says Keller. "The managing director has lunch with our nonpartner staff every three months, to provide them with an open forum to ask anything and say anything. We have niche-team meetings, an after-tax-season feedback survey and a performance appraisal after an engagement is completed. We also ask staff to come to partner meetings to discuss prospective clients."

"All our staff knows our annual plan," says Grassi. "They contribute to it on a monthly basis by filling out a form about what they learned in the past month, how they've helped one another, how they've helped a client and what they think others can learn from their experiences. We share our business statistics and tell them about clients being pitched. It's important to let them know how we plan on growing because we want them to see how we have planned their future in our firm."

Taking staff out to lunch and dinner regularly keeps you in tune with staff. Jim Howard personally spends time with staff, taking each to lunch monthly. Lou Grassi "schmoozes" with his staff over dinner on a regular basis. This moves the "boss-employee" relationship to a more personal level and helps create loyalty.

5. Career development and workload. "We believe in fitting an opportunity with a person," says Keller. "We have people who choose to be career managers, and we have people on a defined partner track. They discover what it takes to be partner as soon as they join the firm," she says.

"We also have to be more flexible than firms have been in the past," says Keller. "We offer flextime and part-time work. This has helped us hold on to talented staffers."

"We also are big believers in education and involvement," Keller says. "We have a 'lunch and learn' series, where we offer mini training courses in nontechnical areas, including etiquette, networking and dressing for success."

"We have an official mentoring program that allows every staff person to review his or her career progress with a partner, to ensure it's on the right track," Grassi adds.


A good staff is the most important asset your firm has. Without it, you will not keep your clients. Invest a little more time and thought in managing staff/ partner relationships, with an emphasis on reducing the traditional silo-mentality structure at your firm. The managing partners must be more flexible and consider all they can do to boost morale and retain younger CPAs, who don't think the same way we did when we were climbing our ladders.

Most important, believe in what you have to offer, just as Lou Grassi does: "As managing partner, I am the firm's loudest cheerleader," he says. "If I don't believe in the value of working and staying at my firm, my staff won't either."


Learn From Mentors

My mentors, Jordon and Sanford Rubens, CPAs, taught me firsthand how to motivate staff; their techniques not only boosted production but made working in public practice more enjoyable. Following are some of the lessons I learned about fostering employee loyalty.

Share knowledge. Many firm partners make the mistake of keeping their staff in the dark, for fear that they will create competitors or have to pay higher salaries to keep an informed and educated staff person.

Take the time to train. A lot of partners tell me that they just don't have the time to sell, but maybe they don't have time to sell because they haven't taken the time to train.

Take a personal interest. Do you know the names of your staff's children and spouses? When employees have this kind of relationship with a boss, they often go out of the way for them and treat firm clients as their own.

Challenge staff. Don't be afraid to push your staff beyond their self-imposed limitations.

Trust employees. Some partners require all client communications to go through them. Let your staff return client calls. They will be learning while you will have more time to focus on business development.

Teach staff how to market the firm. Did you learn what it took to build a practice in college? Take your staff on sales calls and networking events.

Be a role model. Avoid "do as I say, but not as I do." Lead by example. If you preach practice development, show how you devote your own time to building client relationships.

Treat staffers as your peers. The Rubenses didn't have a typical partner attitude: They treated their best employees as they treated each other.

What Are We Doing Wrong?

As a business development consultant I have worked with hundreds of CPA firms and interviewed dozens of former staff CPAs. Here are the top 10 mistakes CPA firms make with their most talented staffers.

1. Showing no personal interest. Younger staffers today are more self-aware than their baby-boomer bosses are. More driven by their emotions, they need to know that you care and that you have a personal interest in their future, their career, their family and their growth as professionals. Absent this, you lose their loyalty and eventually them.

2. Discouraging client contact. "I was never allowed to talk to the clients directly, even though a partner might be on vacation or I was better qualified to answer a question," one Illinois CPA said. Such unwillingness to delegate responsibility and share client relationships is discouraging to talented young CPAs.

3. Being cheap. Often the disparity between salaries for partners and managers is too great. I'll never forget one California firm that lost the only staff person who could have taken over as managing partner—an impressive CPA who had been with the firm for 12 years. A competitor offered him 10% more to jump ship. The partners wouldn't match the increase, so he walked. How many people has your firm lost because the only way you grade success is by your own W-2? Shouldn't some of that money be spread around the firm? One Florida manager told me she left public accounting after she offered to use her vacation time to attend a conference. "The partners wouldn't pay for my trip even though I was paying for my time. That was the last straw."

4. Not sharing the strategic plan. All too often the leaders never communicate the goals of the firm to their staff, leaving them in suspense about the outlook for the business. Employees need to know what career paths exist in the firm, and what it takes to become a partner.

5. Not patting employees on the back. Partners expect staffers to work hard but often fail to reward them for it. Result: People leave for firms where devotion is applauded. Employees don't expect a raise for every job well done. But acknowledging a fine job—with a short note, e-mail or simple "thank you"—can go a long way toward making an employee feel appreciated.

6. Criticizing. Smart managers look for what their people are doing right and then comment on it. This boosts employee self-esteem and leads to better performance. Unfortunately, at some firms, the only feedback staff receive is criticism. One ex-public accountant said, "I was miserable. All my partners ever did was criticize. I started feeling bad about myself, and that carried into my home life as well. When my wife pointed out how negative I had become, I realized where I had learned it and started looking for another job."

7. Being inflexible. Firms often lose quality staffers because they refuse to make exceptions for people in special circumstances, such as parents with young children. Another common mistake firms make is failing to adjust assignments for staffers who burn out from doing the same work for the same clients year in and year out.

8. Missing business opportunities. A Pennsylvania CPA introduced a firm partner to the president of one of the town's leading companies, who informed the partner he was unhappy with his current CPA firm. "I felt we had an excellent opportunity to pick up a high-quality client, but the partner of my firm said he didn't have the time to do a proposal or follow-up," the CPA said. "I knew then that my firm was in over its head and that I was in the wrong place."

9. Not working as a team. When a firm doesn't pull together to accomplish its goals, it makes work difficult for the staff. One Minnesota manager asked me: "Why do they call it a partnership? Our partners fight all the time over their turf, and the staff always winds up in the middle because the partners never make a decision. Everybody marches in a different direction, and the firm is going nowhere. I don't want to spend my career fighting my partners."

10. Dumping work. We often give the best staffers more work than their peers, especially work for important clients, one former Indiana firm manager told me. "Because the partners of my firm counted on me, they would come to me first with projects and extra work while the other managers and staff went home to be with their families. My pay wasn't materially different from that of the others. They took advantage of me, so I left."

Allan S. Boress


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