Building a reputation in the accounting profession takes time, but is critical to success. Traditionally, partners built their reputation, or personal brand, by pushing information out to clients, prospects and friends. The timeworn mantra “it’s not what you know, but who you know” has been a fundamental building block for counseling younger partners and rising stars.
With the explosion of social media and other new digital tactics, however, “push” is giving way to “dialogue,” where people-to-people-driven information is becoming an important way to create personal awareness, establish credibility, drive differentiation at the personal level, and invite prospects into relationships that can be transformed into new business. The new mantra for today’s younger partners and rising stars is: it’s not who you know, but who knows you; and it’s not what you know, but how quickly you share your knowledge, observations and insights. Now, more than ever, talented professionals need to be able to distinguish themselves quickly across a series of networking platforms. If you are a young CPA interested in building your reputation and developing your own personal brand equity (PBE), this article is for you. CPA firm partners and managers can also benefit from understanding the importance of personal brand equity and the effect it can have on your firm.
BUILDING A PERSONAL BRAND
Personal brand equity combines thought leadership and relationship building. Follow these steps for building personal brand equity.
Understand personal brand equity and the process of branding. Basically, PBE consists of: (1) the intangible value individuals bring to the firm in terms of their ability to influence others by leveraging their experience, expertise and reputation, (2) the relationships they have built and maintained, and (3) the tangible value they bring in terms of their contribution to firm revenue and growth.
Managing partners and executive committees need to understand the concept of personal branding and its importance for a firm’s growth and legacy. Personal branding can be a strategic objective for the firm, as well as a process that allows younger partners and rising stars to stand out from a crowd by identifying their unique value proposition, articulating it through a consistent message, and then delivering it across multiple media platforms.
Craft personal brand statements and brand positioning. Each younger partner and rising star’s brand should be built on a “position” that can be articulated in a personal brand statement. They need to answer this question as a start: What makes you different and why should people care?
A personal brand position statement has four key elements: (1) identifying a target market by niche or by job title; (2) choosing personal attributes and characteristics that define how the individual wants to be perceived; (3) defining and selecting the technical skills he or she wishes to highlight; and (4) conveying what makes him or her different. Examples: “I am a dedicated professional who helps owners of small manufacturing businesses develop and execute succession plans that guarantee firm continuity. No other CPA in the market can combine innovative thinking with resources, contacts and experience like I do.”
Another example: “I am a manager who uses the audit process as a steppingstone to understand and help my tax-exempt clients solve their business issues. My clients think of me as a team player and a ‘go-to’ resource who can find ways to solve their problems.”
As you can see from the above examples, one is very narrow, the other broader. These position statements generally narrow over time, as the individual realizes the value of building his or her practice within a narrow niche. The narrower the niche, the more readily identifiable the target market will be, creating strategic and tactical opportunities to be a large fish in a smaller pond.
Understand the tools, tactics and media for growing personal brand equity. New media applications create unlimited personal brand-building opportunities for emerging professionals such as presenting in webinars and contributing thought-leadership pieces to corporate blogs or your firm’s e-newsletter. A LinkedIn account with a current and complete profile is another way to get your name out there. You can participate on LinkedIn by adding connections, joining relevant “groups,” regularly updating your status and contributing to group discussions. Twitter and Facebook are also useful platforms. With all three of these sites, their relevancy and utility depend on how often they are updated.
Find the right balance. Two dimensions of “balance” affect the ability of a younger partner or rising star to build PBE. First, he or she needs to find the right balance between billable time and the unbillable time necessary to develop relationships and create thought leadership. Second, he or she will need to find the right balance between traditional and digital brand-building tactics. Encourage effective use of all options.
PERSONAL BRANDING AND YOUR FIRM’S SUCCESSION PLAN
Personal brand equity planning should be a part of every firm’s succession plan to protect its future growth and viability. For firms with a succession plan in place, it’s likely that significant attention was devoted to financial, leadership, client retention and funding issues, but does the plan acknowledge the impact of the loss of influence on firm continuity when your senior partners retire and how it’s going to be replaced? Devote attention now to the development and nurturing of PBE for your firm’s younger partners and rising stars.
Develop individualized and customized personal branding plans. Develop a written plan for each young partner/rising star. The plan should include defined goals such as pinpointing membership and participation levels in civic and trade associations or securing thought leadership through a targeted number of speaking engagements or publishing opportunities. It should contain tactical elements that define how those goals will be reached. The plan must incorporate use of the firm’s marketing resources and infrastructure, such as how to capitalize on the firm’s e-newsletter. The plan should include a way to define and measure the return on investment of their personal brand equity, both in terms of growth in the book of business and through exposure and awareness.
Commit, measure and adjust. Building PBE is a lifelong endeavor that requires commitment and planning. Both the individual and his or her supervisor need to continually monitor the plan’s progress and make adjustments when necessary. It’s never been easier to do than in the digital age. Online tools such as the ID Calculator from Reach Personal Branding (reachpersonalbranding.com) provide metric-based insight on the reach and frequency of personal branding activities. Subscribe to Google Alerts to capture instances where and when a partner or rising star is mentioned.
Transferring goodwill. Goodwill is an intangible asset, and its representation on your firm’s balance sheet is, to a large degree, the sum of the goodwill earned individually by your partners over the years. Personal branding becomes a set of strategies and tactics that builds the firm’s balance sheet. When a partner retires, a piece of the firm’s goodwill retires with him or her, so investing in the personal branding of younger partners and rising stars is more than just an exercise for securing a return on influence—it’s a part of securing the firm’s financial health.
Can the goodwill of a retiring partner be transferred? Generally speaking, no, because goodwill is the product of a partner’s reputation that has been secured over the years through a record of achievements. Emerging professionals need to build their own book of achievements, but the firm can certainly help, starting with client relationship- building activities that will be a part of account transfers, introductions at civic and trade associations with the objective of securing leadership roles, and the development, monitoring and continual maintenance of customized personal branding plans.
A personal brand is a perception in the minds of others that must be developed, nurtured and managed by younger partners and rising stars—the notion that there is no one else in the marketplace quite like them. Their personal brand will stand at the forefront of influencing all types of stakeholders in the niches your firm serves via their experience, expertise, thought leadership, honesty, integrity and capabilities.
It is fair to say that all of the senior partners in your firm have a personal brand, some stronger than others, some more by happenstance than design, and it is a certainty that their brands are at the core of your firm’s new business success. Firms need to recognize this and invest in helping their younger partners and rising stars create and sustain a personal brand because it’s good for business now and in the future, and the best way they can stand out and prosper in an increasingly noisy and fast-paced business-development world.
Building a reputation in the accounting profession takes time, but the explosion of social media and other new digital tactics are putting increasing demands on the ability to share knowledge, observations and insights quickly. Younger professionals need to develop a position, or personal brand statement, that they can clearly articulate across a series of platforms.
Personal brand equity (PBE) consists of: (1) the intangible value individuals bring to the firm in terms of their ability to influence others by leveraging their experience, expertise and reputation, (2) the relationships they have built and maintained, and (3) the tangible value they bring in terms of their contribution to firm revenues and growth.
A personal brand position statement consists of four key elements: (1) identifying a target market by niche or by job title; (2) choosing personal attributes and characteristics that define how the individual wants to be perceived; (3) defining and selecting the technical skills they wish to highlight; and (4) conveying what makes them different.
It is important for upper management to understand and support the concept of personal branding and its importance for a firm’s growth and legacy.
Personal brand equity planning should be a part of every firm’s succession plan to protect its future growth and viability.
Develop a written plan for each young partner/rising star. The plan should include a way to define and measure the return on investment of his or her personal brand equity, both in terms of growth in the book of business and through exposure and awareness.
Building PBE is a lifelong endeavor that requires commitment and planning. Continually monitor the plan’s progress and make adjustments when necessary.
Alan Vitberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of marketing at The Bonadio Group in Rochester, N.Y.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Loanna Overcash, senior editor, at email@example.com or 919-402-4462.
Securing the Future: Building a Succession Plan for Your Firm (#090520)
AICPA Emerging Partner Training Forum II, Aug. 11–12, New York City
For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.
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.
More from the JofA: