Customizing talent development

Walter & Shuffain’s homegrown leadership program helps the firm advance its most promising people.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, and Anita Dennis

William Cooper, CPA, and Angela Parziale, CPA
William Cooper, CPA, and Angela Parziale, CPA, partners at Boston-based Walter & Shuffain PC, helped the firm develop a program that prepares staff for leadership roles. “Our goal is to have [staff] envision a long career at the firm,” says Cooper. (Photo by Scott Eisen/AP Images)

Fast-growing firms must confront the challenge of keeping pace with succession and staff development demands. Boston-based Walter & Shuffain PC is meeting this challenge with a customized leadership and staff development program that sets a framework for advancement and helps the firm accelerate promising people along the path to leadership.

The practice has experienced fast growth over the past two decades, and firm leaders are now making strategic decisions about the firm's future. In 1990, the firm had 25 professionals and five partners. Today, it has 70 professionals and eight partners. While bringing in new recruits has not been a problem, the firm faced challenges in finding and retaining senior staff and getting them ready for leadership roles. The current ratio of professionals to partners is comparable to firms in their region, said partner Angela Parziale, CPA. She attributes the growth of professionals in relation to partners to the continual increase in the complexity of standards, which has made it necessary to bring on more people to serve clients.

"We think our size and growth rate are perfect," said William Cooper, CPA, a partner also involved in the effort. The firm offers a wide range of services while maintaining good relationships with staff and clients. "But we have to retain staff to maintain those relationships," he said.

The firm's leadership is made up of three senior partners who are between five and 10 years from retirement and five "NextGen" partners who are all under age 45. Two of the NextGen partners started with the firm as first-year staff. "We realize that our staff are the future of the firm," said Parziale, who is one of the NextGen partners spearheading the program. "And we want to keep W&S sustainable. We don't want to be forced to merge into a larger firm to address our growth and succession needs."

Many CPA firms are having success with such advancement programs, according to an AICPA survey conducted in 2017. Almost half (45%) of the 492 respondents said their firms use mentoring programs, and 87% of them said those programs have an impact on attracting or retaining talent. Recruiting and retention also were affected at an overwhelming majority of firms that have sponsorship programs, gender initiatives, combined diversity and inclusion programs, and minority initiatives, according to the survey. So Walter & Shuffain's promising results with its program are aligned with trends being seen across the accounting profession.

STAFF AND LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

Walter & Shuffain's NextGen group assigned itself the task of developing a two-part program aimed at preparing current and emerging leaders and training them to spearhead a staff leadership program. The program kicked off in the fall of 2016 with the five NextGen partners each championing three people. Here's how it works:

  1. The partner group nominates participants with a minimum of four years' experience and leadership potential. That potential may be observed as willingness to take on more challenging work, engaging in mentoring with younger staff, building client relationships, or earning the respect of peers and staff.

  2. The participants are assigned to partners who act as champions. They work together to develop short- and long-term goals and develop a career path for the protégés. Each partner is responsible for setting up the initial meeting with the people he or she will champion. The meeting includes determining where the protégé stands in relation to core competencies that the firm has identified, which encompass technical, practice development, and practice management needs. Protégés choose an internal initiative to get involved in, including areas such as quality control, recruitment, staff evaluation and mentoring, and the women's leadership committee. Of the firm's 34 women professionals, Parziale is the firm's only female partner, but the two people who have been promoted from the initial leadership development group to partner-in-training — a prepartnership level — are women. The partners-in-training are not held to a partner standard, but they are introduced to the expectations and experience of being a partner, with goals for networking and practice development, as a way to get experience before taking on the job of partner. The meeting also covers protégés' development or education needs and a discussion of potential specializations.

  3. Going forward, champions are also encouraged to include their protégés in networking and other practice development activities and to advocate for them and the overall leadership program.

  4. Champions and protégés meet at least quarterly to assess development using the firm's progress tracker. The progress tracker is a spreadsheet that covers areas such as meetings between champions and protégés and what was discussed, short- and long-term goals for protégés, and progress on action items. Protégés are evaluated annually on program results.

  5. In the program's first year, a two- to three-day off-site leadership development course provided in-house and outsourced training on soft skills and team building. The course this year will cover effective coaching.

  6. Participants are asked to offer feedback on program content and direction and to promote the program to younger staff.

PROGRESS MADE

As the program entered its second year, the firm made several important decisions and took steps forward. When two members of the leadership development group were promoted to partner-in-training, their first assignment was to incorporate the original leadership program's ideas into a more generalized staff development program for those at supervisor level and below. Among other things, they will revisit training with new hires after busy season to get their feedback on what else they might have needed or what additional questions or insights they might have now that they have put their training to work. They will also focus on soft skills and community involvement options. As newer staff gain experience, the program's leaders will identify which ones might be prospects for the leadership development group.

The firm has decided that there should be no definite term for participation in the leadership development program or the partner-in-training level. A participant can be someone on the partner track or a long-term manager, as long as he or she is acknowledged as someone who stands out as a leader. The open-ended programs give participants time to grow into their roles and also allow for the development of new leaders at a point when the firm doesn't currently have many partners nearing retirement. "We want to retain leaders who want to move up, and retain and encourage people who are valuable to us and happy where they are," Parziale said.

The firm has also introduced a new coaching program. It is retaining the typical one-to-one mentoring option but also offering a team approach, which was suggested by a staff member, in which each mentee has numerous mentors, including someone at the partner and manager level. The mentoring from more senior people will generally be more indirect. For example, a partner might invite all his or her mentees to lunch or recommend a networking event that could be valuable for them to attend. "We wanted to find more ways for people to be mentored than just the quarterly lunch," Parziale said.

LESSONS LEARNED

Based on lessons learned, Parziale and Cooper recommend that firms consider these steps in setting up their own leadership and staff development programs:

Ask questions

What do staff really want? What will help motivate them to stay with the firm and to advance as far as they want? Those questions are crucial to creating an effective leadership and retention program. The NextGen group decided that the best way to find the answers was simple one-to-one conversations, rather than a formal survey. The firm prides itself on offering staff open dialogue with the leadership. "The old days when staff never talked to partners are long gone," Cooper said.

Parziale underscored the benefits of this approach. "I have really learned to listen to our staff," she said. "So many of them have great ideas on how to make our firm top rate."

After asking for feedback, the firm leaders found that staff were seeking greater direction on career paths, a more formal mentoring program, greater training options, more detailed evaluations, and better guidance on setting and reaching goals. They also wanted more regular communication with partners so they would know what was happening in the firm and so partners would understand their needs.

Create a foundation

Parziale researched how other firms of similar size were addressing their needs, turning, among others, to contacts she had made when chosen as a recipient of a Women to Watch Award, which is chosen by the state CPA societies and the AICPA. Based on what they learned about other firms' success, the firm leaders decided they needed a formal and comprehensive program. "It wasn't enough just to let everyone find their own path," Parziale said, which is why the NextGen team developed core competencies for different levels.

Build a case for staying put

"With Millennials," Parziale said, "we're told that their idea of a career path is five to six different jobs, and not a 17-year career at one company like I've had. We want to change that mindset." To do so, the firm is trying to make sure younger people are aware of the rewards that a career with the firm can offer. "We're communicating what it means to have a top-level position here," she said.

As a parent of young children herself, Parziale, for example, discusses the flexibility she has in a leadership role. "We want them to know that when they get to the leadership levels, they can make their own schedules, expand their responsibilities, work hand-in-hand with our client leadership, and enjoy lucrative compensation. The staff may not be aware of those opportunities if we don't tell them about them," she said.

"It's critical for staff to understand what it means to grow in our profession," Cooper added. "And there are many chances to move up."

Personalize the approach

The champions work with protégés to identify the best next steps for their individual circumstances. Cooper is helping a supervisor who's on the partner track prepare for the manager level. For a career manager with young children, Cooper's goal is to ensure she retains professional satisfaction and that she understands that she can reconsider her career direction as her personal situation changes. That could mean, for example, moving from a reduced schedule when her children are young to full time when they are in school or later.

"We set goals that are attainable," he said. "We customize the program to where they are now and where they want to be in the short and long term."

Make changes as needed

Even in its early stages, the program has offered the firm valuable insights that have changed some perceptions and procedures. Cooper noted that "we often think of career managers as being client focused, but we found that many wanted their job descriptions to include internal projects, such as staff training and involvement in developing social and charitable initiatives." The firm is now adjusting roles and responsibilities as needed, which the partners hope will enhance career managers' satisfaction.

In another instance, the firm believes a small change has made a big difference in staff morale and engagement. "The staff told us they were unhappy that we had no internal instant messaging system," Cooper said. He admitted that he was surprised that staff members couldn't simply call one another on the phone or look across their cubes to talk. But the firm complied with the staff members' request. Now the firm uses the intra-office messaging system Slack to offer private channels and open messaging.

"When I logged in," Cooper said, "I called out to someone nearby for some help, and suddenly there were six staff coming in to set it up and show me how to use it. Now they use it to share information, talk about where to go to lunch, or make plans for after work." He believes the staff members appreciate the firm's responsiveness and the chance to put their own knowledge to work in making a difference in the firm.

Parziale would like to find other ways for staff to get involved in initiatives large and small. "We want them to feel they have something to contribute the first day they walk in the door," she said.

The firm's established core competencies are also helping in the evaluation process, Parziale said. While it can be difficult to give cohesive feedback — or discuss weaknesses — managers can now turn to a firm standard to demonstrate staff development needs in technical areas and client development, communication, technology, and more. "They can now make practical decisions about getting CPE in certain areas, about spending more time working with a specific partner, or working on client relationships or development," she said.

Leverage what you learn

With the leadership program established in January, the firm has assigned participants to be the champions themselves in a staff development program that will aim to create career paths and new opportunities for professionals at that level. "They can pass on the mentoring they've had and jump-start the development of first years or new seniors," Parziale said. That addresses an important concern for the firm. "Since staff at senior level are at a premium throughout the profession, it's important for us to get them to a point where they can run jobs," she said.

A FOCUS ON THE LONG TERM

The firm believes its staff and leadership development programs will better equip it to make the most of its team members and to keep them engaged. "We want them to know the firm leaders have thought about what it would take to stay," Cooper said, so that the firm can count on keeping promising people. "Our goal is to have them envision a long career at the firm."


About the authors

Yasmine El-Ramly (Yasmine.ELRamly@aicpa-cima.com) is senior technical manager—Firm Services & Global Alliances at the AICPA. Anita Dennis (anita@dennisink.com) is a freelance writer based near New York City.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-2112.


AICPA resources

Articles

Conference

  • AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, Nov. 14—16, New York City (#WOM18; #WOM18ON, online conference)

Online resources

  • AICPA Online Mentoring Program, aicpa.org/mentoring
  • AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) Performance Management Resources, aicpa.org
  • AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee's Women in the Profession Resources, aicpa.org
  • PCPS CPA Firm Competency Model, competency.aicpa.org (free to PCPS members)

Customized learning

The AICPA can assess staff competencies and design a customized learning plan to help develop your talent. Call 800-634-6780, option 1; email aicpalearning@aicpa.org; or visit AICPALearning.org for more information.

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