CPA INSIDER

CPA firm leaders, what will your legacy be?

Partners nearing retirement must balance securing their personal future with investing in the future of the firm they love.
By Jennifer Wilson

Like millions of theatergoers, I loved the musical Hamilton. It was smart, diverse, informative, and entertaining. Toward the end, it felt as if the character of Hamilton came center stage and spoke to me directly when he sang:

"Legacy. What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."

Here's why those words resonated with me. I spend a lot of time helping mature, experienced, smart, and capable leaders transition their accounting practices to the next generation. I help them let go of their clients, transition decision-making authority, and ultimately sell their ownership interests. Along the way, most struggle mightily to make the transition work, for themselves and for their firms. And while these experienced leaders struggle, their future leaders become disheartened and frustrated. Too often, I see firms lose bright NextGen leaders who could have taken the firm forward but decide to leave because of the mature partners' unwillingness to invest generously and then step aside.

In today's climate, dramatic demographic shifts are driving changes in client and talent expectations, and technology is affecting almost every aspect of service delivery and business processes. To compete, firm leaders must accept and invest in change and embrace their NextGen leaders' ideas and leadership much earlier than they might have expected.

Hamilton's analogy of the garden is perfect. The changes mature leaders make today are the seeds they plant in their current garden that will grow to form a new garden that they may never see — i.e., the firm the NextGen leaders guide into the future.  

Now, more than ever, experienced leaders must be on guard. Because every day, they are faced with a very real threat to their garden — selfish thinking that threatens to choke out and discourage new growth. Selfishness has almost been encouraged in our traditional business environment. The founders or owners called the shots and made the money until they were ready to hand it over. The next generation, who waited their turn quietly, looked forward to enjoying their time "at the top."

Today, though, next generation leaders have many more options than we ever had — within our profession and outside it, too. The epic changes coming to our profession are both exciting and worrisome to those future leaders. They expect their ascent to firm leadership to be rife with the risk of disintermediation and obsolescence. They know that their firms must be retooled. They cannot sit idly by while the world is changing and their firm isn't.

So, what can mature leaders do to secure their legacy and ensure the sustainability of their firms? They should carefully examine the thinking of their leadership team and their own, too. Are they engaged in more traditionalist, self-focused thinking or more progressive, legacy-focused ideals? The table below illustrates examples of each:

legacy-thinking

Let's end by reexamining the central question. What will your legacy be? Controlling the fate of others for too long? Earning the most compensation and expecting a buyout that's priced above market?

Or will you do the humbling work now to plant the seeds that will transform the garden you love into a better one that you may never get to see?

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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