Don’t let dead weight sink your firm

Be willing to jettison practices that keep your firm from moving forward.
By Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA

One morning, I was fishing in the front of my boat on Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi. Though the bite was slow, I was fully entertained learning more about my new LiveScope sonar technology, which is almost like playing a video game, as it lets you see the fish images under the water.

I had an odd feeling that morning that things weren't just right; however, I wasn't able to put my finger on it. I became engrossed in a conversation with another fisherman about our LiveScopes. When I turned around to grab another color bait, I saw that my boat was full of water! I was literally on the verge of sinking.

Jumping into the back of the boat, I turned on the bilge pump, which thankfully began pumping water out of the boat. Quietly praying, I turned the key and heard the motor roar to life. But seven miles per hour was all the motor could muster. Creeping along, I hoped the water would run out as the bilge pump worked overtime.

Stopping and quickly leaning over the back of the boat, I found the hole where my plug should have been. Yes, the plug that I obviously forgot to put in that morning. After putting the plug back in, I felt my anxiety fading and my breathing ease up. The speed increased, and I returned to the boat ramp.

Driving home, I was amazed that I had so much water in the boat that a 115-horsepower motor capable of over 40 mph could barely push the boat 7 mph.

The lesson to take away from this story? Dead weight will completely take away your speed, agility, and power.

CPA firms today need more speed, agility, and power to deal with disruption, uncertainty, and our clients' quickly changing needs. We need to ask ourselves what dead weight we have in our companies and firms today that will slow us down or even sink us if we aren't careful. What do we need to leave behind to lighten the load?

I was distracted and didn't notice the water rising in my boat. Are we distracted from seeing some of our dead weight?

Just like water floats a boat, it's also capable of sinking it. With digital transformation accelerated by COVID-19 and the need to quickly seize opportunities, we may find that some things that were valuable in the past may be dead weight for us today. Consider whether some of these processes and people may be weighing your firm down and what you might need to do about them:

  • Clients that are marginally profitable, very price-sensitive, and don't really value your services or relationship. They can pile up and distract you from bigger opportunities.
  • Clients that are the only one you serve in a particular industry or area. Your firm has little to no potential market growth or leverage by serving this type of client.
  • Leaders who are strong technicians but simply terrible with people skills. They do not develop others well or help you to increase your power and agility.
  • Partners and managers who resist new business models, technology, or services. Their lack of collaboration can lead to dead weight. Firms must find ways to address this status quo mindset.
  • Business models that run on the chargeable hour rather than a lighter high-octane fuel such as value creation and impact.
  • Using time sheets or measuring and reporting on lagging key performance indicators not related to client worth or experience.
  • Running numerous technology solutions or general ledger or payroll platforms based on legacy client choices or user preferences. Variations add cost, complexity, and lots of weight.
  • Individual partners making marketing, client acceptance, and pricing decisions in a silo. This practice leads to the heavy weight of undervalued work, adding nonstrategic clients and wasted time and dollars.

Today, we need to move quickly to avoid barriers and pursue new directions. Sometimes getting smaller and faster can lead to opportunities and growth we would have missed by being too big and slow. Let's put our "plug" in — the discipline to say no and the will to challenge the status quo — and start pumping out the excess weight. The words of Jim Collins in Good to Great ring so true for us today: "Once you know the right thing, do you have the discipline to do the right thing and, equally important, to stop doing the wrong things?"

— Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he leads the 500-employee firm's strategic visioning for culture, growth, and client experience. Learn more at To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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