Jennifer Wilson

Change is hard.  But it’s all over us!  In our nation’s demographics, succession, mergers, technology and turnover, we’re experiencing change at a faster pace than ever before.

As firm leaders, we must keep up to sustain our firms and ensure that they are attractive to NextGen clients and team members.  All too often, we see firms putting off needed changes for a variety of reasons.  In this article, we’ll explore some of the things slowing down change and identify strategies for overcoming these “change blockers.”

So why is change proving to be so hard?  And what can you do about it?  

Change meets resistance for a variety of reasons.  Some of the common reasons change is blocked in CPA firms include:

  • Lack of visibility– sometimes, firm leaders are not close enough to what’s happening in their markets.  To avoid this “lack of knowing,” consider these ideas:
  • Expose a range of firm leaders and talent!  Be careful that you aren’t hoarding exposure by sending only a few key firm leaders to industry events. Make sure that MANY people from your firm are encouraged to attend events, conferences and web seminars as well as read trade publications, listen to podcasts and keep up with social media. Be especially sure to hear one of the AICPA’s top executives speak on their take on Profession Trends every single year.  The ideas for change are all there for you and your firm’s leaders if you seek them.
  • Identify one owner in each of your firm’s industries, service lines and operational areas to follow and report back on trends affecting their area on a semi-annual basis. When “everyone” owns doing something, no one owns it, so be sure at least ONE person is accountable for learning and educating the rest of their group.
  • Ask your clients. Regularly ask your clients for input on trends impacting their lives and businesses.  Ask them to envision their accounting and advisory needs in the future and what they’d like to see you keep doing, stop doing and start doing going forward.  Your clients have insights that can help you identify the highest priorities for change in your firm.
  • Ask your people. They’re close to the clients.  They know what they like and don’t like.  They have opinions and ideas.  Empower them to share ideas for change without the risk of being shut down or making a “career-limiting move.” Of all the ideas in this article, THIS ONE is likely to garner you the best list for possible change.
  • Uncertainty of how to approach a change– it would be great if there was a “paint by numbers” approach to every significant change.  While there are best practices and methodologies for managing many changes, there is also a Wild, Wild West element of change happening in new and burgeoning areas of technology, HR programs and policies, service line expansion and delivery and more.  To a certain degree, uncertainty is normal and expected when undertaking change.  That said, to help gain more clarity:
  • Ask us!  We know of many firms driving a wide variety of changes and we may be able to guide you, connect you with those undertaking similar projects, and help you avoid pitfalls, too.
  • Talk to other firm leaders within your firm’s network. Find others who may have similar ideas for change and find out what they’ve done so far and what advice, resources or tools that they can supply.
  • Assign a specific person to do the outreach and web-based searching for best practices and visible examples of the change you seek.  Have that person dig in and learn as much as they can and then report back their findings and recommendations so you can feel more certain about your approach to change.
  • Complacency — we could write a book on this one (and maybe we should)!  Too often, we meet leaders who feel accomplished and somewhat tired.  You’ve been striving and you want an opportunity to rest and enjoy the fruits of your labors.  After all, many of you are making great money. But the market is NOT resting and the money won’t persist unless you keep at it!  Instead:
  • Consider how it looks to others. People are not attracted to complacency.  They’re attracted to inspiration, passion, and possibility.  When you and your fellow leaders seem to be snuggled up in a comfortable rut, your people and clients are not impressed.  And this is one you can’t fake.  If you’re not lit up about the prospects for your firm and actively engaged in embracing the future, how can you expect your people to be?
  • Find a trend that piques your interest. One that falls into your interest area, whether it be efficiency, technology, talent, service delivery, operations – whatever it is.  Rally your team to pursue change ideas in an area where you are passionate to reignite you’re energy for change.  Once you see success in that change, pursue another change in another relevant area.
  • Selfish interest— this is another major challenge for firms.  All too often, firms aren’t embracing change because someone fears that their pocketbook, their time, their prestige or their control will be impacted.  It’s true that change generally costs time, money and resources.  However, not changing can cost you your market position, clients, talent, profitability and, ultimately, your ability to successfully transition your firm to the next generation.  To head selfishness off at the pass:
  • Create a safe environment where your partners and people can speak openly about their fears and concerns about change and its impact to them personally.  Don’t make expressions of selfish interest “wrong” because we all have needs and those needs drive our behavior.  It is better to understand the selfish interest of your fellow leaders so you can mitigate loss where possible, or help others see where holding on to the way it is now will actually cause MORE loss in the long run.
  • A lack of leadership– sometimes as leaders, we identify a change initiative but don’t feel like we have the leadership capacity to address it.  We want to drive the change, but we can’t quite see who will do it, so we put it off.  As an alternative:
  • Empower your NextGen leaders to address the change.  Put together a cross-functional, cross-generational team, predominantly comprised of Millennial and Gen X team members and present the idea for change to them.  Ask them to do the research, thinking and planning around the change and to present their detailed ideas for how you should tackle it.
  • Break the change into bits. If the change is simply too big to take on all at once, break it into phases and task a piece of it for the coming year.  You do not have to do it all at once and taking steps toward the change is better than standing still.
  • Fear of letting go of control– most of us like being in control and having the power to make change, or block it, too.  The rate of change today is too great for a small number of people to hold that power in your firm.  By holding on too tightly, you will alienate your best and brightest and miss the opportunity to serve the NextGen clients in your community in the new ways they want and will soon expect.  So:
  • Give up the illusion of control. Your success is only partly due to the brilliance and elbow grease of your leaders.  The rest is at the whim of your clients and talent.  And, the face of those people, the needs that they have and the way that they want to be managed, communicated with and served is changing.  You cannot control those changes, but you can control your response to them – which needs to be thoughtful and swift.
  • Empower your team and act as their coach. If you care about your buyout, you’ll want your team members to drive change and try new things NOW, while you’re there to act as a coach, give input to strategy and help course correct when things fall off track.  Instead of operating in the paternalistic, “father (or mother) knows best” way, begin shifting to a “what do you guys think?” method to bring your NextGen leaders along.

You have a tremendous opportunity to position your firm to thrive in the future but it means you have to let go of the past and embrace the future with all the change that it brings.  The famous advice columnist, Ann Landers shared some wisdom for us, “Some people believe holding on is a sign of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”

It’s time to look for ways to let go and drive change together with your future leaders.  And we’re here to help.  For more information, listen to my podcast conversation with Dan Hood of Accounting Today where they talk about driving change in a resistant environment.  Or, contact me directly at jen@convergencecoaching.com.