Most firms focus their learning initiatives on technical CPE, service methodologies and technology training. And, your team members with the highest level of technical competence are praised, rewarded, and promoted, until they reach the level of manager.  At that point, most firms expect those same highly technical people to suddenly “sprout” leadership and management abilities.  Yet, the 2012 PCPS Succession Survey states that 42% of the respondents feel that their number one challenge hampering their firm’s succession strategy is that “senior partners feel that younger members of the firm are not ready for leadership positions” – because they haven’t yet developed the expected “soft skills.” The 2016 PCPS Succession Survey echoes this sentiment: “Although opinions about the lack of readiness among the next generation of partners could be valid, there are often diamonds-in-the-rough that just need some polishing to prepare them for leadership. In these and other cases, it is not uncommon that the reason senior owners don’t have people on board with whom they’re comfortable is because the senior partners have not taken the time to develop the people below them.”

Experiential learning is critical to compressing development time and transferring knowledge into practical application.   In this blog, we will explore eight tangible activities to provide your up-and-comers “on-the-job” or experiential learning opportunities to develop their skills and give them the experience they need now to take on increased responsibility and enhance their leadership abilities within your firm.

Develop your team members by:

  • Taking them along to attend client, prospect and referral meetings so that they can listen to the questions that are asked and see how you respond. They will learn what’s expected in these meetings as well as gain meaningful information about the client, prospect or referral source that they can also apply in their relationship development work. Let your client know in advance that you will be bringing a team member along and set the expectation both with the client and the team member that the team member’s role is to listen and potentially follow up on any actions identified in your meeting. Your clients will welcome the investment you’re making in them and appreciate getting to know others in your firm. You can even encourage your client to do the same with an up-and-comer on their team, as most clients face the same succession challenges you face.

If you are not doing so already, also allow your team members to communicate directly with clients during engagements (and prospects and referral sources). When you don’t, you become the bottleneck in serving the client and put the firm at risk when a client (or prospect or referral source) only knows you at the firm. Making this shift requires that you set clear expectations about how communications should be handled, ensuring the client relationship manager or partner is copied on correspondence so there are no surprises and elevating issues or questions that are beyond your team member’s capabilities. You’ll gain increased efficiencies, team member morale and client satisfaction when multiple relationships are fostered and you truly take a team approach to serving clients and managing relationships.

  • Pushing higher-level work down. We all could probably be better delegators, and we talk a lot about ensuring that we’re all working at our “highest and best use;” however, many of us do not take the time necessary to identify work that is no longer at OUR highest and best use to train someone else to do. Have your up-and-comers observe or shadow you on a client project and explain what you’re doing at each step.  Then, have them complete a portion of work at a higher-level -- but plan to carefully review it and be available for questions. Then, they should be ready to act on their own and only use you when needed. This creates increased leverage while providing challenging and meaningful work - one of our young people’s top motivators!
  • Sending them to conferences and training programs outside your firm’s learning programs. This enables them to develop their leadership skills and other competencies and network with other professionals in your region or nationally to gain insights about how other firms are addressing staffing challenges, driving growth, improving realization, leverage and other important firm metrics and improving processes and efficiencies in their firm.  Many state societies offer Young CPA Conferences and the AICPA’s EDGE Experience attracts top talent across the country, offering top speakers on a variety of practice management topics your people should be learning. Many leadership development programs are available today, too, such as our Transformational Leadership Program. Charge your up-and-comers with coming back to your firm with their top three ideas to share with your leadership team and their peers.  Empower them to implement one of the ideas so that the firm gains from their learning and they develop their visioning, communication, planning and implementation skills.
  • Teaching your team members what you know about practice economics.  We like to say that you should teach practice economics early and often! Most of your team members do not understand the success metrics or different levers that drive firm performance and growth. Understanding your key metrics – and how each team member can affect them – will help them understand how you measure success in your firm and what needs to be in place for new positions to open as they look at promotion opportunities and your firm’s path to partner.   You’ll be surprised by the positive economic impact your people can make when they learn what behaviors influence them!
  • Asking as many questions as you answer so that your up-and-comers do the thinking and you guide them with additional insights. Too often, we allow ourselves to become the “magic eight ball” and then complain that our team members don’t think critically or problem solve on their own. You are doing a disservice when you provide all the answers and keep your team members from doing the thinking and research, struggling with their problem and identifying a solution, and sometimes even failing (while ensuring it’s safe for them to do so!). These are some of the best teaching moments you can provide and some of the best learning moments your team members will experience as they learn to generate solutions and build confidence in their answers, knowledge and expertise.
  • Assigning your up-and-comers special project work by putting them forward on different projects or work assignments to help them learn new skills, meet new people and stretch their abilities. Some examples include creating the competencies for your A&A department and then mapping the learning requirements by level for each, putting together a committee to explore how to further anytime/anywhere work opportunities in your firm, or streamlining your firm’s 1040 process for individuals not tied to an entity.
  • Allowing your team members to participate in planning, including your senior managers or non-equity partners in a non-voting capacity in your Executive Committee. Give your team members – especially managers - visibility to your firm’s planning processes and allow them to meaningful participate and weigh in on decisions about your firm’s vision and strategic initiatives. Doing so provides them a greater sense of ownership and buy-in and will enable them to find opportunities to contribute more meaningfully. As people progress in their careers and are on the path to partner, find ways to include them in higher level planning and decision making and give them exposure to “partner- level” discussions. Tailor the agenda to include non-partners for appropriate topics and then excuse them for what are truly partner-only discussion or decisions (and there aren’t that many that require them to be excused!).
  • Spending time with them! Spending time with your team members and sharing your experiences, how your career progressed, how you approach to developing client solutions, or how you handle objections raised by prospects are invaluable learning experiences for your team members. These opportunities also provide the additional benefit of allowing you to get to truly know your team members, see how they think and let them get to know you – one of the best employee engagement activities you could invest in!

Experiential learning opportunities are the most effective way to develop your people efficiently, in the timing your firm needs. What steps can you take today to figure out how to provide these experiential experiences that are imperative to engage your team members and develop a pipeline of future leaders poised to take on new leadership role?   


This blog was updated from our Practice Perspective article originally published in the Spring 2014 CoachingConcepts newsletter and published today because of its relevance to our many readers.