Growing and Developing Future Leaders is a Two-Way Street

Firms are at a crossroad when it comes to transitioning to the next generation of leaders. According to the CPACA study on Succession Readiness 48.3% of firms of all sizes cite “lack of future leadership talent” as a primary obstacle in their succession.

While some partners believe there is a lack of leadership talent within their firms, it’s likely that the talent is there, it just needs to be nurtured. It’s up to current firm leaders to create an environment that focuses on developing the skills most important to future leaders’ success. But it’s also important for young professionals to take ownership of their career as well.

Growing those future leaders within the firm means identifying those individuals early. It means engaging them in developing the skills that are not only critical to leadership, but that are also stimulating enough to encourage rising stars to stay with the profession, and the firm, when other opportunities arise.

Critical leadership skills:

  1. Delegation – an important skill not only in creating capacity to focus on leadership, but also a critical component of developing those next up-and-comers.
  2. Communication – communicating the “why” of what you’re doing vs. just the “what” and “how” not only when delegating to staff, but also when working with engagement teams to better communicate value to clients.
  3. Relationship development – both internally and externally, creating mutually beneficial relationships and deepening each relationship by building trust and giving more than you receive.
  4. Cultivating followers – the concept of “followership” is as important as leadership and leaders must learn how to recognize and encourage good followers.
  5. Strategic thinking – the ability to think critically and balance long-term strategic objectives with short term goals. This includes the ability to help chart a clear direction for the firm, letting go of the idea that the firm can/should be all things to all people.

DS+B, a Minneapolis based firm has worked hard to develop a culture that fosters the early identification and nurturing of future leaders. Managing Partner Sean Boland understands the importance of developing the whole professional, but also emphasizes the professional’s responsibility in the process.

“We are big on providing our staff education – not only CPE but also on client service skills, communication and personal development,” he says. “We provide some tools as part of their in-house training, but also allow them to go out and get their own outside development training that suits them – like public speaking training and young professionals groups.”

Future leaders must go beyond simply taking part in the learning. “The key is to service the client’s needs effectively, and show an interest in applying the education they receive,” says Boland.

He speaks to the importance of leadership skills development. “The critical skill for a future leader is the ability to handle and delegate work to other team members so the clients are serviced well. To do that, they have to be good communicators and manage their time effectively,” says Boland.

“They have to show they can handle more responsibility. They also should demonstrate an interest in their own, independent, growth. So if we see them doing things outside the 9-5 like attending industry events, networking, learning a new productivity tool and bringing that back into the firm, that’s a good sign they just get it.”

Jon Cassens, a manager at DS&B offered his take on what young professionals with partnership aspirations should do. “I learned to simply ask the question: what does it take to become a partner? I learned that you have to accept more responsibility on the administrative side of things, such as billing, client service, communication, resolution, managing a team and developing a whole new mindset.”

Jon also recognizes that a clear path and training in alignment with the path should be the firm’s focus in bringing their professionals to the next level. “I would value added training and a clear definition of what it takes to advance professionally.”

Current leaders should ask themselves (and their staff) a few questions to test their alignment:

  1. What kinds of outside training opportunities do we invest in for young professionals?
  2. Does the training align with our expectation for how they should contribute to the firm’s growth?
  3. Is there clear communication to the staff about what we expect of them at each level if they are going to work their way to partnership?
  4. Do we actively support the application of what they have learned in training (particularly soft skills training), encourage them to take on more responsibility, open the lines of communication both internally and with clients and let them know that mistakes are okay?

Firms can benefit from taking a hard look at what message their current approach to training and staff engagement sends to the firm’s young professionals. Young professionals must do their part by committing to applying what they have learned. Aligning expectations with training and application of the skills not only makes for a more rewarding profession for young staff, but also improves the health and longevity of the firm for existing partners and those contemplating retirement. Everyone wins.


About the Author

Carrie_092_darker-SCALEDCarrie has 20 years of experience helping CPA firms grow. From setting the right goals to improving individual business development skills to encouraging employee participation in business development and measuring results—Carrie works with firms throughout North America to hone their competitive edge. Carrie Steffen is a Shareholder and President at The Whetstone Group.