Moving from a Performance Culture to a Growth Culture

For years, the accounting profession has been focused on performance. The work we do is complex, and firms have a lot of competition to attract and retain quality clients, deliver engagements efficiently and effectively, remain profitable and grow. The irony is that focusing on performance doesn’t always deliver the desired results. The problem with performance culture in a performance culture, people are obsessed with metrics. For example, when you tell people their compensation and career path depends on billable hours, they become hyper-focused on that metric —potentially at the expense of their own learning and development or training newer staff. Likewise, when partner compensation is based on a book of business, partners hoard clients. They tend to hold on to clients who aren’t a good fit for the firm or keep high-value clients on their own ledger even though that client might be better served by someone else in the firm. In each situation, people meet the goals necessary to get ahead in their careers but don’t pay attention to what’s best for the firm or its clients. And while that might be sustainable for a while, eventually, people become overwhelmed trying to keep up, their capacity is limited, and performance suffers.

What is a growth culture? In a growth culture, the focus isn’t on metrics or financial results but on helping people develop their potential. Firm leaders with a growth mindset believe that skills and abilities can always be improved, and challenges and setbacks are a natural part of that process. As a result, people feel free taking risks and trying new things to see if they’ll work. They know if they want to implement a new process, test a new technology or tool, or try offering a new service line, they won’t be penalized if it doesn’t work out. This isn’t to say that companies with a growth culture don’t care about performance–they absolutely do. They just take a different approach to achieving it. How to foster a growth culture in your firms how can you create a culture of growth in your firm? These tips can help. Focus on continuous learning. Encourage people to learn new things, read, attend conferences, or think strategically about how to solve firm problems. People who are expected to work 60+ hour weeks for months on end aren’t likely to spend time on innovation and learning –they’re focused on getting the work done. Ease up, and you may find they have more capacity to be creative. Fail fast and fail forward in a performance culture, failure isn’t accepted. Leaders discourage failure, so people avoid taking risks. In a growth culture, the motto is “fail fast and fail forward.” This encourages people to try something, get fast feedback, and then rapidly adjust or adapt to that feedback. As long as you learn from the failure and include the lesson in your next attempt, that “failure” is a success. Provide continuous feedback. Giving feedback on an annual, semi-annual and even quarterly basis doesn’t work in a growth culture. To be able to learn and improve, people need to be able to discuss their strengths and weaknesses continuously. It’s ok to set quarterly performance goals, but employees should have more frequent performance discussions with their managers. This helps them feel more confident and be more creative and adaptable. Switching from a performance culture to a growth culture isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. That’s why it helps to take a hybrid approach at first. Start moving away from your traditional metrics like billable hours, realization, book of business, etc. and start tracking things that encourage personal and professional development. It might be uncomfortable at first, but eventually, the results will be worth it.


About the Author

Sandra Wiley, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., has been lauded for her industry expertise in human resources and training. She is often called the “go-to person” for solutions to the profession’s staffing crisis, citing her wise advice on hiring – and keeping – employees for the rest of their careers.