CPA Firms Can Benefit by a Strong Internal Communication Culture
By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC
A local reporter or a potential client contacts your firm after visiting its website. The website may not have provided sufficient information, raised questions, or caused confusion. Now he or she calls the firm’s office at the number listed on the website. Who will answer the phone? Most likely the receptionist.
Inquiries may ask about a quote one of the firm’s partners made in a local interview or it may relate to a claim made on the website about a value-added service that contains anecdotal information or a testimonial about a successful client engagement.
The receptionist as the first point of contact can either offer a positive first impression or provide the caller with the impression that the firm’s leadership does not keep everyone apprised. What will the caller think?
Whether it is the receptionist, the managing partner, or anyone in between, an effective internal communications apparatus should be implemented. Of course, the type of system will vary based on the size of the firm. However, irrespective of the size, regular and consistent sharing of information with the staff is a must. The firm’s intranet, internal newsletter, podcasts, and brown bag lunch meetings are some of the ways to share information and feedback about such matters as potential M&A activity, the launch of a branding initiative, and the development of a new niche.
All firm personnel, regardless of level, must be kept regularly and consistently informed. This will promote staff satisfaction, as well as a positive firm identity (for outside parties).
When you keep everyone in the loop you may get unexpected, thought-provoking recommendations by staff. This also helps break down any silos that have been formed. But most of all, it gives everyone a sense of purpose and shared commitment; a real-time example that fancy recruitment brochures or framed vision statements fall short in providing.
Communication: The Core of Culture
Hammering home the importance of culture cannot be done at half speed. To cultivate a strong culture of communications, firm leaders should promote the importance of free thinking, independent voices who push back on floated ideas from the top. But those at the top must be clear that they encourage this. It would not hurt to conduct a survey to ascertain the staff attitudes about the firm’s openness to sharing information and receiving feedback. The concept of “management by walking around” should be employed.
Leaders should have no reticence about walking into someone’s office and gaining a sense of his or her attitude. In fact, if it is possible to do so over a period of time, everyone should be paid a visit by firm leadership. If not possible, use the divide-and-conquer practice of doling out this responsibility to three or four of the top firm leaders.
One of the topics to discuss during these “pop in” visits is the familiarity of the staff members with the mission and vision statements of the firm, assuming they exist. Seek feedback; you may pick up some nuggets about whether the firm’s policies and practices are consistent with its values and business objectives, and whether staff believes it plays a major role in the overall strategies and goals.
One of the first areas to examine the effectiveness of communications is the multiple avenues used: the firm intranet, e-newsletter, podcasts, webinars, discussion boards, etc. With more tools becoming available, it is important to ensure that there is consistent messaging and conveyance of philosophy. The more consistent the message, the more consistent the behavior and compliance to rules, and thus, a collective sense of team spirit.
The importance of a positive communication culture cannot be overstated. This requires staff to be proactive in thinking and forming opinions, with the goal of effecting change. This can only be successful if the firm keeps staff informed of all activities.
See Something, Say Something
The firm’s leaders should conduct a review of what has happened over the past 12 to 24 months. There could have been a leadership change or an acquisition. The latter can cause a shift in culture, impacting the sharing of information. Think about a new client base that requires more collaboration on engagements or if there are more offices from the acquisition, it may require dealing with colleagues remotely. Ascertain if any areas of operations suffered diminished performance and bring the appropriate parties together to review and resolve issues.
Components of a Strong Communication Culture
There are a number of components that comprise a strong culture, the most important are consistency, trust and participation.
Consistency means that all communication channels used by all offices and departments employ the normal channels on a regular basis. If some group (or individuals) is left out, this will cause rumors and paranoia. Leadership must nip this in the bud.
Trust is cultivated when communication is regular, open and honest. Everyone is “in the know,” and there is no misconstruing of the message (or the intent of the messenger).
Participation is created by encouraging and implementing easy-to-use tools for feedback. They can be as basic as a suggestion box or online forums for dialogue between all levels of staff from all offices. The more leadership encourages feedback, the more feedback will be received.
Remember, it is just as important for top leadership to be kept apprised as it is for all staff. If you want to build a strong recruitment and retention apparatus, then begin with creating a strong communication culture.
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.