Find Innovative Ways for Staff Advancement (and Retention)

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Younger professionals are looking for CPA firms that will enable them to move up the career ladder faster than the traditional time. Depending on the existing firm structure and size, there may not be any partnership opportunities until such time there is retirement, resignation or death. At the same time, the roles and responsibilities of a partner have evolved; clutching tightly to a book of business and pulling needed staff from others when engagements are not concluded has reduced the sense of collaboration and entrepreneurship. This has made the attainment (and the pursuit) of partner much less appealing.

Often, for the individual who is well on the partner track, the choice comes down to keeping a portion of fees for new business he or she has developed as a manager or senior manager, or putting in a sizable capital investment and dealing with the issues that come with being a partner. It’s no longer bill, bill, and bill some more. It’s now mentor, train, develop business, and be accountable to the other partners.

It is important to find out what motivates a young professional to ensure those with potential are cultivated on a regular basis. They may be future owners of the firm. As part of this cultivation process, there should be a regular two-way system of feedback —  not just during the yearly performance reviews or at the completion of each client engagement. Look for other ways to communicate your interest in the young professional. Be approachable; really listen to what the young professional has to say; and seek to understand without judging.

If you have a driven and enthusiastic staff member but the hierarchical structure does not allow for advancement, this is where you have to be creative. (Maintain the relationship first, and then investigate why your firm’s structure limits opportunities.) You may have been the one who “sold” the individual on the firm. One of the biggest de-motivators is not following through on representations made. You hired a good professional. The person excelled but has nothing to show for it.

The person leaves. Now you’re stuck.

Think Ahead

If this has happened before and no action was taken, what does this tell you? The cost of replacement will be far greater than a salary removed, especially if you lose someone with an industry niche.  What can you do?

Consider giving up-and-comers more visibility in the firm. Offer them the opportunity to help create in-house CPE in the area of engagement management, use new platforms for business development, or identify methods for improving processes. Have them start a committee that reflects a personal strength or interest and meets the firm’s needs. Get them involved in campus recruitment. This responsibility and freedom to think and act offer these people a sense of ownership in the success of the firm. Any initiative that allows someone to get a better understanding of how the firm operates may even uncover a potential position as the firm grows.

Show you care about your firm’s talent and find different ways to leverage it. The accounting profession is a community, and reputation is important. Once an impression is formed, it is hard to change it.

If you do it right, the younger professionals will be your best advocates. When asked by friends and associates if your firm is a good place to develop one’s career, you can extol its virtues.

On the other hand…


About Steve

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