How Engaged Are Your Employees?

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

While the consideration of succession planning has taken up a lot of airtime in recent years, there is something even more important to consider and that is how to attract and retain talent. Questions most often asked by a CPA firm managing partner or a CEO when someone leaves:

  • Did we see this coming?
  • Did he/she express any dissatisfaction?
  • Do you know if it was a money or promotion issue?
  • Was there something we could have done to head this off?

There are multiple problems with this. First, why after the fact were these questions asked? Was there a system in place to regularly gauge employee satisfaction? Did the firm ever survey the employees on their attitudes about work, personalities and culture?

More important than employee satisfaction—and a much bigger issue—is employee engagement. When a CPA firm or business is small, maybe with a single office, it is easier to have a handle on the views and attitudes of employees. As simple as bringing someone into an office for a confidential, yet informal chat can help reveal existing or potential problems. How often does this really happen?

As a firm or business grows in revenue size and increases its headcount and number of offices, it becomes much harder to take a regular pulse on the employee engagement. When this happens, you can miss critical signs, such as if the firm is communicating timely and relevant information to its staff, and if the firm’s overall mission and purpose is evident to all staff.

What is Meant by Engagement?

The looming challenge for CPA firms in the foreseeable future is to recruit and keep top talent. An engaged firm focuses on its staff, clients and lenders. The firm will ensure that each staff member is given an opportunity to develop skills, are given a career roadmap and opportunities to learn from partners. An added bonus would be for current staff to tout the benefits of working in the firm to new candidates. With respect to clients, the firm wants to ensure that there is two-way communication, and encouragement for feedback is frequent. The firm would also desire that your current clients sing your firm’s praises to potential clients. Finally, firm leaders want to confirm that their partner group is aligned with the goals of the firm, provides useful feedback to their direct reports, and are supportive of the staff’s career goals.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Historically, CPA firms are loath to conduct surveys of their people. “All too often, firms think they can do the surveys themselves, or more accurately, believe there’s nothing to be gained from the survey because they don’t have a turnover problem,” says Lee Eisenstaedt, co-founder of Chicago-based Leading With Courage Academy. “These are not the only reasons,” Eisenstaedt observes. “There’s the reality that firm leaders are afraid their employees will only focus on the negative things and what is revealed will force them to deal with areas that need to be addressed.”

From his experience, Eisenstaedt knows that these beliefs don’t hold water. His exposure to firms that operate with blissful ignorance will only serve to delay the inevitable, whether it is the loss of key employees or important clients, or a general malaise that blankets the entire firm.

“I have found one of the biggest things firm leaders don’t want to discover is that their leadership skills aren’t as good as they think they are,” Eisenstaedt notes. “Adding to this angst is the possibility that the survey’s results will create expectations among the employees to change things, which will take time, and the worst of it, is that any corrections made will take away from what otherwise would be billable time.” Eisenstaedt further notes, “There will be behaviors partners will have to change or actions they will have to take, such as coaching or resolving disputes. The bottom line is that hearing the truth can be painful.”

Silence is Not Golden

Findings show that there is a direct correlation between poor internal communication and reduced motivation. By not having an open channel of communication, or at least encouraging one will only allow issues to fester until they cannot be easily resolved. “According to a study conducted by, a lack of transparent communication is the number one reason employees leave their jobs,” Eisenstaedt explains. “A lack of transparency about how the firm is doing, combined with no guidance on employee performance or a career track is a formula for leadership failure.”

It is crucial for firm leaders to have their finger on the pulse of the firm. The practice of management by walking around is not a new leadership tool, but how often its benefits are overlooked. An informal discussion here, a quick chat there, can provide a collection of business intelligence on matters, most of which are lurking just below the surface. “There is a wealth of data to collect by asking, listening and learning,” says Eisenstaedt. “Two major red flags that can appear are low morale and reduced productivity. The latter can easily be noticed, given the available digital dashboards firms have come to rely on. The connection of low morale to reduced productivity is evident.” He notes that employees of firms and companies need to be given good reasons to stay in their jobs.

There is an obvious linkage between the reduced productivity and the eventual loss of employees. “It is a known fact that people leave their firms because they work for ‘lousy’ managers and leaders,” Eisenstaedt notes. “Another factor is a greater tolerance for poor performance and sticking too long with underperformers, which results in managers leaving. Finally, keeping C- and D-level clients is another reason.” If no one speaks up, irrespective of staff level, the problem just continues to get worse.

A Survey Maybe Awful-Tasting Medicine, But It’s Still Medicine

Taking the first step in any endeavor is always the hardest, and the development and issuance of a survey is no exception. “Why this is such a battle is that we find many firms don’t want to take the time to learn the real reason behind the loss of an employee or client,” says Eisenstaedt. “We even find many partners are reluctant to inform the firm when these losses occur, which skews the retention and ‘win’ metric.” There are reasons for this lack of curiosity and interest in learning from these events. Adds Eisenstaedt, “These events are usually the same reasons firms don’t want to understand employee engagement.”

As is often the case, fees and salaries are the reasons attributed to the loss of clients and staff, respectively. But these are rarely the primary factors. To find out the real reason(s), Eisenstaedt emphasizes the need to have someone unrelated to the client or staff member reach out to learn what the firm could have done differently. “This person could be another partner or an independent third party. It’s then critical that the insights be shared with the team and other partners so everyone can learn from events.”

You’ve Got the Data. Now What?

A big challenge is converting the survey findings into action plans. This can only happen if the leadership team is committed to acting on the results. “They’ll receive plenty of insights into what employees need from their bosses and leaders to get the most from them at work,” Eisenstaedt observes. “The best action plan focuses on two or three initiatives that are communicated across the organization. He notes that it should be mandatory to share the progress made on these initiatives with all employees and discuss any existing obstacles.

The importance of sharing progress with all employees should not be ignored. “A firm needs to share the survey’s purpose with everyone and be consistently transparent,” Eisenstaedt maintains. “Addressing key issues with only some staff levels will not lead to the best result and neither will glossing over their urgency or how they will be approached.”

There are unmistakable signs that a firm is committed to following up on the survey’s findings. Employees who are present, focused and energized are signs that things are heading in the right direction. Says Eisenstaedt, “Commitment is visible in how partners, staff, and clients work together to make decisions and that setting priorities are consistent with the firm’s mission, vision, and objectives. I also wouldn’t overlook adherence to the values of the firm as a signal of commitment.”

A Tool to Survey Employee Engagement

Every so often I come across a program that addresses an important concern firms and businesses have. And I found a perfect example. Eisenstaedt, who co-founded the Leading With Courage Academy (Academy), has partnered with Engagement Multiplier, a U.K.-based company that created a fully-integrated online platform enabling firms to survey their personnel on a quarterly basis and see the progress made in a number of crucial areas, all tied into the concept of employee engagement. Click here to watch a brief explanatory video.

In addition to Engagement Multiplier, the Academy is an authorized partner of Everything DiSC and Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team®. Eisenstaedt works with CPA firms and other service providers, as well as private sector entities that want to make a bigger impact, sooner. In addition to the proven tools and processes already mentioned, Eisenstaedt offers 24 leadership self-assessments, including one of the 13 signs of an employee who is about to leave. Those interested in this self-assessment, should click here. By clicking on the link, you’ll learn more about the tool and decide the best way you can leverage its benefits. For further information, you may contact Eisenstaedt at

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