Motivation: Just One Key to Employee Retention

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Salary used to be the main driver behind a young professional’s choice of employer. No longer. In fact, salary is now ranked as fourth or fifth among the important criteria. The Gen Y cohort is looking at meaningful and challenging work, increased responsibility, rapid upward mobility, the freedom to innovate, an opinion to be respected, a system for frequent performance feedback and a work environment that encourages the use of technology – specifically social media.

CPA firms are coming to terms with this shift as they revamp their recruitment efforts to “sell” these factors to young candidates.

Part of this shift is resulting in a compressed timeline to reach the level of partner. No longer does the 12-15 year time period hold any attraction. Today’s Gen Yers can have between five and ten job changes during the same period. So what’s a CPA firm to do?

It’s All in the Approach
A firm’s environment can be motivating or demotivating. The former can be achieved by providing the latest technology tools to its staff; the latter can be strict control or monitoring of social media. And forget about the notion of constructive criticism. Instead, employ constructive advice. I use advice rather than criticism because constructive criticism is paradoxical; it is virtually impossible to be positive and negative at the same time. And if the goal is to be constructive it should allow the receiver of the advice to become more self-aware while maintaining self-esteem.

Let’s admit it: all work environments have their moments of frustration. You as the supervisor of others must watch your words carefully. Yes, words do matter; you don’t want to be vague or sugarcoat a point that needs to be made to an individual. However, negativity will cause only a temporary improvement because as humans, we want to shield or reduce angst caused by a threatening situation. Be aware, that at any time the moment of truth will arrive — people will have made up their minds that the best course of action for them is to leave your firm.

A firm can decide from day one if positive motivation is part of its value system. People will initially react emotionally, and at some point later on will introduce plausibility to their actions.

The marketplace, of course, will dictate the ability of individuals to move to other employers, so if market prospects are not favorable, firms will face overcapacity. They will grin and bear it because they need the work to be pushed out the door by the worker bees. (Helpful hint: make sure that the retention rates firms tout are because of a positive, opportunity-oriented culture and not because of the firms’ need to retain underperformers to maintain throughput. Speak to placement counselors whom you can trust and who know the inner workings of firms).

Think it. Say it. Do it.
Firms should always be thinking about what the drivers of motivation are. I believe it must begin with the environment, understanding of employee needs and flexibility in management thinking.

Create a contagion of positive culture; sometimes it is the simple, little things that make the biggest impact.

Increased responsibility and the freedom to think and innovate increases a person’s sense of worth and value. When leadership delegates authority and encourages staff to use judgment, this can result in more confidence for the leader and more self-confidence for the staff member.

Some simple steps to take:

• Recognize someone’s effort and results throughout the firm to promote a positive culture and have this behavior replicated by others.

• Clear and frequent communication with the staff to indicate management’s philosophy that shared understanding of goals creates a cohesive team.

• Encourage and exhibit respect to the employee to show that he or she is viewed as an important element in the firm’s success.

• Personalize and assess someone’s progress toward advancement to reflect firm leadership’s belief that an individual’s success can translate into the firm’s success.

The sense of empowerment can transform one’s mindset from employee to entrepreneur in the blink of an eye. It’s your role as a leader to provide that spark.

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