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Jan 1992

Managing partners tackle rapid change. (Management of an Accounting Practice)

by Osborne, Jayne E.

    Abstract- Managing partners of accounting firms are faced with the challenge of anticipating, implementing, and managing change to survive in a fast-paced business environment. Good practice management requires managing partners to always be on the lookout for professional trends, anticipate problems, and develop strategies for survival. Getting the understanding and support for change of all of the firm's members is crucial to effective practice management.

The Challenge. SAvvy CPAs recognize change as an exciting part of practice management, not a temporary phase to be tolerated. Managing partners play a key role in anticipating, implementing, and managing change.

"This period of change is not over," says Mark Carlie, CPA, managing partner at Stone, Carlie & Company in St. Louis. "In fact, it's just picking up speed."

Keep Tabs on Professional


Carlie recommends active involvement in state CPA societies, boards of accountancy, the AICPA, and relevant conferences to stay up to date. He uses outside feedback, creativity, and a willingness to try new things to keep the firm current.

He also recommends reading articles by consultants. "These professionals really see what's going on in the profession," he says. By providing an outside perspective on issues challenging practices, consultants offer insight into changes nationwide.

Another Way. Carlie relies on client perception surveys to track changing client needs. This also may uncover problems affecting client retention.

"We encourage partners and managers to speak with clients whey they deliver a financial statement," he says. Why? There's no better time to discuss problems and recommend services that may benefit the client.

Managing partners must recognize and develop non-traditional services. He points to his firm's marketing in hot business niches; such as inter- generational business management, strategic planning and computerization.

Seven Strategies for Survival

When you anticipate changes in your firm, the economy, or client needs, develop a plan to respond. Here's how:

1. Identify the real reason for the change. Find out what's behind the need to change before acting. Details help you develop the right response.

2. Communicate the change to firm members. Let everyone know how the process will affect them and the firm as a whole.

3. Prioritize your objectives. Divide your plan into interim steps. This makes it easier to digest.

4. Assign accountability. Delegate responsibility to partners and staff, such as when moving offices, rely on staff. Each person assigned to a moving team plays a role in the process, and makes the transition easier.

5. Establish a timetable. Ask for progress reports. Review results when partners, the management team, or the marketing group meet. Give updates in your internal newsletter.

6. Redefine performance standards. Include expectations for flexibility and team-building, as well as productivity during turbulent times.

7. Review changes. Discuss new policies with staff. Update procedures and documentation to show change.

Foresee Problems

Caution: Let others help. People are more likely to buy into changes if they're part of the process. Foresee problems created by change:

1. Increase in pressure. New situations create stress. Give staff a chance to adjust to new equipment, reporting structures, or procedures. Prepare by building time into your schedule for adapting to new tasks.

2. Shift in morale. Expect resistance to changes in assignment or authority. Some staffers feel threatened by fewer duties. Others are overwhelmed by added tasks. Let people voice concerns in private. Talking puts issues in perspective.

3. Decline in productivity. It takes time for people to learn new duties. You can help by expecting an initial loss in chargeable time until everyone adjusts to circumstances and by budgeting work accordingly.

When People Resist Change

Challenge: Getting people to buy into new concepts. "The pace of change today creates natural skeptics," Carlie says. "You can't give a knee-jerk response to each staff person's complaint." But, he agrees it's important to deal with people's perceptions of change.

Step up communication with staff during transition phases. Use "management by walking around" to get feedback on individual efforts and encourage input. Be available to partners and staff to let them discuss problems or vent anger.

Don't wait for formal meetings to discuss issues. Meet with staff and partners to identify problems and solutions. Emphasize solving problems--not placing blame. Carlie calls special meetings to introduce new requirements and review responsibilities. "We need to review changes and revisit issues as things progress," he says.

Carlie's firm manages by mini-groups in which staff are assigned to one supervisor. "We use a top-down approach," Carlie says. He relies heavily on word-of-mouth communication. This helps managers and staff maintain close ties.

Regardless of your approach, don't respond emotionally. Listen, ask questions to clarify real reasons for problems, then devise a plan to address those concerns. Examples include additional training and resources or an extended phase-in period. The key is to follow up after the discussion to monitor progress.

Help Everyone View Change


Everyone wants to know, "what's in it for me." Show staff what they can gain from change. "Imagine what we can achieve together," can be an exceptional slogan. Only 5% of any staff is naturally motivated. The rest need help. To respond, invest in a firm-wide motivational program. Everyone from support staff through partners should be involved. Spend at least two days with an outside facilitator to develop the right attitude and identify the services and key players your firm will need for the future."

Don't Wait for the Problems

"What got us here won't necessarily keep us here," Carlie says. Get partners and staff to see beyond initial uncertainty to the opportunities that changes offer. Effective managing partners must engineer the change process, not ride out the storm. Getting a plan together to make change part of your firm credo minimizes the trauma when you deviate from the status quo.

Jayne E. Osborne is a human resource and business management consultant for Administrative Services located in Nutley, New Jersey.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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