Hulcher & Hays, LLC, Client Development Consulting

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Celebrating 25 years in business, 1993-2018

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“Not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves …”

Motivating and retaining your staff has little to do with them and almost everything to do with you

This article was published in the April 2006 issue of AZ CPA magazine

My long-standing policy never to pass up a chance to speak to a live crowd was tested when I was asked to address a group of CPA firm administrators on the topic of employee motivation and retention. My reluctance stemmed from the fact that I’m a marketing consultant, and the subject of the day sounded frighteningly HR-like.

I tried to weasel out of the invitation by advising my would-be hosts that I had never motivated subordinates to do anything more than to seek employment elsewhere and was probably more conversant on the history of spelling bees than about motivation and retention. But speaker ignorance and incompetence apparently were not deal-killers for this group, for they insisted that I do the presentation anyway, and the next thing I knew somebody asked me to write about it.

After (then) 17 years of watching law firms and, especially, CPA firms struggle to slow the revolving door through which their professional staff pass en route to the firm of Greener Pastures, PLC, here’s what I think I know about motivating people: It’s really hard. And it’s harder yet if you try to fire them up at one of those excruciating firm-wide meetings where the managing partner performs his best Knute Rockne impression before a gathering of dazed, slack-jawed, vitamin D-starved accountants who just want to get back to work.

That’s not to say that motivation is impossible. It is, in fact, very possible – provided you grasp this principle: Motivation is not getting people to do what you want them to do. Motivation is getting people to want to do what you want them to do.

Two excellent books can help you with this. The first is Primal Leadership, written by Daniel Goleman as a sequel to his best-selling Emotional Intelligence, and the second is The Firm of the Future, by Paul Dunn and Ron Baker. In fact, if you want your firm to be more successful in any respect – management, growth, marketing, recruiting, profitability, etc. – you should buy The Firm of the Future today, read it, memorize it, recite aloud key passages each morning as you shower, and make it a focus of discussion at every partner meeting from now on.

In Chapter 5 (“Human Capital: Your People Are Not Assets, They Are Volunteers”) the authors describe four stimulators of employee loyalty:

  • Intrinsic Rewards. Some of your employees will stay with you and remain productive simply because they love doing what they do, and because you let them do it in an enjoyable, challenging environment.

  • Opportunity to Grow. Some will stick around because your firm offers them a well-defined shot at a better future: learning more, earning more, being involved in decisions, fulfilling their potential, and rising to the point that they qualify to co-sign on the firm’s line of credit.

  • Recognition of Accomplishments. Most of your employees probably have a primal need for private and public recognition for doing good work. Fulfilling this need is easier said than done, especially if it is part of your firm’s culture to focus on shortcomings and problems rather than on achievements and solutions.

  • Economic Rewards. No matter how your firm fares on the first three stimuli, many of your people will stay or leave just because of the money. I see firms effectively deal with pay issues in two ways: first, by paying at or above market for every position and, second, by rewarding good performance with impromptu bonuses. Regarding the latter, your employees may come to view their annual raise as an entitlement; in contrast, a one-time bonus as individual recognition of good work for a valued client or on a big engagement can enhance short-term loyalty and productivity.

About You

To this point, we have generally focused on what your employees may want or need in order to secure their enthusiasm and longevity. But answering the question “How do we motivate them?” actually has very little to do with them and almost everything to do with you.

For you to improve employee retention and motivation, something has to change, and that something may be you. It is almost axiomatic that if you want to change an organization, you have to change the leader. (Okay, you don’t have to change; you could stay the course and cling to your 25% turnover rate until it bankrupts you or until the only accountants in town who didn’t used to work for you are working for you now.) Short of a total behavioral makeover, you might consider three changes in the way you go about your business.

  • Be in Perpetual Recruiting Mode. Professional firms tend to hire only when they have more work to do than they have people to do it, and then they interview until they find the least objectionable candidate who can do the work. After a few years, they have accumulated a bunch of unobjectionable people who can do certain things but are of dubious further value. What you have not accumulated are people through whom you can perpetuate your core values and qualities. A solution: Always be in recruiting mode, on the lookout for skill, character, ambition, gravitas and attitude, and whenever you find it, whether you need it just then or not, hire it.

  • Deploy Your People by Their Strengths. Since much of the value of the accounting and legal professions rests on accuracy, many firms tend to evaluate people on the basis of how few errors they make. In some firms, this means that technically sound people get promoted, and technically unsound but otherwise capable people leave or try to improve next year. The possibility that the technically unsound person might have unseen strengths that would benefit the firm may be overlooked, especially if you don’t know how to detect those strengths. To the rescue ride Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths. The book has a comprehensive online assessment (at least it did when this article was written) that, once in the informed clutches of a manager of people, allows him to deploy his people to tasks and functions that align with their strengths. The result: people who may be easier to manage and motivate.

  • Be a Mentor. Younger accountants and attorneys whom I assist in the marketing area occasionally express a desire to work closely with, learn from, and enjoy a comradeship with an admired senior partner. Partners who recognize this desire and respond to it can enjoy nearly unshakeable loyalty. In its most productive form, mentoring is a reciprocal, voluntary, respectful and authentic relationship between two people – one with less experience, one with more – that works most effectively outside of the typical supervisor-subordinate relationship.

None of these metamorphoses is the Holy Grail of employee motivation and retention (if it were, I wouldn’t be giving it away here). But to the extent that you can work them into your firm culture and instill them in your partners by your leadership example, you will have taken a giant leap toward securing lower turnover and more long-term enthusiasm and commitment among your firm’s next generation.

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