insight magazine

Culture: Your Firm’s Most Valuable Retention Tool

Empowering employees to be culture champions not only increases engagement and retention but can also foster a thriving work environment. By Mark Erkenswick, CPA, MBA | Digital Exclusive – 2024

The accounting profession is facing an existential crisis when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Recent data shows veteran accountants are retiring without enough new accountants to take their places. Additionally, the number of accounting graduates in the United States dropped to 65,305 in the 2021-2022 school year—the lowest since 1994 when only 51,622 students earned accounting degrees, according to an AICPA report.

Further adding to the challenges are employees’ shifting expectations in the workplace. Employees are no longer satisfied with the occasional free happy hour to stay engaged with their firms. Instead, they crave an environment that facilitates a culture of collaboration and innovation, work-life balance, and opportunities for growth. According to the Illinois CPA Society’s (ICPAS’) 2023 Insight Special Feature, “Righting Retention,” burnout and lack of work-life balance were among the reasons most cited by employees for voluntarily leaving their jobs, while 67% said career advancement opportunities were one of the most attractive benefits an employer could offer.

With a smaller pool of qualified talent and shifting employment trends, public accounting firms need to rethink how they attract and retain employees. Here, I’ll explain why creating an employee-driven and supportive culture can be one of the most valuable tools for doing so.

Create Culture Champions

Employees today need to feel like they’re in an environment where they play a part in shaping an organization’s future. A truly transformative culture is built on a firm’s shared values, rooted in empathy, authenticity, and accountability—all critical elements to helping employees feel like they can grow and thrive. When this happens, employees become “culture champions,” those who can share insights with leadership and enlist other employees into the cause.

Five years ago, KPMG LLP was looking for a way to give employees a greater voice and agency in shaping the future of the firm. From this effort, the KPMG Culture Champions Network (CCN) was created, empowering employees to serve as culture ambassadors who help build community, engage in upskilling opportunities, and keep a pulse on firm culture. But as the firm moved into a hybrid work model following the pandemic, we realized we needed to further evolve the program to better engage employees more effectively.

It's All About the Culture Journey

The success of any culture building program depends heavily on gaining buy-in from employees and partners. While there’s no stronger way to build and sustain culture than through the connections and relationships that are built on real, in-person interactions, the reality is that many employees today are working at either client sites or in hybrid settings. To make it easier for all employees, regardless of work site, our firm developed the Culture Champions Learning Journey, which lives on a virtual learning platform. The journey lays out step-by-step learning pathways to achieve the three tiers of culture champion status: enthusiast, catalyst, and legend, with recognition and rewards built into each level to inspire employee progress.

The platform gamifies becoming a culture ambassador, motivating employees to achieve each tier through a blend of formal trainings (topics like innovation, inclusion, and environmental sustainability) and informal actions and learning opportunities (coffee chats, working with local nonprofits, and committing to more “green” practices). The gamification element not only rewards employees for participation but also tailors the experience so employees at different stages of their professional development can benefit.

To date, more than 20% of the firm participates in the program, with the majority of participants (89%) saying they’d recommend others join. In addition, approximately 250 professionals have moved all the way through the learning journey to secure their status as a “culture legend” in the first year of the journey. This achievement comes with unique opportunities, like access to leadership, community-building platforms, and skill-building opportunities.

Champions Are Made, Not Born

Given the significant amount of time employees spend at work, it’s critical to infuse culture into every aspect of the employee journey—starting from the beginning. Employees’ experience in the workplace informs how they feel about themselves and how they experience life. According to Anne Gross, an executive director in KPMG’s Chicago office, this was a key motivating factor for her participating in the CCN, where she eventually rose to the level of culture legend. “I joined because I wanted to feel good about my workplace and be a part of making KPMG a great place to work,” Gross says. “I’m regularly reminded of what it means to create an inclusive workplace that’s safe and enables others to do and be their best. You can’t take culture for granted—it needs to be continually cultivated and nourished.”

Besides building the next generation of leaders, becoming engaged in a firm’s culture is key to building relationships that drive employee retention in the long run. Having a platform to share ideas with leadership, serving as role models within their offices and respective teams, and shaping the future of the firm can be a powerful motivator for career-driven employees. In turn, leadership can tap into the insights of these influential professionals to brainstorm solutions to culture challenges and identify new areas for opportunity.

Empowering employees to be culture champions not only increases employee engagement and retention but can also foster a thriving work environment conducive to both professional and personal growth. By leveraging culture as a retention tool, an organization can successfully infuse shared values into every aspect of the employee journey, from recruitment to professional development. After all, a firm’s most valuable asset is its employees, and their personal achievements directly contribute to client satisfaction and the firm’s collective success.

Mark Erkenswick, CPA, MBA, is the business unit partner-in-charge of audit for the Great Lakes region of KPMG LLP. He also serves as an instructor for the KPMG Business School, as Midwest partner-in-charge of recruiting, and serves on the Finance Committee of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.


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