insight magazine

5 Signs You’ve Found Your Successor

Who's going to take the reins when you leave? Here are some tips on filling your leadership pipeline. By Bridget McCrea | Digital Exclusive - 2017


“You never know what will happen tomorrow. Fortifying your hard work—and your efforts to grow your organization and make it a better place than when you stepped into the leadership role—is critical,” says Brian Sackstein, CPA at Marcum, LLP, in Melville, NY.

Indeed, with millions of experienced CPAs from the Baby Boomer generation rushing for the exits, attracting and preparing the next generation of talent to take the reins is top-of-mind for many accounting firms.

In Identifying a Potential Successor, our West Coast brethren at the California Society of CPAs (CalCPA) suggest seeking out successors who share your values, commitment and technical skills, not to mention professionals whose work style aligns with yours. “You want your successor’s operating philosophy, personality, experience and management style to be compatible with your firm’s culture and goals,” says CalCPA.

With that in mind, here are five signs that you’ve found the right person to fill your shoes:

  1. You’re no longer needed at the office. If your management and staff are handling the day-to-day business without you, and your Friday afternoon golf game is no longer interrupted by multiple frantic emails, texts and calls, you’re on the right track. “When you can clearly see that the team is on track to achieve the goals that you’ve set out in your strategic plan without your intervention,” says Sackstein, “then you have a good potential leader on your hands.”

  2. You ask, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” “If you get to the point where you’re really relying on that person’s advice, and trusting it more than your own, then you probably have a good match,” says Sackstein.

  3. Decision-making is easy. Decision-making is key to running a successful accounting firm, so someone you can bounce ideas off of and get input from is a great asset – and potentially a great leader. “Once a potential successor has been identified, all subsequent hiring, strategy and miscellaneous decisions become easier,” says Linda Henman, owner of Henman Performance Group in St. Louis and author of Landing in the Executive Chair. “This is a fairly clear cut way to determine whether you’re working with someone who can take over your company or position – or not.”

  4. The candidate is a great match for clients. Finding someone who meshes seamlessly with the business is critical for everyone, including your clients. They want to be able to maintain relationships and build new bonds easily. If the person you’re eyeing as a successor feels the same, test your theory. Have him or her interact with a handful of clients and see what happens. If the person works well with these clients – and if he or she has advanced critical reasoning skills, a proven track record of success, and the ability to learn quickly, says Henman, then you may have found a potential successor.

  5. Team members turn to this person. Convincing yourself that someone can fill your shoes is one thing, but getting your team to buy into the idea is something else entirely. “When your team asks for that leadership advice of your successor, and begins to view you as a ‘former’ executive (though not forgetting who founded this amazing organization), then you’ve found your successor,” says Sackstein.

A last note: Don’t forget to start this process early (in other words, not mere months before you plan to retire or leave). “You’ll avoid making poor succession decisions by giving yourself plenty of time to identify, nurture and cultivate the right person to fill your shoes,” says Sackstein. Think of it as choosing the person to take care of your children in the event you pass suddenly or unexpectedly. Give it just as much importance, and just as much thought.

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