Go West, Old Man: A Lesson in Practice Management
Once I became willing to question my practices, I was free to focus on what was best for my firm — and the people in it.
By BRAD SARGENT, CPA/CFF, CFE, CFS, CCA, FABFA |
I have heard it said that every stereotype contains a grain of truth.
When I entered the world of accounting, I was a young baby boomer
being managed, mentored, and directed by traditionalists. The
cultural environment was challenging at times and I wrangled with
old-school partners who seemed one step removed from the caves
— no offense. Now, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot; I
struggle with change and adopting the values and mores of the
subsequent generations that populate my firm.
Gen Xers, millennials, Gen Zers — they all seem to value such
different things. Their collective indifference to my baby boomer
values can feel like a distinct lack of gratitude at times. Why don’t
they all just want to work the way I work and strive for the corner
office? Why should I, the partner, bend to their desires when I did
so much bending throughout my career? Hadn’t I earned the right
to impose my methods and values (and will) on my staff? I know
many of you ask yourselves these same questions. But this mindset
proved to be debilitating, counter-productive, and stress-inducing,
and I’m guessing I’m not the only CPA firm partner struggling to
overcome such thoughts. Through an arduous process that involved
much more failure than success, I began to open my mind to the
simple question, “Why do we do it this way?” Once I became willing
to question my practices, I was free to focus on what was best for
my firm — and the people in it.
The story I want to share involves a colleague in my firm. I met him
as a college student when I guest lectured on fraud and forensics at
his campus. He later came to intern at my firm, where he proved to
do excellent work and be a great fit in my small organization. It was
a no-brainer to bring him on full-time upon graduation. (This is the
ideal situation for any firm owner.) Three years in, he became a senior
staff member with tremendous professional upside. His professional
toolkit was growing, and he was adding great value to the firm. His
future with my firm was bright. Then the wretched ingrate closed my
office door and said, in a very hesitant voice, “We need to talk.”
This colleague I’ve been praising resigned. He was leaving not only
my firm but our city and time zone. He was going West — forever.
All my valuable time invested in mentoring, training, and guiding him
was now going to benefit some other firm three states away. I had
single-handedly crafted this valuable asset and someone else was
now going to reap the rewards of my hard work. Ah, the ingratitude!
The inflexible baby boomer within me could have made for an
awkward and unpleasant separation. But that is not this story — and
it shouldn’t be yours.
I knew that personal events combined with family support made the
change of scenery just what my valued colleague needed. With my head fully wrapped around the concept that producers will always
produce, I took his resignation unlike any other resignation I had
ever faced. I reached out to several professional headhunters to
see if they could help him find the right job in his new town. I
researched the market and offered tips on who to connect with and
how to network. I had moments during this process that I could not
believe I was helping someone valuable leave my firm. It was surreal
at times, but it was also a benchmark of personal growth and real
change in my professional life.
As fate would have it, my firm faced a massive workload and my
departed colleague relocated without a secured position. The new
town simply did not offer many prospects which would not require
serious compromises for him. We stayed in constant contact, and I
offered him the opportunity to do contract work remotely while he
settled in. Why not? After all, he had all the tech tools required to
work successfully from his new home and was fully chargeable for
weeks on end. The rest of my team was glad to have him still
plugged in and part of our efforts. Win for our clients, win for our
team, and win for our ex-colleague. That’s a lot of winning, and the
story gets better.
As client work continued to flow in, I had an outrageously out-of-the-box
thought: Why not bring him back full-time and open a new office
in his new town? We were already communicating daily, he knew
how to do the work, he was comfortable in business development
environments, and with some guidance and input, he could take off.
I couldn’t believe I was thinking this way. It was very new to me and
also extremely empowering because, until then, I felt that tight
control and occasional micro-management was how I displayed
power in the office. Now, I realize that opening doors for others is
the path to real power.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without my
colleague’s skills and trustworthiness. By being valuable, honest,
and forthright, he earned my trust to a degree that made this brave
new world of remote work possible. So, we talked it out; we
committed to a plan. Execution was remarkably easy thanks to the
technologies available to us today. We boxed and shipped his old
workstation (VoIP phone, desktop, keyboard, mouse, and three
monitors) to his new home. We invested in a web conferencing
system that allows us to see each other and screen-share. If needed,
we can have everyone in the firm in separate locations dialed-in and
enjoying virtual face-time together.
It’s great to have the processes in place for full remote connectivity
but working out of the home permanently is not optimal — at least
not in my baby boomer mind. With so many different types of
workspaces becoming available in cities these days — think shared,
coworking, and private spaces available by the hour, day, month, or
year — the options for launching a firm of any size in a new location
become nearly unlimited. Between the ease of online research and
my colleague’s boots on the ground, we found a great space in a
great location at a very reasonable cost — complete with a balcony
and awesome view — to expand my firm out West.
I know firsthand the uphill climb one faces in professional services
when trying to make connections and meet new people without the
proper “rank.” Decision-makers want to interact with other decision-makers.
So, while we trumpeted our new office opening, I also
promoted my remote colleague to a new title that conveys his
knowledge, experience, and competency to the market. The old
voice in me wanted to declare, “Look at all that I have done for you!”
The new voice in me says, “Look at what we are building together!”
This experience has taught me some incredibly valuable lessons. I
won’t say it happened quickly, but I became willing to change. I also
realized that productive members of my team, here and there, would
be even more productive given flexible work schedules, unlimited
time off, challenging work, and great tech tools — all things the
Illinois CPA Society and INSIGHT Magazine has been encouraging
us to consider for years.
To my fellow baby boomers, don’t settle for doing things the same
ways simply because that’s how you’ve always done them. Be open
to new possibilities and surround yourself with people who are
aware of and embrace the latest tech, business, and cultural trends.
Ask your younger colleagues what they think — and actually listen;
you don’t have to always agree with them, but you can learn a great
deal about them. A questioning mindset and willingness to change
should not be generationally unique.
To the younger generations in the workforce, be aware that your
baby boomer supervisors place great value on two qualities;
productivity and trustworthiness. Produce at a high rate and doors
will open. Demonstrate that you are responsible and accountable,
and you’ll earn the greater freedom that you crave. Try to understand
where your colleagues are coming from and “think like a partner.”
I understand as well as any of you that it’s hard to let go of
entrenched mindsets and that trying new methods may lead to
many more failures than successes. You may want to run back to
the safe harbor your old mindsets seem to provide. Don’t. The key
is to keep trying, keep growing, and enjoy the ride — you, your firm,
and your people depend on it. So, as the saying goes, “Go West,
young man!” (Please adapt to your own Manifest Destiny.)