insight magazine

Firm of Dreams: If You Build It, They Will Stay

Could your people be your firm’s greatest retention asset? Five experts share why putting people first is the key to building the firm of your dreams. By Carolyn Tang Kmet | Spring 2024

Employee retention has been a bleak topic for some time in the accounting profession. Since 2019, the number of employed accountants in the United States has sharply fallen 17.3% (as of 2023), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Notably, this decrease is a result of attrition at both ends of the profession: At entry, there are fewer college students choosing to enter the field, and simultaneously, many accountants are choosing to voluntarily exit the field.

Though, despite this long-term and devastating trend, there does appear to be some gleaming hope that certain strategies may be able to reverse this tide. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, 52% of voluntarily exiting employees say their manager or organization could’ve done something to prevent them from quitting.

Of course, many stakeholders, including the Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS), have gone to great lengths to know exactly what that “something” could be. In its 2023 Insight Special Feature, “Righting Retention,” ICPAS shared research findings to shed light on what’s driving the accounting profession’s perpetually higher-than-average turnover rates. In the report, the top three reasons cited for accounting and finance professionals voluntarily quitting their employers were salary, too many hours/burnout, and lack of work-life balance. Interestingly, workplace culture was cited as the fourth reason for employees exiting—and some experts believe this factor, specifically as it relates to valuing and prioritizing people, could be the key to building a firm where no one wants to leave.

Prioritize People Over Profit

Tammy Daugherty, M.Ed, is the owner of People Matter Consulting Ltd., a Cincinnati-based change management and leadership consulting firm. She emphasizes that accounting firms need to focus on prioritizing people over outcomes.

“In the accounting and finance field, numbers matter—they’re the first focus,” Daugherty observes.

She adds that numbers are what accountants naturally gravitate toward, noting that quantitative measures are more tangible than qualitative measures (i.e., revenue is easier to quantify than happiness). However, Daugherty stresses that a firm’s success is dependent on the well-being of its employees. In her experience, the firms that prioritize their people are the ones that see results.

“When leaders or managers put results first, their people suffer. You can see this by their results, turnover, and loss of traction when trying to implement changes to make their company better and stay competitive,” Daugherty says.

One characteristic deterring people from careers in accounting is the concept that it’s all about the hours and not about the people.

“That’s how the profession has been thinking for so long, and it’s just not sustainable,” explains Randy Crabtree, CPA, co-founder of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals.

Crabtree wonders if maybe the challenge stems from the industry being so client-focused for so long, and that it forgot to focus on itself.

“As a profession, we don’t have enough people right now. We all have so much work and so many clients, and the personality of an accountant is to want to help everyone and find answers to all the problems,” Crabtree says. “So, we find solutions for our clients, but we forget that the people we work with also need care and support.”

Crabtree suggests that the accounting industry as a whole needs to shift its thinking away from counting hours to instead valuing employees. By doing so, Crabtree believes employees will want to put in those extra hours when needed. “There’s a difference between expecting employees to work on the weekends and creating an environment where employees want to work on the weekends,” he says. “Start by building a personal relationship and showing them that they’re important rather than the work being most important. “When your employee comes into the office in the morning, instead of saying to them, ‘Hey, you know that project you were working on yesterday? I need it today,’ say, ‘Hey, how was your evening?’”

Connect, Engage Employees With the Firm’s Goals

Perhaps because of the emphasis on the quantitative aspects of accounting, accountants find themselves feeling more like cogs and less like people, suggests Loretta Kilday a Chicago-based attorney, who specializes in personal finance, debt, business collections, bankruptcy, and family law. She says this feeling is reinforced when accountants feel a lack of connection to firm objectives.

“Today’s employees are motivated by more than just salaries. They need to grow, learn, and make significant contributions to their organizations,” Kilday explains. “There’s often a lack of effective communication [among accounting and finance firms] that makes workers feel unappreciated or disconnected from the goals and accomplishments of the organization.”

Dennis Shirshikov, head of growth at and a professor at the City University of New York, agrees that communication is key to keeping employees engaged with overall firm objectives.

“One common oversight is underestimating the value of transparent communication and feedback loops,” Shirshikov says. “In the labyrinthine structure of accounting and finance firms, it’s easy for employees to feel disconnected from the broader mission and undervalued in their daily contributions.”

The benefits of connecting employees to firm objectives go beyond retention strategies. Shirshikov says that authentically engaged employees exhibit higher productivity, lower turnover rates, and foster a sense of innovation.

“An engaged employee, feeling valued and understood, transforms from a mere cog in the machine to a pivotal force for growth and innovation,” Shirshikov emphasizes. “Engaged employees are the bedrock upon which firms can anticipate market shifts and adapt services to meet evolving client needs.”

The difference, Kilday observes, is that engaged employees don’t feel obligated to do their jobs, they feel ownership and pride in their work, and this translates into overall firm health.

“Truly engaged employees want to do more than just feel good about their jobs, they want to contribute to their companies’ success, which has measurable benefits, such as reduced staff turnover, increased productivity, better customer service and, ultimately, improved financial performance,” Kilday says. “Additionally, firms that have mastered employee engagement often see stronger client relationships and a more resilient brand.”

Invest In Your People

Susan Stutzel, CPA, is a sole practitioner who serves nonprofit clients. Per her own words, she lives, breathes, and loves the accounting profession—and has for more than 20 years. For the first time in her experience, she says there are multiple generations in the workforce at the same time, and each generation has very different needs and expectations. Stutzel says one of the biggest challenges the accounting industry faces is shifting the perception that being a certified public accountant (CPA) is merely a job, not a career.

“We can no longer do things the way they’ve always been done,” Stutzel stresses. “This new generation, more than ever before, is asking for mentoring, technical training, professional skills development, and more. The firms that are listening and investing in their people are seeing lower attrition rates.”

Stutzel says that one of the motivational drivers specific to the CPA profession is mastery—the idea of getting better and better at something that matters: “If an employee feels like they’re caught in a hamster wheel doing the same thing over and over again, they’re not going to gain mastery.”

Notably, managers can play an important role in this process by guiding and mentoring younger CPAs. “If an employee has been auditing an inventory section for the last few engagements, a manager can step in and show how one might be different from the other—they can explain how it’s more complex with multiple locations, or how inventory is moving at year-end. This helps employees see how they’re gaining mastery, and therefore, are more motivated to do the work,” Stutzel explains.

Interestingly, in its 17-year history, Tri-Merit is a firm that’s only had about 10 people leave voluntarily. Crabtree attributes the firm’s strong retention rate to the firm’s strategy of investing in its people. He estimates that it costs the firm anywhere from one-half to two-times someone’s salary to replace them, so they intentionally invest that cost savings into their retention strategies, including mentoring, training, and team building. This people-focused mindset also extends beyond the firm’s walls. Tri-Merit offers free continuing professional education to support CPAs and partner firms, as they believe talented employees are more likely to stay with a firm where they’re given opportunities to develop, succeed, and grow professionally.

Daugherty agrees and says you’ll never regret investing in people. She stresses that supporting people so that they support the business is a mental shift that needs to happen.

“People can tell if you care about them or not,” Daugherty says. “To create life-long employees, business owners need to realize their responsibilities in helping fulfill employees’ visions and dreams and give them the tools and resources to allow them to grow.”

Stutzel believes that every individual has their own unique set of talents, passions, and skills, and firms that provide space for employees to showcase these and make significant contributions are the firms that are attracting and retaining talent. “As CPAs, we’re problem-solvers. We want to have an impact and make a difference. If I can find a firm that allows me to do that, I no longer have a job, I have a fulfilling career,” she stresses.

Stutzel also agrees that accountants can sometimes get a bad rap for being “more robotic than human,” but says the profession is actually driven by a sense of purpose: “We want to know that the work we’re doing matters. Not just that we’re meeting budgets and getting high realization, but that we’re making a difference to our clients.”

Create a Sense of Belonging

Part of employee engagement is investing in culture and building social connection within a firm. Stutzel says it’s important to give all employees a sense of belonging, regardless of whether the firm’s workforce is in person, hybrid, or virtual: “Even those who would call themselves introverts need community—they need to know they belong.”

Shirshikov suggests that one way to create a sense of belonging and connection is to recognize and celebrate the individual contributions of employees: “Customized career development plans, opportunities for mentorship, and involving employees in decision-making processes can foster a deeper connection to the company’s mission and goals.”

Interestingly, based on ICPAS’ survey findings from “Righting Retention,” career advancement paths and opportunities, and mentors and mentorship programs, were cited as some of the top benefits most attractive to employees.

Shirshikov also says that facilitating cross-departmental collaborations can help employees understand the impact of their work across the organization, which in turn enhances their sense of purpose and connection.

By connecting with employees directly, firms can also get a better understanding of what truly motivates them. Beyond meeting with employees one-on-one, firms can also distribute surveys, host forums, or provide an anonymous feedback channel. Shirshikov also stresses that it goes beyond the mechanism of operationally asking for feedback. Firms have to truly listen and then act on what they learn.

Further stressing this point are ICPAS’ survey findings, which highlight that 28% of employers never ask their employees what benefits they value most.

“Implementing regular ‘temperature checks’ and creating an environment where feedback is encouraged and valued can unearth valuable insights into employee needs and desires,” Shirshikov says.

Daugherty emphasizes that simply soliciting feedback isn’t enough. “Make the investment on a consistent basis to get to know your people. Take notes about them and review reports or outcomes of town halls—but make sure you act on them. Otherwise, trust erodes and you lose the ground you may have gained,” Daugherty warns.

Crabtree says that employee engagement and retention starts right at hiring. You have to hire the right people, build the right culture, and value each employee. In fact, whenever a new employee is onboarded, Crabtree schedules a one-on-one video conference with them just to chat.

“During these calls, we talk about anything but work to get to know each other. We talk about what we enjoy doing outside of work, our families, or anything they want to talk about—and I’ll share anything they want to know about me,” Crabtree relates. “These conversations set the atmosphere of the company.”

Crabtree admits that Tri-Merit’s corporate culture is one of its greatest assets. It’s why the firm has such low attrition, and why at a recent corporate gathering, the hired photographer couldn’t distinguish the firm’s partners from the staff.

As Crabtree simply puts it: “The most important asset you have is your people. If you don’t create a culture that’s going to attract and retain people, then you’re not going to have the firm of your dreams.”

Carolyn Tang Kmet is a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University and a frequent Insight contributor.


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