retaining employees after cpa firm ownership transition

The transition after the purchase of a CPA firm can involve many moving pieces. One of the biggest considerations is the employees and how to keep the best talent while also growing and transitioning the firm to new ownership. New owners are often faced with employees moving to new firms because they are uncertain of the firm’s future. However, understanding what employees are looking for can help new owners develop a firm where people want to work and increase retention rates for current employees.


Here are five qualities from CPA firms people want to work for that can be applied to all firms:


Culture of Quality Work

Employees want to work for a CPA firm where quality work is expected. One survey of thousands of accountants found that the top quality employees look for in their firm is that quality work is a top priority. Employees are satisfied when they work for a firm that not only encourages and expects great work but also rewards it and understands the time and dedication it takes to do great work.


The idea of a culture of quality, though, is somewhat nebulous. What does it mean, and how can you tell if your firm has it? Creating this type of culture goes beyond simply hiring the best or holding employees to a high standard. A culture of quality can’t be forced. In fact, one of the key components is having employees who are willing to do more and go above and beyond what their job calls for. However, around 60% of employees say that they don’t believe their peers do this.


The key is leadership. A firm with leaders who show that they’re going to go above and beyond and, even more importantly, will recognize and reward others who do the same can help drive a culture of quality. Leaders need to mean what they say and follow through with it. In addition to showing their dedication to quality, leaders who follow this practice will earn their employees’ respect and admiration. They also show that when they talk about quality and its importance, they actually mean it. Highlighting where there is a disparity between what a leader says and what they do will help your management team learn how to create a culture of quality.


Employee involvement and engagement, on the other hand, isn’t always as simple as holding workshops on being involved. You have to carefully balance how involved you are. You can’t tell employees to go above and beyond because they may feel as if they have no choice—they have to do extra work in order to move up. This can feel punishing and lead to resentment. On the other hand, if you don’t support employees and give them chances to take ownership of a project, they may miss opportunities to showcase their talents.


In addition to giving them a chance to take ownership of projects, you have to make certain your employees feel like they are empowered to make choices and contribute to the company. If someone has an idea, they should always feel free to present it to their supervisor or to other employees. When employees feel like they do have a stake in the company, they’re more likely to want to contribute and go above and beyond.



Employees are Treated Like People

Many CPA firms fall into the trap of treating their people like calculators or number crunchers instead of real people. A common complaint of accountants is that they aren’t treated like actual human beings. CPA firms where people actually want to come to work have a culture that understands and appreciates each individual.


In addition to being given the chance to take ownership of projects, employees are also encouraged to showcase their personalities. Leaders and managers take time to get to know each employee beyond just the amount of work they accomplish. Employees want the chance to build relationships with each other, have fun, and make a difference. Create a culture where employees can get involved beyond just work and where they feel accepted and valued.


How can you create a culture where employees feel valid? One model is to think of your employees the same way you think of your clients. This starts with asking your employees a very simple question: “what do you want from your job?” It’s very possible some of your employees won’t know how to answer this question because they’ve never been asked before. Start a discussion with them. Do they want more challenging opportunities? Do they want some relief because they feel like their work/home life balance isn’t right? Do they feel like management doesn’t support them? While it may seem simple, too many companies don’t understand what their employees want because they don’t ask. Don’t make the same mistake with your new accounting firm, especially if you’ve just completed the purchase.


Would you ever tell a client that you don’t want to hear their ideas or that you can’t discuss your services with them? Of course not. If you did, they would likely change to another CPA firm and never look back. If you’re not willing to listen to employees and find out what they want, why should you expect them to remain with your firm? Once you know what they want, you can make changes that will help improve your culture, just as you would make changes to make your clients more satisfied.


This quality has another benefit, too. Employees who feel validated and heard are more likely to remain loyal to your firm. This means you will spend less time and resources on hiring new employees and training them. These savings should not be the main goal here, but they are a benefit and directly impact your bottom line, and that can be important.



Strong Leadership

Employees want to trust the firm’s leadership and know that managers and executives are taking the firm in a positive direction. In many cases, that means that leaders are involved with their employees and have good communication. Instead of simply sitting in their corner offices, strong leaders need to be open with employees, listen to their feedback, and provide inspiration and guidance. When employees feel they can trust the leadership, they are more likely to feel confident in the firm and want to work there for a long time.


Maintaining strong leadership can be a challenge in the transition after the purchase of a CPA firm. To best reach out to employees, the new owners and any new leaders need to be transparent and personable. They need to connect with employees and share their authentic goals and vision for the future of the firm. During this transition of ownership, your new employees are already going to be nervous, and many may already be looking for work elsewhere because they’re concerned about being fired. Be as open with them as you can and demonstrate how dedicated you are to your new CPA firm. Being transparent will go a long way to reassuring them that your leadership will help them and the firm move forward.


This means leaders need to be ready to have uncomfortable conversations. If an employee is unhappy, they should feel like they can approach company leadership with their problems. Your managers and other leaders need to be willing to openly talk to employees about their pay, benefits, job duties, and anything else. Many employees feel like discussing their pay is not an option. However, if you go back to the idea that employees are clients, you wouldn’t tell a client that they couldn’t discuss your pricing with you.


If this is the first CPA firm you’ve purchased, let them know that you’re new to the industry or at least new to serving as a firm leader. Ask about their experience at the firm and what they want to see going forward. Having conversations with employees at all levels will help reassure them and help you learn about your new firm. Even if you’ve managed multiple CPA firms before, those firms will not be exactly the same as your new acquisition.



Rewarding Work

Employees want to see the impact of their work and know they are making a difference. The basic accounting responsibilities don’t change between firms people want to work for and firms they don’t want to work for, but the emphasis changes. When employees are engaged, they feel their work has an impact on the clients they serve. They feel they are on the cutting edge of accounting and are prepared to make positive change.


However, while words of praise are nice, they’re only words. Rewarding your employees with something more tangible or more useful can go a long way to motivating them. The reward needs to match the effort. When an employee stays late one day to help finish a task, that may be worthy of a thanks and recognition in front of the team. When they work late for several weeks and give up a Saturday to complete tax returns or other major projects, they deserve something more.


One very appreciated option is to give them a one-time pay bonus. However, as an accounting firm, your employees are likely to be aware of how bonus pay is taxed, so you may want to look at other options. Comp time is a great way to make employees feel appreciated. If someone stays an extra two hours to complete a project, let them leave two hours early or come in a couple of hours later one day. Gift cards or gift certificates may also be appropriate and carry none of the tax implications that a bonus on their paychecks have. Promotional items such as coffee cups and t-shirts are another option.


Of course, the best way you can reward work, and the most motivational, is to promote those who consistently go above and beyond. This shows everyone that hard work will be recognized and rewarded. CPA firms that promote those who deserve it earn a reputation for being fair and giving employees a chance to grow and advance their careers. It’s a quality you want your firm to be known for.



Opportunities for Growth and Development

One of the most common reasons people leave their jobs is because they don’t see the potential for future growth. Employees want to be in a position where they are constantly growing and improving instead of just staying stagnant. The best CPA firms encourage that growth by providing opportunities for career and personal development.


This can take a number of forms. Many companies implement some form of regular training to keep employees’ skills sharp. Today, this type of training generally involves learning how to use new accounting software or new online tools. Another form of training involves regulations. Employees need to keep up to date on the newest regulations and practices in the industry. Failing to do so doesn’t just result in a lack of knowledge—it can put clients in a difficult position if your firm fails to follow new regulations that apply to taxes, withholdings, and other concerns.


But growth and development opportunities don’t have to be limited to helping your employees grow in a professional way. In fact, many employees are interested in what you have to offer that isn’t directly related to work. Personal development programs like fitness and mental health initiatives give them the opportunity to improve personally.


Mentorship programs are also important opportunities for growth. People want to work for CPA firms that have mentorship programs where they can learn from more experienced colleagues and network with other professionals. Give employees a chance to grow within the organization by adding new responsibilities throughout their careers. Every employee should have a mentor. For some, this will be their direct supervisor. This type of mentorship will focus on career mentoring and will help employees determine where they want to be down the line. For those who may make ideal future leaders, a C-level executive may take them under their wing as a personal mentor. This allows them to begin preparing the employee to their future in the firm.


Reverse mentoring can be effective in bringing your employees together. In reverse mentoring, younger employees serve as mentors to older employees. These young employees are often more familiar with new technology, new processes, and new regulations. They can help older employees learn about these newer concepts. This will help bridge the age gap between employees and dispel some of the misconceptions they may have about each other. It unifies your workforce while showing younger employees that they are as valued and offer as much as more experienced team members.



Become a Firm with a Reputation for Being Good to its Employees

These five qualities of CPA firms people actually want to work for show what matters most to employees. A firm that focuses on these qualities will find that employees are more motivated and enjoy coming to work each day. It will also give your new firm a reputation for being good to employees. As this reputation grows, you may find that you receive many more applications for open positions than you once did. The quality of candidates applying for these positions may also improve, giving you a chance to hire the best of the best.


Overall, as you transition to new firm ownership, remember to prioritize employees and connect with them on the things that matter most. Putting in effort to develop a great employee experience can pay off with loyal employees who want to come to work every day and stay at the firm.

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