Chris Walker, Peterson Sullivan LLP
Succession planning is often discussed as a partner nears retirement. Transitioning clients, transferring marketing relationships, selling equity, and creating a “wind-down” plan are typical tasks requiring significant planning and, if done right, years ahead of the actual retirement. What happens when a partner wants to get their equity chips off the table well ahead of retirement age? What if this person wants to “wind up” their contributions to the firm outside of traditional compliance work?
Consider a transition from practitioner to business developer! This can be an excellent way to retain a firm’s most significant and experienced talent while capitalizing on existing client and business partner relationships. With the right skillset and program, a “retired” partner can be successful in a sales role.
What is the role? This is the first question to ask when considering this type of succession plan. Defining the expectations of the role will be critical to measuring success. If this is a new role to the firm, invest time with your managing partner and human resources leadership to create the job requirements necessary to match the growth strategies of the firm. Establish expectations by defining measurements of success. These metrics can include revenue goals, independent lead generation, and administrative integrity for producing timely pipeline and activity reports.
Does this person have the skillset to perform in the role? In general, this person will be responsible for meeting assigned sales goals and bringing in new business to the firm. The skills needed for this are usually not inherent in a typical accounting professional. To be considered, the individual should have previously exhibited success in achieving new business revenue for the firm both in cross-selling into existing clients and acquiring new client relationships. A strong technical resource whose business development activities have been limited to picking up the phone is not going to be successful in a full-time sales role.
A strong rapport with the partner group and staff is important. A sales professional must understand the strengths, weaknesses, technical capabilities, and sales capabilities of those who will be contributing to the sales process. Lone wolves can be successful, but this is a rare approach in the accounting world. Having the ability to create the right pursuit teams and to transition closed engagements to the right partner is better for the organization and the new client. A strong internal network is also imperative for creating pipeline opportunities.
The business developer must be community facing. This includes a deep network of referral relationships, attending association events, serving on committees and boards, speaking, and writing thought leadership pieces. Knowing which activities produce results is key to community involvement. Sales professionals must be strategic and targeted in their approach.
Does this person have the emotional intelligence to be successful in the role? The transition from a client facing, technical role to a sales position is extremely difficult. Change, even positive change, is challenging. A person’s entire career and professional identity is shifting, and they must be given time for this adjustment. Depending on the role, the partner may be asked to transition out of all client work which literally feels like jumping off the proverbial cliff without a parachute. Clear expectations, positive reinforcement, and patience throughout the initial transition phase are very important. The partner must be an active participant in this process and must work with the firm to evolve emotionally into their new role.
Does this person have the right systems, processes, and staff to support the role? Expecting a newly transitioned sales professional to succeed on their own is ludicrous. Yes, they should have an element of independence, but turning someone loose and telling them to “get it done” is a recipe for disaster. Take the agreed upon measurements of success and have them develop an annual plan to achieve the goals. This annual plan can then be broken into 90-day segments. The quarterly goals can be further distributed into weekly or bi-weekly tasks. Clearly communicate the role, expectations, and annual plan to stakeholders so everybody is on the same page. Determine the reporting cadence needed to provide comfort to the stakeholders that the transition and their investment is working.
Deploy resources to provide the necessary support. If the partner is entering an established sales program, then a CRM system, administrative staff, and marketing programs are likely in place and easy to plug into. If the role is new to a firm, additional investments in these resources may be necessary. Assign a senior member of the marketing or sales staff to meet regularly with the newly transitioned professional to provide direction and guidance. Communication across the marketing, sales, and technical teams is also critical for success.
Is the compensation model designed to produce the right results? This is one of the toughest topics of conversation when transitioning into a sales role. Communication needs to be open and honest. There is a good chance that compensation for a new sales professional will be less than what they made as a technician. Leadership will say that the starting salary is still too high, while the partner will say it is too low. Most compensation programs meet in the middle and involve a combination of salary and commission. Everyone needs to agree to a salary reasonable for the market and a commission structure to provide proper incentive in achieving the right results for the firm. Year 1 is likely to be an investment by the firm. Year 2 should see an increase in compensation trending with an increase in closed engagements and more value back to the firm. Year 3 should see win-win results!
Right person, Right seat. If you have a defined role with clear measurements of success and a person with the right attributes, then transitioning a partner into a full-time sales role is a successful proposition. Taking the time on the front end and communicating effectively throughout the process can be lucrative for the partner and the firm. Having a partner transition into this role who fits the culture of the firm and is passionate about business development is a gem. With a little patience and enough runway to begin a new career, they will have the opportunity to flourish.