Angie Grissom, President, The Rainmaker Companies
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built." I am particularly fond of this notion as I have always been passionate about empowering others. Early in my career, I was fortunate in having leaders who would thrust me into sink or swim opportunities. Although often quite challenging, I learned how to swim quickly in many cases. I also did my fair share of sinking and learned valuable lessons along the way. My leaders embraced diversity and inclusion early on, and I benefited from this. I was from a different generation, and for the most part since I am female, a different gender than most of my clients at the time.
Leaders in our profession – and across industries – often struggle with how and when to involve their people with various levels of experience, talents, skill sets, and backgrounds. It can be challenging to determine which opportunities will most effectively develop our teams. Yet we often complain that we can't delegate, we are too busy, or our people are not ready for the kinds of meetings, activities, and roles in which we so desperately need them to be prepared, while in fact, we are often the problem.
While a sink or swim mentality is not always ideal, a healthy balance of instruction and observation followed by submersion into actual experiences works well. Our profession is changing. Business is getting more complex. The competition is getting stronger. Technology is changing the business landscape in almost every way imaginable. If there has ever been a time to get your team up to speed quickly, it is now. If there was ever a time to diversify your team to create strategic advantages, the time is also now. The current and future buyer looks a lot different than the buyer even five years ago. We are seeing exciting progress in the form of younger clients as well as more female and minority business owners. This diversification brings changes in communication preferences and a culture of more savvy, sophisticated buyers. Yet, how much of these changes are we seeing within our own firms, especially in the top leadership positions?
In order to effectively relate to and best serve the new market culture, we must start doing things differently. We must strengthen our teams through empowerment and trust that our people have the ability to learn, grow, and perform. We need to stop waiting for the perfect opportunity to expose them to high-level meetings and activities that will develop them into stronger assets and colleagues. We must involve a more diverse group, involve people sooner, and trust them more because we learn from skills and strengths they bring to the table in terms of perspective, innovation, and communication style, to name a few.
Some of the best managing partners I have had the pleasure of working with seem to share the belief that creating a diverse firm and involving team members early in critical functions is the best way to build a reliable team. However, the reluctance to include younger people is not unique to this generation of leaders. If you look back at the quotes of people from past generations, you may notice a common theme of concern regarding the ability of the next generation to perform at the level at which they are performing. Perhaps this is human nature, but imagine the possibilities if we decided as a profession to trust a little more? What if we chose to invest in the development of our people sooner or to include people who have different backgrounds and perspectives? Think of what we could achieve!
Bill Hageman, the managing partner of Withum, is known for providing team members the opportunity to develop and excel. He says, "The business case for more diversity is undeniable, and the accounting profession is behind the rest of the market. We need to acknowledge and control our unconscious bias and sponsor women and people of color to the highest levels of our firms. Training is an important element, but we need to commit to mentoring in a real way."
Consider the following ways to improve team development and create a more diversified team within your firm:
Strategy and Planning
When it comes to developing future leaders in our firms, there is no better way to prepare them than to invite them to the table for planning meetings and executive team meetings. Firm strategy setting, including growth initiatives, merger and acquisition opportunities, new service lines, goal setting, and technology strategies serves as valuable opportunities to develop team members. Give them a role and a voice. Encourage them, and create a workplace culture that makes sharing ideas with leadership comfortable. This applies to professionals from various service lines and at various stages in their careers. Many times, firm leadership waits far too long to involve potential leaders in leading. We see this with the succession crisis in so many firms. Few feel ready to take on the top leadership roles because they have been sheltered from really having to lead.
Client Relationships and Meetings
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of involving a diverse group of people in actual face-to-face client meetings. The collection of experiences, skill sets, personalities, and perspectives can create the most effective teams offering the best advice and service to clients. Team members should be encouraged to prepare for and participate in the meetings. There is no better teacher than actual experience. When firms do this properly, client succession is not as much of an issue. Multiple points of contact should be in place early on. Individuals will learn what works, how to ask the best questions, and what clients are looking for from your firm. Having a mix of ages and perspectives can create additional opportunities to strengthen client relationships.
Consider how exposing your teams to prospective client meetings, involving them in developing solutions with clients, and allowing them to influence the proposal process might equip them to be better rainmakers and client servers throughout their careers. Educating team members on the business life cycle and all of the concerns, fears, and needs that come along with this is a great way to begin to develop professionals into business advisors. No substitute exists for being in the room and feeling the chemistry and energy – or lack thereof – in meetings like these. This is how we learn and how we improve. You can teach your team how to "swim" in a safe environment.
Leaders tend to be reluctant to delegate complex or high-stakes tasks to others. Whether it is in the area of business development, marketing, firm operations, or client work, many leaders are fearful that if they are not the ones doing the work, it will not be completed correctly. How can we develop others if we do not expose them to the complex work we are doing? We cannot effectively develop our people if we continue to do all of the work all of the time.
Chris Luzurri, a top business development coach at Cherry Bekaert, shares the following perspective, "To me, inclusion and diversity is recognizing that everyone contributes from a unique point of view formed by their experiences. Experiences, without a doubt, impacted by race, gender, identity, culture, and heritage. The earlier in a professional's career everyone is exposed to formal training and the experiential learning of being involved in those meetings or events, the better we can understand, appreciate, and leverage those differences. Learning from others and collective participation influences careers, impacts financial results, and fosters success for all parties up and down the organizational chart."
Our firms are at a crossroads with an immense opportunity for current leaders to work to change the face of the profession. We have an opportunity to create more diverse, more inclusive, and better-equipped practices to take on the challenges ahead which will allow us to maximize the incredible opportunities before us.