“Not in Our Stars, but in
Motivating and retaining your staff has
little to do with them and almost everything to do with you
This article was published in
the April 2006 issue of AZ CPA magazine
My long-standing policy never to pass up a chance
to speak to a live crowd was tested when I was asked to
address a group of CPA firm administrators on the topic of employee motivation
and retention. My reluctance stemmed from the fact that I’m a marketing
consultant, and the subject of the day sounded frighteningly HR-like.
I tried to weasel out of the invitation by advising
my would-be hosts that I had never motivated subordinates to do anything more
than to seek employment elsewhere and was probably more conversant on the
history of spelling bees than about motivation and retention. But speaker
ignorance and incompetence apparently were not deal-killers for this group, for
they insisted that I do the presentation anyway, and the next thing I knew
somebody asked me to write about it.
After (then) 17 years of watching law firms and,
especially, CPA firms struggle to slow the revolving door through which their
professional staff pass en route to the firm of Greener Pastures, PLC, here’s
what I think I know about motivating people: It’s really hard. And it’s harder
yet if you try to fire them up at one of those excruciating firm-wide meetings
where the managing partner performs his best Knute Rockne impression before a
gathering of dazed, slack-jawed, vitamin D-starved accountants who just want to
get back to work.
That’s not to say that motivation is impossible. It
is, in fact, very possible – provided you grasp this principle: Motivation is
not getting people to do what you want them to do. Motivation is getting people
to want to do what you want them to do.
Two excellent books can help you with this. The
first is Primal Leadership, written by Daniel Goleman as a sequel to his
best-selling Emotional Intelligence, and the second is
The Firm of the
Future, by Paul Dunn and Ron Baker. In fact, if you want your firm to be
more successful in any respect – management, growth, marketing, recruiting,
profitability, etc. – you should buy The Firm of the Future today, read
it, memorize it, recite aloud key passages each morning as you shower, and make
it a focus of discussion at every partner meeting from now on.
In Chapter 5 (“Human Capital: Your People Are Not
Assets, They Are Volunteers”) the authors describe four stimulators of employee
Intrinsic Rewards. Some of your
employees will stay with you and remain productive simply because they love
doing what they do, and because you let them do it in an enjoyable,
Opportunity to Grow. Some will
stick around because your firm offers them a well-defined shot at a better
future: learning more, earning more, being involved in decisions, fulfilling
their potential, and rising to the point that they qualify to co-sign on the
firm’s line of credit.
Recognition of Accomplishments. Most of
your employees probably have a primal need for private and public
recognition for doing good work. Fulfilling this need is easier said than
done, especially if it is part of your firm’s culture to focus on
shortcomings and problems rather than on achievements and solutions.
Economic Rewards. No matter how your
firm fares on the first three stimuli, many of your people will stay or
leave just because of the money. I see firms effectively deal with pay
issues in two ways: first, by paying at or above market for every position
and, second, by rewarding good performance with impromptu bonuses. Regarding
the latter, your employees may come to view their annual raise as an
entitlement; in contrast, a one-time bonus as individual recognition of good
work for a valued client or on a big engagement can enhance short-term
loyalty and productivity.
To this point, we have generally
focused on what your employees may want or need in order to secure their
enthusiasm and longevity. But answering the question “How do we motivate
them?” actually has very little to do with them and almost
everything to do with you.
For you to improve employee retention and
motivation, something has to change, and that something may be you. It is almost
axiomatic that if you want to change an organization, you have to change the
leader. (Okay, you don’t have to change; you could stay the course and
cling to your 25% turnover rate until it bankrupts you or until the only
accountants in town who didn’t used to work for you are working for you now.)
Short of a total behavioral makeover, you might consider three changes in the
way you go about your business.
Be in Perpetual Recruiting Mode.
Professional firms tend to hire only when they have more work to do than
they have people to do it, and then they interview until they find the least
objectionable candidate who can do the work. After a few years, they have
accumulated a bunch of unobjectionable people who can do certain things but are
of dubious further value. What you have not accumulated are people
through whom you can perpetuate your core values and qualities. A solution:
Always be in recruiting mode, on the lookout for skill, character, ambition,
gravitas and attitude, and whenever you find it, whether you need it just
then or not, hire it.
Deploy Your People by Their
Strengths. Since much of the value of the accounting and legal
professions rests on accuracy, many firms tend to evaluate people on the basis
of how few errors they make. In some firms, this means that technically sound
people get promoted, and technically unsound but otherwise capable people leave
or try to improve next year. The possibility that the technically unsound person
might have unseen strengths that would benefit the firm may be overlooked,
especially if you don’t know how to detect those strengths. To the rescue ride
Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, authors of
Now, Discover Your Strengths.
The book has a comprehensive online assessment (at least it did when this
article was written) that, once in the informed
clutches of a manager of people, allows him to deploy his people to tasks and
functions that align with their strengths. The result: people who may be easier
to manage and motivate.
Be a Mentor.
Younger accountants and attorneys whom I assist in the marketing area
occasionally express a desire to work closely with, learn from, and enjoy a
comradeship with an admired senior partner. Partners who recognize this desire
and respond to it can enjoy nearly unshakeable loyalty. In its most productive
form, mentoring is a reciprocal, voluntary, respectful and authentic
relationship between two people – one with less experience, one with more – that
works most effectively outside of the typical supervisor-subordinate
None of these metamorphoses is the Holy Grail of
employee motivation and retention (if it were, I wouldn’t be giving it away
here). But to the extent that you can work them into your firm culture and
instill them in your partners by your leadership example, you will have taken a
giant leap toward securing lower turnover and more long-term enthusiasm and
commitment among your firm’s next generation.