Change management: Break through the status quo


The beginning of a new year is a time when many of us reflect on our goals and make resolutions to change, like stopping or starting a certain habit. For radical CPAs, starting the new year is a great time for change. Whether you’re thinking about adopting a new process, technology or revamping everything at your firm, it all starts with being intentional, and I love that.

Dustin Hostetler, co-founder of Transformity Solutions, is a change expert. Cool, right? I recently spoke with him about how CPAs can find success in their change initiatives.

Change your point of view

Do you normally associate accounting work with the Lean Six Sigma method? Probably not because we’re in the business of relationships. “At the heart of lean thinking is a focus on value from the client’s point of view,” Hostetler said. “We call it the ‘voice of the client.’”

The reality is there are still very few firms nationwide who have actual, solid advisory processes down. “When you look at the day-to-day, there are still very few firms that are truly getting beyond just compliance and getting more of their team that are good at advisory to do the work,” Hostetler added.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t! More firms are getting the pieces together. Maybe a couple partners get it, but it’s not firmwide. Or the process looks good from the outside, but the team on the inside is still doing things according to seven different partners’ preferences.

That’s not to say we don’t want to get there; COVID-19 really pushed us in the right direction. But we’re not there yet. We need to change.

First things first

Change needs to come from where? The top. “I like to take it one step further than that,” Hostetler said. “They have to understand what it is that they are committing to and buying into.”

An issue unique to CPA firms, and really any professional services firm, is that unlike a corporation with defined management roles, there are multiple partners. And we all know that different partners have different agendas, specialties and approaches to things. So, they will buy into change initiatives differently; everyone has their own stake.

The first step is to abandon the notion that every partner will be on board, especially in mid-size and large firms. Seriously. Your goal, then, is to get the key partners on board, and then start moving. Even then, Hostetler said to keep in mind that some partners will be slower to adopt; some are more of the “show me” types who want to see how this change works before they dive in. And that’s okay. We have to allow some flexibility for those people. But not too much flexibility.

“The amount of times I’ve heard, ‘We just have to wait two and a half years and this person is going to retire,’” Hostetler remarked. “I literally hear that 50 times a year!”

Get serious about change management

Firms that really want to see something different in 2021 need to get past the idea stage and focus on execution. Are you ready for this? Tie change management to partner compensation. Doing this will prevent you from getting stuck in the, “He or she isn’t on board,” or “We’ll just wait until so-and-so is gone.” Give your partners flexibility and a safe space to express their opinions and observations — and then keep going.

But what happens if someone is truly stuck in their ways and doesn’t want to adopt a new technology or process? Leave them be, Hostetler recommended. These people will sort of isolate themselves and, eventually, it’ll be a lot harder for them to do it their way, but so be it. Don’t let that impact the entire firm. You can’t wait forever.

Getting serious about change management means two key roles: a champion and a super user.

The champion is a senior leader, either a partner or senior manager, who will cross practice groups and siloes and can take change management to the whole firm. Your champion practices what he or she preaches. People look up to them. They lead by example.

The super user is a mid-level role who will take the project and run with it. This is the person who’s in the change daily. This is the person who knows the in’s and out’s of the process, the tech, whatever, and can show other people what it is and how to use it. The champion supports the super user.

Going all in

COVID-19 happened and the silver lining was that it forced all of us to do things differently for the sake of survival. For the firms that want to move past survival and want to use this opportunity to fundamentally change how they do things, don’t wait until after busy season. Start now.

“Take advantage of the openness and willingness to look at things differently,” Hostetler said.

Talk about not just 2021, but the next two years. Where do we want the firm to be? What do we want the firm to look like? Use busy season to have these discussions, get on the same page and start to change the trajectory. Talk about not just where you want your firm to be, but what your clients need you to be. Maximize that. Do your best to match the voice of the client.

Practical advice for change management

Hostetler shared the following tips to get the change you desire:

  • Include a change skeptic on the project team. If they’re part of the future solution, they’re naturally going to buy into it because they’ve had a say in it.
  • Incorporate change management into performance. The firms that are the most serious about change are those ones that really make it impactful in terms of performance metrics.
  • Don’t let personal preferences of individual partners impact others. Otherwise, it’s going to impact overall firm performance.
  • Let go of excuses. The number one excuse is, “My clients won’t do that.” Think of what they have done since COVID-19 started that they never would have imagined. Yet somehow, we’re all doing it.

Is 2021 your year? It should be! It needs to be. Schedule those visionary chats with your leadership team. Identify your champion and super user. And start to figure out what you want your firm to be. Change is hard, and the process usually isn’t straightforward, but the result is well worth it.

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