The leader of The Rainmaker Companies, Angie Grissom, shares lessons she’s learned from working with accounting firms on their strategic plans.
Dan Hood (00:03):
Welcome to On the Air with Accounting Today, I’m editor-in-chief Dan Hood. It’s a classic case of the shoemaker’s children: Accountants often play a major role in helping their clients set their strategies for the future, but the average accounting firm doesn’t have a strategic plan of its own. Here to talk about that lack, and what should fill it, is Angie Grissom. She’s the owner of the Rainmaker Companies and a long time and in highly regarded consultant to accountants. Angie, thanks for joining us.
Angie Grissom (00:23):
Thanks, Dan, for having me. Really excited to be here today to talk about this.
Dan Hood (00:27):
Yes, it’s an important topic and we can start with why should a firm, I’m sort of saying like, oh, I, a firm ought have a strategic plan. It’s terrible that they don’t. Why should a firm have a strategic plan?
Angie Grissom (00:37):
Well, I think you have to have a plan in place to know where you want to allocate your assets. You want to have a plan in place to make sure that the partners are rowing in the same direction, and probably even more importantly, your team needs to know where the firm is headed so that they know that they’re doing the right things to support the firm and their role. How, gosh, there’s so many reasons. How do you reward your people? How do you direct to your people? Where should your investments go? Things like that. So a plan is really, really critically important, even though it’s pretty difficult for a lot of firms to put into place.
Dan Hood (01:14):
Well, it’s ing because as I said, a lot of firms, and we have, we’ve done we do a regular survey of firms every year asking them, Hey, about, we ask a lot of other things, but among the things we ask is, do you have a strategic plan? Do you have a succession plan? Do you have a bunch of other plans in place? And the number of firms that just don’t have any kind of strategic plan in place is astonishing. And yet at the same time, why We know, obviously lots of these firms, they’re not collapsing. It’s not that they’re going to burst into flames because they don’t have a strategic plan. Why do you suppose firms don’t bother?
Angie Grissom (01:43):
The thing that I hear Dan a lot and have for years is it’s in my head, Angie, the strategic plan’s in my head, we gotcha. We know that we’re in this to make money. We know that we want to pay our people well. We don’t need a document that collects dust on our desk to sit there. We don’t need to spend a lot of money on putting this together and waste a lot of people’s time just to have a plan on the desk that collects dust. That’s what, that’s commonly what we hear. I think it’s a broader issue. I think the issue is around number one, how in the world do you put one together? How do you get the buy-in of the people and the owners? How do we get them in the same room and not kill each other? Honestly, <laugh>, how do we determine what the priorities are? So it’s difficult. It’s not an easy process to go through, especially for those firms that are not used to doing it. They don’t have a process in place. It’s daunting. It can certainly be daunting. So I think that’s why they don’t bother. But I think inherently people know that it’s really important.
Dan Hood (02:49):
Well, it’s interesting when you say, oh, it’s in my head. It’s in my head. And when you listed the long list, and we could probably come up with a thousand other things to put on the list of why it’s good to have one. But you hit all the highlights and among several of those highlights involved, letting other people know what’s going on, right? Communication younger staff, older staff, partner group, keeping everybody on the same page, it’s just happening in your head is not really going to cut it right everywhere. The part of the it is to be able to communicate the direction of the firm to everybody
Angie Grissom (03:16):
It is, and to make sure that the leadership is on the same page. Because a lot of the coaching we do, we will hear people say to us, one partner has something in mind in terms of where the firm is going and they have certain expectations for me. And then the other partner down the hall has a completely different perspective. And the reality of it is, that’s true in a lot of cases. One of the things that I used to do, the very first step when I went in and started working with firms in strategic planning, I would put all of the partners in a room around a table and I would say, Dan, what does success look like for you the next year? And then Rob and then Jennifer and Jim, and with the process of that allowed them to articulate to each other and honestly to themselves what they were looking for, what success looked like and what came from that was an understanding for the first time, which is a bit odd, but an understanding of what the people that you were in business with view as success.
And there was a ton of overlap. And other people would hear responses and say, what? Me too, me too. That’s right. That that’s exactly what it looks like. So there’s a lot of value in having the owners hit pause and articulate what success looks like from their perspective, and also hear what other people’s perspective looks like. And that’s in the partner group alone. Consider the people that aren’t at that table, the people that really don’t know what the goals, the goal of the firms are. They don’t know if they’re looking to be acquired or to acquire. They don’t know if they’re looking to expand or move into different services or what the priorities are. And we know how stiff competition is right now. Everybody’s being pursued on LinkedIn, and if they don’t really understand the culture and the goals of the firm that they’re working in, that’s a problem. It puts firms at risk.
Dan Hood (05:13):
But yeah, I mean you say, yeah, as everyone gives out their idea of what the firm is, you hope there’s serious overlap, but obviously if there isn’t, that’s a serious problem.
Angie Grissom (05:23):
It is. And usually those things can be addressed. It might be that, you know, I’m sure you, you’ve seen all the time where sometimes there are partners that are sort of retired in place and they’re ready to, they don’t want to rock the boat, they don’t want to make any major investments because it could impact their retirement and they block decisions. It’s really difficult for those people to articulate that in a group setting. It’s really difficult for you to hold up a barrier like that and say, you know what? I don’t want to the boat because I want to make more money. They might say, I, I’m concerned about this investment or this, but ultimately we have to believe that the owners and the partners in our business are interested in the success of the firm. They’re interested in the success of the people where they wouldn’t be doing it. And so when you’re able to articulate, for the most part why you’re doing what you’re doing and what the goals are and you can get on common ground, it’s then easier to address those outliers and maybe give them alternatives to what they want to do. It could be early retirement, it could be transition of a role, but if you don’t talk about it, you don’t know,
Dan Hood (06:41):
Or you can shame them into giving up their obstructionism. <laugh>, sorry.
Angie Grissom (06:44):
Well, that works too,
Dan Hood (06:46):
Honestly. Yeah, I mean obviously if they’re the kind of thing you should say, it’s difficult to articulate the, I don’t want to do this because I don’t want to endanger my retirement.
Angie Grissom (06:53):
But the other thing is saying that you have to make it safe. So that, that’s one of the things around strategic planning that I think is so important. People aren’t going to be honest about their true fears, goals, frustrations, if they feel like it’s going to be punitive, if they feel like they’re going to be punished or made to be an outsider. If you can create a situation to make the voices of the owners and the people safe, that’s your best bet. And you’ve got to have typically somebody that’s not, even though we know that our clients, these CPAs are excellent strategists, they’re great consultants, many times you should always have somebody externally helping to facilitate the planning process. We even do that as strategic planners because you got to have somebody outside the situation that’s able to shine the light on potential conflicts. And if you can make it safe, for example, we would go in and we would create what we call a code of communication or code of cooperation when we worked with partner groups and we would agree collaboratively.
What are the things that we as a group think are important in terms of the way we communicate? Here’s some examples. You know what? We want you to be loyal to the absent. We want you to support your partners and if you disagree, disagree in this room together and agree in public. Don’t turn the kids against the parents, if you will, because there’s a lot of that kind of stuff going on. Be loyal to the absent. We want you to be C collaborative. We want to view this as a one firm focus. We want to address conflict outright. When you lay those things out, and it’s the idea of the partners or the owners, they have a code that they live up to. And so when they’re debating what are the priorities of the firm and where should the firm go, it’s safe enough for them to have straight talk but also respect one another. The same applies when you are gaining insight from other people within the organization, which I think is the biggest gap right now in our profession. In a strategic plan, you need to have people at every single level involved in the planning and make it safe for them to do that.
Dan Hood (09:13):
We’re going to dive a lot more into what goes into a strategic plan in a second, but before we do that, I want, I’m curious about when you look across accounting firms, and I’m going to use a terrible example, but if you look across accounting firms, there’s a lot of accounting firms that have the exact same website. They all look very, very similar. They say the same things they share the same insights about the partners and they share the same, we’re a family and all that sort of stuff. And so it’s obvious that there is a sort of template for an accounting firm website. Is there a similar thing for a strategic plan? I mean, how individualized do these things need to be, and could you just buy, buy one off the shelf and fill in your details?
Angie Grissom (09:48):
Well, that’s a really great question. In any kind of business plan, obviously you need to look at where you are now and where you’re, what are your goals in terms of growth? What percentage of growth are you looking at? Where do you want to allocate resources? So you have a financial analysis as a portion of that. Strategic plans really should be built from a SWOT analysis. The individual strengths of the firm are different from others. The individual weaknesses of the firm are different than others. The opportunities might be similar, but there are some differences and the threads certainly can be similar. And so when you think about just the strategic planning process in general, strategic concerns are the things that you really want to pay attention to with each company and each firm, what are the top two or three things we really need to focus on to make sure these things go right in order for us to have a successful plan?
Those things do differ in firms. And so while you might have a template of we want this growth, we want to recruit this number of people, we want to move into this market with different services, and those might be similar. The personalization comes into play where we deal with your market, you deal with your people, you deal with the leadership of your partners and your leaders. The more specific you can get about who you are, who is your footprint how are you different than others, and build certain things to your advantage and do your strategic plan, the better off you’ll be. And a lot of people just don’t even know where to start, but that’s what keeps people in firms is the uniqueness of the culture. People leave managers, not firms, people leave leaders, not firms. So if you can build in personalization in terms of who are we really, what are we about? What do we want to accomplish then that’s definitely something to do to be successful.
Dan Hood (11:42):
Excellent. Like I said, we’re going to dive in more into what goes into a strategic plan but we’re going to take a quick break first. Alright, and we’re back with Andrew grm of the Rainmaker Companies talking about strategic plans and what goes into ’em. As you say, you just mentioned, right? A lot of firms sort of look at it and go, ah, how do you even start? You even begin this whole process. First off, maybe we cover what should be in a strategic plan. What should it cover?
Angie Grissom (12:07):
Well, I think a strategic plan should cover, again, where are we now and where do we want to go in terms of growth? So think about revenue growth. Think about your move to advisory. If you have 30% advisory services now and you’re looking to move to 50%, that that’s an area that should be in a strategic plan. Looking at growth, not for the sake of growth, but the kind of client that you want to work in geographically just through Covid found that the geographic borders have disappeared when it comes to getting new clients and getting people. So obviously, how are you going to expand with a client base geographically? Is it global? Is it regional? Is it national? Where are you going to get your people? Are they necessarily all CPAs? What do we need data analytic professionals? What type of talent do we need?
What are the initiatives that make the most sense for us? If we are in heavy acquisition mode, why are we acquiring, who are we acquiring? Are we acquiring C P A firms? Are we acquiring non C P A firms? Things like that. HR and culture is a huge one because we know one of the biggest issues right now in the profession in all professions really across industries is there’s a huge great resignation, great reorganization, and we need to look at what are we going to do to make our culture unique? What is the purpose of what we are doing? How can we get the fingerprints of the individuals in the firm on that? Diversity, equity and inclusion is a huge piece of that. How do we not only recruit for diversity, but how do we create an inclusive culture and environment? And Dan, those things are showing up more in the last two or three years than I’ve ever seen them as priorities.
And a long time ago, they may not have even shown up in a plan. So it’s culture, it’s growth not just for the sake of growth, it’s expansion. And then of course, financials. Do we really need to be measuring things by number of billable hour? Are we looking at profitability? Are we looking at the way that we are packaging and pricing our recruiting efforts all year round? So there are lots of different categories of things that should show up in a strategic plan. My biggest pet peeve is when I’m talking with a group of professionals, and maybe they’re growth officers or marketing officers or even HR individuals, and they say, I really don’t know what is in our strategic plan. I really don’t know what the budget is. And there’s a disconnect. And that’s dangerous.
Dan Hood (14:49):
Well, yeah, it’s not, it’s all in somebody’s head somewhere, but you got to bring it out. Now you mentioned we talked about bringing people together to all the partners in a safe space or a comfortable space where they can all share and talk. And that’s clearly, I think for a lot of people, their notion of what strategic planning is a partner retreat and everybody gets in a room and they sketch bunch stuff on whiteboards, and then they come up with a plan and as you say, 90% of the time it goes somewhere and gathers dust. But, and that may well be the main part of the thing that partner retreat or leadership retreat, but where does that, it’s got to be, there’s a bigger process to building a strategic plan. What does that process look like and where does that partner retreat fit in there?
Angie Grissom (15:26):
I like the idea of a partner retreat in a firm retreat because I feel like it gets people in the same room and it has them hear one another out. And that’s really important, especially for the building of the big relationship and the connectivity. I do think that there is a flaw in that if we expect to take a bunch of super busy partners out of their element, put them in a room together, force conversations around what the priorities are, where there’s a lot of tension, there might not be a lot of trust. Rushed it. It’s too short. I think if you go in and do a two day retreat and you walk away and think you’re going to have a strategic plan with full buy-in, I think we’re kidding ourselves. I think that it’s one part of the process, and I think it’s a very important part.
I believe a best practice is to have a conversation around vision. What does it look like for you? Truly? What does success look like? Where do you see this thing get buy-in, work on priorities, discuss the things that need to be happening during the retreat, but then afterwards you need to continue those, that dialogue, continue those conversations. Individual interviews are really important, that are safe. Interviewing people at multiple levels in the organization, new staff, interns, seniors, not every single person in the firm, but interview them, survey them so you actually are hearing the truth and the things that are important to them, and then pull it together after you’ve done those things and lay out ideas and work on a plan collaboratively over time. Continue to revisit that and continue to update it. So the heavy lifting is really at the beginning of the process, but if you stay on it and you’re meeting about it, orderly things like that, then you’re not starting from the ground up every single year.
Dan Hood (17:18):
So it’s an ongoing sort of iterative process over time.
Angie Grissom (17:22):
It should be, yeah, for sure.
Dan Hood (17:24):
Excellent. Alright. Any major you’re, I mean, I think we’ve touched on a large number of mistakes or pitfalls in this process, but anyones you particularly want to call
Angie Grissom (17:33):
Out in terms of mistakes? I would just say tunnel vision. Tunnel vision. What got us here is not going to get us to the next step. We’ve had major disruption in our profession over the years, and our people are absolutely our biggest assets and they’re incredibly smart and they’re incredibly passionate. And I know that we hear, oh, people just don’t work the same way that they used to in my day. Every generation says that they have for hundreds of years. The reality of it is you, you’ve got to meet people where they are and you’ve got to show them a vision of where the firm can go. And nothing cures burnout like that. So the biggest mistake is thinking that you should have a very few people around the table, maybe only the executive committee. You don’t want to get input from other people. It’s one and done.
It’s check the box.dot the iro, the that’s the mistake. It should be a collaborative, ongoing conversation because the most important thing we can do as leaders is to work on the strategy of the plan the strategy of the firm, not the billable hours, client service. All of those things are important, but those should be a portion of the plan. So planning should not be something out here. It should be something that’s front and center for leaders on a regular basis where goals are set for the partners, there’s accountability, comp is tied to it comp is tied to the performance of your people. So the more involved you can get, I think the better you will be in terms of executing on your plan. And when people start to see that, hey, we’ve got a plan. We put some time into it, we got some buy-in, this thing works, then they’re less likely to say the plan’s in my head or it’s on my desk. I think it’s just a totally different way of looking at it.
Dan Hood (19:25):
Well, no, I mean, yeah, that’s the thing. If you can do it once and then you make sure it never goes back into anybody’s head, keep it out front and center for people to look on and work on a regular basis that keeps it from gathering trust. Alright.
Angie Grissom (19:36):
Dan Hood (19:38):
It is as you say, it’s a big thing for firms, particularly if they haven’t done one or haven’t done one for a while, but it’s certainly… it’s going to pay dividends, there are enough challenges facing accounting firms that you really can’t afford not to have this kind of guidance for what’s coming up over the horizon. There’s so many changes coming at ’em. but Angie Grissom of Rainmaker Companies, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all your insights.
Angie Grissom (19:58):
Thank you, Dan. Thanks for having me.
Dan Hood (20:00):
Thank you all for listening. This episode of On the Air was produced by Accounting Today with audio production by Kevin Parise. Rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform and see the rest of our content on accountingtoday.com. Thanks again to our guest and thank you for listening.