Posted July 24, 2017

Turning the Profession of “Me” into the Profession of “We”

This article was originally published in the June 2017 CPA Journal, The Voice of the Profession, a publication of the New York State Society of CPAs. It has been posted here with permission of the Publisher.

There was a time in America, and in accounting, when loyalty was the most important contract employees and employers had with each other. The employee was expected to work hard for the company; in return, the company provided the employee with a secure job, health benefits, a pension plan, and, most importantly, an American Dream: that working hard and contributing to the company would lead to success and a satisfying, happy life. Loyalty and trust worked both ways, and productivity and worker satisfaction was sky high.

In today’s world, especially in accounting, loyalty and trust has eroded. Almost no one enters an accounting job today thinking that this is where they going to end their career in 40 years. Why is that? What happened?

This author believes that the main factor in this change in greed. In 1965, the average CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20:1; today, it is almost 300:1. This has caused a change in philosophy from “we” to “me.” It used to be that “we” succeed together; the people at the top might not get as big of a slice of the pie as they would with the “me” attitude, but the pie would steadily grow for everyone. Now think of how it is today. Do firm partners and the leaders of the profession behave like they’re in it for “we,” or for “me”?

At accounting conference after accounting conference, the primary problem expressed by fellow professionals has been how to recruit and retain talent. People complain that “the kids these days don’t want to work like they did in our day.” Well, why would young people want to work hard for a company that doesn’t have their backs, that considers them expendable? Loyalty from senior management, which today’s partners may have experienced back in “their day,” at the beginning of their careers, is sorely lacking in today’s profession. It’s time for partners to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves whether the problem isn’t with millennials, but with the leadership and the infrastructure of the profession. It’s time for the profession to start focusing on “we” again.

Most partners at most firms are probably well intentioned and do care about their teams, but they aren’t great about communicating this affection and loyalty effectively. Do they compliment team members? Do they talk to the team at all? Establishing a personal relationship is the first step; how else can trust and loyalty be established? By the way, calling employees “team members” instead of “staff” may seem like a small change, but when backed up with action, it can go a long way to cementing those critical social bonds.

The next step is information transparency for everyone in the firm. It’s important for the entire team understand how the firm makes money. If they can’t see the direct link between how the work gets done and how money is made, the team will never feel like they are contributing to firm. Firm financials should be shared as much as possible (i.e., everything except individual salaries), and everyone should be incorporated into the decision making process as much as they can. People feel a stronger connection to the firm when they have a say in its future.

The final step is the hardest, and that’s the change of mindset. A firm is a team, not a hierarchy of staff, senior staff, and owners. Partners should think of themselves as stewards of the firm; they have the privilege of being the leaders for a temporary period. Their mindset should be, “How can I leave this firm better than I found it?” Too many partners see becoming a partner as the end of their career; they’ve made it to the top of the pyramid, and now they can reap the rewards. Becoming a partner is when the real work of one’s career should begin—the time to leave a mark on the firm and the profession. As firm leaders, partners must ask themselves if they are in this profession for “we” or for “me.” Or, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy: Ask not what being a CPA or a firm partner can do for you; ask what you can do for your firm—your team and for the CPA profession as a whole.

By Jason Ackerman, CPA, CFP®, CGMA