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3 Pitfalls to Avoid on the Road to Becoming the Firm of the Future

Becoming the firm of the futureCPA firms are at an important turning point. We have a choice: we can stick to the practices and procedures we know—ones that have admittedly helped us build the success we enjoy today—or we can take the kinds of bold steps that will ensure our future relevance and prosperity. This will be an understandably tough decision. To prosper over the long-term, though, firms must address the radical changes taking place in the domestic and international marketplace, including increasing market and technical complexity facing CPAs and their clients, as well as the expectations of a new generation of professionals. The profound transformation in so many areas requires a similar alteration in the way we manage our practices. If our firms don’t identify the obstacles preventing us from affecting meaningful change, we risk being left behind. In particular, there are three pitfalls that will make it challenging even to get started on the road to transformation.

Being held back by our own success. Traditionally, public accounting has stuck to the status quo rather than engaging in intense, healthy debates on cultural change within our profession. As a result, we may underestimate the speed and intensity of the transformation going on around us. There are many signs, however, that the existing firm model is not serving the needs of today’s CPAs. They include unaddressed succession issues, failure to attract and retain a diverse workforce and challenges in identifying and meeting clients’ changing needs and expectations.

Since these are all significant concerns that will affect our ongoing prospects, CPA firms need to acknowledge the importance of adapting to new and emerging developments and take steps to keep pace with rapid change. Ignored inevitable transformations have left many in the dust. Think of industry icons such as Blockbuster, Blackberry and Kodak, whose fortunes fell when they failed to remain relevant. 

Being all things to all people. Many firms scramble to keep their staff busy at all costs, but meeting strategic goals is different from pursuing high utilization. That means we may have to narrow our scope and no longer attempt to be all things to all clients. Never before has it been more important for public accounting firms to have a clear understanding of our own identity—of who we are. A strong sense of what we stand for and what we have to offer can help us maintain and increase our relevance with clients, team members and society.

Not holding partners accountable. The partner accountability challenges that are becoming common in the profession may stem from the fact that many firms don’t know who they are. Even more important: could it be that most firms have not yet decided who they are not going to be? It’s certainly difficult to hold partners accountable if the firm doesn’t uphold a realistic central strategy, definition or set of driving principles. Instead of working together toward a common goal, moving the firm forward and anticipating changing market and client needs, the partners continue to do whatever is most comfortable. But even firms that do know who they are may find it daunting to turn down clients or business lines that don’t really fit. A sense of complacency and reluctance to change can blind us to the need for ongoing transformation.

Firms that fail to define their identity and shake off their complacency will miss opportunities to tackle the many challenges they face. We can still control our own destiny, however, by making hard choices and engaging in a fierce debate over who we are and what we plan to become, in order to remain relevant in the future.

Public accounting boasts an incredible roster of leaders and talent with the brilliance, experience and courage to capitalize on the many opportunities that will result from the dynamic transformation taking place in our profession. There are prospects for us collectively, and for our individual firms, to experience new relevance and prominence. Our challenge is to get out in front and manage this reinvention of the profession. That challenge will only get bigger—or even become a threat—if we postpone our efforts. A quick response, on the other hand, will position us for new growth and opportunities. The result can be an exciting transformation that will set the stage for continuing CPA firm growth and innovation. For a more in-depth analysis, I encourage you to read my whitepaper, Becoming the Firm of the Future, exclusively available to AICPA members.

Joey Havens, CPA, executive partner of HORNE LLP. Joey is the author of an AICPA Private Companies Practice Section whitepaper entitled, “Becoming the Firm of the Future.” 

The Way Forward image via Shutterstock

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