Building talent from the bottom up is a persistent challenge for accounting and advisory firms. We get the question all the time: “How can we accelerate staff from hours-based compliance work, to being able to deliver real value to clients?” Paradoxically, many Millennials ask the same question in reverse: “How can I quickly develop the skills that will make me relevant to my clients?” The answer is to empower staff and to trust them to do more faster — in their own way. Empowerment and trust drive engagement, which in turn, creates accountability.
A great example is what Google did a few years ago, as told in Adam Grant’s recent book, Originals (Viking 2016). Google took a group of lower level employees in sales and administrative positions who, like many staff in accounting firms, “saw their tasks and interactions as set” and “did not question whether they could adjust them.” To unlock their mindsets, Google designed a workshop to show these employees that their jobs do not have to be “static sculptures.” Instead, they could be “flexible building blocks.” In fact, Google was able to encourage the employees “to see both their skills and jobs as flexible.”
Once employees got the message and the permission to think differently, they took action to improve their jobs. “As a result, they were 70 percent more likely than their peers to land a promotion or a transition to a coveted role. By refusing to stick with their default jobs and default skills, they became happier and more effective — and qualified themselves for roles that were a better fit. Many of their limits, they came to realize, were of their own making.” Or, more precisely, were based on individuals’ perspectives driven by the organization’s previous lock-step culture. Freed of this culture, these lower-level employees became a rich breeding ground of critical talent.
Accounting firms can similarly unlock the individual talents of their staff by empowering them to take ownership of their jobs. It takes the willingness to move from a culture of institutionalized lock-step progression to a culture of institutionalized trust and empowerment. This takes showing staff the way: First, by adopting a career framework that institutionalizes flexibility; Second by launching the new framework in workshops similar to what Google did and Third by ensuring that partners embrace the new culture — taking the leap of faith that empowerment will indeed drive accountability.