Teaching younger associates at a tax & accounting firm about business development is a good step in preparing them for partnership
When an associate at an accounting firm expresses interest in the path to becoming a partner, they typically are told that partners are expected to generate revenue — so it’s time for them to learn business development.
Usually, this is the first time this expectation comes up, explains Art Kuesel, a business development advisor for professional services firms and president of Kuesel Consulting. Indeed, Kuesel says that business development is not part of the day-to-day job description for accountants at the vast majority of firms.
There are compelling reasons, however, to change that.
Context & caveats
Requiring partners to have responsibilities for business development is the norm in most firms, but it’s not an absolute, Kuesel says. Accountants occasionally are promoted to partner without taking on business development, perhaps because they have a valued specialty, such as international tax expertise, that paves the way to partnership.
Also, most firms are happy for partners to demonstrate basic proficiency at generating revenue; they’re not expecting wildly successful rainmakers.
But a small percentage of firms — Kuesel estimates it’s about 10% — do encourage team members at all levels to participate in business development.
“They do that by offering training and incentives to bring in new business and by promoting business development as a good use of time and part of a well-balanced slate of hours,” Kuesel explains. “I’ve always found that the sooner a firm gets people thinking about business development, and encouraging that activity, the more effective those individuals will be at business development when it’s time or when it’s required.”
It’s important to note that Kuesel describes this process in the context of encouraging, not requiring, team members to engage in business development as part of a growth-oriented culture.
There’s a powerful upside to encouraging a firm’s staffers to engage in business development, he adds. “Growth equals opportunity,” Kuesel says. “If you’re joining a firm that’s posting above-average growth, it means there’s going to be above-average movement on the career ladder. There’s going to be more opportunities for promotion, for new client challenges, and for interesting, fun assignments.”
That type of sustainable growth is essential for effective succession planning, Kuesel notes. “You’re not going to have a viable succession plan without providing opportunities for people to grow and move up the food chain,” he says. “If the firm stays the same size there won’t be a lot of upward movement or change in the partner group — and your good talent is going to leave because there’s nowhere for them to go.”
Simply put, a firm can’t make more partners unless it grows, he adds. “So, growth ties very closely to succession planning.”
The obstacles: fear & workload
Kuesel points out two reasons main accounting firms don’t routinely encourage accountants and other staffers to take on business development.
First, firms are concerned with the idea that being asked to take on business development may unsettle team members — many of whom entered public accounting with no expectation that they would be asked to participate in sales and marketing. “A firm might say, ‘If we go out there and tell everyone that marketing is required, that business development is required, we’re going to have some people quit,’” Kuesel says. “The likelihood of that actually happening, however, is very small if you deliver the message in the right way.”
Second, firms that are chronically short-staffed don’t want to ask overworked associates to take on more. “No one wants to add business development if it means they have to work nights and weekends to get the work done,” Kuesel explains. “For firms that find themselves in a chronic staffing shortage, business development and growth is not a topic that’s usually discussed.”
Making it happen
So, how do firms implement staff-wide business development to build a growth culture without unnerving or overworking people? Kuesel recommends that firms set specific expectations, make it manageable and optional, provide training and coaching, and embed business development into day-day work.
“You might say to your people, ‘We expect you to do one hour of business development a week. And here’s what you could do with that hour: choose from these 20 things,’” he explains.
And allow people to opt out. “No firm that I’ve ever been involved with has required it as a means of employment,” Kuesel says. “Typically, it is strongly encouraged, and firm leaders make it as easy as possible to participate,” but individuals can choose not to participate.
Also, firm leaders should show their young associates and staffer how best to conduct business development. “You have to give them training and coaching so they can learn this new skill they’re being asked to do,” he says, adding that there also needs to be cultural support. How the firm talks about, supports, and encourages business development is going to be key, he says.
Firms should also make it a point to ask each person what they did with their business development time last week, and add this discussion to staff meeting agendas, so it’s talked about alongside workflow issues, billable hours, and other important topics, Kuesel suggests.
Business development starts with the client — and with trust
Business development starts with building a trusted relationship with existing clients, Kuesel explains. He advises accountants to forge a personal connection with clients and develop a deep understanding of clients’ operations and business challenges.
“Elevate the relationship from accountant to advisor,” he says. “As an advisor, you’re worried about your client beyond the accounting. You’re thinking about their business, profitability, operations, and growth.”
Next, ensure the client is aware of all the services the firm offers. “Many firms are well-equipped to do advisory and consulting work with businesses, individuals, and not-for-profits, but many times those relationships don’t reach that level,” Kuesel says. “It’s essential to make sure your clients know what the firm can help them with and to earn their trust.”
Young accountants typically aren’t intimidated to take these steps — showing a genuine interest, understanding client challenges, and identifying solutions doesn’t feel like sales or marketing.
“This is a great way to start somebody down the path of being much more tuned into business development,” Kuesel says. “Everything else comes after that — referral sources, banker lunches, meetings with lawyers, conferences, and networking. That’s all later — for now, let’s just get good at the basics, the foundation.”