|L. Gary Boomer|
What is your firm's vision? Is it to grow at 5%-10%-15% - or even 20% - per year? If your firm has a vision statement, chances are good the current economic times have made you reconsider its ability to achieve it. If your firm doesn't have a shared vision, it may not make any difference because partners and staff are likely to accept whatever comes their way.
Nevertheless, most professionals want a say in the firm's vision and - more importantly - want to know how they are significant in attaining it.
If your firm hasn't updated its strategic plan in the last few months, it should - if only to recommit to it. Great planning starts with careful deliberation and documenting a vision, mission and core values. Without a facilitator this process is time-consuming and boring to some. With a few tools and outside facilitation, however, it can be quick and engage all participants in a way that affirms every opinion.
We utilize an audience response system to measure honest perceptions and invoke exercises that force participants to visualize the future:
- What will the firm look like in three, five and 10 years?
- What will the firm need to do differently to get it to the next level?
- What will each participant need to do differently?
- How would everything change if the firm were 10 times bigger?
A change in thinking is the first step toward better results and positive change management. A majority in accounting firms focuses on solving client problems rather than on the firm and its strategies. Both are integral to success, but it is critically important today to have a plan that reflects the times. Most firms are asking their people to do more with less. For this strategy to work, planning, people and processes must all be functioning at a peak level. Technology is the accelerator. Without proper execution, morale and your team's effectiveness will suffer.
A Vision statement outlines what the firm wants to be, while a Mission statement defines the fundament purpose of the firm and why it is important to achieve the vision.
Vision concentrates on the future and should be a source of inspiration. Along with core values, it provides clear decision-making criteria. A vision is important for several reasons, but the most important are:
- It determines a firm's culture
- It builds consensus and focuses resources
- It promotes accountability at all levels of the firm
These compelling terms are helpful when composing a vision statement:
- "The" (denotes exclusivity)
- "A" (one of many)
An effective vision statement must be concise. Be certain to identify your target market and differentiate your firm from its competition. Here's an example:
"Jones and Company will be the premier firm in Kansas City offering services to businesses and their owners."
This statement is much different than stating,
"Jones and Company will be a major firm in Kansas City offering services to businesses and their owners."
Considerably different is the statement,
"Jones and Company will be the premier national firm offering services to small and medium banks and their investors."
While the last statement is focused on the banking industry, it expands the scope to a national level. The point is that while every firm is unique, documenting a vision statement requires careful consideration of the firm's intentions and purpose.
Some firms define a vision statement that is it too broad in scope. You can't be all things to everyone. Consider your market – is it local, regional, national or global? What is the profile of your firm's ideal client (target industry, revenue size, follows advice, refers others, etc.)? What are your firm's capabilities and capacity? Consider how the Internet and globalization have made the world flat from a competitive standpoint. Clients have more options, and firms can reach global markets more easily than ever before.
While vision statements provide a sense of direction and purpose, core values and strategic objectives are required to ensure the vision becomes a reality. We have engineered a sample plan that stimulates thinking and helps firms quickly develop their own plans. (Starting with a blank sheet of paper is not how we recommend preparing a plan!)
Essential core values in today's marketplace are:
- Development and growth
Four to six core values are adequate, especially if your firm is preparing its first strategic plan. Always keep the list brief so your firm can focus on essentials. We also recommend developing business principles that define what each core value means to your firm.
Strategic objectives should be outlined so that they endure for the next five to ten years. Any strategic initiative the firm chooses should fall into one of five to six categories. Examples are:
- To enhance the well being of the firm and its employees
- To improve the firm's succession and retirement plans
- To leverage the firm's technology in order to provide a strategic competitive advantage
- To maintain a learning-training culture
- To enhance the one-firm concept and develop a culture based upon teamwork
These strategic objectives may not all apply in your firm, but my guess is at least three or four of them will be relevant. The first objective provides a broad category.
Accountability and measurements of success are critical to ensuring follow through. Measurements of success should be documented for each strategic objective. Consider carefully what you measure, because that is what you will get. Don't try to measure too much and avoid the trap of only measuring financial results. As Kaplan and Norton emphasize in the balance scorecard approach, client satisfaction, processes and development of personnel are all integral to success.
Some of the most important measures we have discovered from experience:
- Revenue per full-time equivalent (in which an FTE is defined as 2080 hours worked).
- Completing one's goals on a personal training curriculum.
- Number of client and potential client contacts during which firm representatives inquire about the client's dangers, opportunities and strengths.
- Compliance with firm standards, policies and procedures.
- Completion of individual, 90 day game plans and accountability reviews by each member of the firm.
One rule we have found beneficial over the years is to limit initiatives to a number that fits on a single page. Typically that is 20-25 at maximum, divided among the five to six strategic objectives. A firm has limited resources (time and dollars); therefore it makes sense to prioritize and only focus on the "big rocks." This approach is often difficult for those who resist change and think tactically rather than strategically.
Assigning due dates and responsibilities is also important when documenting a strategic plan. Some firms utilize committees or task forces, and while these are great for leverage, someone must be in charge and held personally accountable. Assigning managers and staff to these task forces typically proves successful, while assigning too many partners is often unproductive. Professionals from HR, IT, operations and training make great task force members. A word of caution about technology initiatives: these are firm initiatives and should be led by project champions with IT support. A good example is content management, which is a firm project and not something that should be led by IT. Content management requires input and support from top management, records management, legal and IT.
Your plan is almost complete. We recommend using a one-page (two sided) plan that indicates the firm's Vision, Mission, Core Values and Strategic Objectives on the front and Strategic Objectives, Measurements of Success, Strategic Initiatives, Due Dates and Responsible Parties on the back. We also recommend laminating the one-page plan and, most importantly, providing a copy and openly discussing it with everyone in the firm. Doing so builds consensus, a sense of teamwork and support for the plan. Be certain to help each person determine how he or she is significant to the plan's success.
It now comes down to proper execution, which can only be achieved by firms that are disciplined and hold everyone (including partners) accountable. Quarterly game plans in support of the firm's strategic plan are efficient, effective and rewarding for the firm and its employees. At the end of each quarter, each employee completes a self-evaluation (accountability review) and prepares a game plan for the next quarter. Management should review the game plan and the accountability review with each employee. All partners and managers should participate. It is worth the time it takes, even though there may be an adjustment during the first two quarters. Going forward employees, partners and managers will all become more disciplined and self-managed. Time requirements will shorten significantly, and issues will be resolved rather than building up for a year or forgotten. This process must start at the top with partners choosing to be managed and held accountable. The system works if the partners want it to work. Without accountability and execution, a strategic plan is of little use.
Achieving your vision requires focus, discipline, teamwork and accountability. One of the biggest obstacles you will face is procrastination. The best strategy for overcoming this obstacle is commitment. Select a facilitator, dates and a venue outside of the office today. Open dates are always a problem, but committed partners and managers will adjust their schedules for this very important firm event. Partners and managers who are not available to attend can be briefed at a summary session.
If you conduct annual partner retreats that produce great ideas but rarely any results, I suggest you try this new approach and enjoy the payoff.