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Change Leadership: Focus on the Opportunities, Not the Fear

Change is constant in a CPA firm today. This week alone, you and your team may navigate the challenges that come with a blended work environment, changing business models, new technologies and processes, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, hiring new talent and more.

The success of all these initiatives — and the firm in general — depends on how firm leaders manage and execute that change.

Understanding change

Most people in your firm understand that change is necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy or fast. In fact, many people want to pump the breaks on change initiatives. You’ll hear people suggest things like, “Why don’t we wait on that technology initiative until everyone is back in the office?” or “Let everyone get settled with the changes we’ve made so far before starting our DEI initiatives.”

As Dale Carnegie famously said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” Change disrupts routines and replaces them with uncertainty, a lack of knowledge, and a temporary sense of inadequacy. This is especially true in an accounting firm where the workforce is composed of highly educated, professional people.

You’ve likely heard that simply keeping people informed of the changes taking place is enough to help a change initiative succeed, but this isn’t always the case. Often, the problem isn’t that leaders didn’t communicate enough, but that they didn’t take the right approach to communication.

Just knowing what is changing and how isn’t enough. To truly buy in to change, people have to be motivated to engage, and motivation requires more than knowledge.

Managing change

Change management is a set of basic tools or structures designed to keep change efforts under control. It helps minimize distractions, ensures that potential problems, such as rebellion amongst the staff, don’t happen, and helps keep the project on schedule and budget.

In Jeanie Daniel Duck’s book, The Change Monster: The Human Forces that Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change, the author identifies five stages of change that illustrate the emotional ups and downs of change:

  1. Stagnation. The company may have outdated technology or processes, a lack of leadership, or a need to respond to a changing market. This phase ends when someone in a position of power recognizes the problem and demands change.

  2. Preparation. This stage creates a framework for the change, including structure, roles, products or services and capabilities. This is the point where Duck says, “the Change Monster is awakened.” In other words, employees hearing of the proposed change may exhibit a combination of emotions, including anxiety, hopefulness, feeling threatened, excitement, distraction, annoyance, cynicism and disbelief. Moving past this stage without alignment can cause the change initiative to fail.

  3. Implementation. Now the work begins. Emotions can run high at this stage because everything is changing, but we’re not yet seeing benefits. Frequent communication is crucial at this stage.

  4. Determination. In this phase, you may start to see minor successes but also conflicts or clashes. Change fatigue is common here because it takes a lot of energy for people to rethink how they work and change their ways. It’s important to acknowledge and learn from negative events. Leaders must be careful to manage employees’ expectations and energy. Otherwise, you risk abandoning the initiative and returning to the stagnation phase.

  5. Fruition. Now, all of the hard work your team has done is paying off. This is a time to celebrate big and small wins and reflect on lessons learned.

Change management must be intentional — it’s a skill or practice that must be learned. But managing change tends to happen on a project-by-project basis. Today, firms are being tasked with making multiple changes at once on an almost constant basis. For that, we need change leadership.

Leading change

Change leadership puts an engine on the whole change process. Change management tends to focus on preventing and overcoming potential pitfalls in each stage of the change journey. Change leadership focuses on the opportunities of having a highly skilled and motivated team working together toward change.

The opportunities at each stage of change are:

  1. Stagnation. This stage can create a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo and generate an appetite for change. This stage is also useful for building the required skills, beliefs and behaviors to make change successful.

  2. Preparation. During the preparation phase, leaders unite and prepare to be tested. They develop a credible action plan, increase communication and generate enthusiasm for coming initiatives.

  3. Implementation. Leaders have the opportunity to manage the experiences and expectations of employees during this phase. They can do this by addressing beliefs and behaviors directly, maintaining focus and providing clear accountability.

  4. Determination. The determination phase is an opportunity to validate the vision. The team will be tested, and there will be challenges and roadblocks, so it’s important to remain flexible and communicate with team members. Leaders can drive action and make the necessary trade-offs to see the project through. Addressing morale issues head-on will increase motivation.

  5. Fruition. Now is the time to broadly share praise and rewards and leverage learning to build the firm’s change capabilities. It’s also time to prepare for the next cycle, in which you may need to involve new people and different perspectives.

Many people believe that change takes courage, but courage isn’t the first ingredient to successful change leadership. What it really takes is commitment. Successful change leaders ensure their own beliefs and behaviors support change. They commit, devote time and energy to the change effort, and focus on the big picture rather than getting waylaid by roadblocks and temporary lack of results.

So are you ready to be a change leader in your firm? If so, the following actions will help you get started:

  1. Check yourself first — are you prepared for change?

  2. Teach and talk openly in your office. Be transparent and vulnerable.

  3. Ensure your vision and strategic plan are in alignment with current changes.

  4. Add “change leadership” to your training plan.

  5. Co-elevate with your coworkers to turn them into teammates through candid feedback and mutual accountability.

To successfully navigate the changes required in firms today, we need to move past fear to create a culture of change leadership. This will create an engine that will truly lead your firm into the future.


Do you need help with your firm's hiring and talent strategy?

Boomer Talent Consulting can help you get clarity on your firm's most critical talent objectives and create a go-forward strategy suited to your firm's unique needs. Schedule a discovery call today to begin implementing an organizational structure that is positioned and accelerating into the future.


Sandra Wiley, Shareholder, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is a leader in the accounting profession with a passion for helping firms grow, adapt and thrive. She is regularly recognized by Accounting Today as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Accounting as a result of her expertise in leadership, management, collaboration, culture building, talent and training.

Sandra’s role at Boomer Consulting, Inc. includes serving as co-director of the P3 Leadership Academy as well as the Boomer Managing Partner Circle , the Boomer Talent Circle and the Boomer Learning & Development Circle. Her years of experience and influence as a management and strategic planning consultant make her a sought-after resource among the best and brightest firms in the country.

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