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Next Up: Succession Planning at All Levels

Often, firm leaders discuss succession planning, they focus on the partner level. Which managers can they see leading the firm when the current partners are ready to retire? Unfortunately, that laser focus on partner succession ignores the importance of preparing people in other levels of the firm to advance in their roles.

Everyone in the firm–at all levels–needs to think about how they're preparing the people beneath them to step up. Do you have a professional development program and career paths to help people move up? Without them, you'll constantly need to hire people from outside the firm because your existing team isn't prepared to move up. And the talent you have will leave the firm for a competitor that invests in their future.

Why have a succession plan at all levels?

Creating a multi-level succession plan can reduce the time and money lost on attrition or underperforming employees. When someone moves up in the firm, it leaves a void in their old position. But the impact will be minimal and you'll have a smoother transition if you have a succession plan. You'll have identified and fostered the next level, so they're ready to move into the next phase of their career.

The key to creating a success plan at all levels is encouraging people to develop others. Incentivize partners to develop managers, managers to develop supervisors, supervisors to develop seniors, seniors to develop staff, and staff to develop interns. This applies to every department—not just tax, audit, and advisory. Marketing, business development, HR, admin, and IT professionals need to be able to see a career path in front of them, too. In successful firms, succession planning is a part of firm culture.

3 steps to build a succession plan for every level of the firm

Here's a three-step process for creating your succession plan for every level of your firm.

1. Identify core skills for each role

For every position in the firm, create a detailed assessment of the skills, knowledge, experience and mindset necessary to succeed in that role.

This goes beyond job descriptions because these rarely cover what the employee does. Instead, it's about the skills and attributes needed for the job.

These assessments help employees understand exactly what you expect from them in their current role and the skills and experience they need to develop to be ready for their next career move.

2. Conduct skills assessments

Now that you know what skills you need for every role, what's missing? Assess each team member to help everyone understand what they need to be more successful in their role now and what they need to be ready for the next level.

As part of the assessment, talk to your people about their career goals to ensure you prepare them for the job they want. Some people are not interested in becoming a partner but want to develop their skills and increase their value. Create tracks to help people grow professionally and benefit the firm long term.

3. Create a succession culture

Training and learning are some of the most crucial aspects of preparing people to succeed with your firm. There are many ways to ensure that your firm has the bench strength to ensure smooth transitions.

  • On-the-job training

  • Formalized training sessions

  • Conferences and workshops

  • Mentoring and reverse mentoring programs

  • Peer networks

  • Goal setting

  • Online courses

  • Reading professional development books

  • Listening to podcasts

  • Collaborative reviews

  • Stretch assignments

Remember, accountants and client-facing professionals aren't the only ones who can benefit from continuing education. You need skilled people at all levels to become more efficient and productive. A succession culture is one in which everyone teaches, everyone learns and everyone increases their unique abilities.

When people at all levels of the firm are a part of succession planning, they need to be held accountable for that planning. Incorporate it into each individual's 90-day game plans and performance reviews. People who can't or won't train their successors can't advance in the firm.

Every employee in your multi-level succession plan won't stay with the firm, even when you do everything you can to retain them. But the more people you put on a path that allows them to make valuable contributions to the firm, the stronger your bench will be from the bottom to the top of the organization.


Jim Boomer, CEO of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is an expert on managing technology within an accounting firm. He serves as the director of the Boomer Technology Circles, The Advisor Circle and the CIO Circle. He also acts as a strategic planning and technology consultant and firm adviser to CPA firms across the country. Accounting Today called him a “thought leader who can help accountants create next-generation firms.” Jim is a prolific writer with a monthly column in The CPA Practice Advisor and has been published in a number of industry publications including Accounting Today, Accounting Web, the International Group of Accounting Firms and several state society publications.


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