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Personal growth and firmwide gains stem from building peer relationships

Michelle Crow, CEO and Owner of Varney & Associates, may have been destined for a career in accounting. When touring colleges and trying to decide on a major, Crow was initially looking at pharmacy, accounting, or speech pathology. She ultimately chose to major in accounting at Kansas State University—a path her mom predicted based on Crow’s interest in keeping records of the family’s goats.

After graduating, Crow worked for a firm in western Kansas for a few years before returning to Manhattan and joining Varney & Associates, where she’s stayed for the past 20+ years and worked her way from staff accountant to managing partner.

Crow joined the Boomer Managing Partner Circle five years ago, around the same time she became Managing Partner of the firm.

“It was a good way for me to learn about being a Managing Partner,” Crow recalls. “I went to the first meeting, and it was a good fit. I learned so much from other members of the group and really enjoyed going to meetings.”

Measuring what matters

Over the years, Crow’s membership in the Managing Partner Circle didn’t just help with her own professional growth—it also inspired firm initiatives.

“One of the most significant and impactful changes we’ve made is going to a balanced scorecard system for rewarding our employees versus having a discretionary bonus system,” Crow says. “Now, each employee goes through a formal goal-setting process for the upcoming year, and there’s a dollar amount attached to their goals. They receive quarterly bonuses based on how they achieve those goals. That was inspired by the Managing Partner Circle.”

Varney & Associates is now in their second year of attaching compensation to the balanced scorecard approach, and the results are positive.

“We prepared goals before,” Crow says, “but now the goals are more aligned with the strategic direction of the firm. And our team members are more engaged because they feel more a part of what we’re trying to achieve as a firm.”

Succession planning at all levels

In many firms, succession planning—if it happens at all—focuses on the partner level. But a laser focus on partner succession ignores the importance of preparing people at all levels to advance in their roles with the firm.

Varney & Associates takes that broader approach to succession planning.

Each year, firm leaders in each niche look at the people on their teams to determine where they might have upcoming vacancies due to retirement or someone leaving the firm for another reason. Then they plan to hire new team members or transition client relationships.

The firm also implemented a partner track to identify who wants to be a partner early in their careers and help them develop the skills to get there.

That skills development comes from the firm’s mentorship program, which pairs employees on the partner track with an owner/mentor, and from formal leadership training outside the firm.

“That’s been helpful for us because we know what the timelines are for each of our partners, and it’s helped us ensure we’re transitioning people in and out of ownership at the right times,” Crow says.

That perpetual succession planning focus came in handy last fall when preparing for a partner who will be retiring at the end of this year. The firm was able to begin training and transitioning responsibility for managing those client relationships to another team member last fall.

“She’s still here and still helping, but she’s no longer the primary relationship, and we figured out how to handle that transition, partly from what I learned in the Managing Partner Circle,” Crow says.

Other benefits of Crow’s participation in the peer network include being aware of trends around employee raises, implementing Prolaera to track CPE hours, and implementing BambooHR as their HRIS.

“We’re gaining efficiencies through our firm because of what I learn from the group.”

The power of a peer network

Crow appreciates being able to take ideas she hears from her peers in the Circle and adapt them to the firm’s unique needs.

“We may not do things the same way other firms do things, but we’ll implement what works for us,” she says. “I appreciate the interaction, the sharing of ideas. People aren’t afraid to share what they’re doing with other firms. And that’s what’s really valuable: just hearing and learning from other people’s experiences.”

That’s the real power of building relationships with a network of peers who are facing many of the same opportunities and challenges.


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