Sep 09, 2020

Strategic Planning Retreats: Make Yours Different This Year

Carrie SteffenBy Carrie Steffen

For years, the profession has talked about what the future could look like given technology, staffing challenges, generational transitions, the rise of the virtual workplace, and changing competitive landscapes. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, we have entered into the greatest remote work experiment in history. The profession is experiencing schedule disruptions beyond compare, and CPAs are helping clients navigate rules that are changing faster than anyone ever dreamed.

This is an opportunity for firms to take a hard look at what will be the same going forward and what will be different. It’s time for firms to take stock of what is most important, what brings happiness, what they are good at, and what they don’t want or need.

CPA Partner Making a Strategic PresentationIt’s time to set a new vision for your firm, and you can start at the partner retreat.

Begin Your Evolution

Often, a firm’s partner retreat is an opportunity for partners to review the previous year and analyze results. Too often, these retreats stop short of setting an actionable course for change. This year, as your firm plans its retreat – whether in person or virtually – use that time to discuss and agree on what the firm will look like in the next three years. Make your retreat a working session where leaders roll up their sleeves and get to the task of defining their vision. Consider the following six success strategies:

Engage an outside facilitator – The process of defining your firm’s vision is not to be taken lightly. It’s helpful to engage an experienced facilitator with knowledge of the CPA profession to guide the discussion. An outside facilitator can keep the discussion on track and lend a different perspective from outside the firm’s bubble, offering a broader view of the public accounting landscape.

Follow a defined process – A good facilitator will bring a process to the table to ensure all relevant topics are discussed and the conversation stays “big-picture.” Without a process, it’s easy for groups to find themselves in the weeds and focused on tactics rather than strategy. Yes, at some point you need people in the firm to deal with tactics (the who and the how), but vision and strategy are all about defining the what and the why.

Be intentional and focused – As a firm leader, you owe it to everyone to commit your attention to this process. It’s not an administrative meeting to simply check off nor should it be preempted by other matters. An outside facilitator enables everyone, including the managing partner, to participate in the discussion. You owe it your colleagues, peers, and employees to fully engage in the process and commit to implementing the result – even if change is uncomfortable and hard.

Challenge the sacred cows – As you consider what the firm will look like in three years, it’s important that nothing is left out of the discussion. Does your partner compensation program work for or against your vision? What areas are most important to the youngest or up-and-coming partners? (Hint: their voices should carry more weight than long-time partners who won’t be around in three years.) The new vision should challenge every old paradigm. That’s not to say there aren’t pieces that will carry forward in the next three years. But if there are things you are not going to change, be ready to articulate a clear business case for keeping them the same, and make sure they don’t work against other parts of the vision.

Analyze topline revenue – The process should include an analysis of what revenue the firm must generate to create enough capital to fund both normal operations as well as additional investments that support the vision. Once the need is identified, leaders should evaluate which strategies the firm will employ to generate the revenue and in what marketing and sales activities the firm and its people will engage.

Manage change – If your three year firm vision includes significant changes (which is likely), make a plan to manage the big changes. Create teams to evaluate how the changes are implemented and to evaluate the stakeholders, promoters, and detractors. Think about the change from each of their perspectives and create talking points/messages for each group to address potential questions. If needed, work with an outside change management consultant for complex, high-value changes.

Change, or Be Changed

This year, your partner retreat may look different from previous years. As you begin to look ahead to what lasting changes may impact your firm, create a vision and a plan to realize that vision. Investing this time in the next few months can mean the difference between intentionally adopting the changes you want and being forced to adopt changes you may not.

Carrie Steffen is cofounder and president at The Whetstone Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which has facilitated hundreds of partner retreats and visioning sessions for CPA firms. She can be reached at carrie@thewhetstonegroup.com.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.