Can You Keep Your Staff?

It’s an understatement that a happy staff is invaluable to a firm: The combination of low turnover and a strong firm culture leads to better results and less worrying for upper management. But the profession is still experiencing turnover problems in 2015, be it from young professionals not having their expectations met, or older professionals looking for a better overall deal.

So why are firms having so much trouble with retention? Experts say that problems can arise as early as day one.


Jeff Phillips, co-founder and chief executive officer of accounting job board/network Accountingfly and former advisor to Fortune 500 clients such as Exxon, Walmart and Dell, said that issues in retention may start at the first interview.

“I see this as a recruiting problem,” Phillips said. “We hear two things from clients: First, firms make some great hires from campus and invest in training, [but] then [those hires] leave for a larger firm or private industry — we hear this a lot from local CPA firms. Second, highly skilled professionals are leaving firms now that the economy has rebounded.”

Phillips went on to explain that hires want “clear expectations on their career paths” before they sign up. “They want an answer to ‘what’s in it for me’ at the firm. That game has completely changed. Employers are becoming conscious that they need change. I think that it’s very late and firms have to jump on this now [because] I don’t see a lot of new strategies in place.”

Jennifer Wilson, co-founder and partner of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a national leadership and marketing consulting firm, also agreed that people can occasionally “choose the profession for the wrong reasons” and that firms experiencing turnover trouble need to do a better job at screening candidates at the point of hire.

Furthermore, recognizing the motivations and desires in professionals’ lives is key to understanding and retaining them.

“At the root of retention is knowing my people, authentically and honestly,” Wilson said. “Every person in your [firm] has different circumstances driving their motivators. The old way of motivating with the same rewards (e.g., raises) has to go away. I can motivate you better as your boss if I know your motivators. What I encourage firms to do is have their people rank their motivators every year and keep track of them, produce a grid, and to move the grid to calculate the top one or two motivators.”


Phillips noted that even something as simple as communication is part of a strong retention strategy. He pointed to the “stay interview,” as described in Sandra Wiley’s book, The Journey Ahead: A New Roadmap to Collaboration in Your Firm, in which a leader sits down with high-quality performers in the firm and asks what it will take to get them to stay.

“It’s breaking down the walls with communication, [and] one of the best ways to take the pulse of the organization,” said Phillips. “You’ll be surprised at what you hear.”

Wilson added that even though motivators vary from young to old professionals, communication is perhaps the first step in keeping professionals engaged in their workplace. “Employees want a voice,” she said. “Especially today, they’re so astute — the education they’ve gotten, the exposure of information from the Internet, is so vast. They come in and see things that they wish can be better. They want to be able to ask and be able to be heard.” She specifically pointed to employee advisory boards as a source for employers to “get the feedback from the board and [in turn] the board is motivated to get feedback.”

Additionally, Wilson is quick to point out that it’s not just management that watches employees for retention qualities, but vice-versa. “Some leaders forget that people are watching them,” she explained. “They get beat up by busy season and they make the whole thing look unattractive. They’ll say, ‘How can we possibly be motivated if the leaders don’t look it?’ I don’t think [leaders] recognize that. They need to go back and find their inspiration.”

Leon Janks, managing partner at Green Hasson Janks in Los Angeles, considers community a hallmark of his firm and recognizes the importance that higher-ups play in retention: “We have to take responsibility for what we control. It starts at the top. We work hard at that culture. When people show up for a job, I have to create an environment that truly values the individual and creates the opportunity to grow. I know people are going to leave, but I’m not prepared to be in the situation of not training the people. We have some obligation as professionals to uplift the profession, to feel good about the profession.”



Pay seems to be the default motivator for retention, but now experts are saying that pay should be less of an overarching benefit but more of a focused, customized process.

Wilson advised paying at or above market value, but “firms need to check their people and their pay twice a year; that doesn’t mean they have to change the pay twice a year, but if they’re a valued employee, they should get a salary adjustment.”

“One of the [other] shifts has been a ‘rising stars’ program,” Wilson continued. “Now firms are identifying their highest potentials and investing more in their best and brightest. They’re just now doing it. At the end of the day, ‘nice’ doesn’t get the production done if you want to retain people. You have to have quality people in the trenches with everyone.”

Janks said that he is also starting to consider “retention bonuses” for valued employees — a deal consisting of years put into the firm with a nice bonus check down the road. “I don’t believe money is the be-all end-all,” he explained, “but I’ll consider it because you’re a valued employee and you have a lot of potential in the firm. I think the concept needs to be another component to retain people.”



What’s clear is that retention starts at the top, and the amount of empathy and communication put into the process of retaining valued professionals is most likely to produce the most fruitful results.

“The deeper you go in assessment in the process, the more successful you’ll be in retention,” said Phillips. “What’s the condition of your workplace? What’s the condition of your technology? Are you clearly outlining the career path of the high performers in your organization? What’s the quality of the organization that this person has trusted their career with?’”

“The status quo is boring for me and a bit dangerous,” said Janks. “People need to see that you’re an energetic organization and that you’re adapting. Opportunity comes out of change, so the firms have to do that.”

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