March Madness.  Whether you read the words “March Madness” and think about the chaos that happens within your firm during the months of March and April or you think about the NCAA Basketball Tournament, there is at least one strikingly similar dynamic I see between successful teams and firms:

The emergence of previously unheralded superstars and talent that elevate their teams to new levels of success and productivity.

This March, and into April, we saw the emergence of rising superstars in college basketball like Luke Hancock (Louisville), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), Mitch McGary (Michigan), and everyone’s favorite Cinderella story of Florida Gulf Coast University and tournament star Sherwood Brown.  Each of these players elevated their game to previously unseen levels and led their teams to impressive deep runs in the tournament.  And in Luke Hancock’s case the NCAA Championship.

Not only did these players increase their individual performances and key stats like points and rebounds per game, but they also added a new dynamic to each squad that made their teams much more difficult to beat.  But make no mistake; their emergence wasn’t just an accident.  It entailed months of practice, development, coaching and confidence building that led to a break-out culmination when their teams needed them the most.

How can we take the lessons from successful NCAA basketball coaches and teams and apply them to a CPA firm?

A Culture of Learning and Development.  First and foremost, successful firms realize a culture of learning and development is crucial in the attraction, development and retention of key employees.  As I stated above, learning and development doesn’t happen by accident.  But too often I see firms that view learning and development as a complete afterthought and blindly hope that they have the necessary talent and talent development to succeed in their firms and with their clients.

Learning and development need to not only be processes within your firm, they must be visible processes that are viewed as important and are readily accepted within the culture.  I see the following four traits in high-performing firms that put a strong emphasis on learning and development:

  • Engaged Partners – Partners that care, understand the importance of being engaged and are involved in the development of their teams at every level.  They lead by example and, more often than not, most partners in these high-performing firms take significant time and find tremendous value in mentoring and developing the next generation.
  • Collaborative Hands-On Training – The most successful worldwide organizations have training programs that focus on the following four-step process:  Watch an expert, try with an expert helping, try with an expert immediately available to answer questions, try on your own.  What I see in most CPA firms is the exact opposite and what I call “throw them to the sharks” and “pray for their survival.”  While some of you may have been “trained” this way back in the day and turned out okay, it significantly prolongs learning and development and is less effective with the next generation.
  • Trust through Leveraging – Another common problem in middle of the road and lower performing firms is a lack of trust and delegation of clients and workloads at various levels.  It’s always easier in the short-term to say, “I know this client and can get it done quickly.”  But in the long-run what is that really accomplishing for the firm?  It’s no wonder when our senior partners leave firms we struggle to retain some of their clients.
  • Accepting of Mistakes – Part of a learning and development culture is an understanding that there are going to be bumps along the way.  The process won’t work perfectly.  People will make mistakes.  But those same people will learn tremendously from those mistakes in an accepting culture that places value on personal feedback instead of remote feedback. Don’t underestimate the value and importance of collaborative review and feedback.

Are you a Final Four Caliber Firm?  Now that busy season is over and you are assessing where you stand and where you need to improve, don’t forget about assessing both your processes and your learning and development culture.  They go hand-in-hand.  Your process must actively support your learning and development culture, while taking into account the four key traits above.  So whether you’re looking to improve your tax or assurance processes, it is essential to look at how well they support and build upon learning and development.  Efficiency and learning don’t have to be mutually exclusive – that’s one of the tremendous joys I get out of consulting with firms in both of these areas through Lean.

Here’s my challenge to you and your firm.  It might be easier to move on business as usual year after year and not address your processes or how learning and development fit into those processes.  You can continue to hoard work, embrace the same as last year mentality at every turn, or fail to leverage and develop future leaders.  And you will continue to get the same sub-par results.  Instead, why don’t we take a page from some of the more successful college basketball programs?  Let’s build our processes around the idea of getting our players minutes and experience in January and February, even if it might cost us a game or two along the way, so that way we are peaking and developing our strongest team come March?  That’s what the fans remember and you can be assured that’s what your clients will remember.