How To Craft A Strategic Vision In Your Accounting Firm

August Aquila, Founder of Aquila and Top 100 most influential people in the accounting industry, is an expert to help craft a strategic vision for your accounting firm. He's worked with the likes of American Express and firms like yours to advise on building a company not just for today, but for the future. In this episode of Growing Your Firm Podcast, David Cristello and August Aquila discuss: + Mistakes made when you craft a strategic vision + How to handle partner relations + How to implement and manage change and innovation + and much more ADDITIONAL LINKS: Aquila Global Advisors: Leadership at its Strongest (book): Connect with August on Linkedin:

What Makes A Successful Leader Good At What They Do?

August Aquila, a leading consultant who specializes in succession planning, mergers & acquisitions, compensation plan design, and general partnership issues, has seen what works with accounting firms to craft a strategic vision. He began his company when he saw a shortage of leaders in the accounting profession and in corporate America, in general. Unsure of what makes a great leader lead a great company, he launched his advisory practice. He interviewed 175 managing partners in the United States, Canada and England asking "what makes a successful leader good at what they do?" What the conclusion boiled down to was this ---> A good leader has direction. Mentally, a team is behind you in your thinking. The tricky part you run into as you craft a strategic vision, is getting buy-in from your team. Never will your team be as excited as you are for your strategic vision. But, you must gain commitment, especially from your top team members and executives. To do this, you must be relentless. In other words, you must remind them again, again, and again of your strategic vision until it's ingrained.

How To Get Your Team To Execute Your Strategic Vision:

By far, the main reason the strategic vision in every accounting firm doesn't gain traction is simple ---> Client work bogs down any progress. The easy decision for your future growth remains working on client work. You spend your days putting out fires rather than planning on what will come the next 6-12 months. That's not hard to comprehend. Client work rains down immediate rewards with billable hours and recognition for work. Planning for the future won't bear fruit for (sometimes) years. You will need to be proactive in implementing steps to take in order to see your strategic vision come to fruition. FIRST: Get activities broken down into 30-45 minute chunks each week, August recommends. That way, an executive can work on it in bite-size portions. They could put in 30 minutes off-the-clock on Saturday working on their vision. They could come in 30 minutes early on a Wednesday and work on the strategic vision. SECOND: Schedule just a little bit at a time and have monthly meetings on progress. In essence, this is just 2 hours a month they need to carve out. They could do the 2 hours all at once if they wished. At the strategic meetings, ask "What's working?", "What needs improving?." Unfortunately, many executives have trouble saying "I need help." You need to draw it out of them.
DAVID'S TIP: If you start with just "tactics," you falter because there's no meat behind the tactics. When you have a strategic vision executives believe on and work on, you can implement "tactics" well.

Craft A Strategic Vision:

The first step to craft a strategic vision, have a vision... That sounds obvious, so let's look at actual questions August asks his clients:
  1. What do you want the firm to become over a period of time?
  2. What are you trying to achieve or a period of time?
Notice, the "period of time" piece. This is because your vision must be in the future. Not what you're doing now. For some accounting firms, they wish to be seen as more than just 'tax preppers' or 'bean counters.' Rather, they'd like to be known as business advisors. The first step to craft a strategic vision in this area, think about "How will clients perceive you in the future as business advisors?" Compare that to how they perceive you now. Perception is reality. If they only see you as tax preparers, you must plan steps to change that perception with implementing other services and ideas to them. You must pull out the characters and behaviors of a business advisor to be seen as a business advisor. It doesn't happen naturally, nor overnight.

4 Pillars To Success:

August, at the end of the podcast, laid out 4 pillars of success for any leader in an accounting firm:
  • Set direction ---> Know where you're going ---> Know HOW you're going to get there
  • Gain commitment ---> Reiterate the vision over and over
  • Execute ---> Do what you say you're going to do
  • Live your values ---> This takes time, but set how and why you conduct yourself and push it out to the team and every new hire.
Leaders need to see their roles as "stewards." Take care of the organization as you would an asset. Protect it. Nurture it. Grow it. Your strategic vision must include a direction. August recommends, especially for this, to develop a niche. Think about "What is a core client for my firm?" There will be a lot of clients who won't meet your definition of a core client. You don't want to take those on. In the beginning, you take any client who can keep your lights on. As you learn to walk, you need to trim the clients who don't fit your strategic vision. Only then can you grow.


David: Hey everybody David Cristello here of jetpackworkflow today’s guest is August Aquila we go over partner relationships, common mistakes when sending strategic vision and so much more. Tune in. David: Hey everybody this is David Cristello here from jetpackworkflow and today I'm so excited to have August Aquila on the call. He is the founder of Aquila global advisers which specializes in things like mergers and acquisitions, succession planning, compensation plans, resolving partnership issues, strategic planning and helping managing partners become more effective leaders. He is been consistently ranked top 100 most influential people in the accounting profession by Accounting Today. He is also one of the authors behind the recent book Leadership at its Strongest, what successful managing partners do. We’re so excited to have you on, August, welcome. August: Well, Thank you David. Thank you for inviting me to participate today. David: Absolutely, absolutely so you know for everybody that’s listening you know give us quick kind of background of, you know how you came to focus in all these area and what’s your background on this case? August: Okay absolutely, well my co-authors Rob Lees and Derek Klyhn both at the United Kingdom and they’re my strategic partners there we decided a couple of years is that there were a goal that there’s such a shortage of good leaders in the accounting profession and obviously not only in the accounting profession but I think in corporate America legal profession of all throughout business in general but we wanted to understand what made us successful leaders and what exactly do they do so what we did is we interviewed about a hundred seventy five managing partners in the United States, in England, in Union Canada and we basically asked them one question we said, alright, give us an example of either when you did something or another partner you know or another managing partner when you might have been younger did something that had a significant optic significant influence on the firm and that was the only question from there you know we just went whatever the discussion went and you know we came out with our four areas in our model about setting direction about gaining commitment put together people, executing your plans and then for the leaders to really set the personal example of what they wanna do. So, then that’s how this book came about and you know we are very happy with the result and you know now we are trying to take the message so to and speak get out to the market place and let leaders know that here’s a way for you to be more successful in your firm and its not tapping someone else but it’s all set within the context of each individual firms. David: Gotcha. And so you know and I completely agree with you, I think you know leadership is something that is both misunderstood and rarely talked so I think it is a very relevant topic. Now for the growing firm for the ambitious partner, you know in your course of all your interviews and your decades of experience, do you see that you know common mistakes you know partners make when beginning their journey into leadership or you know kinda fall starts that are kinda common when trying to you know evolve as a leader. August: Wow. Ah that’s a great question. I don’t know you know I’ll answer it but before ill answer I think I don’t know if just one ah… David: Or I guess common, common things that you’ve seen across the board August: Yeah, I guess the couple common things that I would say that you see is that you know a new leader starts out sometimes but doesn’t really provide a compelling direction or strategy for where he or she wants to take the firm and that might be because they haven’t thought it through enough and you know this is an area that when you’re setting direction for an organization there’s a you know you don’t change that direction every month or every year it’s a long term where you think you wanna take the firm and sometimes I think new leaders just haven’t or don’t focus on that enough and then the other probably the other major mistake that maybe they make is that if you think you’re walking down on a path with a bunch of people and the leader is a mile or two ahead of everyone else so the leader has gone down the path he knows if there’s any trees in the way or you know any water flooding the path and things like that and the other people behind them when you think about they haven’t gotten that far so physically they haven’t gotten that far and if you take this analogy and use it in a firm mentally your people are behind you in their thinking and this is where the gaining commitment part of your partners is that you may be really gone hoe about everything but you know your partners not up to where to you are in thinking or you know in being really committed to the same extent that you’re committed and you know what leaders have to do I think is sometimes they tell their partners okay this is what we wanna do or they you know or the old … I did sent the email out didn’t you get it. David: Chuckles August: (Chuckles) You know lot of times to gain commitment you gonna keep them repeating the message and you know everybody in the practice isn’t going to be a hundred percent gone hold that’s for sure so what you need to do initially I think is focus on the people who already wanna go with you okay? Rather than the people who don’t, so it’s really critical to you that you know if you are 10/15 partner firm and you got 2 or 3 partners at really see where you wanna go start focusing on them and then slowly but surely you can try to get the other people on the team to support what you wanna do. David: That’s a great point. You know I can just imagine you know I think social proof is such important element of how we make decisions and how we determined the right next steps and so it’s seems like you wanna be consistent in your vision you wanna set up you wanna allow enough time to make a compelling vision but then also get those early commits to really build momentum and build social proof because its seems like you know from your content that as you build up social proof you know people wanna fall what other people are doing and if it feels like you’re on an island by yourself trying to do this it’s much harder than actually gaining you know 2 or 3 or 4 people you know like you said early champions of the vision that you had in place. August: Yeah and you know I think historically you’ll find in so many firms is that you know they pitch strategic planning or they think they did strategic planning oh yeah we have strategic planning you know retreats so we did our strategic plan but there was never execution and you know partners realize oh gee over the years we said were gonna do this we had a program here we had a program there but nothing was ever executed on the partners mind they just thinking you know what if I ignore this, this will go away too. David: Do you think there’s a lack of execution because so many parties are involved they kinda think the other ones gonna carry it or is it not defined properly the next steps or why there’s so many things these retreats or sessions say this is the way we’re gonna go and its falls off. Why do you see as being you know common reasons why the execution end of things coz that’s really what’s it’s all about you know they aren’t moved forward in any meaningful way. August: Yeah, I think the main thing and this is why a leader a lot of times wont execute for the people on the firm other partners don’t execute is. First of all you know all the partners in the firm have what’s called for the most part of a calendar that’s pretty well filled whether its client service or whatever else they are doing or their time off. What I mean if you look at them when you are trying to do strategic plan you are asking them to do more than they have been doing in the past. So the first challenge I think is trying to get the, get the activities and goals that you want them to do broken down into maybe you know half hour – forty –five minutes types of activities that moved them towards the completion of something over a year you know if you look if you spent 2 hours a month on this goal because at the end of the year you got 24 hours to actually spent in trying to do something strategically. And what I’m trying to sometimes look into people to put into their calendars the appointment that you know this is I’m working on my strategic plan on Thursday morning at 9 o’clock or something and if a client calls or somebody else called and they say are you free at 9 o’clock you have to say no I’m not I have already another appointment because you know unless it’s emergency or you know unless a client call, and said gee I have arrest on my door and they are putting a lock because I did not pay my payroll taxes you know if it’s a client call or you’re gonna meet with another client you will tell them you are not available. I think trying to work in to your day in and day out schedule that’s one challenge one barrier that I think stops the execution the other thing is that when they do the strategic plan is that the individual partner goals are not tied in many times to the achievement of the firm goals that they created and the strategic plan and so the partner really doesn’t know what to do to help the firm grow. They weren’t clearly articulated to their partner and then tied in to that many times there is no reward, financial reward for actually doing or not doing the goals tied in to the strategic plan. So there’s a little process involved lack of process, lack of performance management and lack of you know rewards if I haven’t summarized 3 key issues of why, you know why things aren’t executed as well as they are. David: So I was actually jotting down notes here as well I think those are great points I can imagine this going on in so many firms were you have a strategic planning session and you set up the vision or the goals for the firm but also like you mention well breaking that out into individual partner goals having them schedule their 2 hours a month you know and whether it’s at 9am or before work or it seems like you can probably do that on a Saturday morning you know or once a month even. And so you schedule those in there and instead of motivation is also tight into something like you know a financial incentive or something like that to me those 3 tiers a lot more specific and actionable than just setting up kinda of this broad vision because you know like we talked about it. It’s execution falls short and then almost make the session meaningless because it’s just does not stand still and it kinda drain everybody’s energy from seeing these things not move forward year after year after year. August: Right. I could maybe add a couple of others specific things, I think it’s important on a monthly basis to you know spend time in a partner in a month or quarterly even. Spend time in a strategic plan you know what’s their progress what’s stopping us from achieving it you know what are we doing right what are we doing wrong you know sort of looking at it as, okay this isn’t you know what we are trying to do you can’t outline every specific thing that you need to do so it’s a learning curve as you’re going ahead or might be something that you did not think about you know there’s nothing wrong with what’s the partner is saying you know I can do some help here you know most partners are probably too proud to ask for help within an organization because you know it will make them look weak in that. I think that’s one thing and then you know probably you know the other thing is that you know lot of partners and again it’s closely the firm or just the partners in general. But they don’t think strategically and you know it’s so much easier to sort of revert back to doing work for your client all I can get to the plan is I had all this client work to do so because I am gonna get rewarded on my client billing or the business I manage and things like that. So you know there’s just a lot of I might say structural or foundational issues that also need to be address when you are trying to change something within your organization. David: Yeah I think you raise a great point is I think you know a lot of the minds of the listeners and the firms is I think we all understand the importance of being a strategic thinker I personally believe you have the right strategy then you can move you know from tactic to tactic if you want but if you start with a tactic you kinda just taking a shot in the dark and hoping things stick where you know being strategic you have a bulls eye then you can be creative on how you get there but you know we hear this word strategic planning you wanna be strategic in your analysis, you know, I guess the question I have for you is you know, Is there a framework or set of question how do you help firms think and be more strategic about their approach to doing business. August: Yeah that’s also a great question. I think there is two things first of all you know in talking parlance you would say you well, you know, what’s your vision and you know I’ll say okay and people will say what’s a vision I don’t know what a vision is and to me it’s just that what do you want the firm to become over a long period of time? You know, what are you trying to achieve in the firm? I’m giving example, I’ll just make up, you are in a major metropolitan area and you know most vision say wow gee we wanna be the best firm the largest firm but you know in any one marketer can only be one largest firm by definition. But you know a vision tells the people what they are trying to achieve over some period of time. It’s not what you are today but what you wanna become. It’s sort of like a dream. So, let’s say, I’ll give you an example you went to an undergraduate school and you wanna become accountant, so, your vision was to become an accountant you know major in accounting and eventually sit for the CPA exam. So, say your 4-5 year vision today and if you work backwards and you look at okay I gotta take this courses, I have to do this, I have to… you know certain things to fall into place that you need to do in order to achieve that vision. A lot of firms today you know say from a generic vision they want to become more of a you know more than just accountants they wanna become many business cards that says CPA and business consultants or they wanna become that trusted advisors and then you look at yourself, what do you have to do to become that business advisor and I used a balance score card approach which basically says you know you wanna look at financial, client, employee growth and learning and system within the firm. So, if you say you wanna become that financial or that business advisor to companies then how do your clients have to perceive you that’s the question that the balance score card would have ask and so you get the partners say so we wanna be consultants how should our clients perceive us, well they should perceive us as we are helping them do things better than you know than just tax advisor or audit and for us to do that what kind of training do we need, what new skills, what new competencies, whether there are solid or soft skills do I need to develop in order to have my client look at me as a real, real business advisor and then what systems do we need to have in place and that gives it a structure to manage the whole process. And then these things sort of you know there’s a cause and effect relationship between if I wanna be considered as a business advisor than what training do I need, if I got the training and you know better communications or in some area of consulting that should impact how I behave in front of my clients which will then have the clients looking at me as a more of an advisor than just a, than just a compliance person. David: Gotcha. And what comes to mind is you know I think you said it well is you know you wanna look at you know the end in mind as you know Steven Covey ( August: Right. )you have to have the end of mind and you know it’s a great point because I see everything in you know ecosystem you know moving towards the trusted advisor or business consultant and I think a lot of people consciously are aware that’s the direction they wanna go but they never actually define what it means to be like that or when they try to find it you know they try to be all things to all people and then they becomes very overwhelming. So I think it’s a great point you know to really pull out the character or behavior or skills that you would need to become that and then look at how you can execute on building those up that makes perfect sense. Do you see when you are making a strategic plan you know the approach to becoming an advisor you know you are kinda working with your clients into very internal thing I feel like I think you know and how much of the market do you look at when doing a strategic planning I’m sure it varies for example I think you know starting out its kinda like we just want to be bigger and better and have more, more revenue, more clients more staff, we just want more and what point do you actually look and say you know what maybe instead of being more we see this you know really big gap in this industry that we like working with but you kinda do this market analysis to see where the gaps are and you start looking at a market perspective is it the joggle between the two and how do you balance those out? August: Yeah. I’m gonna approach this a little bit differently I think you know when firms start you know bringing in clients they sort of take anybody right till they have to pay the bills and you have to eat so you know you get a hodge podge you might say of different clients different industries and when you, if you look at accounting profession overall there are very few firms that had you know outside of maybe the top 100 let’s say but there very few firms that really can say that they have a niche in you know or significant percentage of their practice in any one niche. You now, most firms have 5 clients here 10 clients there. So, what I am trying to get them to do is what for your skills and where you are in a market place what would a core client for your firm look like and you know so how would do you define a core client and some firm might say you know we want for us a core client might be either in an industry or a core client might have might be a client that is that we’re going to you know at least be able to bill $20,000 a year and they’re gonna use multiple services from us if we think we can’t build that much on or not gonna use our services then we’re not gonna take them. So they develop an outline or I guess a profile of a client so if a prospect comes in they can say no to that prospect or they won’t even look at certain prospects that don’t fit whatever their core client profile should be and you know coz a lot of times you have clients that don’t need your core client definition they just take, they take energy away from you and then if those clients happened to be not as profitable as other clients other core clients you know, it’s even worse for the firm. So firms have not I don’t think call as much as they could their client based to get to a stronger core of clients that they conserve best. If I’m a midsize firm or if I’m a four or five partner firm you know how long am I gonna be able to really serve you know a large I don’t say international but a large national client in my marketplace. You know eventually, you just don’t have the skills or talent to serve that client. So it’s really identifying for me its identifying what your core clients should look like. David: Perfect. Okay yeah that makes perfect sense you know as I was looking through the overview of your latest book; Leadership at its Strongest, you mentioned you know the 4 pillars of success for high achieving leaders of multi partner, multi office firms and I was wondering as we know kind of wrap up the interview if you could touch a notes. What are those 4 pillars of success that you mentioned in the book? August: I think the 4 pillars that we really have are again, that I mentioned earlier at the beginning of our conversation is that you know leaders have to set directions, if you don’t know where you are going they say you will get there, right? (David & August: Chuckles) You know you really need to know where you are going, why is it going to be better for us, what are we going to choose, you know, how does it make our life better and then you know start gaining the commitment of those people that’s the second pillar. Executing your plan, doing what you say you are going to do and that leads to your personal example that you know as a leader whether it’s the managing partner whether you are an executive committee on larger firms or department head is that you really need to you know, just walk the talk is that you have to live your values, you know, in doing that you know to really make it meaningful takes a long time. I think Plant Morane you know one of the best places to work for not only in the CPA profession but I think on the Fortunes listed best companies to work for is probably unique example is that their founder set the values of the firm 60 or 70 years ago and those values are still with the firm today. So, you know what we are talking about values when you are talking about the developing the culture of the firm, it does not happen overnight at something that you know it takes a long time to develop within any organization and you know leaders, I think leaders today need to maybe look at their role more as a steward that they are taking care of this organization, and you know they have an asset that they need to manage and take care of and their ultimate goal that they would need to pass the asset on to the next generation of leaders coming in to the firm. You know so it depends in, you look in your firm as your own little business and you’re gonna sell it you know maximize the income that you are gonna take out of it over the year or you can look at it as a you know I just have this thing to take care of and really going to pass it on to somebody else. David: Hmmm, interesting. Yeah, seeing people approach their firm or their business, you know it’s kind of like they have a chance to create their own utopia and I know for some firms starting out probably feels more like a dystopia and it feels chaotic buy you know at the end of the day you know like you are saying you get to set the culture, you get to set the kind of ecosystem and build the community and be the person to facilitate and lead the community so it’s, I think really exciting although it’s still very stressful but I think if you look at that in that perspective it’s very energizing to know that you get to create your own little world and hopefully one day your own little utopia out of what you are looking to build. August: Yeah you know, I just wanna say one thing coz I don’t like people to think that there’s only one culture I mean if you have 9 to 5 culture in your firm then you wanna hire people you know have people who loved working from 9 to 5 cutlure. If you have what they call 5 to 9 culture then you wanna hire people who loved to be in that environment of 5 to 9. You know, you don’t wanna have 5 to 9 culture and hire people or have partners who wanna be in the 9 to 5 culture. David: Yah, absolutely I think that’s a great point is that there’s no you know single direction and I think you know just to touch on your earlier points you find that direction if you take the time to develop that strategic plan that vision for what you wanted to look like instead of just being you know in constant react of both. August: Yah right and you know when you do that, you do run a risk of maybe losing some partners because where you wanna go isn’t or where they wanna go so but you know that’s you probably come out as a stronger firm if you go through that process and you are willing to do that. David: Right , if it doesn’t come up during the strategic plan then it will probably come up or you know brew over the next couple of years and just feeling not aligned you know when partners are not aligned it’s gonna resonate it with the energy and the culture of the firm. So it’s seems like you can figure it out that sooner everybody’s gonna benefit it’s not gonna be comfortable but everybody will benefit from it or the other side of it is just letting it kind of you know grow over the next couple of years or decade or whatever it is and it is just really slow and builds up to more anxiety and unease and not being fulfilled with the direction. August: Right, right. David: So, this is has been absolutely fantastic. I’ m really excited to read everything that you are putting out and I think you have a really great perspective if somebody you know is listening or partner or firm who wants to know something that you do and your books where should they go? August: Well the best way is to send me an email I guess and that would be at or they could call me in my office at area code 952-9301295. David: Perfect! And I’ll be sure that to link that up and shown below this interview along with some of the links to your sites and even your latest book, August this has been a real treat, I appreciate you coming on. Thank you so much! August: Thank you David! David: Hey everybody make sure to enter your email to receive all future updates. Thanks for watching!

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