Competing Against the Big Players? Beat Them at Your Own Game!

Recruiting and Retention Strategies to Grow a Small Firm Amid “The Great Resignation”

By Jeffrey Manzella, CFP®, AIF®

The headlines are real, and the moment is here: The Great Resignation is impacting growth at a crucial time for small firms looking to grow and compete against the bigger players in town. And it’s only going to get worse.

With a taste for what remote work and flexible schedules offer in terms of work/life balance, and with year-end bonuses firmly in hand, we are likely to see a hastening and a greatening of the recent post-pandemic talent flight trend.

Small CPA firms are especially at risk. Not only are we heading into tax season, but the impact of talent loss is felt much more dramatically with small teams and scant resources. They simply can’t afford to lose good people—not ever, to be sure…but especially now.

The good news: If you’re competing against the Goliaths in your industry, there are few stones in your sling that the Davids of the world can use to their competitive advantage. And now is the time to wield them.

Begin with the Basics: Benefits that Meet the Benchmark

What were once pot-sweeteners are now table stakes. Make sure your firm is offering competitive benefits packages that at least meet the industry standard. I call them the basics: employer-sponsored health insurance, disability insurance, retirement savings plans like 401(k), and perhaps even dental and vision coverage. 

You don’t necessarily have to offer the Cadillac plans and rich ancillary benefits, but the competitors for the talent you are seeking to recruit and retain are already meeting these benchmarks. Even the long-standing holdouts, such as the Amazons, Walmarts and Aldis of the world, are offering attractive benefits packages that are at least partially covered by the employer. 

Flight is happening. Talent is being poached. Wages are rising. 

Think of your benefits plan as a defense posture: provide the basics at a reasonable cost so your potential employees aren’t expecting you to make up for substandard perks with higher compensation packages.

Work/Life Balance: Your Competitive Advantage

I’m sure all employers have noticed that one of the discoveries of “the new normal” is that a great many employees learned that there was a lot to like about remote work. No commute. Greater productivity. Flexible schedules. Increased autonomy.

What’s driving a lot of The Great Resignation is the current return-to-work policies that take away something that many have become accustomed to and flat out prefer—freedom. If your firm can offer that and not sacrifice work quality or client service, why wouldn’t you pocket the gains in productivity and employee satisfaction while minimizing the costs of employee turnover and expensive recruiting practices?

Here’s the truth: Most big firms are not nimble nor flexible enough to provide that give-and-take with their teams. Larger CPA firms have long thrived on tethering talent to a desk and grinding out as many billable hours as they can.

Offer top talent what the big firms cannot: exactly what today’s worker on the career move is looking for!

Give them the Career Path They Seek

What attracts many to larger firms is the appearance of greater upward career mobility. They see rungs on the corporate ladder, and it’s clear how they can scale them.

But there is growth opportunity at small firms as well—potentially with greater upside, less resistance, and quicker time horizons. Document and demonstrate the path from associate to partner, along with your established incentives and bonus structure, and the right candidates will understand that there is just as much career growth opportunity at your smaller firm as there is at the larger firms.

And you don’t necessarily have to give up equity to do so, if revenue-sharing is incentive enough, as it is for an increasing share of employees these days.

My favorite career pathing tool is an Accountability Chart I’ve created and implemented for all levels of staff at my small organization. It clearly maps out roles, responsibilities and the benchmarks and triggers for advancing to the next level. If you’re interested in adopting and adapting the tool that I use, simply email me and I will be happy to share it with you.

The key to making this work is frequent and regular check-ins. Review progress weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually, and resist every temptation to miss these meetings on your schedule, regardless of how busy you are.

Act Like a Big Firm: Implement a Firm-Wide Operating System

Big firms are built on processes, systems, scorecards and accountability. If you start to act like a big firm today, you won’t need to grow before you start competing with the larger players—you will be mimicking their behaviors and reaping their rewards today!

I run my business on the Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS. It keeps our firm focused, methodical and measurable, so that we are working every day to achieve our vision and gain traction toward our goals.

Regardless of the system you choose, make sure that you as the owner are being guided by your company vision and have implemented a proven system to realize it, rather than chasing opportunities and reacting to short-term stimuli. Don’t neglect the mission at home to chase windmills abroad.

If you’re losing talent, you’re inhibiting your firm’s growth. A loss in manpower means you, the business owner, is making up the difference. As your firm grows, you will want to spend more of your time working on the business, as opposed to in the business. That starts with recruiting and retaining talent that makes your job (growing the business) easier.

Don’t look at what lies ahead as The Great Resignation; look at it as The Great Repositioning!