Who Decides What?

Businessman looking thoughtfulYou need to ponder some questions before you answer.

By Bill Reeb and Dominic Cingoranelli
CPA Trendlines / Succession Institute

Everywhere you turn, you overhear someone talking about, being asked about the status of, or referring to their need to develop, a succession plan.

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As a matter of fact, for the past 12 years through surveys with the AICPA, we have been asking firms to share with us whether or not they have a succession plan in place.

When you consider the responses to this question from the PCPS Succession Institute Succession Management surveys conducted in 2008 and 2012, clearly more and more firms are:

  • getting their act together,
  • documenting their succession management strategy and
  • thinking through the ramifications of retiring one or more senior owners.

Here is the question we asked along with summary data from both surveys:

We currently have a written, approved succession plan in place:

% in 2012 % in 2008
Yes 46% 35%
No 54% 65%
Total 100% 100%


We then broke out responses by firm size ranges based on full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) to see how the responses varied by firm size.

As you can see from the data below, generally speaking, the smaller the firm, the less likely it is to have a written and approved plan. Among firms with 15 or fewer FTEs, one-third or less have a succession plan. On the other hand, about three-fourths of firms with 100-350 FTEs have a succession plan.

1-2  FTEs 3-7  FTEs 8-15  FTEs 16-25  FTEs 26-50  FTEs 51-100 FTEs 101-200  FTEs 201-350 FTEs 351+ FTEs
Yes 14% 25% 33% 49% 55% 75% 86% 78% 67%
No 86% 75% 67% 51% 45% 25% 14% 22% 33%


When you consider the fact that our 2004 Succession Survey showed that 19 percent of the firms had a succession plan, and 81 percent didn’t, great progress has been made in this area.

With all of this progress, and so many plans in place, why is succession management still such a big concern and issue in our profession? One reason is that many of the plans have never been tested inasmuch as their first senior partner is getting close to retirement. Another, more significant, reason is that the vast majority (we would say anecdotally this could run well over 90 percent) of the plans are extremely inadequate because

  1. they only address a few of the critical issues or
  2. even of the plans that address most of the issues, the level of accountability tied to consequences of rewards or sanctions is grossly insufficient.

Just to give you a perspective, most firms would call the following a succession plan:

  • A schedule by age of the partners
  • An estimate as to who might decide to leave when (but nothing more than that because no one has truly committed to go and virtually everyone can go)
  • A schedule outlining what the firm thinks it will owe each partner based on when the group guesses they are leaving
  • An analysis as to whether the firm’s cash flow can afford the retirement payments
  • Some list of people coming up who might be named partners in the future
  • A list of clients who need to be transitioned to someone.

If this is the basis of most succession plans today, then it should be no surprise that we feel it is grossly inadequate. As I make this statement, I realize that I am now setting myself up for the logical next question, which is, “If this isn’t what we should be doing, then what is?”

While we are not going to provide you with a mockup of a succession plan in this column because to us a mockup would put inappropriate emphasis on the look and presentation of the document – we are going to go over the components that should be addressed and customized to your firm in the plan.

Many of you may have read articles by one or the other of us, or heard us say while speaking that succession isn’t difficult when it is occurring within a well run firm. The problem lies, as it does so often, in the definition of what we are calling a well run firm. So, while we will provide our perspective on this definition in the rest of the column, since solo practitioners don’t have partners or employees to pass the business on to, they will not be addressed in the remainder of this discussion.

While there are many things solo practitioners can do to position their firm for maximum value upon merger or sale, that conversation turns out to be less about succession management and more about sales positioning.

Given the prelude above, it is time for us to share what we believe to some critical steps and processes creating the foundation of a well run firm. But before we cover the order in which we review and assess these component parts, we want you to understand that this infrastructure is full of moving parts. So that means that as you work through one set of issues, even though you might feel like you have reached consensus and made good decisions, each step needs to be thought of as a “current stake in the ground” rather than “decisions made in concrete.” This is because many of the decisions have overlapping implications and unintended consequences that have not been considered fully since we are trying to address the decisions one at a time, almost in a vacuum.

Therefore, while we will be putting “stakes in the ground” to build a plan around, we also have to understand that as we get further into the process, we may need to adjust any or all of the earlier stakes as we learn more how previous decisions are interacting and impacting our ability to take fair and positive steps regarding the next set of decisions. So we need to move forward one step at a time knowing full well that we may have to go back to the beginning as the entire picture of what we are building in our succession management plan becomes clearer.

With this in mind we start with governance because it clarifies who can make what decisions, as well as identifying the checks and balances put in place within each firm’s decision-making system. We feel it is important to make sure that the firm has a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of key people and groups, which commonly include:

  • Board (of partners or shareholders)
  • Executive committee (if the firm has well over 20 partners)
  • Policy committees (like the tax and audit policy committees)
  • Managing partner or CEO
  • Department heads
  • Line partners:
    • Client service partners
    • Technical partners
    • Practice and industry niche leaders
    • Partners working in the firm after sale of ownership (or retired partner employees for shorthand)

As part of the roles and responsibilities assessment, we believe that competencies should be identified for each level within the firm. For succession management purposes, it is critical that this is addressed at the partner level, but it is even more beneficial to have a culture built around expected competencies throughout the firm.

An important next step in the process is to make sure that partners and managers understand how to manage people. Training is crucial to teach those who manage

  1. how to manage effectively and efficiently,
  2. a process to follow that will result in the rapid development of their people and
  3. how to provide coaching and oversight (including evaluation) to assess performance against expected competencies.

Don’t overlook this – managing “the way it’s always been done” normally has some serious pitfalls and shortcomings that can be avoided with proper training.

The point of the three steps above is to move away from creating organizations around specific people and their unique skills, to a culture that develops people around expected skills, abilities and roles that they fill. This way, whoever becomes the audit department head is filling a role … the same role the last department head did … with expectations as to how that department will be run as well as management skills expected to be demonstrated while running it.

The same is true, and even more important, when it comes to higher-level positions like that of the managing partner, positions on the executive committee or the board. It is critical when a person takes on one of these roles that it is not only clear what is expected, but unambiguously understood what powers have been conferred to them, together with the limitations on those powers. A fundamental to succession management is that people fill functions within the firm.

Those functions are not redefined by the skills of each person who takes on a role. Rather, the person taking on the role will be required to redefine themselves and their skills in order to effectively fulfill the expectations of the role.

Another fundamental included in these three ideas is that the firm needs to move away from the more common “I will let you know when I believe you are competent and ready when I see it” type of developmental approach to one of “we will develop each of you to meet and exceed a minimum set of competencies across numerous areas important to our firm’s culture and values, based on the role you are filling.”

Once governance has been determined and/or fine-tuned, we are now in a position to know who can hold whom accountable with what powers and limitations.

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