Base Retirement on Today’s Operations

Page of calendar showing date of 15th5 critical issues and 4 behaviors of healthy organizations.

By Bill Reeb and Dominic Cingoranelli
CPA Trendlines / Succession Institute

Because many firms have some part of their compensation and often retirement or ownership as well tied to client book, it is important to lock in a fair retirement based on how the firm is operating today.

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The reason is that when creating a strong succession plan, you are likely to ask all partners to agree to some changes. If you want to create an open dialogue with a senior partner about giving up some of his or her book for the betterment of the firm, which is also typically synonymous with asking that partner to give up some of their security regarding annual compensation and even more important their internal power, it is critical to give them confidence that their past efforts are being considered when creating the reward structure going forward.

At this point, we need to pin down the process for determining the retirement benefit and equity/capital amounts due the retiring senior partner. This process should include identification of issues such as:

  • Vesting requirements
  • Penalties for withdrawing without adequate notice
  • Transitioning procedures for client relationships
  • Penalties for inadequate client transition
  • Transition period compensation framework

Next, we address the process of distributing the ownership of the retiring partner(s) as well as awarding additional ownership to our top leaders.

This often is done very haphazardly. Then, after a few partners retire, because the voting control was sloppily managed, it is not uncommon for either

  • the weakest people in the firm to have a stranglehold on the firm’s decision-making processes, or
  • the ownership to be so diffused or out of balance that the decision-making process is less about maintaining and evolving a well-run firm and more about power groups, voting blocks, politics and protectionism.

By the way, notice that we used the phrase “top leaders.” It was intentional.

A firm needs to have a compensation system that rewards its top performers and pays them well. But the top performers are not always, to the surprise of many, a firm’s top leaders. The equity that is, the ability to influence the direction, values and culture of your firm should be allocated to your top leaders, not your top performers.

In many instances, they are one and the same, which is great. But all too often, they are not, and this distinction is critical when managing the future survival, continuity, profitability and success of your firm.

After we have addressed equity, which often requires a redistribution of existing equity, it is important for the firm to adopt a decision-making philosophy. The new philosophy is simple.

We all have opinions. We should openly share our opinions. Once we have done so, we should vote. It is okay … actually it is healthy … to have differences of opinion and strong beliefs about choices the firm should make and solutions it should implement. However, once we vote, regardless of whether your vote aligns with the final decision or not, everyone is bound to support and implement the decision made.

While most firms are better served to make all of the voting public (meaning everyone knows how each partner voted), anyone should be able to call for a private vote on any issue if a partner feels that the group is being bullied or pressured into a position, or feels like a more honest vote will occur if a ballot is taken. The firm should be encouraging key behaviors of healthy organizations, which include

  • open communication;
  • creating a culture where it is okay, even good, to disagree;
  • an understanding that when a majority, or whatever voting threshold identified for a specific issue is attained, the firm will have made that decision and begin to move forward; and
  • an understanding that once a decision is made, whether you supported it or not during the vote, that you support it after the vote.

The purpose of this process is to make sure that the “no” vote in an organization doesn’t become more important than whatever the majority “yes” vote is. So many times, what starts out as benevolent leadership’s attempt to be inclusive by building a firm around the idea of consensus eventually morphs into its dysfunctional twin where the firm is constantly catering to its weakest link usually the partner who wants everything to remain the same and wants never to be held accountable.

One Response to “Base Retirement on Today’s Operations”

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