* The Succession Institute, LLC is not a CPA Firm

CPA Retreat Facilitation

Posted: October 2, 2007 at 12:15 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Bill, Tommye and Dom spend a significant amount of their consulting time facilitating and conducting CPA firm retreats, organization-specific goal setting/brainstorming sessions or partnering sessions. Considered experts in this field, they also teach executives how retreats should be conducted and managed (as an example, Bill and Dom’s latest book on consulting includes a chapter teaching other CPAs and consultants how to deliver facilitation services).

As retreat and workshop facilitators, Bill, Tommye and Dom have worked with CPA firms, helping them update their Visions, Missions and Values, and then establish goals/objectives that are realistic, accountable, measurable, monitorable and assignable. Because of Bill’s, Tommye’s and Dom’s background in public practice as CPAs, a significant amount of their time is spent helping other CPA firms navigate the ever-changing landscape within the profession.

As a normal part of delivering this service, Bill, Tommye, Dom and Michaelle often conduct advance surveys or interviews of the management personnel who will be involved in the retreat, as well as another layer of key personnel. This not only accelerates the productivity of managements’ planning time, but promotes a more open and constructive dialog between the planning participants. As an example, you can review a group of typical CPA firm survey questions by clicking this Retreat Survey Sample link. Survey and interview results are confidential, as the only people whosee the actual survey responses are members of Succession Institute LLC. The responses are summarized, combined, and where required, sanitized to preserve anonymity. However, the issues raised, regardless of how confrontational or challenging, are presented without being watered-down. The survey responses are reviewed during the retreat before breakout groups begin various assignments.

The Facilitator’s Role

As facilitators, Bill’s, Tommye’s and Dom’s roles are to raise, mediate and attempt to arrive at a consensus for whatever issues the CPA firm owners deem relevant. While it is the facilitator’s responsibility to prepare and manage the agenda, each client guides their content and approves the schedule/focus of that agenda. Typical issues for planning retreats are:

  • The firm’s strategic direction,
  • Establishment of goals to obtain that direction,
  • Refinement of various components of the infrastructure to better support that direction,
  • Discussions relating to the transformation of the environment to more quickly achieve the chosen direction,
  • Development of the necessary leadership, skills, and processes to manage the intended changes, and issues relative to succession management.

The Strategic Planning Retreat

Within the strategic planning retreat, the objective is to arrive at the make-up of the CPA firm’s future, usually in a 3-5 year time-frame. That make-up has to consider:

  • The demands of the current clients,
  • Anticipated penetration into new markets, and
  • The personal objectives of the firm’s owners

During the creation or refinement of this strategy, it must be constantly tested against current and past trends (in revenue, profits, etc.) and consider planned changes to the structure (growth, acquisition, retirement, etc.) so that a realistic and attainable set of objectives can be established.

In order to arrive at these strategic goals and objectives, the retreat participants typically start by reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the organization in order to determine the best approaches for arriving at the stated targets. Next, the operating environment is discussed. With many organizations, while management’s view of the firm’s direction is consistent, the operating systems, incentives and procedures often directly contradict and discourage the actual attainment of those objectives. The bottom line is … the sessions Bill, Tommye and Dom facilitate are, at a minimum, dynamic. And while they tend to follow a specific format, they focus first and foremost on coming away from the retreat with something valuable, rather than just a bunch of superficially agreed-to issues. Triggered by their experience, when Bill, Tommye or Dom see or hear a group having a shallow discussion of sensitive or critical topics, they know when and how to change the format of the session to ensure that real issues are confronted and addressed.

Regarding the retreat timetable, if a firm’s senior management feels a survey is in order, preparing the survey and launching it is the first step in the critical path. The survey (or in the alternative, interview process) needs to be conducted about one month from the date of the retreat. After the surveys or interviews have been received and compiled (about 2 weeks out), we suggest a refined format for the retreat based on the:

  • Desires of management, and
  • The issues that arise from the survey data gathered.

This combination allows us to determine the best way to maximize the time available to accomplish the objectives of the planning session.

Retreat Time-table and Organization

Typically, strategic planning retreats are 2 to 3 days in length; the more time allocated, the more in-depth and detailed the action plan becomes. While a one-day retreat can serve a positive purpose (especially for one or two firm-specific pre-identified topics), often times, CPA firms merely get to the point of broadly identifying organizational focuses. With a two-day retreat, the second day is spent developing and refining the top 3-5 goals. With a three day retreat, the participants typically walk away with clear direction as to what has to be done, by whom, by when, and what outcome is expected for each tactical plan.

Bill, Tommye and Dom use breakout groups, and other techniques, to maintain open conversations and minimize the impact a “power partner” has on the retreat results. This is not to say that key executives/partners are prohibited in any way from articulating their ideas. However, our techniques elicit a more complete perspective of management’s views, as a “power partner” can only influence the conclusions of his/her breakout group. This expands the overall creativity of the consolidated group outcomes and develops more synergy around the solutions chosen.

It is important to have the retreats in a location where people are not constantly being interrupted. Therefore, we usually recommend an offsite setting. And because planning and being creative is very taxing, meetings days are suggested to be no longer than 8 hours — 6-7 is even better. Some firms have kept after planning far longer in a day, but what typically happens is people stop working to identify and achieve the optimum ideas and solutions and start focusing on expediency, so that the meeting can end. This is rarely in the best interest of the organization. However, if the focus of the meeting is superficial consensus on hotly contested issues, you would be surprised how easy it is to get people to agree in the 11th hour of one of these sessions.

Why Succession Institute LLC?

All of this is being covered to reinforce the idea that there are a great many different issues, techniques, obstacles, personalities, and more, that can either positively or negatively impact the value of a planning session. Some of these issues can create significant conflict and hard-feelings when brought to the forefront. Effective strategic planning and partners’ decision-making workshops must explore both the personal and professional agendas of the individuals involved if real consensus and an attainable plan are to evolve. And while many CPA firms have more than enough skills to facilitate their own retreat using internal personnel, our involvement offers several advantages:

  • An outside, impartial assessment of the firm’s strategy;
  • As outsiders, our background in marketing, organizational development, accounting, technology and as entrepreneurs, coupled with our experience in developing the strategy of numerous other organizations, gives us the ability to provide a unique perspective regarding the topics being discussed;
  • As nationally published authors and recognized keynote speakers, Bill, Tommye and Dom have an awareness of market trends, management issues, and innovation due to the constant input they receive from conference participants throughout the US and Canada; and
  • Bill, Tommye and Dom are comfortable managing confrontation, as well as exposing and controlling discussions regarding critical intimidating subject matter.

Finally, when an internal person is utilized as the retreat facilitator, he/she is usually one of the key partners. This leads to numerous natural predictable conflicts for the firm. The most obvious is that the facilitator has a role to play (to facilitate and obtain input from everyone), and the participants have another (to shape the direction of the organization). When the facilitator has knowledge, insight, and creativity that can be applied to identifying, solving, and discussing topics, it is minimized because of the role the facilitator has to play. The other extreme occurs when the facilitator is also actively participating. This can spell disaster because when a facilitator participates, he/she can easily:

  • Restrict the discussion because of comments made or stakes unknowingly placed in the ground, and
  • Minimize dialogue because far less open conversations occur when the facilitator has influence over the jobs of those at the planning session.

The Investment

So, when you consider all the resources expended to bring management together to participate in a retreat (lost productivity of those involved in day-to-day activities while at the retreat, the salaries of the participants, expenses incurred for travel, meals and lodging, etc.), hiring an outside facilitator is often the second best investment a company can make. The first best investment is understanding that all facilitators are not alike and that you want to find the right facilitator for your group given the outcomes you are expecting. A simple phone interview with us will quickly help you determine whether we are the right people for your CPA firm’s next planning retreat or partner workshop.