With 2016 behind us and January a blank slate on the calendar, many firms have their sights set on the improvements and necessary changes needed to ensure their future success. In other words, they’re making good old-fashioned resolutions.

So what are the biggest resolutions for the New Year, and how should firms best implement them? We asked multiple experts to let us in on what changes need to be made and what will make 2017 tick.

Why resolutions?

Firms and businesses will undoubtedly have their own individual lists of goals to meet by the end of the year, but these individual objectives can differ from an overall “resolution.” As our experts point out, resolutions can have a far larger impact than daily or monthly tasks.

Angie Grissom, owner and president of the consulting group the Rainmaker Cos. in Nashville, noted that “goals and resolutions help drive behavior and remind you of why you are working towards something. Life becomes so hectic in the day-to-day that you need something to refer to when deciding which actions and steps are important. Setting firm goals at the beginning of the year is the first step in creating strategies to achieve those goals. These strategies lead to tactics which affect the daily decisions that departments and individuals make.”

“If making a New Year resolution energizes someone or a firm to follow through on something, that’s fantastic,” said Marc Rosenberg, president of Chicago-based consulting firm The Rosenberg Associates. “What are we really talking about here? Plain old ordinary -- but powerful -- goal-setting. It’s been around since before I was born – and that’s a long time ago – and it works, but only if there is a game plan for execution and accountability. Ninety-plus percent of all CPA firms fail at goal-setting because they treat the goals like New Year’s resolutions. A few weeks or months later, the partners can opt out of the resolutions and no one will ever question them about it.”

“New Year’s resolutions are good for giving up unproductive or destructive habits and for taking on new, positive behaviors or actions,” added Jennifer Lee Wilson, co-founder and partner of leadership and marketing consulting firm ConvergenceCoaching. “I call this the ‘shed and grow’ cycle and I am pretty intentional about it every year.”

The big idea

Our experts had a variety of ideas as to what the biggest resolution of 2017 should be, but all the objectives focused on adapting to a changing business world.

“Every major endeavor that firms should be pursuing in 2017 is not new,” said Rosenberg. “What’s needed is a ratcheted-up focus on these actions.” He pointed to recruiting and retention as two of these factors, and that those areas need two key improvements: “First, there must be significant links for every partner between their compensation and the extent that staff advance under their tutelage. Second, partners simply don’t have time to be good mentors because they work too many billable hours and work client bases that are too large — both integral elements of the old, inefficient CPA firm operating model.”

Rosenberg also called for a bigger emphasis on technology, as firms can be “much too conservative and slow to act” on improving it in their businesses. “Less than 10 percent of local CPA firms use cloud technology despite overwhelming evidence of it being a best IT practice,” he added.

Similarly, Wilson said that 2017 should be about firms becoming a “more next-gen-ready firm – a place that next gen clients and team members want to work with and be a part of. That means … making significant investments in technology, shifting our mindset to one-size-fits-one flex work options, and moving over and empowering future leaders to make changes they see fit.”

Jeff Phillips, CEO of online career community and resource Accountingfly added that firm leaders should allow more flexible work practices and “seriously consider hiring remote staff in 2017. CPA talent for remote positions has increased dramatically. In fact, remote job opportunities on Accountingfly see seven times more applicants than traditional in-house CPA positions. If you struggle with recruiting, then consider going remote.”

On the more technical side, growth consultant Gale Crosley, founder of Crosley+Co., advises practices to get their heads “wrapped around the seismic changes that will happen in audit over the next several years.” She explained that this means focusing on “continuous auditing, data analytics, artificial intelligence, risk services and attestation beyond the financial statements. Recently, firms have been selling financial statement audits for down to 50 cents on the dollar (sometimes less!). However, the ‘audit of the future’ represents the most significant potential for profitable growth in our core service than we’ve seen in years.”

Grissom sees clients being the focus for a New Year’s resolution, noting, “Clients’ businesses and competitive landscapes are becoming increasingly complex. Accounting fees continue to be competitive, and the true differentiators occur when accountants provide advisory services to clients. When this happens, loyalty increases and price resistance decreases; we call this climbing the ‘value ladder.’ If firms can involve team members in helping provide advice and in being involved in these services with clients from earlier in their careers, they will have a win-win situation.”

Grissom also notes that firms should be focusing on a more “holistic growth approach” inside their offices, where “marketing, sales, training and niche strategies are all in alignment and not working in silos … . This involves more shared goals and strategies across work teams. Top firms are starting to realize the importance of this alignment and are taking steps to implement an approach that will result is powerful growth like never before. This is an exciting and necessary direction.”

Millennial mindset

An ever-present factor at firms these days is the attracting, recruiting and retaining of Millennials and young professionals – an issue already pushing change on the more conservative parts of the profession. Our experts agreed that the No. 1 resolution firms can have regarding young professionals is to get them involved as quickly as possible.

“Include new hires and Millennials in any strategic planning or change initiatives in your firm,” said Wilson. “This allows your most ‘unattached’ or newest team members to influence your plans with their outside perspective and ensures you’re including next gen viewpoints in your strategies.”

Grissom agrees that Millennials are best to be included in these strategy sessions, as they can “have great ideas you haven’t considered.” She also advised involving them in prospect and client meetings so they’ll “begin to understand how to truly serve and sell. You will not regret it. They will become engaged earlier and will contribute in ways that will surprise you.”

Rosenberg feels that the traditional style of recruitment – advertising a position and holding “sterile interviews” - needs to change. “Before starting the recruiting process, firms need to understand their own culture, what personality types succeed at their firm, and which ones fail,” he advised. “Then, and only then, are you ready to start recruiting because, now, the firm can match the firm’s culture and personality with job candidates.”

“Second, establish meaningful measures of accountability for partners helping staff learn and grow,” he continued. “A good start would be to start making staff mentoring and development a meaningful factor in allocating partner income. Partner compensation may not be the best way to do this, but it will cause the partners to take notice.”

More than a ‘to-do’ list

With a list of resolutions in tow, it’s essential that firms find a way of tracking their progress. Without properly monitoring themselves, it’s very possible that goals can be blurred by year’s end and won’t be achieved to their original desired degree.

Rosenberg advises that “goal-setting programs must have a champion. Someone must monitor progress on the goals throughout the year. If no one watches the goal-owners for 12 months, then it’s highly unlikely the goals will be achieved.” He also suggests that goals be written in a “SMART” matter - namely, that they’re “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bounded,” with no more than to two to four goals assigned to individual staff, as “endless laundry lists only discourage people.”

For firms embracing more remote work, Phillips foresees them needing to “commit to new technology and likely change internal management processes to onboard and provide excellent work experience. Partners in charge of business lines who oversee these teams will have to take ownership. The benefits of having a fully staffed workforce are worth the change you may have to experience.”

“Establish very clear goals [with] clear checkpoint dates,” said Wilson. “Something like, ‘Form a cross-generational, cross-functional flex work committee by a [certain] date’ or ‘Identify three new flex program initiatives to undertake in 2017 and gain executive committee buy-in to those by a [certain] date.’”

“Make sure goals are in writing and that they are specific and measurable,” said Grissom. “This should break down into strategies and tactics by department, division and work group. Each leader should be responsible for keeping track of progress and reporting it at least on a monthly basis, if not more often. Many strategies exist for doing this, but clarity, accountability, tracking and communication are the keys to success.”

Sean McCabe

Sean McCabe is a senior editor with Accounting Today.