The Vital Skills of Growth Leadership

Ask ten different accounting firm leaders to define the roles of business development and marketing, and you’ll likely get as many different answers. Now ask them why they invest in those functions. Chances are, you’ll hear more consistently that it’s all about driving the growth of their firms.

A business developer may have the greatest networking technique; a marketer may know how to write the most compelling proposals – all very important skills. But those who know how to truly lead the growth efforts of their firms are the ones who will rise in stature most rapidly and be seen as the most valuable assets to their organizations.

The best growth leaders in the accounting industry have overcome perceptions that their roles are merely “administrative support” or “overhead.” They have positioned themselves as indispensable leaders with strong abilities that few others possess.

To accomplish this, they utilize vital skills that enable them to set direction and lead their teams to win more business and grow their firms. They are effective at crafting growth plans, managing the sales process, and coaching strategic pursuits. Let’s dive into each of these areas.

Crafting a Growth Plan

Leading the growth of an accounting firm starts with strategy. Depending on the size and complexity of your firm, you may need to look at strategy at different levels, beginning with the firm’s overall vision and mission, then cascading down into various industries and/or service lines. In this article, we will focus on the concept of leading a niche team. However, the same approach could be tailored to a broader firm effort.

When developing a growth plan, it is important to engage your team in its creation rather than create it autonomously in a vacuum. A collaborative approach in which you facilitate planning will go far to promote teamwork, drive accountability and inspire performance. After all, it’s hard for someone to not buy into a plan they had a hand in creating themselves.

Consider the following components for your growth plan:

  • Goals – Facilitate this using a planning tool such as a gap analysis. Describe the current state of the practice and outline a vision for the desired future state. Then identify gaps between the two which reveal the priority areas your team will need to work on.
  • Targets – Create specific profiles for the types of clients you most want to acquire. These define your market “sweet spots.” Then, using internal and external data sources, list potential clients that meet the criteria you specified. Prioritize them based on how strong of a prospect they are. For this, think beyond the facts found in a database and consider relational attributes such as access to decision makers, strength of existing relationship, known service gaps, etc.
  • Strategies – Considering the targets you identified, brainstorm strategies that would be effective in building relationships with them. Organize your team’s ideas around categories such as new service offerings, geographic expansion, penetration of existing client base, strategic alliances, marketing campaigns, thought leadership, new sales channels, etc. After brainstorming the possibilities, narrow them down with an exercise using an impact/difficulty matrix.
  • Resources – Identify what will be needed for successful implementation and to reach your goals. For the strategies you identified, consider: people (team members, firm functions, external consultants, etc.); financial (what are the hard and soft costs involved?); and time (When is it reasonable to expect it can be completed? How much of a time commitment will it require?).
  • Success Factors – What three to five things must go absolutely right in order for the overall effort to be a success? Once you have determined these, it is a primary responsibility of you as a growth leader to help ensure these are in place.

Managing the Sales Process

In most team sports, coaches use playbooks to help the team understand what roles and strategies should be applied to various game situations. As a growth leader, you need a playbook as well. One that outlines a sales process and helps your team recognize what phase a pursuit is in, and what tools and techniques can be used to move it to the next phase.

There are a number of popular sales processes that some firms have adopted. Other firms may choose to develop their own, fully customizing the language and phases to their specific needs. Regardless of the path your firm chooses, there are aspects that are usually consistent across most versions. A typical sales process will address identification of targets, an initial approach to building a relationship, exploring potential opportunities, crafting a solution, and negotiating to close the deal.

Set up a sales funnel that visually represents the various phases of your process. Facilitate a discussion with your team to determine where each opportunity belongs in the funnel. Coach them on how to move them from one stage to the next. Monitor not only what phase an opportunity is in, but also how well it is moving. Consider color-coding them like a traffic signal (e.g., green = moving well, yellow = needs a push, or red = stalled) for a visual representation during meetings.

As a growth leader, ask the team questions to draw out new activity. Determine what new opportunities have gone in; which ones have moved; which need to come out. Also find out what opportunities are expected to close next month; what resources are needed to get them closed; and where the team needs to apply innovation.

Coaching Strategic Pursuits

As you manage the funnel on an ongoing basis, determine when you need to facilitate a pursuit team on its win strategy around a specific opportunity. When coaching strategic pursuits, it helps to have a framework that you can consistently use. Your framework should be based on the attributes that impact the client decision. Our study of hundreds of pursuits has revealed four areas in which winning firms tend to find ways to be distinctive:

  • Chemistry Fit – Clients prefer to do business with people they like. That’s why it’s critical to put the right team together – not just to match the technical needs, but also to match personalities and interests. Getting this right builds trust and chemistry.
  • Relevant Perspective – Demonstrate that you know the client’s industry and business. Do the necessary research and involve the right people on your team.
  • Collaborative Style – Clients get behind ideas more easily when they have had a hand in developing them. Facilitating problem solving in a way that involves the client – vs. just presenting your ideas in a one-way fashion – is far more engaging and creates the sense that you are already working together, before the engagement letter is signed.
  • Work as a Team – Packing a proposal full of impressive bios may showcase a deep bench of talent. But how well will your people work together in solving problems? Will the right hand know what the left is doing? Will professionals share information and collaborate with each other? How the team shows up and works together during the pursuit is a strong indicator for the client of what it will be like to work with you.

Just as high-gain questions are essential to effective client meetings, you should ask them when coaching pursuits. Questions you might ask your pursuit teams include:

  • What is the client trying to accomplish?
  • Where is the client in the decision cycle?
  • Why is the client potentially interested in working with us?
  • With whom do we have a relationship?
  • Who will make the decision, and what are their decision criteria?
  • Who is our competition, and how can we differentiate ourselves?
  • What roles do we have on the team at this stage of the pursuit?

Using coaching questions like these is not only effective at drawing out what you know, but just as importantly, what you don’t know. Your team’s action plan following a coaching session often will involve researching and gathering key bits of information that are critical to the win.

Growth leaders understand that effective team leadership is engaging the team in a manner that drives performance. Keep this in mind as you prepare for and run meetings with your teams – whether the purpose of the meeting is strategic planning, funnel management, or pursuit coaching. Ensure that your meetings have the four ‘P’s: purpose, planning, participation, and payoff.

By focusing on these vital skills, growth leaders can engage their teams around a strategic direction for growth and drive a process that will keep their team members focused, energized, and accountable for results.

Scott Moore
Shareholder & Executive Vice President of Consulting