Q: Employees will join a firm because they connect with the culture and people. Mergers can create a very different organization. How did you guide your team through the changes?
A: The key to success in this type of situation is to find the similarities in other groups and lean into that. Nothing is going to align fully; that’s impossible. But, often, there is great synergy between the two combining groups, and if you can focus on all the things that do align, the process makes it easier. Often, we all have far more in common than we are different, and focusing our energy there creates resilience on the team.
Q: What did your team do to keep clients at the forefront of your work while the organization was changing?
A: In an accounting services team, this is simpler than in other circumstances. Because we work so closely with our clients—often daily and weekly—there wasn’t a lot of time to get distracted. Our client work became a source of grounding and familiarity within the team since none of it changed. It became easy to focus on that and let the other things that were a little more chaotic even out. Everyone kept their same clients and service teams. That part of the transition was a bit of comfort, given all the other changes.
Q: What did communication with your team look like throughout the merger/change?
A: We have regular team meetings and kept that cadence throughout the process. We opened every meeting with Q&A time regarding the changes, merger, and related items, creating an open dialog with the team that allowed us to share what we knew in real time with everyone—which provided some comfort. I also scheduled 1:1 meetings with everyone to ensure they had a private opportunity to ask questions. We used open office hours to provide space for questions outside of the meeting cycle and published an FAQ for any questions that came up individually so everyone could see them.
Q: Change at a firm—technology, M&A, pricing structures, and more—can be complicated. What are the parts of managing a change that firms/practices often don’t account for?
A: I think the biggest factor I noticed in the merger is that when you merge in, everyone already has a full-time job. Firms forget that their staff may not have readily available time to simply jump on new system training or complete required HR processes, for example. The incoming team is not a new hire and doesn't have a blank schedule to fill with administrative tasks. They are coming in with a full schedule and client deadlines.
I think the beginning process really focused on treating people like new hires, but that eliminated the real impact of the full client load that comes with them on day one. Instead, it puts an immense amount of pressure on the incoming team and creates a lack of understanding as to their suffering. It makes them feel like they aren’t understood, which adds to the already-present worry that they can’t, don’t, and won’t belong in the new firm. By creating understanding and space for this reality, we can help them see that they fit well in the structure and everyone understands their roles.
Q: What has it been like combining technology?
A: This has been a simultaneously simple and complex process. We had overwhelming alignment in the tech stack across our accounting services groups, so that has been simple. The complex part is the administrative work to combine separate instances of each software by the prior firm into one cohesive set of consoles under the new firm. The key to success here is good strategy and supportive relationships with our software partners. The partners have helped us with resources and access to shoulder the workload of pulling several different tech practices into one.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a firm leader while guiding your team through a big change?
A: I went through the same ups and downs as the team, so it’s important to be honest about that with them in the process. Pretending that it’s not hard for me does nothing to help them relate and build resilience. I’ve had to find my own authentic voice in being human with how hard the change can be, but still lead positively. The team really does care what I think and say, and I’ve had to personally reconcile the change management. Settling into a place of empathy and curiosity in the process was the key for me. I thought it would be hard for me to lead effectively when there are so many unknowns, but it came more naturally than I anticipated.
Q: What are the essential elements of successful change management for a CAS practice?
A: Transparency is key to helping everyone feel confident during times of change. Sharing information as much, as early, and as often as you can in the process allows the team to absorb the changes without making up rumors or stories.
It's equally important to share what you don’t know, or what is still being decided, in the process. Clarity about who is making decisions and setting expectations when information might be available also helps. The uncertainty of the process is often what drives people to leave during times of change. As much as possible, leaders need to provide as much certainty as they can to help with that uneasiness that comes during immense change.