Today’s accounting firms face an increasingly urgent challenge that will shape their fortunes for decades to come: a shortage of rising partners. Without decisive action in the near future, many firms will find themselves with a dearth of dynamic, visionary accounting partners in the years ahead.

How did this problem arise? And what can be done about it? In this post, we’ll explore the origins of tomorrow’s leadership drought, and how new research on high-visibility leaders in the accounting space shows the way forward.

The Demographic Dilemma

For many accounting firms, the partner shortage arose as a result of demographic shifts from the nineties to today. With a flood of retiring baby boomers comes a host of big, unfilled leaders’ shoes – and not enough readily qualified folks to fill them.

The consequence of this trend is that many firms are shifting their focus from a more traditional process of finding and selecting the right people to grooming the next generation of accounting partners.

After all, there’s no lack of talented young professionals in the ranks of today’s accounting firms. Technical skills aren’t the issue. Instead, many potential partners need to acquire “softer” skills like effective business development. For some firms, that means training and mentoring programs are likely part of the solution…but they’re often not enough.

The fact is, plenty of potential partners simply aren’t natural networkers or business developers. They may have the expertise and the vision, but they don’t know how to communicate those essential features to clients, colleagues, and the industry at large.

Fortunately, there is a way for firms to overcome this hurdle and groom a new wave of effective accounting partners.

The Rise of the Visible Expert℠

The answer? Develop these promising professionals as Visible Experts℠.

You may be familiar with the idea of “thought leadership marketing,” or “expertise marketing” – sharing a professional’s expertise through blogging, social media, conference presentations, and a range of other means to build their profile. Once an individual has built a strong reputation in their industry, they can use that credibility to raise the stature of their firm, guiding the conversation in and around their industry.

We’ve all seen this effect at work in the world: high-profile professionals author books, deliver keynote speeches, and sometimes become synonymous with their industries. At the Hinge Research Institute, we wanted to take a closer look at the phenomenon of high-profile expertise in the professional services marketplace in order to develop a better understanding of both its impact and exactly how it is cultivated.

To accomplish this goal, we studied over a thousand professional services purchasers and 130 high-visibility experts, figures we call “Visible Experts.” The research uncovered a host of benefits to having such people in your firm – from improved lead generation and professional partnership opportunities to the ability to charge rates up to 13X higher.

Even more interestingly, we discovered that Visible Experts typically arise not by chance but through reproducible processes, using a consistent set of tools and strategies. And what’s more, certain approaches allow experts to rise faster than others.

So how can firms use research-driven reputation-building strategies to successfully groom new accounting partners?

SEE ALSO: Why Partners Don't Develop New Business and What to Do about It

The Roadmap to Leadership

First, take a close look at a potential partner’s expertise. What are their greatest strengths and skills? Consider both their technical and social abilities. Consider the following questions as you evaluate an individual:

  • How well can they write? Is their style clear?
  • Do they have a knack for explaining complex ideas in an understandable way? Are they an effective public speaker? If they haven’t had speaking opportunities yet, do you think they might be?
  • Do they engage in industry conversations on social media?

A “yes” to any of these questions give you a ready foundation to build on. And if some (or all) of the answers are “no,” these are skills that a person may be able to develop with focused support.

Next, consider your strategy. This encompasses both the career path of the individual in question and, ultimately, the direction you want to take your firm. One of the most fascinating discoveries from our research on Visible Experts was that individuals with clearly specialized expertise – a niche they could really own – accelerated in stature much more quickly than other experts, even those with considerable knowledge and public recognition.

The lesson? For emerging Visible Experts, it’s best to focus on a narrow niche. As you set out to groom a potential partner, identify an area where you want to grow the firm, an area that coincides with the person’s particular talents. Then make sure to support the individual’s development in this area in any way you can, including the way you apportion responsibilities and ongoing internal education efforts. Remember: someone does have to be an expert on a particular topic to become a Visible Expert. But if they have the knowledge, their expertise can be honed and focused.

Sharing Expertise

How, then, does cultivating a Visible Expert help your potential partner improve as a business developer and networker?

Here’s the reality. There are plenty of folks who are talented, visionary, and would make outstanding leaders – but who lack the disposition for traditional business development. That’s okay, because the traditional style isn’t the only approach out there.

Your rising Visible Expert can share their expertise in a variety of formats. Our research found that some of the most powerful reputation-building tools for Visible Experts were:

  • Blog posts
  • Articles and whitepapers
  • Speaking engagements (both keynotes and smaller venues)
  • Webinars
  • Books

In fact, books bear special mention – alongside choosing a niche, writing an authoritative book emerged as one of the characteristics that distinguished the fastest-rising experts. So what do Visible Experts do with these powerful platforms?

The ultimate goal may be business development…but savvy high-visibility experts don’t promote themselves or their firms. Instead, they educate their audience, an audience made up chiefly of potential clients. A Visible Expert uses her focused expertise on the accounting industry and on the needs and challenges of her clients to provide relevant, substantive instruction.

If our expert focuses on accounting for small technology companies in a particular region, she might use her deep understanding of state tax law for small and medium sized businesses to write a yearly tax guide for local startups. By clearly explaining some of the typical problems or opportunities that her target audience faces, the prospective partner establishes her expertise and builds visibility in the community. She gives folks a good reason to keep coming back and reading her content, so she can continually establish herself as knowledgeable, authoritative, and relatable. Eventually, when her target audience requires services, they’ll think of our expert – and her firm.

And that’s a key thing to remember about cultivating Visible Experts: it helps the firm and the individual. There is an important relationship between the reputations of your high-visibility experts and the overall reputation of your firm. A well-known, well-respected individual can confer their glow on the rest of the business – a phenomenon known as the Halo Effect. It goes the opposite way, too. As your firm builds its reputation and grows, it lends greater authority to the Visible Experts in its ranks. This process can continue, back and forth, creating a sort of positive reputational feedback loop.

Not to mention, when you make a commitment to cultivating Visible Experts, the individual gets the full weight of their firm supporting their reputation-building work. And the firm develops its next generation of high-profile leaders – all while building its own reputation and generating new leads through educational content.

The process works, and the research shows just how successful it can be. Increasingly and overwhelmingly, when potential clients go looking for expertise, they look online – in search, on social media, on your website. Our most recent research shows that over 80% of buyers look at your firm’s website to check out your expertise, while only 55% talk to formal references.

Visible Expert Book: How Buyers Check Out Professional Services Providers

And that’s another important reason for accounting firms to help support rising Visible Experts as they groom new partners. The fact is, the skillset that you might want your future partners to possess has grown to include skills like social media and blogging. By becoming a Visible Expert and educating target audiences, an individual can develop new business and build the firm’s brand at the same time, providing a very effective alternative to traditional business development. Ultimately, you’ll want a balance of talents among your partners, and as online reputational and educational skills continue to grow more important, it may be important to have a leadership that knows how to leverage those skills effectively.

For firms that seek to groom new accounting partners, then, developing Visible Experts from within is a powerful strategy that can create not just new leaders, but a more powerful brand, continuous growth, and the expertise to help guide your firm into the future.

Learn more on how to cultivate a Visible Expert for your accounting firm in the new free ebook, The Visible Expert.

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Visible Expert Book: Thought Leadership Marketing