In 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane into the Atlantic Ocean. In the mo- ments before the crash, experts believe
that Kennedy didn’t know that he was facing
a violent, watery death.
In his essay, The Art of Failure, Malcolm
Gladwell details Kennedy’s last-minute ma-
neuvers: “He banked his plane to the right,
farther out into the ocean, and then to the
left. He climbed and descended. He sped up
and slowed down.”
These behaviors indicate that Kennedy,
flying in the darkness without a horizon
line, was frantically trying to find the lights
of the coastline. If he had more experience
he would have instead focused on his plane’s
instrument panel, and kept the plane’s wings
level. What’s more, even though he was losing
altitude at over a thousand feet per second at
the end, he couldn’t feel it.
From outside the plane, Kennedy’s descent would be obvious. But inside the plane,
at night, it’s not.
Gladwell writes, “The physics of flying is
such that an airplane in the middle of a turn
always feels perfectly level to someone inside
Outside of our firms, leading consultants
see a serious future leadership shortfall. A
shortfall that many partners — safely tucked
inside firms and not focused on the instru-
ment panel — are missing.
Focus on your instrument panel
BY REBECCA RYAN
strength) for every partner in the firm, and at
a minimum level they should have a one-to-
one bench strength ratio.”
By that standard, many accounting firms
— while looking for the bright lights of rev-
enue — are silently, almost imperceptibly
In an informal survey among human resources professionals with “high-potential”
programs, the ratio of high potentials to partners ranged from a low of 61:110 to a high
of 24: 37.
What’s more, many firms waste time and
energy on “high potentials” who never pan
out. A recent Harvard Business Review article studied over 20,000 high potentials and
found that 30 percent delivered on their
“high-potential” label and became leaders.
Of the remaining 70 percent:
33 percent weren’t willing to make the
sacrifices required for the top jobs.
30 percent had the will and ability to
become leaders, but did not feel a strong
commitment to their organization. This is a
shame, because employee engagement can
7 percent simply didn’t have the ability
to succeed in leadership roles.
Look back at the list above. Which “high
potentials” in your firm fall into these categories?
Now consider the investment you make
in your partner development and “
high-potential” programs. At many firms, $10,000 or
more per year is invested into each “
high-potential” employee. What if 70 percent of
that investment was going down the drain
because you were making a few, hard-to-no-tice mistakes?
THE INSTRUMENT PANEL
To steer their firms out of the recession, partners are focused on marketing, sales and the
bottom line. And rightly so. But to keep a firm
nose-up in the long-term, leaders must look
at their five-to-seven-year horizon and ensure that they have a bench of talent that will
Sam Allred of the Upstream Academy
in Helena, Mont., counsels, “Ideally, firms
would have two prospective partners (bench
Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps
CPA firms develop and keep their top talent.
Reach her at (888) 922-9596 ext. 702, or
DEVELOPMENT THAT WORKS
In a survey of partner development programs
that work, I notice three characteristics:
1. High potentials are evaluated on more
than just their track record. The old adage,
“Past performance predicts future perfor-
mance,” applies to people who do the same
job over and over. Since high potentials will
be asked to take on additional leadership re-
sponsibilities, their past performances are a
poor indicator of their future success. Firms
must also assess:
The person’s capability to become a lead-
er. This is best determined through challeng-
ing assignments and evaluations.
The person’s commitment to the firm,
also called “engagement.”
The person’s willingness to do the job
that partners must do.
Taken together, these three attributes are
more important than past performance in
identifying future partners.
2. Partners must be involved. The research is clear: If high-potential development
is delegated to managers or business unit
leaders, the “high po’s” develop less quickly.
What’s more, when partners talk candidly
with rising stars about their potential, their
Susan Hodkinson, chief operating officer
of Soberman, an accounting firm in Toronto, reinforces the need for partners to speak
candidly with high potentials. At Soberman,
most partners are directly responsible for one
or more high potentials.
Hodkinson said, “At first, we were afraid to
use the ‘P-word’ (partnership) when talking
with our high potentials, because we were
worried that it would be interpreted as some
sort of promise. But our leadership team
agreed that if we can’t talk candidly about
partnership, it’s impossible to know if one
of our high potentials is really ready — or
interested — in the responsibilities.”
3. Future partners must be treated like
the valuable assets they are. I’m not talking
about larger offices or shoe shine service. I
am talking about the inexpensive yet invaluable access and experience that rising stars
need to build a meaningful path to partnership. This includes:
First dibs at difficult stretch assignments. At Johnson & Johnson, high potentials are asked to come up with an entirely
new product or service that they must introduce into the market.
Knowing the firm’s strategy, and having access to partners who can respond to
questions. At one California-based organization, high potentials and senior leaders have
a private blog where they share thoughts,
ideas and questions.
Being recognized for their contributions to the firm. At some firms, high-potential employees who take on special projects
have the initiatives named after them, or get
written up in company newsletters.
How deep is your bench? And does it have
the right people, building a strong set of leadership skills? AT
What can undergraduate business
schools do to become more inclusive?
Ernst & Young recently released a new
report called “Is your campus environment inclusive?” at the American Accounting Association’s annual meeting in
San Francisco, outlining four key action
areas schools can adopt to move forward
to more inclusiveness: institutional commitment and accountability; curriculum
development; student recruitment and
development; and faculty recruitment
You can download the full report at
During the same meeting, E&Y also
announced its 2010 Inclusive Excellence
Award Winners — five accounting and
business school faculty who were chosen
for their ability to create positive change:
Araya Debessay, accounting and MIS
professor, University of Delaware. Debes-
say has been a member of the faculty for
more than 30 years, and is a champion of
hiring qualified minority faculty.
George Gamble, professor of accountancy and taxation, University of
Houston. Gamble is the director of the
Institute for Diversity and Cross-Cultural
Management at UH’s C. T. Bauer College
William Wells, senior accounting
lecturer, University of Washington. Wells
receives credit for “single-handedly driv-
ing efforts to recruit minority students to
major and graduate.”
Stevie Watson, assistant professor of
supply chain management and marketing
sciences, Rutgers State University.
Ingrid Fisher, associate professor and
chair of accounting and law, State University of New York at Albany. She’s been
for the accounting
and law program.
Congrats to all
Who’s making a
difference in your
workplace? Let us
know at tomor-row@sourcemedia.
com and we’ll