As we’ve consulted with many firms on growth, studied many books on the subject of healthy growth, and written tons of content on firm growth, we’ve come to see some some phases growing firms go through. As firms progress through the various phases of growth, they often run into ‘growth ceilings.’ These are walls or barriers they run into that confuse or stall their growth. Many things can create these ‘ceilings.’ But team growth, team heath, and team sizes are often at the root of the growth ceilings.
Let’s look at 3 separate phases of growth and appropriate team models you can build depending on the size of your firm’s team. Exploring your team, its size, and how to leverage that team for growth can unlock a lot of potential for your firm’s growth.
No Growth, or Lifestyle Firms
Team size: 1 (the owner)
Let’s explore what a No Growth firm may actually look like. The No Growth firm model could be for the fairly new professional that has just launched their firm after leaving another firm. They may have the experience they need now, and can offer a basic package of accounting and tax services to the general population. Though not required, the new professional is perhaps single and doesn’t have the ties of a family or partner. They have a wide choice of options for exciting lifestyles and can live on a minimal income. No Growth firms are perfect for operating virtually in the cloud. Choosing technology that can integrate the production of services with other pieces of technology can allow this type of firm to run with high efficiency.
Building a team of employees isn’t typically for the No Growth firm. Teams bring complexity (because they are humans). So a great Team Model structure is to hire contractors that can perform the work, and possibly an Executive Assistant that can help the owner keep all of the balls in the air. Contractors bring another value in that their pay can be based upon service delivery. They are a variable cost, and this will help to keep costs down for the minimalist lifestyle firm owner. The firm owner will want to train the contractors to pick up and deliver the services with as little input from the owner as possible (though this isn’t fully possible). The team should be able to communicate clearly with digital communication tools such as email and online chat systems. For a group of contractors to truly support this type of firm, these contractors need some level of experience to operate autonomously.
Team size: 2 to 8
Now let’s explore what a Want Growth firm may actually look like. These firms are typically one owner firms. The firm owner has a considerable amount of experience and skill, and is beginning to explore hiring team members to help them in the day-to-day delivery of technical work. Perhaps the firm owner has had some successes in team-building, but has been frustrated in the setbacks that often come with hiring and training. The firm owner has probably already made a solid commitment to a brick-and-mortar firm, or a virtual model. In the Want Growth model, the firm owner is now fully committed to their firm, and pulls all of their income from the firm. Some firm owners at this stage may have experimented with partnership, but have gone back to one-owner status for lack of experience in that area of growth. This firm owner’s services, prices, and respect in the community are well-established, laying the groundwork for growth.
At this stage, a firm owner may have built out a team that is assisting with technical and administrative services, while the owner may still be reviewing most work that goes out to the clients. Other firm owners at this stage may have moved out of one or all technical services and are no longer involved in the review portion of the work. Team sizes at this stage could broadly range from 2 to 8, and it is common for owners of small firms to leave the team to themselves to do their work. The challenge and care necessary to make a team stronger often takes a toll at this stage and the owner defaults to coasting. That may be fine to stay the same, but not for the firm owner that wants growth. This is a turning point for the owner that says they want growth. They must now give up some technical work and replace that time with team care, team meetings, building culture, and team training. If the ceiling is to be broken on growth, the firm owner must turn inward to their team and begin leading them to a higher place.
Team size: 10 to 15
Let’s explore what a Big Growth firm may actually look like. Big Growth could be a team size of 10 to 15. This may not sound big, but it is large for most accounting firms. In a Big Growth firm scenario, you’ll find the one to three partners spending most of their time with the team. They may be hiring the team, firing the team, or helping the team grow through effective training and leadership. The partners may not even be doing technical work, but they certainly have the capacity to offer advisory services (mostly completed by the partners). At this stage of growth, the partner is taking steps to limit the offering of even advisory services as it takes away from their strategy of taking the firm to future growth. Typically, the owners of Big Growth firms are still involved in the business development, sales, and networking of their firm (these roles are some of the last to give up). Even participating in the sales role may be overwhelming as the owners meet the needs of a growing team, and focus on planning and strategy and advisory. There may be other leaders at this stage that are assisting the owners in moving work through the firm, and servicing the clients with high care. The owners in a Big Growth firm are not providing the day-to-day care of the client, though they are still involved in periodic meetings with high value clients. The pricing in a Big Growth firm has been well-established, and the margins are usually higher than in smaller firms (because the owners are being paid a salary without having to service revenue). Pricing services higher than other firms takes a considerable amount of bravery, and it is required if you want to Grow Big.
The owners have taken considerable risk in a Big Growth firm to allow their team to provide all (or most) services directly to the clients. The owners have tasked their team to take leadership roles in servicing clients, meeting with clients, and internally project-managing the flow of work on a timely basis. Many firms have to go through some maturity to hire (and fire) the right people to get here. During the Want Growth phase above, the firm owner is learning what it means to build a team. At the Big Growth level, the owners are more focused on maturing those team members that have proven they are right for the culture. There are possibly even team members that are more technically skilled than the owner. This is okay in a Big Growth firm. The owner has to stop doing taxes to grow, so why not hire someone smarter than you? Owners of Big Growth firms are focused on helping their team also become leaders. Leadership Training becomes a focus in the Big Growth firm (a skill few accountants were taught in university). The owner may even be leading more closely a leadership team of just a few people that are in turn leading a larger group of 15. This is the exponential power of leadership, and is an awesome opportunity awarded to the leaders of a Big Growth firm.
What is Your Path?
Can you identify your firm’s growth phase in any of the above phases of team growth? Knowing your team, what they can do, and their limitations can allow you to unlock major potential in your growth. You also have to decide what your path of growth will look like. You can’t just let growth happen to you. You have to decide what path you want to follow and then begin walking down that road toward healthy team growth.
Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children.