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3 Succession Planning Tips from Comedy’s Best

April 07, 2014

The AICPA hears a lot from CPA firms that are in need of a succession plan, and challenged by acquiring new talent or engaging the next generation of staff. In figuring out how to leave their firm in good hands, I think the profession can learn many lessons from today’s comedy leaders like Lorne Michaels of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and Harold Ramis, as Bill Sheridan pointed out in his Feb. 26 post on CPA Success. They’re working a smart succession planning model. They each gather together a group of gifted staff and give them the opportunity to develop their strengths, making for some very valuable broadcast properties.

Through SNL, Lorne Michaels has nurtured a long list of actors who went on to movie or television stardom after cutting their teeth on the show, including Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus,  Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert and John Oliver each have their own shows, and Steve Carrel has had both television and movie hits. A lot of talented people have left each program, but that’s alright because the shows’ successes—and the achievements of their alumni—attract new generations of promising young people who want to come on board.

If you could foster that kind of talent at your firm, wouldn’t you try? Here are some tips—inspired by these legendary shows—on how I think you could make it happen.
  1. Add more cowbell. Who knew a cowbell could be so funny? But in one famous SNL sketch, Christopher Walken’s repeated insistence on “more cowbell” during a Blue Oyster Cult recording session—and cast member Will Ferrell’s cowbell playing—are hilarious. How does all that relate to CPA firms? It demonstrates that you never know when one inspired idea can lead to runaway success. That’s why it’s important to encourage staff to stretch themselves and to keep an eye open for possible enhancements to your practice or business opportunities. Institute an open door policy so that everyone knows you’re open to their suggestions and opinions.
  2. Talk amongst yourselves. That’s what Mike Myers’ talk show host, Linda Richman, told her guests and audience when she was all choked up and needed a moment. Encouraging collaboration while you take a backseat can be a boon for your practice. Offer your staff the chance to tap into their inner entrepreneur by creating cross-functional teams, developing challenges for them to innovate or improve on firm systems or processes. Make your firm an incubator for testing niche service areas and your practice will gain a reputation for forward-thinking and informed risk-taking.
  3. Give ‘em a trial run. Did you catch John Oliver on The Daily Show as he stood in for Jon Stewart this summer? It was apparent how much Stewart believed in Oliver’s abilities when he handed over the reins for several, critically acclaimed weeks. Could an emerging partner run your firm one summer while you dial it back for a stretch? Giving employees the opportunity to improve competencies and gain confidence is a great idea. Instead of fretting over the possibility of losing good people, think first about how you can turn them into professionals who will make a memorable contribution to your firm.

Give your staff a chance to shine or consider the alternative. If you limit their opportunities, will they stay with you? Not likely. Encouraging employees to take on new responsibilities and move into client-facing roles is good business. It will also offer the opportunity to see which promising candidates for promotion have real leadership talent, strengthening your succession strategies.

Like SNL and The Daily Show, your firm could become known as a cool place to work. You will also have built an alumni network of entrepreneurs and executives who are likely to refer business your way in the future. And what about succession? Jon Stewart is the face of The Daily Show, but there’s also a cast of funny and ambitious performers who could probably accomplish a good transition to the anchor desk. As a staffing model, it seems pretty sound. SNL has won 35 Emmys and The Daily Show has won 18.

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