In New Jer­sey, find­ing ways for staff to soar

Accounting Today - - Spotlight -

Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan is ded­i­cated to em­ployee sat­is­fac­tion long be­fore staff even walk into the New Jer­sey-based CPA firm’s doors. “As we hire peo­ple, we hire tal­ented peo­ple, with­out pre­de­ter­min­ing the slot they go in,” ex­plained man­ag­ing share­holder Ed­ward Gut­ten­plan. “As we hire tal­ent, we’re go­ing to help you be the best per­son you can be. We want to play to your strengths — you’ll be happy, and we’ll all be suc­cess­ful. To­day, the kids we hire, [we say] don’t tell us now if you want tax or au­dit, we’ll fig­ure it out. It’s dif­fer­ent from the model of, ‘We have an open­ing, we seek to fill the open­ing, and that’s it.’ We have an open­ing, and we’ll take on tal­ent, and help them find a way to soar. It takes a lit­tle lo­gis­ti­cal ma­neu­ver­ing, but that’s why em­ploy­ees like it here — they do what they love.”

Many em­ploy­ees know ex­actly where they want to fo­cus, likely helped by their ex­pe­ri­ence as in­terns — as roughly 90 per­cent of new hires start with the firm as col­lege in­terns. “Our over­all re­cruit­ment and in­take strat­egy is, if you’re tal­ented, we’ll find a way to make it work,” Gut­ten­plan said. “We say that ev­ery step of the way.”

This has been a guid­ing phi­los­o­phy since Gut­ten­plan es­tab­lished the firm 35 years ago with Ed Wilkin, who Gut­ten­plan had met at a previous firm and shared a vi­sion with for a greater prac­tice. “Work­ing to­gether, we felt there was a bet­ter way to treat peo­ple than what we were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing,” Gut­ten­plan re­called. “Prob­a­bly two things set us apart — we were gen­er­ally com­mit­ted to staff, and be­lieved that hav­ing the best staff was the answer to build­ing a prac­tice, and then great client ser­vice was go­ing to fol­low with that kind of foun­da­tion.”

Since lay­ing that ground­work, Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan has grown to 120 peo­ple in three of­fices — East Brunswick and Mart­inville, N.J., and Man­hat­tan, N.Y. The firm has also grown to be the No. 1 Mid­sized Firm to Work For — it was also No. 1 in 2010, and has reg­u­larly ap­peared on Ac­count­ing To­day’s Best Firms list for the past decade.

Avid lis­ten­ers

Along with more flex­i­ble ca­reer paths, Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan was com­mit­ted to cus­tom­ized work sched­ules from the firm’s in­cep­tion. “Thirty-five years ago, we read­ily had on staff work­ing moms with part-time sched­ules,” Gut­ten­plan said. “If you’re tal­ented, we’re go­ing to take ad­van­tage of the hours you have to make it win-win.” Pro­gres­sive for that time, Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan aims to re­main in­no­va­tive amid the lat­est in­dus­try trends.

“We’re avid lis­ten­ers to our staff,” Gut­ten­plan ex­plained, “and over­all com­mit­ted to the con­ti­nu­ity of the firm. Ev­ery­one in the or­ga­ni­za­tion wants to see the firm sur­vive in the fu­ture, be­yond the re­tire­ments of se­nior lead­ers. We lis­ten to young peo­ple. One thing is, we have a fu­ture coun­cil [com­prised of] my­self and one other part­ner, and we meet with staff, younger staff. We say, ‘This is go­ing to be your firm in 10 years; where do you see it go­ing, what do you see do­ing? What does a role-model part­ner look like to you? Let’s hear your vi­sion for the fu­ture, and we’ll give you the wis­dom of what’s pos­si­ble.’”

Their an­swers, in part, led to the for­ma­tion of the firm’s eight-per­son in­no­va­tion com­mit­tee. “One as­sign­ment for [the com­mit­tee] was, look at all these things, in­clud­ing blockchain, ro­bot­ics, go to con­fer­ences if you need to, and see where it in­ter­sects with the prac­tice,” Gut­ten­plan shared. “We have one per­son chas­ing down cryp­tocur- rency, an­other ro­botic process au­to­ma­tion, and us­ing ro­bot­ics in the au­dit process. Real things are hap­pen­ing, and they are given the free­dom to shape what hap­pens.”

The firm is cur­rently eval­u­at­ing the in­te­gra­tion of this tech­nol­ogy into its au­dit pro­cesses and has mo­bi­lized the as­sis­tance of its “sub­stan­tial IT depart­ment.”

Guided de­vel­op­ment

Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan em­ploy­ees en­joy un­lim­ited paid time off, closed of­fices on sum­mer Fri­days, and Satur­days in the of­fice dur­ing tax sea­son be­ing op­tional.

“It’s en­abled us to do a bet­ter job in de­liv­ery, and with a lot less stress,” Gut­ten­plan ex­plained. “Five years ago you had to come in on Satur­days. This changes the par­a­digm. It was a pi­lot pro­gram three years ago. There’s a high level of trust here, peo­ple trust us, part­ners trust staff, staff is treated right with com­pen­sa­tion, and all that is open, we’re can­did with all those things.” At the same time, some em­ploy­ees need guid­ance in tak­ing ad­van­tage of these free­doms, Gut­ten­plan ac­knowl­edged: “Some may need coach­ing to be more ef­fec­tive at it.”

Wilkin & Gut­ten­plan re­cently over­hauled its year-end em­ployee per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion process in fa­vor of more on­go­ing, con­ver­sa­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion and 360-de­gree up­ward eval­u­a­tions.

“We have pretty much on-de­mand, con­tin­u­ous feed­back,” Gut­ten­plan ex­plained, adding that this new method has re­quired fi­ness­ing. “It’s taken a while, but it’s work­ing. It’s about a phi­los­o­phy that we need to be can­did with each other about per­for­mance, not puni­tive — it’s how we get bet­ter ... All of those things cre­ate a cul­ture of trust, can­dor, trans­parency.” — Danielle Lee

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