In New Jersey, finding ways for staff to soar
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.
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.”
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