Talent management solution adds up for leading CPA firm

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Peterson Sullivan is a leading local public accounting and business advisory firm based in Seattle, Washington. The firm is ranked among the top 10 largest CPA firms in the Puget Sound region, with more than 150 professionals and support staff. Peterson Sullivan serves clients in many industries, including dealerships, nonprofit, real estate, construction, hospitality, financial services, technology, life sciences and professional services—providing assurance, tax, business valuations and litigation support services.

Over the years the firm has gained a reputation for its long-standing client relationships which, in many instances, span decades

Informal reporting complicates talent management

To maintain its legacy as a firm with unprecedented client acumen, keeping its professional team informed and motivated is paramount.

For Andrea Ballard, who joined the company in 2007 as Director of HR and Administration, it was clear the laborious paper process in place for annual performance evaluations was not measuring up.

Then, as now, roughly 35 percent of Peterson Sullivan's accounting staff were under the age of 25. Most were new graduates. They'd come from a place where they received constant feedback to an environment where they could potentially work an entire year without written input. According to Ballard, "new hires were telling us high-quality feedback was a priority." They also wanted to know about the firm's evaluation process and how that system segued into salary increases and promotion possibilities.

To complicate matters these entry level associates did not report to one specific manager. Typical within the accounting field, they worked under the guidance of several different project leaders who changed from one assignment to the next, week to week, month to month. Granted, project managers conducted engagement reviews at the conclusion of each project, but on a sporadic and inconsistent basis. And when it came time for formal annual reviews, that arduous task fell to one.

"The feedback was infrequent. It was difficult to ensure that the insights being provided were quality, and when it came time to pull everything together this feedback often became diluted," recounts Ballard. "I'd have to compile as many as 18 different written reviews per individual into one single paper document. It was incredibly labor intensive. After that first year, I vowed I'd never do it again."

Peterson Sullivan's partners listened to their staff and agreed it was time to go paperless and give the staff the feedback they were craving. They asked Ballard to investigate various systems available on the market for managing and rating employee performance and propose a new solution.

Multi-rater feedback streamlines processes

"It was easy to get partner support. They knew we needed to provide more feedback, particularly to our new hires who are going to become our future managers and partners," says Ballard. "Our goal was to find a system that would give employees what they desired while providing the firm with insights that could be used to support individual career development."

During the selection process a team was pulled together to establish criteria. The single most important consideration was that the solution had to facilitate input from multiple people.

"We looked at Halogen, SuccessFactors and Taleo among others," says Ballard. "I solicited information from my colleagues at other firms who were using these systems or had recently been through the process themselves. In the end I felt the Halogen Performance™ solution for professional services had the best capacity for multi-rater feedback at very competitive pricing."

Supporting evolving needs

To ramp up as quickly as possible, it was decided to reproduce the firm's existing paper template and to modify the form as users became familiar with the system.

"The implementation process with Halogen was one of the best — and I've been through a lot," says Ballard. "They took the time to understand our culture and what we were trying to accomplish, and explained how to use the software to achieve our goals."

Halogen was brought on board in November. Come January Halogen Performance was in use. By the time the firm's annual review process rolled around in July everyone had had some time in the system and was comfortable with it. "I made changes throughout this period and continue to make changes as our needs evolve and Halogen introduces new features," Ballard notes.

The online pay off

Reception to Halogen Performance's immediate real-time feedback has been nothing short of positive, says Ballard pointing to Halogen's engagement-based review feature as tremendously beneficial. "What I've heard most from our managers is that they appreciate being able to enter information into the system and give staff feedback as jobs wrap up, rather than having to rely on their memories at annual review time."

Like most companies, success at Peterson Sullivan is driven in part by how well an individual takes what they learn on one job and applies it to another. "Since managers don't necessarily discuss individual employee performance with each other, the engagement review feature allows me to identify issues early," Ballard says. "If an employee receives feedback indicating they need to improve in specific areas and we see these issues recurring in future engagements — that triggers a follow up with the employee to make sure they're getting the support they need. Conversely, I can also identify someone who is consistently praised and bookmark them as a high-potential employee."

Since adopting the Halogen Performance Professional Services solution, expectations have been met and in many instances exceeded, including:

  • A smooth and streamlined transition from an informal paper approach to automated and formalized templates and procedures resulting in a 44 percent increase in productivity during annual evaluation time; translating into a first-year cost savings of $18 750
  • Improved consistency
  • Elimination of onerous manual compilation
  • Increased and more meaningful data capture
  • More time for analysis leading to better planning and decision-making
  • Easy-to-use custom form design capabilities:
    • Launch of a new 90-day appraisal form for new hires
    • Introduction of new performance review templates tailored for different job levels and responsibilities
    • Development of new template for upward feedback
  • A 15.3 percent turnover rate in the first year of implementation compared against the industry average of 21.95 percent

"We'd like to see our turnover rate drop to 10 percent or less," says Ballard, reiterating how the firm's strength lies in the long-standing dedication of its employees and how Halogen Performance will be used to help achieve this goal.

"I've recommended Halogen Performance to my peers in other accounting firms and know many have purchased Halogen solutions as a result, and are equally pleased."