Stretch time Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

Five years ago, Ken Baggett stood before Reznick Group PC’s partners and unveiled a goal to become the 10th-largest accounting firm with 10 offices over the next 10 years — a huge stretch for a company that was, at the time, a $70 million regional player.

“I’ll never forget, one of my partners said, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’” Baggett says. “I knew buy-in was not there yet.”

Over the next year, this CEO and managing principal worked to get that buy-in. And when Baggett presented the following year, the firm had progressed so much that he recast his 10-year projections. This time, that doubting partner asked if Baggett was being a bit conservative. Today, the firm has reached that initial goal of 10 offices, and in 2007, it posted revenue of $230 million.

“It takes a little time when you have a stretch goal to get people to believe you, and you have to continue to preach it until they do,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Baggett about how to get buy-in for massive goals.

Use your leaders. I don’t always formulate the plan myself. Sometimes it comes from others who say, ‘What do you think about this?’ and we’ll sit down and bat it around.

First, you have to get a small group. You will not get buy-in to something by doing it large scale. Get that smaller group, and let them go out. Be strategic in who you pick.

You have to pick people who will be recognized as leaders already. They’re already go-to people. You say, ‘Gosh, they’re the busiest people,’ but they will still rise to the occasion.

Share history and trends. This was a mistake that I made. I had done the analysis of the history, but I didn’t share that with the partners because you assume everyone knows your history.

When that guy stands up and says, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’ I said, ‘There’s something missing here.’ I re-presented the strategic plan and said, ‘Guys, if we grow at the same 15 percent pace that we have the last 12 years, we will exceed this goal.’ Then people went, ‘Oh, OK. You’re not out to lunch.’

Study your history. There’s a reason we all study history, and it isn’t to tell nice stories — it’s so we can either predict that future or try to not replicate the mistakes.

Now, if history isn’t in your favor, think another methodology. Maybe it’s the rest of the industry. The industry has grown, let’s assume, from an average of 10 percent over the last 10 years. We’ve grown at 6 — we can certainly be better than average.

If everyone’s averaged 10, don’t play to be average. Therefore, you look around the room and you say, ‘Everyone else has been able to do this. What has hindered us from that?’

Use the industry, No. 1, and then benchmark against other peer group people. Don’t benchmark the guy who’s doing 7 — benchmark against the guy who’s doing 15.

Recognize where people stand. In any organization, there’s going to be 20 percent that’s going to jump on the bandwagon and be a cheerleader with you. There’s going to be 60 percent going, ‘Let me wait and see what he does or what happens.’

Then there’s 20 percent that are naysayers. Neutralize the naysayers. Absolutely spend time with your cheerleaders — make sure they truly understand what it’s going to take. Let them, along with you, infiltrate that other 60 percent that’s waiting and seeing. It’s like any execution — you have to break it down into smaller parts.

Neutralize naysayers. It’s one-on-one. I had to sit down with them and say, ‘Why do you believe that?’ ‘Well, it’s talent.’ ‘Well, part of our plan is to bring in high-level talent in these areas of growth.’ You had to go down a one on one. That was one part of it.

One part was I had to go to a couple people and say, ‘I understand that you’re not buying it, and I appreciate that you’re not buying in to it and that you have a kind of negative personality. All I ask you to do is to not speak in an open meeting negatively against it. If I am proven wrong, I promise you I will give you the floor to talk about how badly I predicted what we could do.’

I have a wonderful group of partners, and those who were uncertain stayed quiet.

I knew I needed their involvement in certain things. I’d say, ‘I understand that you don’t really buy in to it, but this is an area you’re in, and I really need you to do this,’ so I gave them a major task.

If you’re the guard on the football team, and every day you have to go out for blocking assignments, you may not like it, but at the end of the day, if you block well, something good might happen.

Capitalize on cheerleaders. You have to cultivate that 20 percent and say, ‘Here’s what we’re looking for. Let’s think that through,’ and they became part of the solution. They were part of the process. Spend time with them and understand what their desires are.

If you’ve got six parts you’re trying to accomplish, it’s very seldom that one person is going to be involved in all six parts. You have to look at their strengths.

Once you get someone in the right direction, stay out of their way. Let them lead. Just because you’re CEO or managing partner or whatever the title might be, part of that is knowing when to get in there and get involved and knowing when to leave it alone and let smart people run with it. It’s trial and error.

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