From vision to fruition Featured

8:00pm EDT April 30, 2010

When Charles Allen took the wheel of Crowe Horwath LLP in 2007, he didn’t need to change direction or make repairs. His company — still called Crowe Chizek and Co. LLC at the time — was a well-oiled machine, far from broken.

In fact, it was one of the largest regional accounting and consulting firms in the country. But that didn’t mean the new CEO couldn’t rev the engine.

“It wasn’t necessarily a business that needed to be fixed,” Allen says. “It was one that needed to be positioned to get to the next level.”

That much was obvious, at least to a man who had spent his entire career at the firm — plenty of time to recognize potential for additional growth. He had been watching the client base expand geographically across all 50 states and even internationally. He decided it was time to catch up.

“Many clients had operations that were located outside of our footprint,” Allen says. “What was happening was we were a regional firm but we were really doing business nationally from our regional locations. So we believed it was in the best interest of those clients and our people to expand nationally in order to manage the travel requirements and the stress on our people but to also better serve the clients in the localities that they were in.”

So he set out to reposition the regional Crowe Chizek as a national firm that would be known globally as Crowe Horwath after garnering the support of Horwath International, which became Crowe Horwath International.

The previous CEO focused on daily operations for the last nine months of his term while Allen took over big-picture items.

“I had a chance to sit and contemplate what needed to be done and then spent time with others, both inside and outside the firm, better understanding the profession, the market and where we needed to go before I started to put together the vision and the priorities,” Allen says.

During the gradual takeover, he heard clients talking about their need for national support and employees about the national travels they took to accommodate. That led him to the vision of catapulting the firm from regional to national status.

But to vet that vision and drive the change through the company, he’d need to engage all of the other stakeholders.

“What we’re trying to do is to move an organization of 2,500 people — and an international network that’s even much broader than that — in one direction,” Allen says. “It’s taking investments and taking risks to support this effort … to really invest in our future.”

Invite various perspectives

Allen’s first action was calling together a task force to vet his vision and determine how it would play out across the company. To do that, he pulled from research he’d already done.

When you start listening to your company — whether it’s to familiarize yourself as an incoming leader or just to keep a continual watch — you’re not only learning how units operate and where they’re headed, but you also identify who’s leading the pack.

“The first thing I did was to better understand the business units outside of those that I [had been] running. I did spend a significant amount of time with executives in their individual businesses to understand their strategy models and their individual plans within those business units,” Allen says. “I also wanted to understand their individual commitments to the firm, how long they intended to be engaged in the role they were in, the energy levels they had, their desire to play on my team.”

Those conversations pointed him in the direction employees saw for the firm and revealed who would take it there.

Specifically, look for energetic people with a commanding knowledge of their business unit. Those are the thought leaders who will bring the best input to the collaboration.

“It’s a process of gathering individual data points, marketplace perceptions, understanding the skill sets of the people,” Allen says.

Make sure you’re looking in all corners of the business — and beyond. Allen’s task force included people from various business units, the chief people officer, chief operating officer, previous CEO and a retired partner from a Big Four auditing firm.

“It was a diverse group, and that was part of the intention,” Allen says. “It was made up of those in a leadership position in the firm, past leadership, leadership from an outside firm to give us an outside perspective with a business knowledge.”

As tempting as it might be, you should pass up the seat at the head of the table. Don’t just hand it to one of your executives, either, because with an executive-level title comes a certain amount of influence. If you want your team to be a conglomeration of best ideas from various perspectives rather than a top-down initiative, you need to give control to someone further down the totem pole.

“I asked one of our young partners to lead the strategic task force, not one of the senior management, because he wouldn’t overinfluence others during the process,” Allen says. “He would be the one that was gaining and building consensus, not leading the thinking going into it.

“I could have led that strategic task force and I could have driven it the way that I wanted to drive it, but that would have not necessarily had the buy-in from others on that committee. And quite frankly, I’m not sure we would have gotten all the thoughts out that we needed to get out to get where we needed to go.”

To help facilitate open idea-sharing, communicate your expectations at the start.

“We set the stage upfront that everyone needed to check their hat at the door, that people needed to leave their personal priorities outside of the discussion,” he says. “We were working to develop a strategy for the firm, not for individual units or individual people. The only way you could get to the right decision was to make sure that people were open and felt freely about communicating and disagreeing.”

Keeping the focus on the common goal means keeping it fresh in everyone’s minds Your vision should be part of each discussion.

“Keep it in front of them at the beginning of every meeting,” says Allen, whose team met monthly. “Every session, go back to the vision. Restate the vision and work off of the key elements of the vision.”

But the vision should be more than a mantra you repeat; it should be the foundation of your agenda.

“We took the key elements of the vision and broke them down and then assigned folks from the task force to develop the strategic plan for those elements,” Allen says.

Then, as people bring strategies back to the table, continue to weigh them against the vision.

“There was a point where we could have gotten off track,” Allen says. “There was an issue that came up that was more tactical than it was strategic. Pretty quickly, we had a discussion as to whether or not if we went down that path it would take us off of the main objective.”

Roll it out

Allen’s task force got on board with his vision to flesh out the strategies that would achieve it. That was the confidence he needed to start rolling it out across the rest of the company. But bringing everyone on board took more effort than he expected.

“I underestimated the amount of time it was going to take to communicate and the effort and preparation that goes into communicating,” he says.

>It took a tiered approach, starting with the firm’s executive committee — which is essentially their board — then the partners, then the board and CEOs of the Horwath International network. He secured buy-in from each group before moving on to the next, and he secured buy-in from all of them before ultimately cascading the vision down to his employees.

At each stop, pull out the elements of the vision that are most relevant to each group.

With the international network, Allen’s focus was on rebranding to Crowe Horwath and Crowe Horwath International to build global recognition. Inside the organization, it was emphasizing how the new vision would create development and leadership opportunities.

But you may not always know what issues top each audience’s concerns, so it’s especially important to make your message two-way by inviting input.

Allen gave response opportunities to the partners and the international network immediately during his presentations. Laptops were set up on tables so people could send in comments as he talked. A group of leaders at one table sorted through the comments and kept the most popular topics flowing to Allen so he could address them right away.

“It was like having 300 people all yelling at you at the same time,” Allen says.

That feedback will help you flesh out your message as you go along by adding their questions to your future presentations.

“It wasn’t only getting the feedback but it was responding to people’s questions, helping them understand and starting to build consensus,” Allen says. “We could start to see where the concerns were [and] address the concerns so that they better understand why we were heading in the direction we were headed.”

But by welcoming input — especially when it’s anonymous — you invite reinforcement as well as criticism. Don’t go in expecting everyone to jump on board right away.

“You will never get 100 percent consensus,” Allen says. “If we get the majority of the people on board with where we’re headed, that’s what we were trying to accomplish. You gain the majority and then what happens is, as you move forward, those outliers come on board.

“My response has always been, ‘I understand your perspective and I appreciate your perspective, but this is where we’re headed.’ Understanding their perspective and respecting that may not change the direction we’re on but may help that individual continue to be successful. You can’t fit everybody’s specific need and concern.”

That broad consensus-building process is preparation for the message you give the people who will carry out the vision — your employees. Only after Allen perfected his vision through the input and support of those other groups did he take it back to his employees.

He worked with his communication team to put the finished version of the vision into a brochure that explained verbally and visually where he was taking the firm. Thanks to feedback from the executive committee and international network, he was able to get a clearer picture of the vision and condense it into a succinct statement that would stick with employees.

Then he traveled to each office with his chief operating officer so he could present that vision and respond to concerns personally.

“It was a process of consensus-building starting at the very top of the organization, taking it all the way down to those in the individual offices,” he says.

Allen rallied his troops to achieve a revenue milestone of $507 million in 2008. Under his leadership, Crowe has opened offices in Los Angeles, New York, Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia, bringing the total number to 25 U.S. locations. The firm continues to be named a best place to work, making seven lists while Allen has been in charge. According to an annual independent survey, he also led Crowe to a firm-high client satisfaction rating 26 percent higher than its major competitors.

Now, keeping employees in the loop is just as important as it was when he first introduced the vision.

“People need to know what you’re doing and when you’re going to do it and why you’re doing it,” says Allen, who keeps employees updated on the vision with monthly scorecards, periodic webcasts, annual visits to each office, the company intranet and a weekly newswire. “We are tracking our progress and trying to be transparent in regards to that. It also gets everyone involved in achieving the overall result.

“People ask me what’s the biggest challenge I’ve had in the taking over of the firm. I learned very quickly that communication to build consensus was critical to achieving the vision, the strategy and the initiatives that we put forth. Don’t underestimate the skills and time and effort it takes to accomplish that. Communicate, because that’s key to achieving what you want to try to achieve.”

How to reach: Crowe Horwath LLP, (866) 662-7693 or