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Transition Lessons: A Conversation with Clive Grimbleby

By Clive Grimbleby, CPA, MBA

January 17, 2022

In the blink of an eye, we’re switching out our calendars and planning for a whole new year! This past year, our firm went through a leadership transition, a merger, and we welcomed 28 new team members to the firm. Indeed, the pace of 2021 will no doubt be matched with everything we have planned for the year ahead of us.

Last year around this time, we announced that Clive Grimbleby, our former Managing Partner and CEO, would officially transition into an in-house advisory role at the firm, handing over the leadership role to his son, Ian. However, Clive’s role at the firm continues.

He was good enough to share his candid thoughts and lessons about the journey so far in a conversation about succession planning. We discuss what clients can learn from his experiences and what he’s planning on doing in 2022 (spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve nearly as much free time as you might think).

Q. It has been about a year since you announced that you would transition from your Managing Partner role. Your son, Ian, has stepped up as Managing Partner. What has the process been like?

A. Since the early stages of the transition, we have been living what we preach to our clients.

For more than 15 years, GC’s Chief Operating Officer and one of our Principals, Jane Johnson, and I have met every week to collaborate on routine items at the firm. We realized several years ago that it was time to start big-picture planning, and in the spirit of transparency, we began discussing the Managing Partner/CEO role transition with our entire Partner group. Ian emerged as the front runner for my successor, and with a unanimous vote from the entire leadership team, Ian was voted “most likely to succeed” (pun intended).

In early 2020, Ian joined our weekly meetings, and in January 2021, Ian officially moved into the CEO role. I reduced my role, but the three of us continued to meet through the end of 2021, at which time I transitioned out of firm management. Jane and Ian will continue meeting (although I am still making suggestions and working on special projects that I think will benefit the firm!).

All of the decisions we have applied to make Grimbleby Coleman successful will also work for other businesses. Business successions are not unique across industries; the general premise remains the same regarding top-level leadership changes.

Q. What do businesses need to manage a successful transition?

A. The first step needed for a business to successfully manage a transition is to acknowledge that a change will happen at some point. We must then begin to plan for the ongoing business transitions. In an ideal world, transitions are not events, per se, but rather are a continuing and routine process. In all cases, metaphorically speaking, an organization needs a willing pitcher and capable catcher. At the same time, the pitcher must be willing to take signs and directions from the catcher. They must work together for there to be a win for the team.

It can be difficult to release control, but it must be honest and transparent both inside and outside the organization. Transitions can be summed up in three steps: Acknowledgement of the issue, plan for the transitions, then execution. The most difficult of these steps is execution.

If you face internal or external transitions in the next few years, I would be happy to share our internal and external experiences.

Q. What are some of the subtleties that need consideration? 

A. Communication and trust are the two things that come to mind. I’m not a fan of generational terms like Millennials or Baby Boomers, and so on, but when it comes to communication styles, there are notable differences that matter when building trust and communication. It’s the little things, like a younger colleague not being adept in recognizing that an older colleague may be more comfortable meeting in person than texting or emailing. In this digital age full of communication options, there is a need to implement a leadership virtue — the ability to adapt — to ensure understanding. As is true in most cases, it is important to assume that all parties are operating with the “best of intentions.”

There is also the emotional aspect of relinquishing control. In my research about transitions, I learned something significant. You have to understand what you are giving up or losing (control, purpose, or other benefits) and know your destination. I have every confidence in our ability to succeed with our transitions because of our progress to date, our deliberate communication, and the high level of trust I have in Ian and our entire leadership team (no surprise there).

Q. What types of projects were you focused on during the transition period? 

A. Along with the leadership transition, I continue to work closely with a number of our clients. The challenges of the last couple of years have allowed us to focus on more financial intimacy with our clients. In some cases, I’m a sounding board. At other times, I can offer understanding and solid advice based on my own experiences.

For some of my clients, generational factors have also been a consideration. The generation one (G1) business owner may feel more comfortable with me, but the next generation (G2) is more comfortable dealing with someone they can relate to more easily, like our other younger partners. With our multi-generational team approach, we’re able to say we have a plan, too, and we’re not just talking about it. We’re living it.

Q. What does 2022 look like for you, and what will clients see? 

A. My time over the next couple of years will include a client component, an internal mentoring and development component, and of course, community involvement. I will continue to offer advisory and consultative services to a select group of clients (along with our existing team) that I have worked with over the years. Eventually, a designated colleague who has been involved and familiarized with all facets of the client’s business will take the wheel with those clients.

I will be working closely with our leadership team to mentor and encourage our next generation of leaders. I am looking forward to sharing and learning in this role.

We are staying true to our core values and continuing to be heavily involved in the community. At the moment, I’m on the board of Stanislaus Equity Partners, stanep.org, a community development corporation. STEP is about “Connecting neighbors, resources and opportunities. I encourage you to take a look at their website for more information. I am excited to be involved with such a dynamic organization.

Adding to community involvement is my board position at Opportunity Stanislausopportunitystanislaus.com, which promotes community and job development. Both organizations are about improving our local community.

Q. Have you identified growth areas for 2022? 

A. We are a CPA firm that provides tax, accounting, and advisory services to businesses and individuals. We operate as strategic partners and advisors to our clients. Ideally, we want clients to look at us as an integral part of their team. To facilitate this goal, we are moving away from by-the-hour pricing. Instead, we collaborate on up-front pricing with our clients based on their needs, complexities, and upcoming projects.

We expect to see continued growth in our client accounting services or “CAS” department. The shortage of qualified accounting labor and the improvement of remote accounting services have allowed us to help many clients with their day-to-day operations and provide higher levels of advisory services.

Because partnerships require trust and communication, we’re always looking for more ways to build connections. We hope that clients will think of us first when faced with significant life and financial decisions. Our greatest referrals come from our successful client relationships and deepening those connections.

Q. Any big shifts or trends in the industry to anticipate in 2022? 

A. shortage of qualified labor and talent is the topic in the spotlight. In addition, business owners are wrestling with general regulation compliance and labor challenges — not just in California. They need someone to help them navigate the issues they are wrestling with every day.

Grimbleby Coleman has managed to stay ahead of the talent by leveraging our remote working capabilities using multiple recruitment channels, including recruiting agencies, ads, and internal incentives. We were also fortunate to merge with a firm of like-minded and qualified professionals committed to caring for our clients.

From an accounting industry standpoint, we have an opportunity to simplify the complexity of financial issues. You don’t necessarily need to make the sausage, but it is important to understand how it impacts what you’re doing and the decisions you have to make.

Grimbleby Coleman has the experience to get the planning journey started. With hands-on experience and skilled advisors, we can and resources to help translate the laws, calculations, and jargon into an actionable plan. You can #countonus to continue training for that because there will be no shortage of changes coming in the year ahead.

Thank you for taking the time to read. We welcome your thoughts and comments at contactus@gccpas.net or by calling (209) 527-4220.