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CTDO Magazine

Developing a Pipeline of Top Talent

Friday, January 14, 2022

With a mandate to differentiate itself from competitors, Grant Thornton LLP primed future leaders to take charge.

Solution: A leadership development program to groom senior managers and directors for promotion

Business impact highlight: Program graduates who earned promotions generate $50,000 more in business each year and assist in $303,000 more growth pursuits.

What's a firm to do to support and reinforce a culture shift and build a pipeline of future leaders? That's a question senior leaders at Grant Thornton LLP, the US firm of the global professional services firm Grant Thornton International, needed to address.


It began in 2015 when the then CEO set clear business goals for a firmwide culture shift, including increasing client quality and satisfaction; enhancing brand reputation; and improving employee recruitment, engagement, and retention.

Recognizing that strong leadership is needed to build culture, the CEO and the chief people and culture officer at the time led the charge to ignite leaders to move the firm forward. They brought the head of leadership development into the conversation to develop an industry-leading program to build future leaders who will differentiate Grant Thornton from its competitors, drive revenue and growth, and engage its top talent.

Differentiating factors

As a limited liability partnership, it's essential that the firm's approximately 650 partners/principals—and owners—are aligned around its vision, values, and culture. Based on conversations among senior leaders, it was evident the new leadership development program needed to drive consistent messaging on what is needed to be a successful new partner/principal to increase future candidates' readiness to lead.

The head of the leadership development team partnered with a third-party company to gather information and identify what success looked like as a new partner/principal. The process entailed:

  • A full review of Grant Thornton's values, behaviors, and outcomes documentation; new partner/principal expectations; and career continuum
  • Job analysis questionnaires from 26 partners/principals
  • Phone interviews with 30 individuals in the partner/principal role

Based on the findings, the firm developed the Senior Manager Academy (SMA), a three-year career development program designed to prepare and assess senior managers and directors actively pursuing the path to partner/principal. The program builds next-generation leadership skills to help the firm achieve its mission (to make business more personal and build trust into every result) and vision (to be the most admired professional services firm).

SMA strives to achieve these business objectives:

  • Define the partner/principal of the future to drive development and selection of the next generation of leaders.
  • Raise the caliber of future partners/principals by creating a developmental journey to produce role-ready candidates prior to promotion.
  • Retain high-caliber, high-performing senior managers and directors to increase the likelihood that top talent successfully make the journey to partner/principal.
  • Engage a dedicated faculty comprising partners/principals to provide the voice of the business and administer a leaders-teaching-leaders curriculum.
  • Reinforce Grant Thornton's culture journey with a feedback-rich curriculum from dedicated faculty with an emphasis on talent visibility.

The program focuses on leadership areas that differentiate successful partners/principals: embracing an innovative mindset as an owner and steward of the firm, learning to connect emotionally and socially with others and execute with integrity, and collaborating with networks to successfully drive growth.

Each year the curriculum centers around one of those three leadership areas and is accompanied by a variety of intentional developmental experiences, exposure to leaders, and assessments to gain insight into participants' leadership styles. Throughout SMA, each participant is challenged to translate their experiences into a distinctive business case for promotion to partner/principal. They draft that personalized business case in the first year and perfect it over the three years.

Key components

At SMA's core is a partner/principal success profile, which emerged from the interviews and job analysis conducted prior to program formation. The success profile outlines a set of expectations of a newly promoted partner/principal, success attributes that enable individuals to meet those expectations, and experiences that prepare candidates to be successful in all five areas of the firm's business (growth, operations, client service, people, and brand). It creates a road map for participants as they work on their personal business case and identify any personal gaps that they need to fill.

The other key program element is a set of faculty—deans, advisors, and business sponsors—that stay with each cohort for all three years.

Senior leaders with significant influence serve as deans. There are four deans for each SMA cohort, one from each of the firm's service lines (tax, audit, advisory, and internal client services). Their major responsibilities are to provide a voice of the business through design and curriculum input and session facilitation; ensure program content is timely and reflective of what is needed to be a leader and owner at Grant Thornton; and share messages from SMA to firm leadership.

Advisors are experienced partners/principals whom senior leadership selects to become coaches and mentors for participants. Each SMA cohort typically has 20–25 advisors who work with cohorts of participants. Cohorts comprise four to five senior managers from different offices and businesses, and they change each year.

The advisors provide feedback and guidance, serve as talent scouts, and observe their cohorts as participants facilitate discussions and engage in experiential activities. SMA relies on advisors to rate and assess each participant's performance and progress in the program.

Finally, business sponsors are partners/principals with knowledge of a participant's work with clients and are willing to guide and facilitate their growth. To become a partner/principal at Grant Thornton, an individual needs to be nominated and have a business case for promotion.

For SMA to support that process, the business sponsor serves as the person who would nominate the participant. The sponsor's major responsibility is to be an advocate for the participant by periodically meeting with them to review their business case, providing opportunities to fill identified gaps in the business case, and make introductions to help the participant build a network. SMA promotes an intentional way for these relationships to form and for business leaders to gain visibility into their future talent pool and pipeline.


Each year of SMA comprises multiday conferences (face-to-face or virtual) supplemented by shorter virtual sessions or regional meetings. Between conferences is cohort-level work that requires a series of cohort meetings and periodic one-on-one sessions between each participant and their advisor where the participant sets goals, creates action plans, and presents outcomes and results.

The cohort work aligns to each year's theme:

  • Leadership projects (year 1)—Participants practice a business owner mindset by identifying a client issue or firmwide problem to research and identify potential solutions. They give their final presentations to senior leadership.
  • Brand practicum (year 2)—Participants raise their profile and build their personal brand in the marketplace, networking and connecting with clients and colleagues, using their cohort as a sounding board and source of feedback.
  • Growth practicum (year 3)—Participants select a target client and complete growth activities, collaborating and bringing others to the client while building market-facing skills as they help drive profitable growth for the firm.

Business impact

To date, SMA has had more than 500 participants, three-quarters of whom are slated for future partner/principal roles and 66 of whom have been promoted to partner/principal.

To help program graduates continue developing as they build upon their business case for a promotion nomination, the leadership development team created additional activities—such as apprenticeships, quarterly discussions, and group coaching. Those activities likewise help retain the top talent in the pipeline.

According to program evaluation data, deans and internal leaders received an average of 4.7 out of 5 for instructor effectiveness, whereas external facilitators received an average of 4.5. That has led the program to use its own faculty to deliver and facilitate sessions, thus reducing expenses. Additionally, SMA has resulted in behavior changes and notable business outcomes.

Behavior changes. The most noteworthy behavior that has resulted from SMA is that as participants progress through the program, they begin to act and behave as partners/principals, even if they have not yet received a nomination or promotion to that role.

The data that supports this is based on the yearly individual, personalized reporting that is part of SMA. Participants receive a formal business case rating from their SMA advisor; session ratings from their SMA advisor for performance and engagement in experiential sessions and discussions; intersession ratings from their advisor and peers around demonstrated behaviors, engagement, collaboration, and results along key metrics; and a comprehensive self-assessment to compare against the ratings. All the ratings are on a five-point scale.

Based on three years of business case data from the most recently graduated class, ratings have increased year over year, with a good portion of the class at a 4 or 5 rating point at graduation, indicating close to no development gaps. That aligns with anecdotal data that many SMA graduates are partner/principal-ready.

Business outcomes. In an analysis of business results of 25 participants promoted to partner/principal for at least one year compared with their peers who did not go through the SMA program, they manage a larger book of business ($50,000 more), charge 126 more hours per year, assist in more growth pursuits ($303,000 more), and engage in more calls and meetings with executive-level decision makers.

Additionally, in 2020, SMA was added to the firm's customer relationship management system to capture sales opportunities that came about as a result of program activities and conversations. Forty-four percent of the class reported 59 won opportunities worth $10.6 million and another 45 pipeline opportunities worth $26.8 million.

All in all, SMA has driven the firm of the future for Grant Thornton by increasing the readiness of next-generation partners/principals who are capable of driving the firm's growth and maintaining the firm's strong cultural shift toward greater brand reputation and increased client quality and satisfaction.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Amy Koniak is a Leadership Development Program Manager on the Colleague Learning & Effectiveness team of Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd. Amy is responsible for planning and executing Senior Manager Academy and Manager Development Program, two of Grant Thornton’s leadership development academies. The program management work includes oversight and stakeholder management of multi-year curriculums that include classroom, virtual, and self-paced learning. Amy brings 9 years of learning implementation and program management experience to her role. Amy is a graduate of The University of Wisconsin – Madison where she graduated with a bachelor of Business Administration focused in Management & Human Resources.

Email: [email protected]
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