Deputy Editor Sift Media
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Accountants gripped by succession nightmares

27th May 2010
Deputy Editor Sift Media
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The accountancy profession is sitting on a succession time bomb and needs to find new ways to attract ‘future stars’ fast; unfortunately it seems accountants ‘don’t do’ social media.

In the plush surroundings of The Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire this week, over 150 senior accountancy professionals gathered to share their views on the sector as it stands and where it’s headed at the first CCH Annual Conference. Among them was your deputy editor, the elephant in the room perhaps, being the only delegate under 30; not an uncommon occurrence at accountancy events, but it seems my face served as a worrying reminder to many of them of their own mortality. (Just what you need before your morning coffee, I’m sure).

Nearly every speaker at the conference mentioned succession planning in some capacity – usually accompanied by a wringing of hands and some dire warning about the ‘ticking time bomb’ and dearth of future leaders that was preventing many of them (some as old as 75) from retiring.

It won’t be news to many of you that accountancy is an ageing profession, but what was news to me was how suspicious of change many accountants are; unfortunately it seems a change is what’s needed if the profession is going to start attracting these ‘future stars’ it seems to so desperately be seeking.

Despite this, it was astonishing how closed minded many of them were when it comes to social media. Many had decided it was simply too risky to bother with, before even trying it out.

PwC’s Collaboration and Social Computing Global Programme Manager Andrew Brown gave a presentation about how PwC is using social media to strengthen and monitor its brand, interact with the media, allow staff to collaborate more effectively internally and also – crucially - to recruit and welcome new staff. 

He spoke of the balance between the opportunities and innovations and the perceived threats from social media – for example it allowed the firm to search for and approach potential recruitment candidates directly without the need for recruitment consultants, but on the other hand made itself more vulnerable to having its staff poached by other firms engaging in similar activities.

Brown’s presentation, it seemed, was designed to point out the substantial gains firms could make from engaging with social media and offer practical examples of how this could be done, but delegates were quick to latch onto the perceived threats and were reluctant to let go.

One sticking point was the issue of corporate websites; Brown discussed how sites had evolved over the last ten years from being mere disseminators of information to becoming interactive, allowing users to rate and comment on articles. Interestingly, PwC does not have this facility on its website – the group appears to have decided 1995 was a good year and has left its website there in terms of its interactivity for the foreseeable future. The potential for negative comments was a risk Brown (and many others in the room) felt was too great; “what if someone logs onto my firm’s website and says something I don’t like and don’t want people to see?” was one question posed by a delegate.

It was left to the journalist in the room to argue that surely it’s best for firms to see complaints as they arise and deal with them there, rather than waiting for the complainer to tell ten of their associates and damage your reputation before you’ve even had a chance to utter a word in your defence. Ditto the use of social networking sites like Twitter and LinkedIn – you might not be active in those spaces, but other people are and they could be talking to others (perhaps even potential clients) about your firm without your knowledge. If you’re not there taking part in it, how do you know?

It’s a bit like, after mobile phones were invented, saying ‘what if I don’t want people ringing me when I’m out at the shops?’; it’s a perfectly valid position to take, but if the rest of the world has a phone and you don’t, then you become unreachable and irrelevant and no one wants to phone you anyway. When you’re in business and your bottom line relies on the phone ringing, that starts to become a bit of a problem.

The accountancy profession at the moment seems to me a bit like your archetypal dad on the dance floor at a wedding. He wants to ‘get down with the kids’ but he doesn’t know how to dance to the tunes they like. Well, dad, you’ve got two choices: Either get to grips with social media and start interacting with the young ‘uns, or sit in the corner and wonder why no one wants to talk to you.

It seems they're already planning next year's conference, so head to to find out more.


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Replies (5)

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By Mal
30th May 2010 00:43

A Team Blog

At Croucher Needham, we are embracing change and have many new and exciting ideas which we are rolling out; we will hopefully continue to consciously break the traditional, longstanding approaches you mentioned. All of our Directors have previously worked within the strict working constraints that "silo" Partnerships bring and therefore genuinely know what doesn't work in these historic arrangements...we are different, looking to adopt new thinking, structure and culture. The problem with old thinking is that there are just too many comittee meetings to make timely decisions to make an impact and I'm sorry to say that older generations just think they have all the answers. The reality is, the environment continues to change and old thinking isn't right for tmrw.

We are now out & about busy talking to a number of firms; we have ambitious acquisition plans and are keen to talk to such practices that you mentioned, looking for an Exit.   Gina, if you have details of any such firms, I would be interested in having a chat. 

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By andypartridge
02nd Jun 2010 17:49

Sorry Gina, I don't agree

You stated in response to a delegate who was concerned that if someone logs onto his firm’s website and says something the delegate didn't like and didn’t want people to see:  It was left to the journalist in the room to argue that surely it’s best for firms to see complaints as they arise and deal with them there, rather than waiting for the complainer to tell ten of their associates and damage your reputation

I couldn't agree less! The comment might be completely unfounded yet it is broadcast instantly to the world as fact. It might come from a competitor or someone with a malicious streak - a disaffected ex-employee or client or simply a nuisance.  Unless it can be closely controlled I believe the risks outweigh the opportunities

-- Kind regards Andy

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By cymraeg_draig
02nd Jun 2010 18:29

Silly youngsters

I'm sorry to say that older generations just think they have all the answers. The reality is, the environment continues to change and old thinking isn't right for tmrw. 

Posted by Mal on Sun, 30/05/2010 - 00:43


The above is a very short sighted comment.  By dismissing the older generation you are simply throwing away decades of experience and you are doomed to make the same mistakes that they may have made.

Dont make the mistake of thinking that the older generaton are all stick-in-the-mud traditionalists. We have been there and done that and we know what will and wont work.  Yes you might think that you have all the answers with computers, but some of us have worked with computers for FORTY YEARS.  Yes, I first worked on the forerunner of computerised accounting systems with British Rail in 1968.  So I think I have a fair idea of what computers can and cant do.

I also know that fancy web sites will have no impact whatsoever on half the clients or potential clients out there, because half of them never use the internet.

As for the crazy suggestion that complaints be allowed to be posted onto your website?  What an easy way to sabotage the competition. 

I'm afraid that as with many professions and trades skills will die out with the "older generation" and we will soon be left with button pressers who just believe whatever comes out must be right "because the computer says so".  (We've all seen the widow getting a £3million gas bill).

Does the older generation think it has ALL the answers?  No   ......   But it has MOST of them if you just take the trouble to ask.

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By Mal
02nd Jun 2010 21:34


Sorry to see that comments made based on real direct experience and observations in the market place unfortunately seem to have been taken out of context.

The reference to "older generations" was not intended to suggest that all practitioners haven't adapted. In fact to the contrary, some of the most profitable firms that we have spoken to have been lead by hungry , energetic, & experienced practitioners and we are really enjoying talking to such individuals.  Some have clearly adapted well and are even servicing businesses in niche industries that didn't actually exist 20 years ago! The reference, (in proper context) and really they way it was intended is that it is a fact that there are a large number of older generation/established practices that have failed to adapt, having previously built up lifestyle businesses (in a time of growth) and whilst they have done well over the years, with current climate and ongoing price competition for compliance services, there are still also a large number of practitioners that are looking for what some have described as the needed "X" factor to take their businesses forward and/or have no tangible exit plans. To stand still and maintain current position, a large number of practitioners simply think working extra hours is a way to solve matters which sadly can be at the detriment of health, and enjoyment of family time.  Not sure about the references to "Computers" as Systems really are only one "key tool" in the Kitbag (being crucial streamlining workflows and creating efficiencies)....clearly not as a sole solution to provide answers?! The most successful company that I have seen so far and had the greatest of pleasure to serve in  my career to date  (+20 yrs) is an online group that grew from £2m to £+100M turnover businesses in 5 years. God forbid, the "silly youngster" making so much money and being successful....The owner just over the age of 30, I'm sure had a number of people saying "that'll never work, what does he know". Entrepreneurs of tmrw are going to be key to UK PLC getting itself out of this mess, so equally, let's not write off some of these young Wizards just yet


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By MarionMorrison
04th Aug 2010 14:00

Succession Planning

There's a line from a John Brunner novel - The Shockwave Rider which is now 35 years old but quite prescient, containing the first use of the term 'worm' in a computer context;

There are two kinds of fool. One says, "This is old, and therefore good." And one says, "This is new, and therefore better."

There is virtue and value to be found in Facebook and its ilk (although I think Twitter is pretty worthless), but social networking is not the be-all and end-all of future business growth.  My initial experience of Facebook is through my kids and they are old enough to have joined FB when it was Uni students only.  They have tired of it to some extent as they have lives which they are busy living.  The demographic of FB has moved to the older generation and to the 13yo's who are willing to lie to join.  In short - those who don't get out much.

It is a useful communications channel for some clients - but of my 250-ish 'friends', around 180 are clients but they don't normally use it for communicating with us (and we have a lot of clients in their 20's).  I did set up an FB group for the firm but realised that it was just a waste of time and have left it to rot for the last year.

The major problem is Gina's Dancing Dad and the solution is to have a range of solutions.  Some of the clients will always want a stuffy old-style communication so have a spare wrinkly or two around, some will want everything by email, so be good at that and some live through FB on their Blackberry.  Whatever - have a blade of your Swiss Army Knife ready.  That way, Gina's Dad needn't dance and you'll have someone a little more street who can deal with their homies.  Mos def.


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