Time to get a handle on this people thingby
The human side of accountancy is currently much discussed, but it’s time the profession started to put more effort into really believing that people matter.
Back in the early days of AccountingWEB, we came across an academic paper alleging that objective personality testing had established that accountants are psychologically predisposed to be boring.
For many years since, we challenged this hoary old stereotype in a recurring content strand we labelled Born Dull?!. On behalf of our members, AccountingWEB set out to show that accountants had as many personality quirks, obsessions and side interests as any other group of individuals.
It was a useful pretext to explore the lighter side of accountancy, but research conducted with Wolters Kluwer in 2014 confirmed that accountancy is a people profession. The interactive personality survey found that the classic image of the numbers-obsessed loner was eclipsed by 49.2% who fitted the Personable Practitioner profile.
“Sociable and outgoing, they are fun to be around and stimulate interesting conversation,” wrote our analyst, seemingly on a sabbatical from Cosmopolitan magazine. “Personable Practitioners work well on the phone and are smooth operators in networking situations where they can broaden the firm’s horizons and open up new business relationships.”
Among practitioners, we also see numerous entries to our Accounting Excellence Awards emphasising client care above all other considerations. One of the most common responses is, “My clients are my friends… and I want to take good care of them and help them achieve their life goals.”
So the idea that accountants are just like other human beings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But as the great resignation knocks back accountancy almost as much as the travel, logistics and health sectors, social media networks are buzzing with people-centred messages such as the old cliche that “people are your greatest asset”.
In the noughties, there were still hangovers from a different era. For example, whatever happened to those “rainmaker” accountants, who joined slick professional development associations and roped clients into all of their highly profitable advisory and wealth management initiatives?
Before the financial crisis of 2008–9, accounting trainees were dragooned through audit drudge work in Big Four gulags and treated to personality-stripping psychological torments that seem to hail from some of our more sadistic public schools.
Now that the supply of trainees has slowed to a trickle, that approach won’t wash. Talk among the HR – sorry – “people” teams at firms of any size are all about nurturing their staff and giving them a self-directed learning and development framework.
The agony uncle era
Responding to those signals in 2018–19, my colleague Richard Hattersley started devoting more airtime on AccountingWEB to career development and wellbeing issues. Borrowing a trick from more consumer titles, he even recruited Nick Elston as a regular agony uncle to help members through difficult times. What was interesting was that once they saw other people unbuttoning their pinstripe suits and opening up about their fears and vulnerabilities, AccountingWEB members started talking more openly about personal issues with each other in Any Answers.
During this time also AccountingWEB tracked how the likes of Sharon Pocock (Kinder Pocock), Lesley and Graham (Inca Caring Accountants), Sarah Sallis (The Accountancy Office) and Lucy Cohen (Mazuma) built successful businesses around a genuine people-first ethos. It’s a very simple formula: clients and colleagues respond positively when an accountant shows that they genuinely care about them. The larger the organisation, the harder it is to spread the love over a broader population, so the accountant has to create a culture (and supporting organisation) that embraces their values and approach. If staff are motivated to buy into those ideas, they will transmit the same vibe to clients, leading to better satisfaction levels, which we know translates into growth through word-of-mouth recommendations.
The smart firms were attuned to these human factors years ago, but it took the combined shock of the pandemic and the resulting great resignation to drive home the message and the wider profession is starting to follow the examples set by these pioneering accountants.
People have the power
Ultimately all of these musings are a long-winded way to say that we’re gearing up for more people coverage on AccountingWEB this summer. Not because we’re playing to the trend – though we rarely let any bandwagon pass by without jumping aboard – but because we recognise how important this point is.
“People are your greatest asset” has become such a tired cliche that I sometimes wonder if anyone saying it understands what it means to act on that principle. Equating them to something on a balance sheet is hardly a promising first step, but underneath the linguistics, do you really care about your clients and colleagues as people and do you base your dealings and interactions with them on that principle?
It’s more than just thinking about doing good stuff with learning and development and diversity – it’s about how you act and how you make the people you work with feel. It’s a knack good restaurateurs and hotel owners have and all organisations should aspire to, but still a big step up for accountancy.
Can you imagine a world where people actually look forward to meeting with an accountant? If you can do that, go out and build it. And while you’re at it, tell us how you get on.
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John Stokdyk sadly passed away in June 2023. He had been with the site since 1999, rising from news editor to editor in chief, global editor and head of insight. As a roving editor, he investigated the profession's use of technology around the world. He devoted his spare time to technology history and an oddball collection of stringed...