Some 12 years ago, around about this time of year, I found myself sat in a large, dusty hall on the outskirts of Beijing listening to a trio of Chinese students sing a cheerful version of the Backstreet Boys’ hit single ‘I want it that way’.
To cut a long story somewhat short, I’d graduated from university with a liberal arts degree and, not knowing what on earth to do next, had taken a job in China teaching English. As it turned out, part of my role as ‘foreign expert’ (as it said on my visa) at a high school in Beijing was to judge the district’s English-language singing competition.
As the only foreigner on a judging panel of four I was obviously keen to make a good impression, but also to uphold the integrity of the competition.
Marks were awarded out of 100, and the only guidance I received before the competition from the other judges was to ‘do what you think is right’. My plan B to sneak a peek at the other judges’ marks was foiled by an X-factor style seating arrangement, so I was forced to go with my last frame of reference – university grades. 50-ish for trying, 60-odd for a decent effort and 70+ for top performers.
Upon receiving their marks the students were utterly crushed. It turned out that in such competitions 70 was a score normally reserved for students who either hadn't shown up or just stood on the stage humming the national anthem.
The courtyard area outside the hall was littered with teary-eyed performers, unable to comprehend why the foreign expert had scored them so harshly. In short, I ruined the song competition.
So why am I telling this (sadly all-too true story) on an accountancy website? Well, to make a point about ranking and benchmarking.
Being editor of AccountingWEB means I have landed another judging gig – this time with fewer boyband songs – on the panel of several categories for the site’s Practice Excellence awards.
The job was as difficult as it was fascinating. One thing that was abundantly clear was that all firms entering the awards, regardless of their size, location and whether they were shortlisted as finalists or not, make a difference for their clients.
But if everyone is doing a great job, how do we decide on which firms to shortlist and an eventual winner? What benchmarks should we be using? How do you find those who are not only doing a great job for their clients, but doing so in a way that is not only innovative but measurably successful?
We had plenty of information to go on, from revenue and client growth to slightly more nuanced metrics like ‘number of new clients per staff member, per year’ and non-financial data such as NPS scores and team satisfaction ratings.
It was only by thoroughly looking through the entries, picking through the trends and seeing what really successful firms were (and were not) doing that we were able to pick our winners, and even then after some heated debate.
So congratulations not only to the winners of the awards, which will be announced on Thursday evening, but also to everyone who took the time and effort to enter the awards.
Without this information, without the right benchmarks to go from, things can go horribly wrong. Just ask my students in Beijing, none of whom (I’m pretty sure) have gone on to singing stardom.
Next week is Practice Excellence week on AccountingWEB. You can register to watch up to eight live webcast sessions here, and there's still time to sign up for our London conference on Thursday 19 October and learn new ways to grow your practice.