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Candid tales to inspire success in 2023

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With Day One of AccountingWEB Live Expo in full swing, we stopped by to hear from Alexandra Bond Burnett, Carl Reader and Nigel Adams as they discussed how firms can make 2023 a year of success.

30th Nov 2022
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Creating a successful firm is something all practitioners strive to achieve. Yet, the road to success is rarely simple, as the panellists of our What makes a successful firm in 2023? talk at AccountingWEB Live Expo confessed. 

Discussing the topic of success in the new year, Alexandra Bond Burnett, Carl Reader and Nigel Adams were candid in explaining their own journeys, but argued that there are many steps a firm can take to help ensure a successful 2023.

Defining success

Opening up the proceedings, Bond Burnett asked her fellow panel members to define what a successful firm looked like to them.

“We talk about success but don’t often define it,” Reader said, quipping that “a mass murderer probably thinks they’re successful for murdering lots of people.”

However, Reader was quick to add that success for firms is not a static goal, with the parameters for success changing as a practice evolves. “Right now, a successful firm to me is one that’s delivering amazing value to our clients and adding more than just the accountancy relationship.”

Adams agreed with Reader’s assessment of the changing nature of success and that in a profession that is continually changing, it’s important to “keep it simple”.

“For us, our clients and customers are still our absolute prime focus,” Adams said.

Focusing on people

Yet, as Bond Burnett mentioned, there are “several problems that are causing people not to have successful firms”. She asked Adams and Reader to discuss their own challenges in practice.

“While I’ve seen ups and downs in the economic cycle we can’t blame everything on the economy,” Reader said. “We’ve made a number of mistakes along the way. They almost all seem to come back to people, whether it was not looking after people, not building relationships, or simply expecting the system to work itself, that’s where the core of our issues came from.”

This collapse in people-focused work led to an increase in staff churn at Reader’s firm, which, after examining the issue, seemed to be caused by a negative change in the culture of the business.

“Our business culture change was without direction and was allowed to fester on its own,” Reader said. 

Because of this, Reader and his team carried out a complete overhaul of his firm’s culture and values, admitting that the firm had to “roll their sleeves up on the cultural stuff” to ensure both his team and clients felt looked after.

“We’ve started by introducing a weekly wrap, where I share the good, the bad and the ugly of the business, so that the team members feel brought into the business, while not hiding away from the challenges,” Reader explained. The firm has hired a head of culture to help revive staff engagement at the firm, as well as reintroducing staff engagement surveys to better understand the team’s needs.

“The purpose of all of this is to simply evaluate the life our team had before [Covid], look at their life now and see if their previous goals still sit right with them today,” Reader concluded. 

Stepping out of the comfort zone

Adams had also faced acute challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic, noting that the past 12–18 months had been particularly difficult. 

“I don’t care what people tell you, it’s been a tough time for us. Mixed with a fall-off of R&D and investment in infrastructure, it’s been tough,” Adams said.

However, like Reader, this tricky period forced Adams to rethink core values of his firm, leading to a change in recruitment strategy that he believes has significantly paid off.

“We’ve become great champions of bringing in people from outside of the profession as it brings a completely different perspective and helps us to get rid of some of the hereditary problems that we’ve picked up over the years,” Adams noted. “We’ve brought in two new directors for the first time as historically it was always me and my wife who ran the business. We’ve also headhunted a data scientist from Argos, as well as a senior recruitment consultant.”

Not only has this focus on bringing in diverse staff helped his firm, it has also aided Adams personally, as it gave him the opportunity to take a step back from the business.

“When we first brought on our new FD he was probably treading on my toes a bit at first. But, since he’s come on, I’ve finally been able to sleep at night!” Adams said.

This focus on thinking outside the accounting box when it comes to recruitment has led many to describe Adams’ firm as a tech company rather than a business, something that he is proud to have achieved.

“It’s been quite busy due to the complete change of focus. We have changed our culture and what we’re finding is that because of all the different people coming to our guys – whether it’s scientists, data engineers, or recruiters – they are actually changing the work culture and have become an important part of that mix.” 

Takeaway pointers

Rounding off the talk with a quickfire question Bond Burnett asked the panel to summarise what is required for a firm to be successful.

“I’m going to go back to people,” Reader said. “Get away from messages and video calls and get out there and see people. We’ve decided to get back to having true relationships with our clients and team members again and it’s working.”

Adams was in full agreement with Reader, plus added that “compliance is cool”.

“Advisory is a future, not the future. Don’t turn down compliance work because it’s not fun.”

Bond Burnett finished off the talk by adding her own recipe for firm success, saying that firms need to be very clear on what their values are. “Only you can run your firm so you need to be careful with what your values are as it will drive every other conversation,” she said.

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