Women shaking up the profession: Emma Chessonby
AccountingWEB interviews Kreston Reeves leader Emma Chesson about investing in people and how the profession must become people-first in order to push forward.
2020 Accounting Excellence Large Firm of the Year Kreston Reeves has pushed forward with its ‘knowing you’ message to clients. By maintaining this strategy within the firm and investing in its team, it has built a people-first culture that’s focused on getting the best out of its team.
As one of Kreston Reeves' most notable leaders, senior manager Emma Chesson has made a name for herself by pushing forward change in training and educating, and supporting people. Encouraging team members to get involved and develop their skills, she has helped transform the working lives of her team which then filters through to clients.
AccountingWEB catches up with Chesson to find out what inspires her to drive leadership and people as a top priority of the accounting profession.
What was your personal approach to helping Kreston Reeves scale-up and overhaul its whole infrastructure?
One of my core values is honesty, so I'll be as upfront as I can be because if someone's giving you their time, it's important for them to be heard.
When trying to influence change, you will get people naturally resisting, particularly when it comes to conversations around purpose with the firm’s management board– effectively your bosses – and you’re trying to get them to fundamentally change aspects of the firm.
It would be really easy just to go back to your desk, not have that conversation and crack on with some client work and have an easy life. But it’s important to have the courage to go for it and have those conversations and expect for it not to be easy. The payoff when it does happen is so much more rewarding.
I know that a lot of people that I've worked with, sometimes come out of it and don't feel like what they said had been taken on board. But it's important to empower people to keep pushing – and I think that the best way to do that is to really understand them.
Have there been any lightbulb moments in your career?
Not always having to have the answer is a big one for me, because it's really easy to see value or have your own value attributed to having the answer – and I love having the answer. But actually, quite often, it's good not to have the answer straight away, because it gives you the opportunity to go away and get to the root of the problem, rather than just going in with an answer really quickly. Sometimes the answer is a lot more complex than you appreciate.
How do you encourage team members to get involved and develop their skills?
It’s about getting people to understand what's in it for them. At the moment, Kreston Reeves is going through the process of further training junior members, and it's about making them appreciate that it isn't just another course we're sending you on for the fun of it. At the end of it, you're going to be able to have enhanced conversations with your clients that will accelerate your career and open up opportunities for you.
How has that learning and development filtered through to clients?
When we first completed the training a few years ago, I had a prospective client meeting in the office, and he was seeing three potential accountants. At the end, he said “That is not the conversation that I was expecting to have, I've never spoken to an accountant on that level” because we weren't just talking numbers, we were delving deeper into what he really wants to achieve. He saw three accountants that day.
So it ended up resulting in clients being able to grow their business, as well as us growing ours.
Why is company culture so important?
I'm passionate about company culture because toxic aspects to the workplace can make people feel threatened. Often people don't show up 100% because they'll be putting on a front or thinking, “If I own up to this mistake, then I’ll be screwed”. So they put barriers up and pretend nothing has happened.
When it comes to culture, if you have a growth mindset in a way you lead you will create a safer environment where everyone feels seen and heard. They feel that they can have that element of vulnerability which is important because if you don't feel you can be vulnerable, then mistakes will be made and wrong decisions will be made. And you won't fulfil the potential of your individual team members or the firm.
If you don't feel that you're in a safe workplace, then you're not gonna want to stay there, you're not going to really motivate your staff enough. In terms of where we're heading, as a society with more people working from home, people will start to vote with their feet if they're in a toxic environment.
What is your favourite moment at work?
A couple of years ago, we had a netball tournament – it was just a bit of fun, but I'm really competitive. It was mixed teams and every office had at least one team, and we won! I was so proud of my team because we hadn’t practised at all.
We smashed everyone until the very final game against Jake’s team in Brighton (he’s still very touchy about it). It was the first game we were properly tested. At halftime, we were down.
I gave a big pep talk. I said: “It doesn't matter if we don't win this, I just want us to try our hardest. And that that's all I want from us that we've done. We've done ourselves proud up to here. And if I just want us to come off this court with our heads held high because they have been knobs anyway, so just don't worry about it.”
Honestly, something magical happened in that second half, where we gelled as a team – and we smashed them! They were gutted. I was really proud of my department because we were phenomenal. They practised loads and were all smarmy with matching headbands and bravado.
And there was us, we rocked up with no practice. And it proved that how well we knew each other was the key, despite our different skill levels.