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A high performance concept illustration based on a rocket ship powering above hot air balloons | AccountingWEB | What does high performance look like
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AE24: What high performance looks like

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The skills shortage has slowed accountancy firms’ ambitions, but mid-tier firms entering last year’s Accounting Excellence Awards found a solution: create high-performing teams. But what does this actually look like in practice?

24th Jun 2024
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Every year, without fail, the talent squeeze and skills shortage crisis top the list of challenges for firms entering the Accounting Excellence Awards.

While this still remained to be the case last year, there was a shift in the mid-tier of firms addressing these recruitment and retainment challenges through building high-performing teams. 

Firms have seized the “high performance” phrase that’s so often bandied around in feel-good podcasts from the likes of self-development gurus Steven Bartlett and Jake Humphrey. 

Indeed, the methods and initiatives used by firms to motivate staff – and more importantly bridge the skills gap in the profession – could easily fill a TED Talk stage or be discussed in an aspirational podcast alongside an advert for Huel. 

However, the answer to high performance is much simpler than you might think. Of course, they all use technology to automate and drive efficiencies, and they set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals as you’d expect, but what drives high performance at the firms of the 2023 mid-tier firm of the year finalists is the culture. 

As we head towards the deadline for entries to the 2024 awards, we discovered what techniques last year’s mid-tier firm finalists are using to drive high performance. 

High performance starts at the onboarding stage

The groundwork in creating high-performing teams is laid when firms take on new employees. Ramsay Brown, a finalist in last year’s mid-tier category, hands new members of the team a copy of Mathew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking

The main lesson the firm has taken from the book is the importance of creating a blame free culture. They put this into practice at their regular monthly whole-firm day meetings away from the office.  

“Black Box Thinking provides a culture in which members of the team feel enabled to raise issues, mistakes, suggestions and complaints in a safe non-critical environment. The full team meets monthly and brings issues with them, which in turn are discussed with the whole team,” explained Laurence Slavin, the owner of Ramsay Brown. 

Another key ingredient in high performance is accentuating the strengths of the team. Ramsay Brown does this through undergoing a Jungian psychometric analysis on all new starters. This information helps the firm understand how to get the best out of the team and the best way to manage and motivate them. 

Be transparent

Once you have the right culture, and knowing the strengths of your team, the next ingredient in high performance is to give your team a reason to invest in the business. A trend thst came up with a number of finalists in last year’s mid-tier category was the need for transparency. 

Seymour Taylor, for example, holds quarterly updates with their team, where they brief them on targets and activities taking place. Others like Whitley Stimpson deliver monthly staff bulletins. 

At Seymour Taylor, the firm puts a lot of emphasis into creating a nurturing environment. Events like the quarterly updates give the team members a chance to express their thoughts and, in turn, make them feel valued.  

Transparency also extends to regular performance reviews, one-to-ones, mentoring and targets, giving the talent something to strive for. Harold Sharp used its inaugural away day to focus on staff engagement, where they launched their new appraisal process and a 12-month staff training plan, focusing on soft skills, computer skills and continuing professional development (CPD).  

Develop your team

Another example of how transparency is being used to drive high performance is by giving employees a clear hierarchy for the team, with clear measurable targets. Slavin from Ramsay Brown said the introduction of this has given the team a visible clear path for progression. 

“A hierarchy with clearly defined responsibilities is nothing innovative, but in an open and fully respectful culture in which open discussions are welcomed we minimise the possibilities of misunderstanding,” the Ramsay Brown founder told AccountingWEB. 

Reigning Mid-tier Firm of the Year, Scholes also talked about the need to prioritise growing and rewarding talent as a way of building a high-performance team. The firm said they are promoting the development of its young employees at every turn through trainee programmes and an extensive CPD package for all staff. Through this they’ve seen talented youngsters develop at pace and assume positions of leadership.

When progression feels like a glass ceiling and options seem limited, it’s no wonder that talent will look elsewhere to progress their careers. By having a transparent hierarchy, employees are likely to stick with the firm and bring their best selves to the office, knowing that they have some skin in the game. 

Ultimately, the lessons of high performance come down to showing that you care. Seymour Taylor provides technical training and soft skills training as you would expect any firm looking to enhance and invest in their talent, but what they’ve also prioritised – which is often lost when focus is just on the day-to-day tasks – is the employees’ work-life balance, ensuring they’re fit and healthy as well as efficient. 

So alongside regular check-ins, the firm has made their systems inaccessible at the weekends to ensure everyone has the downtime they need, while external and internal emails are discouraged after 6.30pm. 

These restrictions ensure everyone has a break from the daily grind, but also goes some way in extinguishing any potential burnouts, ensuring team members are able to start each day with a full power bar of energy.   

Wellness is also a priority at mid-tier finalist Sobell Rhodes, where employees are required to complete a health and wellbeing tracker. 

Deliver high performance consistently 

However, the true success in a high-performance culture is being able to achieve the same high standards every single day. Sobell Rhodes, who also picked up the Client Service Firm of the Year Award last year, has developed a structured approach to make high performance consistent and repeatable.

Firstly, the firm created a “moments-of-truth bible”, which outlines guidelines for client interactions. Andrew Rhodes, the managing partner at Sobell Rhodes, said the moments-of-truth bible was inspired by Jan Carlzon’s book and methodologies at Scandinavian Airlines, where he recognised that making every interaction with customers memorable, no matter how small, accumulates to delivering exceptional customer service across the whole organisation. 

“This approach provided us with the impetus to set clear service standards for every client interaction, from phone calls to meetings, to the way we greet our clients, to the way we escort them when they leave. In this way, all our team have clear guidelines for excellent client engagement, regular communication and the ability to build strong working relationships,” Rhodes told AccountingWEB. 

Additionally, Sobell Rhodes drives high performance with its  “What’s working well” and “Even better if” system, completed live with clients, which drives business performance. Their checklist of 122 proactive ideas, tailored for each client meeting, ensures team members have a repeatable format to consistently deliver high performance.  

Summarising the impact of this tool in creating a high-performance culture, Rhodes said: “Our proactivity checklist contributes to our team being able to operate at high-performance levels, by enabling them to identify and understand our clients’ most important business and personal needs, anticipate potential issues and problems before they arise, while continually looking for opportunities to add value to their businesses and personal finances.”

High performance

High performance is not driven by one thing. It’s not just setting goals or motivational words, but it’s a culture. From transparency to training and development and giving your talent the right tools to succeed, mid-tier firms are attempting to solve the skills shortage and building high-performance teams by investing in them. 

It’s not the most innovative solution, but sometimes the most obvious solution is the right one. It’s not an easy fix and the crisis can’t be fixed by a click of the fingers, but those that lay the groundwork and focus on culture and their team may find their talent not only become better at their jobs, but they’ll actually stick around, too. 

Do you have a high-performing team? You could win the most prestigious prize in the profession: the Accounting Excellence Awards. The deadline for entries is 28 June.

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