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Investing in people

Are you investing in your people?


Accounting Excellence Awards judge Blaire Palmer explores the importance of investing in your people and the best way to approach this philosophy in your practice.

25th Oct 2021
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For the last three years I’ve been a judge in the Investing in People category of the Accounting Excellence Awards.

As with anything that revolves around people, the impact of investing in human beings is often intangible. How do we know that your onboarding programme was responsible for your firm’s growth last year? How do we know that sending the firm’s founding partners on courses with a business school delivered better customer retention? Well, we don’t.

But evidence abounds that investing in people does benefit business bottom lines, even if it’s hard to make the exact connection between one specific intervention and profits.

According to research by ASTD, companies that offer comprehensive training programmes have a 218% higher income per employee than companies without formalized training. Research also shows that 40% of employees who don’t get training to help them be more effective will leave their jobs within a year.

Engagement matters too. The UK and Western Europe have the lowest engagement levels in the world. But companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%.

Entrants to the Investing in People category clearly know this! And many are getting very creative about how they design initiatives to enable their people to do their best work.

However, based on our experience as judges, working in a variety of fields and industries, there is still some way for the accounting industry to go if it really wants to capitalize on the talent in their firm and attract potential employees wondering if they are a good fit for you.

Training isn’t enough

The questions I’m pondering as I judge are: “Do people feel invested in? Are they able to do their best work in this place in service of the client? And is this firm going above and beyond, thinking creatively not only about solving challenges today but what lies around the corner?”

Still, after three years of the Investing in People category, we receive numerous submissions that focus exclusively on technical training. While we recognize that this matters, supporting new graduates to become qualified is the bare minimum we would expect a firm to do. The submissions that impressed us went far beyond professional training. They covered onboarding, recruitment, formal and informal culture projects, lifelong learning including coaching, mental health initiatives and ideas generated from the employees themselves.

Category judge Jackie Clifford says “Investing in People means ongoing, continuous dialogue with teams and individuals. It means sharing organizational plans and listening to ideas about how these can be achieved. It means realizing that each team member is a human being with a range of human needs and not being afraid to discuss these”.

Opportunities to share problems, social events and feeling connected during lockdowns can enhance engagement, retention and productivity at least as much as supporting graduates to qualify. Beyond that, those submissions that were actively exploring new ways of working, how to build strong cultures in a hybrid environment, how to address challenges around inclusion, diversity, Gen Zs entering the workforce, new technology and even environmental concerns stood out from the crowd.

A philosophy needs to underpin your approach

The best submissions are aligned to a philosophy about people and customers. These firms talk about their values and then demonstrate how they live these values every day. You might have a series of technical skills courses, some coaching for senior staff and a mental health awareness week, but how do these build on each other? What informs your choice of informal and formal initiatives?

In many cases the submissions that impress us the most are systematic in how they establish needs. They run surveys, listen to staff, look at where they have a problem (for instance retention, onboarding, leadership or client feedback) and then generate ideas to address those areas, all with their philosophy as the backbone.

This also enables them to demonstrate return on investment. Knowing your starting point enables you to measure progress. While it’s great to hear positive verbatim feedback from employees it’s even better when this is backed up by data. After all, someone can really enjoy a course but did it make any difference in the long run?

Mix formal and informal interventions

As Jackie Clifford says: “Investing in people is often more about giving space and time than it is about allocating financial resources. I believe this is what makes the difference between an organization that supports learning and a learning organization”.

Formal workshops aren’t the only way to invest in people. In fact, those firms that impress us the most have a variety of approaches to investing in their people, many of which don’t require much, if any, budget. Regular and on-going feedback opportunities, talking about the future of work and how to adapt ways of working to the post-Covid environment, looking at ways to be more inclusive and how to attract and retain talent from a variety of backgrounds doesn’t have to cost anything. In fact, those firms with the least budget tend to be the most creative. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t always get the results.

Enthusiasm for people from top to bottom

As practitioners in this field, my fellow judges and I know that people never stop learning. Even the most effective leaders can grow. Even the most inclusive culture can go further. Even a great training programme can be re-imagined.

The best submissions demonstrate a ‘whole employee lifecycle’ approach, as Jackie Clifford describes it. Are there opportunities to be more intentional about how you find the right people for the right roles, how you support people transitioning into your culture, how people consider their strengths and future aspirations and how they continue to improve their performance whether this is their first job or they are a founding partner?

We love to see a culture of investing in people led from the top, with a demonstration by partners of a lifelong commitment to development. When the CEO goes on a course or has a coach or holds regular ‘listening lunches’ they are showing that they are willing to do the work themselves.

Equally when ideas for investing in people bubble up from the grassroots of the firm and are given support and resources to become part of the range of initiatives firms show that they really walk the talk – valuing the input of their people no matter what their rank in the business.

As I’ve mentioned in this column before, there are some radical approaches within accounting starting to emerge. But for real inspiration you may have to look outside the industry too. Be inspired by what’s happening in the Tech sector, in Pharmaceuticals, in Manufacturing, in Education. Who is really investing in people and how could that be translate to work in your firm? And then apply for Investing in People next year and blow us away!

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