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Accounting firms: Can your people rise to the challenge?

14th Mar 2019
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While accounting chatter can seem dominated by talk of technology innovation, digitisation and automation, the key component to a successful practice will always be its people.

In a two-part series on people strategy, Kevin Reed talks to five senior partners about their firms’ multi-layered approach to recruiting, retaining and developing team members.

People strategy is a central theme for all three Firm of the Year categories in the Accounting Excellence Awards 2019. Entries are now open: click here for more details.

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Where small practices can be nimble with their approach to staffing, and the global firms can call on vast swathes of staff to meet any situation, those in between can suffer. If you want to drive change in a more substantial practice, can your people rise to the challenge?

The Accounting Excellence Awards 2019 places ‘the people question’ as central to its criteria, none more so than in the firm of the year categories. So, for a large firm (classed in this case as eight partners or more), how do you answer the people question? And where do you start?

From dreams to goals

For Graham Carson, director at Oxfordshire and Berkshire-based Inca (and Accounting Excellence Award winner), you start at the beginning. Long-term goals were put in place for the practice, followed by shorter-term strategising and planning. This created a basis for which they could best utilise and develop their people.

“We set out a growth plan in 2015 to be hit by 2020, which was agreed with the team itself and with the team fundamental in achieving our growth,” says Carson.

A key aspect of planning involves setting out an organisation chart for the future. Each staff member shares their ‘bucket list’ of their own goals and aspirations, with Carson pointing out that “building a career is one thing, but it’s more important to think about your whole life – we play a part in that, but just a part.”

Team members’ hopes and ambitions are mapped against the organisational chart: where might they want to be in a couple of years? At that point a personal development plan is created, mapping out which skills they will need to acquire and the steps they’ll need to take. Training programmes are put in place and it’s all reviewed on a monthly basis with their line manager.

“The principle is: from dreams to goals, to learning, to plans, and then to actions,” Carson explains.

In a similar mould, Jibran Qureshi of Clear House Accountants placed personal service at the heart of the practice’s offering. While technology has been put in place to manage compliance on behalf of clients, what is most valued is the human touch. “Our most valuable resource is our employees,” says Qureshi.

The approach to their team is two-fold. Firstly, building their technical skills by making time for seminars, conferences and training. Secondly, to develop their people and soft skills. Senior managers and staff are encouraged to spend time presenting and sharing with their experiences and situations faced with the rest of the team. “They discuss and show how the situation was dealt with, among the team. They knowledge-share.” Team members are also encouraged to join the ACCA mentoring programme, as a mentor or mentee.

Grunberg & Co’s Robert Bean extols mentoring at the London-based practice. Every staff member has an assigned ‘buddy’ – effectively access to a partner – who they can meet as little or as often as they want. “They can discuss life or career issues with them, so they have a feel for us that we’re there for them, that we’ve been in their position and understand how to approach certain things,” Bean explains. The firm was shortlisted in Large Practice of the Year 2018.

The measurement conundrum

The tracking and measuring of team members’ performance has always been tough for practices. Bigger firms struggle to keep track of the individual as they become lost in the appraisal process, while smaller firms are often too informal to make talent management and development work effectively.

No measurement and reporting measure is perfect, so most of the forward-thinking practices are using a combination approach. For example, Qureshi’s Clear House uses peer-to-peer reviews, customer feedback and the setting of measurable objectives.

Peter Gillman, who successfully led Price Bailey through strong growth and expansion for more than ten years, extols the virtue of a broad approach to gauging staff performance, and of having strong ‘lieutenants’ in place – likely to be departmental heads – to whom management is devolved.

“By getting good heads in place, whose judgment you can trust, you will know if staff are doing well or not,” says Gillman.

“There will always be measurement, but I’m not a big fan of measurement per se. You have to look beyond billing and recovery levels, which can be misleading.”

Then you can use reports and data to inform the questions you will have of particular team members. “It’s about layers, to create a 360-degree picture. Peer-to-peer feedback cuts through so much – and it’s usually positive and motivational rather than used for disciplinary purposes,” he adds.

Team development will engender loyalty and better performance. But remuneration remains a key factor in retention and recruitment. For Carson and Inca’s team, a detailed bonus structure sits in place.

Half of a team member’s bonus is based on company targets, while the rest is based on individual performance and the development of new ideas for ways of working: either to improve efficiency or to help create new products and services.

“The remuneration structure, from a bonus point of view, is intended to drive the behaviours we want,” says Carson.

Next week’s piece explores the thorny issue of recruitment for accounting practices and examines several tactical approaches adopted by leading firms.

The entry process for the Accounting Excellence Awards 2019 is now open. The Large Firm of the Year category sets a number of judging criteria: showing the quality of your firm; initiatives to growth and success; its people strategy; evidence of a focus on continuous improvement; alongside quantifiable performance measures. Click here to find out more.