Big firm dynamics: L&D surge is part of a bigger trend

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Learning and development emerged as a key trend with the big firm Accounting Excellence entries - but is there anything from this that smaller firms can learn from their bigger counterparts?

This year’s Accounting Excellence Awards revealed several key trends for those in the mid and larger firm brackets: the steady rise of acquisitions as a strategy for growth, the role of brand as a way of bringing together a multi-office structure and creating common ground being two.

But a third notable standout is around the surge in the importance of Learning and Development (L&D).

While not featuring at all in both 2015 and 2016, it suddenly appears in 2017 at 16% and has risen again in 2018 to 24%.

Did applicants just forget to mention it previously or is there something else at play?

Signs of a global trend

The macro-picture here is interesting and perhaps helps to provide some useful context.

The ACCA-penned article ‘Tomorrow's professional accountants have clear ambitions’ examined data from the professional body's Generation Next survey of over 19,000 professionals globally, mainly focussing on the top 10 firms.

While a focus on the very large firms is not always a great barometer of what is happening, it does show that staff up to senior levels not only view accounting and finance roles as attractive but value the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills.

The rise in cloud tools, fuelled by the global trend towards a more digital tax agenda, means necessity and opportunity are combining to boost skills which are having an impressively positive impact on job satisfaction.

Accountants are well positioned to take advantage of the new digital age, not only to provide an evolution of services to clients but also as a platform for rewarding themselves with interesting roles.

L&D is broader than CPD

At a more domestic level, it’s not hard to see evidence of this too. Margaret Thornton, now head of probate at Baldwins, takes the view that “a firm which values their team and invests in them both through learning and development and through the way they treat them, will ultimately be the most rewarding place to work - for the owners as well as the employees”.

And it’s not hard to see why. Taking a step beyond learning how to use digital tools (functionality), there is, of course, the byproducts of how services can then evolve to boost productivity, insight, growth, or capacity. All interesting and helpful stuff.

However, we are also still in the midst of regulatory change has come through the implementation of GDPR, and of course, moving towards MTD for VAT. Staying on top of these, as well as the common or garden updates, and mandatory CPD is no mean feat.

What is perhaps surprising is that actually this is having the effect of encouraging success rather than chronically detracting from it.

Towards being the best

2018 Accounting Excellence shortlisted firm Green and Co provides a more detailed case study on the dynamics at play.

Given the focus on cloud and digital tools within the firm, it’s surprising to hear that some 50% of their clients are within the farming community, a sector not naturally thought of as being at the forefront of technology. A myth that office manager Sonia Board is quick to dispel: “Farming has developed a lot over the years, with a huge focus on technology, and a diversification of services - I would disagree that they are not at all tech savvy. But it’s true that some don’t necessarily need to be”.

What is clear from the outset, however, is a strong team ethic driven by a focus on communication and a commitment to L&D drives the firm to help clients from all sectors. “The firm’s ethos, driven by the partners, is that they want us to be the best - and not just in service we provide, but as individuals”.

Clear objectives, transparent progress

The partners very much set the tone. “They have a lot of time and commitment to communicating out what they want Green and Co to be, and what it is there to achieve”, continued Board. “The detail of our one-page plan is a crucial piece of information and an important way of communicating out. Everyone is aware of the firm’s KPIs like monthly income and what targets have been set”.

It is not all one way though, with the communication element evident right across the business - not an easy feat to achieve when the number of people in the firm starts to increase. “Input from the staff is encouraged at every level, and not just at review times. We have staff forums, and regular staff consultancy sessions, but more generally, there is a high degree of communication and sharing of information.” Board emphasised that this extends to clients too: “Input is encouraged and feedback from clients is an important part of this.”

The output is that “it creates a high degree of trust. Not only between the partners and staff, but between colleagues, and this translates directly to our clients”.

L&D builds on this platform

With trust and communication high, it helps to see how personal skills then drive expertise and service, but this again is not a simple top down exercise. “L&D is vital - it has been very important to invest continuously here. Staff are actively encouraged to identify training needs, and there are also formal personal development reviews twice a year. The third prong is formal training via SWAT - and through the new course releases each year, core needs are identified and block booked”, explained Board.

“Training also extends to our clients, including GDPR, tax, MTD and of course our bookkeepers help with hands on training on software. Staff also attend, so there is a further opportunity for them to meet as well as learn together,” she said.

Regulatory and process change has also been embraced with the same spirit. “We went to auto enrolment two years earlier than required, and used it as a training opportunity so we could all learn and help define our processes and guide clients.”

Clear objectives, effective communication and underpinned by a clear commitment to personal and professional development is a platform for building their commercial success, “It is central to our brand and the way we do business,” said Board. “Clients know they are going to walk away with quality information, and this trust extends to enhance our reputation and fuels strong organic growth.”

Wider impact

But the effect is stronger than just on the commercials: “Staff turnover is very low, and satisfaction is high. With additional benefits such as refresh groups and confidential health assessments, we all sense the importance of work-life balance. Happy staff can only better serve clients,” she said.

Much of Board’s experiences echo both the findings of the ACCA investigation, but also the experience of the Accounting Excellence entrants this year, and indeed provided much food for thought for firms of all sizes.

Challenges/risks

For smaller firms, however, there does still remain a risk that even with much of this in place, there is a more fundamental point about access to good quality staff, full stop.

It’s all well having the systems and culture, but if you can’t get the bums on seats (or if they keep leaving) then the task can be that much harder.

Alex Falcon-Huerta of Soaring Falcon has been vocal in her support of apprenticeships - a long road for a small practice but it underlines how the L&D commitment is increasingly important to the success of firms of all sizes.

Looking at the results in 2019 will be fascinating to see how this develops.

About Richard Sergeant

Richard Sergeant

Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.

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