The Large Practice of the Year winner tells Kevin Reed how developing people in-house contributes to its wider success.
“Soft skills” may sound like a one-hit-wonder band from the 1980s, but for Forrester Boyd, based predominantly in Lincolnshire, nurturing its people to have expertise beyond the technical is working very nicely.
So nicely in fact, that it was able to convince the AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Awards judges to name the firm Large Practice of the Year.
The 13-partner practice has grown steadily in its 85-year history, with office additions south (Skegness) and north (Beverley in East Riding) in recent years. But with the world around them changing apace, Forrester Boyd has seen the need for a new approach to talent management and succession planning.
Into other’s shoes
“There is some truth in the cliché that accountants aren’t particularly imaginative,” says partner Alan Nesbitt. “[Accountants] don’t get the marketing side… because we do a technical job and discuss such matters with ourselves, we’re not always the best to put ourselves into the shoes of other people.”
But clients have moved on. They expect a strong online presence, mobile services and live communication through different channels.
In such a fluid business and social climate, practices built on a steady stream of compliance-focused work will struggle if they fail to adapt. And the churn of number-crunching is being dissipated through automation.
Forrester Boyd decided that if it couldn’t predict how things would change, it would build a team of people that could flex when and where required.
“We’ve always been fantastic technical trainers of people,” says Nesbitt. “But we need our people to be more flexible, to be able to communicate with the outside world as well as with each other – that hasn’t always been the case. People were promoted to senior roles because they were good at doing accounts, but not necessarily good at managing.”
A training provider was hired to put together a communications programme for new trainees. Those going through the programme – with five roles currently being advertised on the firm’s website – will initially be helped with the basics: how to write emails and letters, phone etiquette, “attire management” and how to put together a file of work.
Further versions of the course are available as they progress, with people management being a focus for senior staff and partners.
The firm intends to create a firm full of strong communicators, who will proactively manage the client base, and crucially, develop into different disciplines and areas of expertise as the need arises.
“People still need advice – and that’s where accountants come into their own,” explains Nesbitt.
Programmes and checklists are common across its five offices, while “reasonably regular” partner meetings help to reinforce the messages.
It’s not exactly a hippy commune, but while the programme is a formalisation of staff development, the practice takes a less rigid approach to monitoring and “practising what you’ve learned”.
“While we want people to communicate in the right way, we don’t want to stifle individualism. You can be over-prescriptive in these things, saying ‘exactly how to speak’, “ says Nesbitt.
Pre-interview character testing
A key differentiator in the firm’s approach to trainee acquisition is the pre-interview stage.
Groups of up to 20 applicants spend a day going through a number of tests from individual psychometric testing to group sessions.
Four senior people from the firm, including the HR manager, observe this group phase. An example of one of the group tests could be: ‘From a list of people, who would you save from a disaster first, and why?’
The observers will score the potential trainees against a range of criteria, before convening to decide who to take on.
The process explores how people interact: who will take the lead or contribute, and in which way? Importantly, supplementing this broader approach to hiring has been a lowering of its academic entry criteria: to three A Levels at ‘B grade’ or higher.
“It’s made a big difference to the people we’ve taken on. Some in the past had fantastic grades but couldn’t talk to others,” admits Nesbitt.
“We’re recruiting different types of people – not necessarily ‘better’, but more rounded – rather than just academic and techy.
“We’ll then get people who are good communicators, and more adaptable. Part of our strategy is to be ready to anticipate and deal with whatever comes next, so having the right people in place who can do the basics of proper communication, dealing with colleagues, acting appropriately, listening. We’re getting that embedded at an early stage.”
The firm is “five years away” from the first new entrants knocking on the door of senior management, but that is when Forrester Boyd will reap the benefits, says Nesbitt.
“We’re all trying to second-guess where the profession’s going, and we’re giving it our best shot - to try and put things in place.”
Kevin Reed is a freelance journalist