Strong technical skills are not enough

Taxation 2 Magazine often includes useful tips for ambitious (tax) professionals. Most of the time these are relevant to a wider audience too. The current issue (7/9/07) contains an excellent piece by Sheila Mandel of BLT in which she notes that

“The emphasis on marketing and relationship building has resulted in the existence of (and need for) more well-rounded ‘all singing, all dancing’ business types…. tax is no longer confined to the backroom!”

I would agree. Whilst exam training focuses on developing technical skills most firms and corporate employers need tax managers and partners/directors who also have a broad mix of business skills. As promotion is likely to depend upon such skills there are essentially only four options available to an employer.They will either:

  • pray, hope or make a wish that you magically develop all the necessary skills so they can justify promoting you;

  • send you on a range of generic personal skills courses and pray, hope or make a wish(!) that you pick up and practice sufficient tips to make the time and effort worthwhile;

  • arrange for you to receive personal, tailored mentoring that overcomes the problems inherent in the “courses” approach;

  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some employers combine the last two options and arrange mentoring as an additional benefit to attract potential recruits.In such cases the mentor is usually an independent third party; this evidences the firm’s commitment to the new candidate and will be a positive supplement to the firm’s conventional induction process. Ok – I admit it. I would say that wouldn’t I!

Such mentoring can be equally motivating for managers, senior managers, directors and even junior partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as might be ideal.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Five steps to winning the war for talent (part one)

Accountancy firms and other professional service firms have long been competing in what has become known as the ‘war for talent’.

I’ve never liked this epithet but the only alternative one hears (the ‘battle for talent’) also sounds as if it belongs in a bygone era and is more relevant to the armed forces than to those providing professional services to their clients.

The war and battle descriptions reflect the difficulties that firms have in recruiting the people they need to provide the service they have promised to their clients. These recruitment needs may be a consequence of growth plans for the firm or merely an effort to replace professional staff who have left for pastures new.

I’ve interviewed and recruited many dozens of professional staff over the years. It seems to me that there are five key steps to getting the right people on board – and to stay.

1 – Beforehand – specifying the talents, skills and experience required. This requires more thought then merely assuming that you need to find someone who can fill the shoes of the person who has left. Remember too that the key criteria will probably change if work is reallocated after someone leaves and before someone new joins.

2 – Attracting the right people – whether you run ads yourself or you engage an agent, you need to identify and highlight those features, benefits and advantages of working at your firm that will make your vacancy more attractive than those in other ‘similar’ firms. What are the real differences? Do you know or are you going to make the same broad assumptions, promises and assertions that the other firms make re your firm’s atmosphere, approach, absence of long hours, work/life balance? What can you do to prove your assertions are based on fact?

I will outline the remaining three steps in subsequent postings over the next couple of weeks. In the mean time I would welcome comments and suggestions as regards the first two steps I have summarised above.


You are better than you think you are

Ambitious professionals are not always confident and positive about the future. Just like everyone else they sometimes fear that they won’t be able to achieve the targets set for them or that they have set for themselves.

Most people suffer moments of indecision and self doubt every now and then. One of my functions as a mentor or coach for ambitious professionals is to help them move on and to reach their potential.

One of the tools I sometimes use is to share the following poem written by Marianne Williamson and included in her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. The quote is popularly but incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela who included it in his 1994 inauguration speech.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Do you hope, pray or train?

It has been said that personal development in a professional environment is largely a matter of common sense.

Employers will spend a fortune in an effort to ensure that ambitious professionals keep upto date with technical developments. But when it comes to maximising the professionals’ potential to do their job, to progress and to get more done, little time or money is invested.  The largest firms will often have formal partner development programmes but smaller firms do not have the need to invest in such formality, neither do the legal, finance and tax departments of large corporates who also employ ambitious professionals.

The consequence of this is that managers and senior managers often have great technical skills but their wider business skills are not honed. This is likely to hold them back from feeling fulfilled, achieving partnership status or otherwise progressing in their job .

There was a time when professionals were routinely categorised as finders, minders or grinders. The finders went out and developed new clients and brought in the business; the minders looked after the relationship with those clients; and the grinders were the ones who did the detailed technical work. There is also a fourth category: Binders – those who keep (bind) the team together working effectively and who set a good example themselves.

If we accept that CPD training is generally focused on technical development then this covers only the ‘grinders’ quadrant of a potential partner’s development. That leaves Finding, Minding and Binding.  If no one invests in this the only hope of achieving personal development and fulfilment at work is to hope or pray.  So many business skills are thought to be common sense but I tend to think it’s unfair to assume therefore that they should also be common knowledge.  What do you think?


Networking in a new firm

It’s a fact of life that ambitious professionals are often competing with each other when it comes to seeking promotion to partnership.

There are invariably more managers and associates seeking progression to partnership than there are potential partnership roles in a firm. The better connected and respected one is the greater the prospect for advancement when the opportunity comes.

It took me many years to appreciate the truth in the old adage that It’s not what you know it’s who you know*. It’s now around twenty years since I first had to make an impression in a large firm of accountants that I had joined in the hope of ‘making partner’. At first I thought it was sufficient to work hard and to impress the senior partners who had been involved in my recruitment into the firm. After some time I realised that ofice politics would also have an influence. The more partners in the firm who knew of me and thought well of me the greater would be my chance of them voting in favour of my progression when the time came.

My own experience was by no means unique. My research, both formal and informal , has confirmed that prospective partners can improve their chances if they raise their profile in the firm. This will involve internal networking and getting to know and help those who could influence your career. That includes possible mentors, bosses, colleagues and staff, any of whom may have an influence somewhere down the line.

So I would encourage ambitious professionals to be sociable, to volunteer to attend and help at relevant business functions, be seen at ‘drink-ups’ (for new staff, departing staff, birthdays, retirements etc) and get to know (and be known by) more people than just those with whom you came into contact each day. NB: You also want to avoid being perceived as a free-loader, drunk or alcoholic!

Of course being well known of itself is not sufficient. What matters is your reputation, the level of trust and confidence that your colleagues have and the extent to which you are liked/disliked. This is the same both inside and outside of a professional firm. And effective networking skills can help contribute to that reputation. Equally, in due course when there is an opportunity for career advancement the better known and more highly regarded candidate is likely to have a head start.

* Actually I prefer to think that what really counts is not what you know but what you do with what you know. 

Edit 2013: You can get my 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Just click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  


Mentoring – who should pay? Employer or employee? Partnership or partner?

A new ethic: ‘pay as you learn’

The training day is widely treated as a joke. Depending on your point of view, it is either a day out of the office or an unbearable chore of corporate life.

Workers should pay for on-the-job training

These are all quotes from an item in the Times yesterday credited to

The article intrigued me as I would agree with a number of the points James makes. Equally I believe that there are different ways to achieve the same end and accept that there was no room to address these in the available space.

In my white paper on Personal development for ambitious professionals I have explored the advantages and disadvantages of sending people on personal development or management development courses. I have also suggested what may be more effective ways to achieve the desired changes in behaviour that such training is intended to secure.

It had not occurred to me to consider whether such courses would be more effective if the attendees had to bear the cost (or share the cost) themselves. If this were to happen I agree that the attendees might be more inclined to take the course seriously. Equally they might be more inclined to insist upon choosing the supplier of the course such that the employer has less control or influence over what it is that the attendees are ‘taught’. Sadly the UK tax system also does not facilitate such arrangements. Attendees would almost certainly have to pay for such training out of their net earnings as no tax relief would be available for the training costs incurred personally in such cases.

Coming back to the title of this item – I promote my mentoring programme for ambitious professionals to the managing partners and team leaders in professional firms. It is the firm that engages me rather than the individual person whom I will be mentoring. Quite simply the firm is more likely to be able to afford to pay my fees than will the individual. If the firm is unwilling to invest in the ambitions of its prospective or new partners what does that say to the individual concerned? My instinct is to continue as before and not to seek payments from the employees or partners. What do you think?


How can you stand out from the rest of the pack?

I have just watched an old video clip of the professional services firm guru, David Maister, in which he highlights the six most scarce resources in most professional service firms:

  • Energy
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Determination
  • Passion
  • Ambition

David also points out that his research has proved that the top achieving firms are those that energise, excite and enthuse their people to perform at a higher level than their competitors.

Those who’ve worked with me will know that the listed resources are all qualities that I possess in abundance. I have no doubt that they helped me reach the top of my career more so than any technical skills or knowledge that I developed over the years.

Would your colleagues and clients use all or indeed any of these words to describe you or your firm? If there’s a mismatch as between how others see you and how you want to be seen you will need to do something to close the perception gap. If you do nothing then nothing will change.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


I want to be an equity partner

I recently had a call from a salaried partner in a 12 partner professional firm. Let’s call him ‘Andy’. It was a good few months since the last time we had spoken.

Andy is in his early forties and has been with the firm for around ten years. Last week during his annual appraisal Andy had raised the question as to when he would be invited to join the equity partnership. As a result he has been invited to a meeting of the equity partners to discuss the position. Andy told me that he had reviewed the useful material on this blog and would appreciate any additional tips I might be able to offer him.

I’ve listed five of these below for anyone else in a similar position:

1 – Put yourself in their shoes. What will they want from you?

2 – Consider your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). If your application is refused what will you do? You want to avoid a spontaneous resignation that you later regret.

3 – Evidence your commercial approach. Whilst in theory you want to join the Equity group, you would first want to understand the terms that would apply and the liabilities that you would be sharing. Can you see the partnership agrement? Are there any onerous lease provisions? Annuity obligations? Uninsued lossses? If the senior partners will be retiring in the near future it is the newer partners who will have to share the burden of such liabilities.

4 – Be clear as to whether you are prepared to sacrifice the near certainty of your salaried share for a real variable share of profits or LOSSES. Although this should enable you to gain a more equitable share of the fees (and profits) that you introduce, this will be subject to the impact of losses elsewhere in the firm. Are you sure you don’t just want to secure a performance bonus? If not, be sure you can explain why not.

5 – How much do you want equity? How much capital can you afford to contribute? What if partners are all required to contribute £50k of capital? £100k? £150k? What if the firm doesn’t have an agreement with its bank to facilitate the (inevitable) loan to you that enables you to contribute the capital?

These tips all made sense in the context of Andy’s scenario. They will not all be appropriate in every situation. In particular much will depend upon the relationship that you have with the equity partners. If you’re in a similar position to Andy I hope you find these ideas of some use. If you’d like to have a quick chat before you attend such a meeting, by all means call me. I’d be delighted to help you if I can.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Are you an ‘Accidental Sales Person’?

Few ambitious professionals have ever chosen a career in sales. And yet, regardless of your professional discipline you will, almost by definition, have to be able to generate income. Inevitably that income will come from clients and you will have some, possibly a large, responsibility for helping to generate those ‘sales’.

My friend, Richard White, describes those of us who are in this position as “Accidental sales people”. We didn’t choose to work in sales but it is still an integral part of what we do. Richard’s view is that we will be more successful if we adopt a ‘soft-selling’ style rather than attempt to emulate the salespeople whom we hate. You know – those pushy people who try to persuade people to buy things they don’t want.

We need to ensure that our sales techniques are appropriate and that our prospective clients do not feel we are pressurising them to engage us for services they do not want. For this reason traditional sales training techniques are unlikely to be very effective when trying to help ambitious professionals enhance the results of their networking and client development activities.

I have long admired Richard’s ‘soft-selling’ techniques as they are very similar to solution based selling and consultative selling – being the approaches that I learned some years ago and incorporate into my mentoring programme. In essence the key point is to work with rather than against human nature. Rather than attempt to push your services, soft-selling demands that you first understand the primary motivations of your clients and prospective clients. Then, and only then, you should be able to make your services seem so compelling that they attract your clients to want to engage you.

The skills you need to develop are less a hard nosed approach to selling and more an understanding of human nature and a degree of patience.


Do you earn less than you want to from your smaller clients?

What’s your answer to that question?

What about this one? Do you want more GOOD clients?

And this one? Do you want less frustration from your smaller clients?

Most ambitious professionals would answer ‘yes’ to all 3 questions.

That then leads onto the key question, which is: “So what are you going to do about it?”

The simple fact is that nothing changes just because we wish it to. If we want different outcomes for our business activities we need to do things differently.

I’ve long referred to the following quote in my practice management training courses.

“If you carry on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll carry on making what you’ve always made”

The managing partner of a 14 partner law firm recently told me that he’d tried everything possible to get a couple of key staff to change their behaviours.

They worked hard and were conscientious and loyal. So he didn’t want to let them go. We ran though a number of things he could consider but he claimed he’d tried them all and that none had made an difference. Based on when he was telling me I concluded that there were only two other alternatives:

To accept things were not going to change or to engage an external catalyst to help bring about the changes he sought.

How often do you wish things would change? What are you doing differently to help that change become a reality?