Filling vacancies at professional firms (part two)

Since posting the first part of this blog on filling vacancies at professional firms I have been delighted by the general agreement that has met my observations. I have also received a number of requests to share what I think could be included on professional firms’ websites to attract the best candidates. And let’s be clear, in some cases we’re not just talking about staff and managers. Some firms are keen to attract prospective partners.

Your website is your first chance to impress anyone who has seen your advert, been approached by a headhunter, or been referred there by a colleague or a recruitment consultant. You will also want your website to reinforce the positive image presented during an interview, whilst networking or through third party referrals.

We all know how important this can be in converting prospective clients and most websites attempt to do the necessary in this regard. But it’s equally important to do the same to attract prospective candidates to fill vacancies. Get it wrong and your website can damage your branding, counter any good impression given previously and negate your recruitment efforts.

I’ve commented previously on the whole ‘websites for professional firms‘ subject so this time I’ll confine my comments to ideas relevant to recruitment. What sort of things might you consider including?

  • Pictures of the office environment – inside and out;
  • Details of any social arrangements that the staff enjoy – eg: football team, quiz nights, regular post-billing celebrations;
  • Quotes from happy staff – especially from some who have joined you from bigger firms and why they prefer your firm – also from some who have joined you from smaller firms and why they prefer your firm;
  • Anything that YOUR STAFF have told you makes your firm special and different;
  • Pictures of happy, smiling partners and evidence that they are nice people to work for;
  • Summary of standard benefits that you provide;
  • A mention of any exciting or unusual clients (eg: TV actors, sportspeople, MPs, models, cartoonists);
  • Evidence of how and when staff can expect to benefit from personal development as well as technical training;
  • A note of the firm’s commitment (if any) to personal coaching and mentoring by a reputable third party;
  • The team spirit that permeates the office;
  • The firm’s commitment to effective communication using an intranet;
  • How the firm endeavours to remove the drudgery of basic tasks – eg: through outsourcing or specific computer programmes;
  • Whether home-working is permitted and, if so, the IT links that facilitate this;
  • Evidence as far as possible to support what are probably pretty standard and common assertions about working at the firm;
  • Reference to any awards for which the firm, partners or teams have been nominated and/or won;
  • Comments that evidence the firm recognises that the quality of its service to clients and its long term profitability are dependent upon the quality and happiness of all who work in the firm;

Overall the aim should be to make it quite clear that prospective staff, managers and parters are just as important an audience as are prospective clients and that you offer careers rather than just want to fill vacancies.

If you’re aware of good examples of this sort of thing or can think of anything I’ve omitted from this list please add your comments and links to this posting.


Preparing for a coaching session

Following my recent post about preparing for meetings it seemed logical to set out some of the questions I ask coaching and mentoring candidates to consider before we start work.

The precise questions will depend upon the issues that require attention. Sometimes these will have become apparent from a skills self audit On other occasions the individual or their managing partner will have identified key issues that need to be addressed.

So the questions I would ask might be:

  • What prompted you to seek an external mentor/coach?
  • What specific concerns do you have as regards [key issue]?
  • What do you think are the key reasons for any shortfalls?
  • What are the 3 most valuable lessons you have learned to date as regards your personal development?

Any further questions tend to be more specific.

If you have any concerns that you are not performing as well as you could be, you might like to consider how you would respond to the first 3 questions. Answers to the fourth one provide an insight into what and how you prefer to learn things and can help determine the approach I would take so as help you to gain maximum benefit from our sessions.


Spotting opportunities and going for them

I’ve never been one of those people who thinks that ‘life sucks’. I’ve long believed that keeping a positive outlook is more likely to enable me to succeed than anticipating the worst. I’m lucky, I guess, as the trained Accountant in me ensures that I remain prudent and not TOO optimistic.

You know what they say:

  • To the optimist, the glass is half full.
  • To the pessimist, the glass is half empty AND
  • To the accountant, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

I’m launching a new venture shortly – an independent network of tax advisers. It’s a natural extension of my current focus on helping ambitious professionals, especially accountants. More on this in due course. The point I wanted to make in this blog though is how important it is to keep an eye out for opportunities and then to go for them. And I wanted to do that with a couple of examples:

I became aware a couple of weeks back of someone else who is also developing a network of tax advisers. His is very different to mine and there will be an element of overlap – but not much. I got in touch and explained that we could both benefit from additional PR. However newsworthy I hope my launch will be, the fact that two such networks are launching at around the same time will surely justify enhanced coverage in the professional press and possibly elsewhere too. I’m pleased to say that my view was shared and I plan to take this forwards in the next few weeks.

I also noted that Chiltern plc has recently been acquired by BDO Stoy Hayward so will no longer be the largest independent tax consultancy in the UK. Once news sinks in that BDO Chiltern is owned by an accountancy firm I wonder what will be the impact on the smaller firms that use Chiltern’s tax support facilities. I posted a couple of observations against online stories about the takeover last weekend. One of my contributions was then published as a letter in Accountancy Age and has led to two quite exciting enquiries.

Again the news is very timely as regards the imminent launch of my new network. If I was purely focussed on what I was doing however I might not have spotted this or been able to benefit from it.

I’m trying to avoid focusing here on my new venture – I’m just using a couple of very recent experiences to highlight the benefits of keeping an eye out for opportunities and going for them.

Let me add one very important caveat: The opportunities I referred to above are consistent and congruent with my personal and professional plans. The opportunities are not a distraction. If they were I would be foolish to have pursued them. You will not succeed in your professional career if you attempt to grab every opportunity without any form of plan as to what it is you are seeking to achieve.

You do have a plan don’t you?


Managing your online reputation

It is becoming more and more common to ‘Google’ someone before meeting them for the first time – whether for a potential business meeting, to interview them or to be interviewed by them. If someone Googles you now or in the future what will be revealed?

I’ve just given an interview to a journalist who is writing an article about the possible uses of Facebook by certain professional advisers. During our conversation I outlined what I saw as some of the benefits and also the dangers of professional advisers playing around on Facebook. And I explained why my comments apply equally to other forms of online networking sites.

Possibly the 3 most well known and useful such platforms to professional advisers are:

  • LinkedIn – currently largely used by corporate job hunters, those who are headhunting them and those who know them;
  • Ecademy – mainly small businesses and corporate refugees who have set up their own business/consultancy; [Edited: Sadly Ecademy closed down in 2012]
  • Facebook – mainly used for sharing how much fun you’re having in your life. So this is seen as the main ‘social’ networking site.

Until September 2006, Facebook was only available to ‘college students’ but as they graduated so they wanted to continue to CONNECT with the people they knew. And everyone they knew and wanted to stay in touch with was on Facebook. It is now becoming ubiquitous but sadly a lot of people who are experimenting with Facebook or just playing around may be creating problems for themselves down the line.

I titled this blog ‘Managing your online reputation’ for a reason. These days Google is recording history in real time. Everything we post online is there for the future and can be found by Google and the other search engines. That means that when someone Googles our name – before meeting us, interviewing us or being interviewed by us, they can find out:

  • What we’ve said and written;
  • What we like/dislike;
  • What other people have said about us (good or bad);
  • Who we’re associated with and what other people have said about them (good or bad);
  • Where we’ve been and what we’ve done and who we were with;
  • And so on.

Thomas Power, the founder of Ecademy explains that the online networking sites are just like online magazines. Our profiles on the sites are just like adverts in a magazine. We’d always be careful about the impression we gave in an advert – so we should be careful about the impression we give with our profiles. And that presents an interesting challenge for ambitious professionals. On the one hand we want to control what Google finds when people look for us online. On the other hand we want to secure new profitable referral and work opportunities for our interactions on these sites.

If you just create a simple, professional profile on these sites, as your online advert, you will find it about as successful as waving your business card around in a dark room. No one will find your profile unless you shine a torch on it. You do that by interacting on the networking site, commenting on blogs, asking and answering questions, creating your own blogs, postings on the Facebook wall, joining and contributing to clubs and groups. Being seen to be a valuable person online. And this takes time.

Initially it’s best though to take it slowly. Join. Watch. Dip a toe in the water.Explore. Contribute. Help others. All this before you ask for help yourself. And all this whilst keeping in mind the need to manage your online reputation.

Incidentally – why had the journalist contacted me to talk about this topic? Because the editor of her magazine had seen my previous postings on the subject and was aware that I had established a number of groups on Facebook. My online reputation as a writer and speaker on this and related subjects for ambitious professionals is growing. Why? Because I’m managing it. At least as well as I can.

I’ll return to this theme in a future posting on this blog. In the mean time I’d welcome feedback and thoughts about what I’ve posted above.

Here’s a link to my previous blogs about uses of Facebook by professional advisers.

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Why is anyone Hired or Fired?

Years ago I was told that People are hired because they are liked and fired because they’re not!

Whilst this maxim is no doubt true in many cases I think it does not reflect what really happens in many professional firms. That is that people get hired because of their perceived technical skills and knowledge. Their personal attributes are also important and these will often take priority when it comes to deciding whether or not the individual is going to make partner.

Being technically brilliant and highly chargeable will often help you move up the ranks but it will rarely enable you to achieve partnership. Occasionally it will be enough but more often than not, to paraphrase my opening comment, People are only invited to become partners if they are liked.

Ok. I know that’s very simplistic. It’s worth reflecting on though as the apparent headline reasons that people are invited to become partners are almost always a reflection of the individual’s likeability. eg:

  • A big portfolio of clients that would go elsewhere with the individual if they left;
  • A proven winner of significant profitable new work from new clients;

What personal criteria can you think of that enable people to be made partner and which do not rely on them being likeable in one way or another?

And what have you done today to help reinforce your own likeability?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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