Is the glass half full, half empty or…?

When you see a glass of wine do you consider it to be half full or half empty? (or are you a typical accountant and point out that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be?)

Ambitious accountants who are good ‘finders’ will tend to see the positive side of life.

They may not always have been optimists but they are likely to apply their knowledge, skills and experience to maximise the likelihood of achieving their preferred outcomes when networking, speaking in public, pitching for work and ‘closing the sale’.

Some people believe that optimism is a deep-seated personality trait. But is this true actually?

Psychologists have gathered compelling evidence that optimism is a skill that people can learn. At one extreme this might involve behavioural cognitive therapy (BCT) to replace negative thought patterns with constructive ones. This approach has been particularly successful in helping people fight depression which is closely linked to pessimism – the opposite of optimism. Effectively therefore it is teaching people to be more optimistic. But of course you don’t have to be ‘on the edge’ to learn how to be more optimistic. You do however need to be open to the idea. Such an attitude of mind will also help reduce the prospect of you coming across as boring.

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Why gamble with your most ambitious staff?

A friend of mine, Stephen Harvard Davis is recognised as the UK’s leading authority on job transition and retaining top talent, He is the author of “Why do 40% of Executives Fail?”

The following observations were inspired by an item on Stephen’s blog in which he addressed the retention issues relevant to top executives in the corporate sector. Whilst some of Stephen’s points apply equally to ambitious accountants, I believe that there are also a number of crucial differences.

Replacing ambitious accountants can be costly and can easily involve as much as twice the salary in hard cash terms. Yet recent studies from the USA suggest that the opportunity costs when top talent leaving a company can be as much as twenty-four times the salary (Based on a salary of £62,000).

Most accountancy firms try to retain ambitious accountants by throwing money at the situation. Every single time I have witnessed this over the years the extra money only buys time; firms looking to poach the best partners and prospective partners will always pay more for potential because they have budgeted for the cost of the recruitment exercise and they are determined it should be successful.

I believe that there are four key steps to retaining your best ambitious accountants:

Step one is to recognise that top talent can be found at all levels within an accountancy firm. It’s not, and never has been, confined to the partner group. Once identified, however, top talent needs to be nurtured, developed and encouraged otherwise it walks. Partners (and managers in the larger firms) therefore, should be rewarded for identifying top talent, developing and nurturing it.

Step two is to understand the reasons for top talent leaving. This means learning what individuals want from their current and prospective role in the firm. Many firms view this as difficult because of the complexity of analysing human relationships. It also makes developing a one size fits all package of benefits difficult.

The result is that many accountancy firms ignore the real reasons for talent loss and blame attractive salaries and benefits on offer from competitor firms. Yet the fact is that top talent tends to be hungry for knowledge and experience and to seek out the firms that can offer them this.

Certain top talent can be therefore be categorised in three ways:

  1. “Knowledge nomads” moving from one firm to another seeking information that adds to their abilities;
  2. “Prospectors”, those that are looking for better career expectations; and
  3. “Relationship Migrants” who seek out a particular type of more senior experienced partner as a teacher and mentor.

Step three is to evidence the firm’s commitment to the individuals concerned in a way that motivates each of them. Top talent tends to be attracted by retention drivers such as, mentoring, coaching, training programmes and also by being able to contribute to the firm’s vision, direction and future. However paying lip-service to this communication will only create resentment. The engagement must be real and motivate the individuals concerned.

Step four is to provide constant feedback and stimulation. There is little point in hoping to retain one or more ambitious accountants if the partners merely pay lip service to their development process. Again external mentoring has a role to play here but partners cannot abrogate their own responsibility for finding out what motivates their star people and contributing to the process.


When you need more than just technical skills

Whilst exam training focuses on developing technical skills most firms need managers and partners 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 your firm. 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; or
  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some firms 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.

Mentoring by an internal senior partner with sufficient time, talent and commitment – or by a trusted third-party – can be equally motivating for managers, senior managers and even junior partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as the other partners would prefer.


Finders, Minders and Binders

In a previous blog I referred to the classical categorisation of professionals:

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Grinders – who do the work
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together

It seems to me that most CPD is focused on enhancing one’s technical knowledge and skills ie: it helps us to become better ‘Grinders’. Beyond this there are some ‘soft skills’ courses but these are rarely tailored to the needs of individuals. This means that the effectiveness of such courses is variable.

The mentoring programme I have developed covers the Finding, Minding and Binding aspects of professional life. My research suggests that the key business skills that fall under these three headings can be summarised as follows:


  • Networking – meeting new people and generating work through those you meet;
  • Speaking in public – being confident and clear whether talking to small or large gatherings;
  • Pitching – asking for work or responding to invitations to tender;
  • Closing – gaining new work on acceptable terms;


  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals;
  • Handling tough clients – managing difficult relationships profitably;
  • Commercial billing – recognising the need to evidence value from the client’s perspective and appreciating the commercial value of our time;
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services;


  • Managing teams – building trust, confidence and leadership potential;
  • Motivating staff – understanding common differences in behaviours, preferences and motivators;
  • Delegating – recognising the key elements of effective delegation and what can be delegated to increase efficiency;
  • Self/time management – avoiding common traps and keeping an effective work/life balance.

Where appropriate I am also able to lead group development sessions on each of the above topics.


Mentoring or coaching ambitious accountants

Accountancy magazine (July 2006) ran an article “Coaching: the new religion”  written by Wilf Altman.  In it he suggested that ‘leading firms of  accountants are surprisingly coy about coaching.’

In my experience however all of the largest firms run partner development programs and most of these include a form of coaching or mentoring.  I agree with Wilf that there is no single definition of ‘coaching’ in the context of “the new religion”.  Many accountants have heard of life coaching, business coaching or success coaching.  We have probably also heard of mentoring – typically where a suitably senior person shares their experience and their wider knowledge of the profession to speed up the development of a less experienced person.

What the process is called however is less important than whether prospective partners and rising stars are motivated to enhance their skills. Most firms tend to rely on senior partners to act as coaches or a mentors.  In practice such partners rarely have the training, talent or time to be reliably effective in such roles.  The candidates cannot complain for fear of damaging their potential for progression and upsetting the senior partner.  The firms imply that the best candidates would take that chance but few people have the confidence that requires.

Increasingly therefore ambitious firms are engaging experienced credible mentors from outside the firm.  Mentors such as myself are not subject to conflicting time constraints or political manoeuvrings within the firm.   We are there for the candidates when required and can provide a tailored programme that includes coaching in those, generally non-technical, skills that the candidate needs to develop further.

Most firms that are not large enough to run their own internal partner development programmes are increasingly looking to find cost effective alternatives.  They want to ensure that their rising stars stay and develop the key business skills they require to be effective and profitable as partners.  Some firms may describe this as ‘coaching’. Others will see this as mentoring – which is possibly more relevant for all but the really experienced partners.  Offering new recruits the (tax-free) benefit of a credible mentor can also assist the recruitment process during the ongoing ‘war for talent’.

This entry was also submitted as a letter for Accountancy magazine and has now been published as such on p23 of the September issue.


Fixed fees

I was recently discussing fixed fees with a forward thinking accountancy firm.

I asked them how ‘fixed’ were the fixed fees that they advertise? They confirmed that once they give a fixed fee quote that they will never seek to bill more than that.

All of which is what I was hoping they would say. But I then asked the crunch question. What happens if the fee is insufficient to cover all of the time charges that are recorded on your time sheets? They admitted that some partners are better at accepting a ‘write-off’ than others. They recognise there is an internal training issue ere, and they are trying hard to deal with it.

The point is this:If the aggregate WIP is greater than the fee that can be billed, someone normally wants to know why, and often tries to ensure that a bigger bill is sent to the client. This is particularly true when fees for an additional service have not been agreed in advance

Where the excess WIP is written off and not billed to the client, the firm will need to ensure that client service does not suffer. The firm may effectively discourage anybody working for that client to spend less time looking after them in the future than they have done in the past. The objective being to have a lower ‘write-off’ of WIP next time round.

Thus the level of client service falls and the level of the client’s satisfaction with the accountant’s service also falls. Within a short period of time the client is bad mouthing the accountant and looking to move elsewhere. A situation to be avoided I would suggest.

My advice would be to ensure that everyone needs to agree how the firm will operate its fixed fees policy, any caveats that need to be given to the clients, how to learn and share the lessons when write-offs arise and how to avoid client service levels falling such that the firm gets bad-mouthed by an unhappy client.

Many firms do operate such policies and it’s my view that such firms will win an increasing amount of new client business. They are satisfying a demand and (currently) such an approach makes them stand out as a better choice than old fashioned firms.


Mentoring prospective partners

I was a guest of Taxation magazine at their Annual Taxation awards ceremony last night. Big black-tie event at the Park Lane Hilton hotel. Met loads of people who had said they’d received my recent email newsletters and that they had not ‘removed’ themselves from my mailing list. Phew!

Sat next to a really nice guy who is the managing partner of a regional office of one of the top ten accountancy firms in the UK. He was very positive and enthusiastic about engaging me to mentor prospective partners in the firm.

He certainly seemed to buy into the proposition that it would benefit the firm and the individuals to engage me to help key mangers develop the business skills required for them to become valuable partners in the firm. He had some very complimentary things to say about me and how his firm could benefit from having me share my ’secrets’ with prospective partners.

He went further and commented that I could probably teach a number of the partners a thing or two too. Especially those partners who are good at the technical side of their role but perhaps less effective as regards the other aspects of their role.


Facilitating partner meetings

Do any of the following sound familiar?

“Our partner meetings would be a lot more productive if they were chaired by an external facilitator.”

“If we let someone else chair the meetings then all partners could contribute equally.”

“Why don’t we ever stick to the agenda and remain focused on the important issues for the firm?

“Other firms involve external facilitators to run partner away days. Why don’t we find out why?”

It was hearing things like this that prompted me to reflect on one of my key achievements in recent years. I was appointed the Chairman of the MRI UK Tax working party in 2001. I was required to organise and chair regular meetings of anything from 12-25 tax partners from the various UK member firms of the MRI network of independent accounting practices. By all accounts I performed so well that many participants wanted me to retain the role even when I left the member firm and had no ongoing connection with MRI.

My facilitation experience goes much wider of course. It includes meetings and training sessions at what was Touche Ross (now Deloitte.), Clark Whitehill, BDO Stoy Hayward, Chiltern plc and the ICAEW Tax Faculty where I was appointed Chairman from 2003-2005.

I suspect that most people would agree that an experienced external facilitator can help ensure that teams can reach higher levels of achievement. When the facilitator has, as I do, significant relevant experience and is willing to share the benefits of his background in a supportive and constructive manner, so much the better.