Getting sufficient support for your practice

The main topic for discussion at last month’s meeting of The Inner Circle was: How do you get the right staff and support for your practice?

The topic had been raised during a number of the conversations I had with members after the previous meeting. Not all have staff however.

We met at The Eight Club in Moorgate, London and members of The Inner Circle again benefited from the willingness they all had to share their experiences and insights during our round table discussion. In accordance with one of our key membership principles everyone agreed to abide by the Chatham House Rule.

During the morning we discussed a range of related issues including:

  • Formulating job specs and people specs; being clear as to what you really need and how to assess candidates’ suitability.
  • Using your website to effectively support your message and what works in practice including related tools and automated systems.
  • Sourcing, managing, liaising with and relying on home workers and other remote workers (either in the UK or overseas).
  • Making interviews more informative and a better filter.
  • Titles and roles that appeal and which motivate – whether or not they are on staff.
  • Inducting new workers effectively – whether or not they are on staff.
  • Motivating the right people to stay with you.

At the end of the meeting everyone shared their key learning points and takeaways. Two observations stood out in this regard.

One member said he didn’t have any staffing issues but he still valued the meeting and had benefitted from some of the related issues we addressed. Another member who had been making copious notes announced that there was so much he would be doing as a result of attending the meeting he wasn’t sure where to start.  We’ll address that when I have my catchup call with him later this week!

After the meeting I circulated to all members my summary of all of the identified key learning and action points. I also shared links to the third party sites mentioned during the meeting and also to some of my blog posts that address related issues.

If you’d like to know more about The Inner Circle, just click this link>>>


Recruitment tips for accountants seeking new staff

Another day, another request for me to to help find someone to fill a vacancy at a smaller firm. On this occasion it’s for a sole practitioner in the Berks/Oxfordshire area. I thought it might be helpful to list out some of the elements of my advice:

– Create a simple job spec that identifies what the new recruit will need to be able to do (ie: the must haves) and also what else he/she could do if they have the skill, experience and interest (the nice to haves); If you can, go further and determine what personal characteristics the candidate must have – but do think carefully about these. Do you need someone who has gained a specific professional qualification or is their practical experience of more value? Experience doing what exactly? The more precise you are the fewer unsuitable  people you will see and the less time you will waste interviewing them.

– Determine an appropriate salary range for the role. You may need to seek input from specialist recruiters to get this right. You will generally struggle to attract anyone if you haven’t decided what the pay range will be. Equally you will waste your time interviewing people who want more than you’re offering.

– Ask around your contacts, friends, family and anyone else if they are aware of anyone who might be suitable for the role. (Provide a copy of the job spec if asked);

– Remember that most suitable applicants will probably look at your website before deciding whether or not to attend an interview, so ensure that the vacancy is promoted on your website (if you have one); If you have other staff, you are in a good position to make your vacancy and firm more attractive than the alternatives. I’ve addressed this issue before in a couple of posts here about: Filling vacancies at professional firms

– Speak to the specialist recruiters for accountancy firms (or indeed the tax specialist recruiters if the role is a tax one); Seek their advice and input. They generally only charge a fee when they secure a placement. The more experienced recruiters will give you honest unbiased advice. It’s worth taking this on board rather than guessing at what is a reasonable salary for the role, even if ultimately you are able to fill the vacancy without the agent’s help.

Do readers have any other related tips to share?


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.


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

In parts one and two of this series, I summarised the first four steps that accountancy firms and other ambitious professional service firms need to consider if they want to attract and retain the right people to work for them.

Having made a job offer and had it accepted we can now move onto the fifth crucial stage that is often overlooked. It also provides an opportunity to enhance the interview process itself.

Before I summarise the fifth stage, please bear with me as I reflect on a relevant experience I still remember from over twenty years ago.

It was the first day of my new job as a senior manger in a 12 partner firm of accountants. I was in my late 20s and I immediately knew I’d made a mistake in accepting the job offer. I had been met by the partner who had recruited me and was led up to the third floor of the offices where the other tax staff worked, well away from the rest of the staff. I arrived to find a pretty empty office, save for a filing cabinet, a chair and a desk which was piled up with files. Thereafter I was pretty much left to my own devices. Ok, I had, and still have, enormous reserves of initiative but both I and my recruiter had over-estimated how much I could do without any real guidance or support. I knew I’d made a mistake and considered going back to my previous firm almost immediately. In the event I stuck it out for 6 months before taking steps to move on.

5 – Induction. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Over the last twenty years I have been a great advocate of induction packs for new recruits. These can be separate packs or supplemental to the statutory HR and payroll related material. The ones I have used are generally simple checklists with space for ticks and dates. Essentially they identify all the things, under various headings, that a new recruit (for the role in question) would need to know. Even in very small offices the amount of information that new recruits have to assimilate can be daunting. The checklist can become a prompt (reviewed as part of the induction process, over the first weeks and months) to help provide a balance between spoon-feeding and leaving the new recruit to use their initiative all the time.

The real value of such a checklist though is actually during the interview process. You can show it to the candidate to evidence your commitment to an effective induction process. Its mere existence can help evidence that you are not making empty promises about how you do things and how you care about your staff’s personal development and training.


So there we have it. Five simple steps that can help you win the war for talent. As a mentor to ambitious professionals I would be delighted to work with you to elaborate on each of these points.

Equally you may want to go one step beyond your competitors and evidence to potential recruits your genuine commitment to their future personal development. Imagine the impact of promising them that as part of their induction they will receive 6 or 12 months mentoring by an external expert who operates completely outside of the firm’s political processes and whose only task is to help with their ongoing personal and management development. I’d be delighted to discuss with you how this could be arranged.


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.


8 tips on retaining and attracting new partners

A friend of mine, Stephen Harvard Davis, is an expert at helping businesses retain top talent. I’ve just been inspired to add this item to my blog having read something similar on Stephen’s blog which focuses more on job transition in larger corporate businesses.

1 – Don’t presume that good prospective partners will always be available.

When I ask managing partners and team leaders what is the biggest issue facing their firms the reply is invariably related to partnership succession. Retaining good people who might be tempted away is one concern. Another is the difficulty of distinguishing the firm, especially the smaller and medium-sized one, such that prospective new partners are motivated to join.

2 – Identify the skills and specialist knowledge the firm needs to sustain it into the future and how you are going to attract it.

Do you just need an additional partner to make up the numbers or to add new specialisms? Is the work flow already there for them or will they have to spend a lot of their time winning new work? If a partner is coming up for retirement do you need someone with the same skills (and if so how easy will it be to find them?) or might this be an opportunity to enhance the skill set of the partner group?

3 – Look at how your competitors attract and retain their new partners.

What actions can you adopt and improve? Can you make a valuable promise that they can’t easily match? How about a mentoring course provided by a credible external expert as evidence of the firm’s intention to help the new recruit develop and enhance their skill set? [Obviously I would suggest that wouldn’t I, but only because it make sense.]

4 – Don’t throw money at prospective partners.

Retaining or attracting partners by using salaries and guaranteed profit shares is destined to fail. The simple reason is that there will always be another firm that can offer more money and besides, the right new partner for your firm isn’t always attracted just by money.

5 – Identify the reasons why prospective partner would be attracted to work for your firm.

What makes your firm different? The people? The partners? Is that enough or is just a cop-out? How can you evidence your promises and commitment to the prospective new recruit?

6 – Identify the reasons why your partners might be attracted to work for a competitor firm.

It can be dangerous to assume that just because none have left that they haven’t considered doing so. Some prospective partners may be just biding their time waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

7 – Don’t treat all partners and prospective partners the same way.

Everyone is different so a ‘one size fits all’ policy doesn’t work as there are different types of partner and they are looking for different things from a firm – whether it’s the one they trained with or it’s one they moved to more recently.

8 – Remember that if you lose one person you consider a prospective partner then ‘the risk’ of you losing others increases by 50%.

Equally if you attract someone who has the right attributes then the chance of attracting more people like that increases by 50%.


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.