Features
Rachel Wilcox 1 Jun 2017 02:51pm

How accountancy firms can retain the best talent

A third of qualified accountants say they plan to change jobs next year. So how can you make sure you hang on to your best staff? Rachel Willcox outlines a retention strategy

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Caption: Illustration: Michael Driver

Your business is only as good as the people you employ, so it’s no wonder that recruiting good staff has long been high up the list of major business priorities. But more recently the challenge of retaining them has cranked up a notch, as the gig economy becomes a reality and the concept of employee loyalty – particularly among the most recent generation of recruits – becomes increasingly rare.

Social networks mean the time and effort of changing jobs is no longer the barrier it once was. The latest Pay and Bonus survey from recruiter Robert Walters warns that a third of accounting and finance professionals are actively searching for a new job, while a further 29% plan to change jobs in the next year. A similar survey, from the Global Accounting Network, suggests that 61% of UK-based qualified accountants plan on moving on in the next two years.

A certain level of employee churn is necessary for a business, freeing up career ladder-climbing opportunities for ambitious internal candidates and allowing you to inject all-important fresh blood into the fold. However, too much churn is damaging for morale, costly and disruptive. It’s about striking a balance, and yet all too many businesses are missing a trick when it comes to simple strategies for keeping existing high flyers happy, motivated and performing at their best.

Nurture their initiative

Any good employee will leave a workplace that stifles their initiative and gives them too little responsibility. Generation Y employees are much more reluctant to accept the hierarchy, layers and processes that limit their capacity to do things in their own way.

The best people want more of an equal relationship, says Isaac Getz, professor at business school ESCP Europe and author of the bestselling management book Freedom Inc. “Treat employees as responsible adults who can be trusted with their own initiative. When an employee brings up a problem or opportunity never tell them what to do, instead say, ‘You are in charge of this. I trust if you take a bit of time, you’ll find a solution’.”

Have outcome-based goals and be explicit about how individuals’ goals link to the bigger picture at all levels of the business. “We want people to think it’s their business and that they have a responsibility to support the business to grow,” says Jenn Barnett, head of people experience at Grant Thornton UK.

Don’t leave people management to chance

People join great organisations but leave bad managers; the quality of leadership is the biggest factor influencing staff motivation. “Companies that have higher levels of engagement are better performing, and do better at retaining staff,” says Kevin Murray, author of People With Purpose.

Make sure that anyone promoted into a people management role has the right skills, and if not, develop them. “People managers need emotional intelligence,” says Lucy Whitehall, a wellbeing expert at CABA. “It’s about respect and connection, being optimistic, empathic and hopeful.” To drive engagement, managers need to be good listeners and conversationalists.

“Good managers set clear goals, offer constructive feedback, make people feel valued and involve them in decision making,” says Ian Feaver, European director of employee recognition specialist OC Tanner. Getting line managers to think about the risk and implications of staff leaving allows them to focus on strategies to make top performers feel valued, Feaver adds.

Give them opportunities to grow and skills to leave

Good people don’t leave their careers to chance. They are ambitious and know where they are heading. Have a clear personal development programme in place and empower individuals to drive their own careers.

“The talent pool is getting smaller. More open-minded organisations are being creative and moulding roles around people with potential rather than experience,” says Susy Roberts, founder of people management consultancy Hunter Roberts. “Help people play to their strengths rather than focusing on what they don’t do well, and support them accordingly.” Give people choice and ownership about how they develop, whether it’s formal training courses, interactive learning or coaching, Roberts adds.

Don’t limit feedback to an annual appraisal

In contrast to the annual appraisal, which many staff regard as an opportunity for their boss to tell them what they’re doing wrong, timely and ongoing feedback makes them feel valued and helps them to constantly adapt to whatever opportunities are available.

Confidence-building feedback is a gift rather than a negative; see it as ongoing coaching for staff who want to leverage your experience. “It’s about development, not performance,” says Karen Hochrein, EY Global Assurance talent leader.

Really get to know your people

Naming five key team members isn’t hard. But would you know the names of their partners, their family circumstances and the things they do outside of work? What are their career aspirations and previous roles? “How can you possibly help to keep people engaged if you know nothing about them?” asks Dominic Irvine, founder of leadership and management consultancy Epiphanies.

To retain great people, understand what makes them tick, Irvine advises. Think about how you can help them progress in their career and be aware of the context in which they are working. “Reporting to someone who gives a damn, who is helping you succeed and who is empathic to your personal circumstances is not someone most people would want to leave in a hurry to work somewhere else.”

Constantly re-recruit your top performers

Identify your top performers – the staff you’d be really lost without – and recognise that they need constant stimulation. “Typically these people will need a new challenge at least every 18 months, so head them off the path,” says CABA’s Whitehall. “Be honest with them, say you don’t want to lose them and ask what you can do to keep them.”

The answer may lie in mentoring or a sideways move, the opportunity to lead a project or come up with a new idea for the business. “It’s about giving people that same feeling of excitement they got when they first joined,” Whitehall adds.

Grant Thornton’s aim is to have 25% of available roles filled by internal candidates. “We actively target high performers and encourage that mobility. With flatter structures you can’t necessarily offer promotions to keep people,” Barnett says. “People don’t necessarily want more responsibility but they might want a different experience.”

Make sure your staff room matches the shop front

Don’t recruit turnover, warns Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies. “If you create a high expectation – for example by over-promising work-life balance, career progression, and training and development – it will attract people, but if you don’t deliver they will leave. You need to be brave and authentic enough to say, this is the reality of the situation.”

The greater the dissonance between the external brand and the internal brand, the less likely you will be to retain the best people. “Stand by the sell that you used to entice them into your company and make sure that you deliver on the career progression that you promised,” says Kyra Cordrey, a director of recruiter Michael Page Finance & Consultancy.

Build trusting relationships

Understand each other’s drivers, motivations and preferences to build trust from the very start of your working relationship, says Nigel Purse, director at The Oxford Group. “It means employees are more likely to confide in their manager about any issues, rather than suffer in silence and leave the company because they are unhappy with how things are.”
Open discussions about expectations, purpose-build mutual accountability for success and contribute towards the end goal of forging a trusting relationship. “Employees are less likely to feel solely responsible for the inevitable pinch points and won’t feel like they are being taken advantage of while other team members are not pulling their weight,” says Purse.

Tell them how they add value and show them genuine appreciation

Having a purpose in life puts a spring in your step, a buzz in your soul and enthusiasm in your work. “One of the most important things is to keep people feeling involved in what’s going on in the workplace and how they can contribute, and then making them feel as if their contribution is valued,” says Sara Burks at Adaptis. “People perform when they feel good about themselves.”

If employees do something that is culturally relevant, thank them and do it publicly if they are happy with that, Feaver suggests. And when an individual or a team achieves a great result or does a great piece of work, reward them with something tangible. “Celebrate careers and call out publicly how valuable staff are to the business at certain points in their career – make a presentation and say something positive that aligns their achievements with the values of the business. It will also motivate other staff and help to build trust.”

Grant Thornton says its Shared Enterprise Model is about fairness and encouraging transparency about how their business is performing and allowing staff to share in the rewards. “It’s about encouraging the employee voice,” says Barnett.

Goodbye flexible working, hello dynamic/agile working

These days, flexibility in the way staff work is much more than a nice-to-have – it’s a deal breaker. Dynamic working is more than flexible working. “It’s having more of a high-trust, high performance work culture,” explains Cordrey.

“If you have more autonomy and you’re more in control it gives you a boost of confidence and makes you happier,” says Ian MacRae, the author of Motivation and Performance. Also have senior role models who visibly work flexibly.

It has to be a real commitment to offering agility about where and when they work. “This is about outcomes-based results and showing we trust our people to do the right thing and to do good work for our clients,” says Barnett.

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