Now, thanks to the advent of the digital revolution and the omnipresence of online networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, partners have a new skill to master - social media. These days it’s not just your physical presence that counts; your virtual presence can count just as much - if not more.
Heather Townsend, an expert on networking and co-author of How to make partner and still have a life, believes that aspiring partners ignore social media at their peril. “If you’re building a client portfolio, you need to be clear about who you are and what you do,” she says. “To get the buzz and the profile you need, you have to use social media. Even people who go on recommendations will check who you are online.”
No one can escape the social media boom
“Increasingly, business development skills will be more important to partners than technical skills, and social media is an invaluable tool for business development,” concurs Fiona Hotston Moore, tax and business advisory partner with south-east firm Reeves. She highlights having a LinkedIn profile as being particularly important to accountants.
“LinkedIn is essential for professionals selling their services both in terms of demonstrating credibility in their field and also as a sales tool.” Indeed, her stance is backed up by LinkedIn’s own research. A survey of IT decisionmakers by the site found that 85% have used at least one social network for making business decisions while nearly three-quarters (73%) have used it to communicate with a vendor.
“No one can escape the social media boom,” says Allan Evans, marketing partner at BDO. “Face-to-face discussions won’t go away as that’s the bread and butter of our business. But social media can fill the gaps and provide additional insights and touch points. Plus, it’s truly staggering how many face-to-face meetings result from an initial ‘virtual’ connection.” Social media is taken seriously by the firm, which trains its partners in how to use it, helps them to create their own digital identity and highlights the risks associated with the channel.
At Reeves, all partners and managers are trained on LinkedIn and the programme will soon be rolled out to trainees. “It’s important our team is trained in how to use LinkedIn to demonstrate their professional skills and to reflect their personality,” says Hotston Moore. “The accountancy profession has changed. We need to sell more consultancy services. Outside the Big Four, clients buy these services from individuals. We have to demonstrate technical expertise, commercial acumen and an interesting personality.”
Fiona Hotston Moore
In my view, Twitter is not for every partner
Building an interesting personality online is, of course, easier said than done and this is where pitfalls lie, particularly for accountants who are not accustomed to having a public profile. “People do need to understand the tool they’ve got in their hands because using it inappropriately can certainly do more damage to their career than good,” says Elaine Clark, managing director of CheapAccounting.co.uk and an avid Twitter user.
Out of the main social media channels, Twitter probably poses the highest risks in a professional context. But is there a danger that aspiring partners might feel under pressure to tweet even if they don’t feel comfortable about doing it? Townsend doesn’t believe that firms are forcing their people to tweet and says use of the site comes down to individual choice. “In my view, Twitter is not for every partner,” observes Hotston Moore. “But it is useful for business or sector leaders as a medium for proactively sharing views and ideas with a professional and press audience.”
“We have one guiding principle: think before you type,” Evans explains. “Would you be happy to say it to our managing partner or comfortable if it appeared on the front page of the Financial Times tomorrow? If not, don’t say it.”
So what if you’re more Greta Garbo than Lady Gaga when it comes to enjoying the limelight? Will your hopes of partnership be dashed if you keep schtum on social media? “People make partner for different reasons,” notes Evans. “A large part is the client service you deliver each day. Different temperaments work for different clients so it’s not about being the loudest or most opinionated in the room.”
But Townsend warns that while it’s not yet the case that an aversion to social media could be career-limiting, this could change over the next five years. “People who are building a brand are more likely to get noticed for the right reasons,” she says.
Of course, no debate on the merits of using social media to smooth your path to the top would be complete unless it represented the views of the Twittersphere. So what did my own followers have to say on the topic?
“I don't think being good on Twitter is a must-have skill, but it certainly helps,” said Alun Morgan @alundavidmorgan. “And the Twitter account needs a personal touch.”
“I don't think it's ever going to be the overriding or decisive factor in Ptnr appts! BD + comm skills and experience more valued,” was the view of Edwin Huang @ExH_Tax.
Of course, the secret to making a success of social media – particularly Twitter – is treating it as a mechanism for having a conversation, rather than as a platform for broadcasting your own achievements. So would-be partners need to think carefully about the audience they are talking to and the sort of content that they post.
In general, the profession is still finding its way with social media and there’s plenty of room for improvement. “The majority of partners in professional services firms are crap at it,” observes one senior figure, who did not wish to be named. But if you see yourself as a potential partner of the future, social media could be key in helping you to stand out.
Which accountants are already making a name for themselves on Twitter?
He might be the CEO of Grant Thornton, but the marketing department doesn’t draft his tweets.
The head of BDO’s India advisory team likes to tweet about cricket (and accountancy, of course).
The managing director of CheapAccounting.co.uk has over 3,600 followers (impressive for an accountant) and has won new clients through Twitter.
Despite having a Big Four firm to manage, KPMG’s senior partner still finds time to tweet.
A tax and business advisory partner with Reeves, Hotston Moore is an outspoken champion of women in business.
An enemy of tax avoiders, Murphy is known for his controversial views. This helps to explain his whopping 18,000 Twitter followers.
She’s one of the most senior women at EY and a fountain of knowledge on entrepreneurs.