“Don’t measure success on what you’ve achieved,” says Graeme Allan, managing partner of Aberdeen-based accountancy firm Anderson Anderson & Brown LLP (AAB), “measure success on what everyone around you achieves.”
Graeme’s accountancy firm moved into the Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list this year – one of just three accountancy firms present – and the BDLN is on a mission to find out what separates those in the Top 100 from the rest.
“Getting into the Top 100 is our proudest achievement,” says Graeme. “It means the staff genuinely think that this is a great place to work. We’ve been working with Best Companies and their benchmarking tools for a number of years and have made slight progress every year, listening to feedback each time. Making it into the Top 100 is special.”
Clearly, AAB sees strong staff satisfaction and reaching the Top 100 as critical measures of success. The BDLN is willing to bet that almost all accountancy firms would, in theory, agree with their choice of metrics. “We see staff satisfaction as hugely important,” they would say, PR hats perched jauntily on heads.
But the fact is that only three accountancy firms appear in the Top 100 (medium and small list). That would suggest that far fewer accountancy firms are willing to put their money where their mouth is to build strong staff satisfaction and truly compelling working environments. What it implies is that, in reality, other metrics are prioritised, often at the expense of staff satisfaction.
Being accountants we all love a number…but I’d like to think we judge success in other ways too, such as our offices and [our] development programmes…
“Being accountants we all love a number, so there’s a tendency to focus on the numbers,” says Graeme. “But I’d like to think we as a firm judge success in other ways too, such as our investment in our new offices and the development programmes we run to improve both soft skills and technical competencies.”
Graeme tells the BDLN where he believes AAB has got it right: “Five years ago we decided to create a strong management team and built a management development programme based on three things – trust, accountability and feedback. We wanted to give the management team the tools to run the business day to day. We’ve now pushed that development programme right down to assistant managers. The more people who understand and can run the business, the better. But the most significant part has been making learning and development part of the everyday. We have training courses, but actually learning from others on the job is integral to how we develop our people. It’s become an everyday thing.”
Good communication also plays a huge part in staff satisfaction, says Graeme. “You can never over-communicate with your people,” he says. “If one thing came back from the Top 100 survey the first time we did it, it was that staff wanted more communication. That was a wake-up call because we thought we were pretty good at it. But we’ve since realised that you can never tell people enough about what’s happening in the business. We hold champagne receptions three or four times a year. They’re about taking your foot off the gas to recognise key achievements. Even though you’re all under one roof, it’s amazing how much can pass you by unless you make an effort to talk about it.”
You can never over-communicate with your people. Even though you’re all under one roof, it’s amazing how much can pass you by unless you make an effort to talk about it
Creating support groups has also been critical to making the Top 100. “Everyone in the management and leadership team has been divided into ‘accountability groups’ of around six people,” explains Graeme. “They meet up every six weeks to share experiences. People get support from the others around them. It’s hugely powerful in those groups when a partner shares what they’re struggling with. Everyone thinks: ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’ The accessibility of the partners in this firm is high. It’s not just about the door being open – we put on many social and sporting events and the partners are usually the first people to sign up.”
The idea of the partners leading and driving the business forward is critical at AAB. “It’s my job to help people to understand what the attributes of a partner are,” says Graeme. “I tell those with partner aspirations this: firstly, being a partner is about having an ownership mentality. It’s about owning the business. Secondly, getting to partner isn’t the end of the journey. It’s the start of a new journey. Anyone who wants to make partner here needs to understand that partners don’t just sit back and think ‘I’ve made it’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Partners should not be treating their firms like lifestyle businesses, like they have a number of people working for them
“This won’t make me popular with partnerships but the best way for a partnership to improve its profitability is for the partners to work more,” continues Graeme. “Partners should not be treating their firms like lifestyle businesses, like they have a number of people working for them. Instead they should be focusing on driving the business forward and working more effectively. And you can’t drive the business forward without an engaged workforce. You just can’t.”
The BDLN suggests it all goes back to how you measure success. It appears that some accountancy firms – perhaps more than the sector would care to admit – still regard success as creating an organisation in which staff are employed with the distinct aim of allowing the partners to both work less and personally profit more. Others, such as AAB – those knocking on the door of the Top 100 – see success as building an organisation where everyone, led by the partners, is engaged, fulfilled and works as a team.
In the battle for talent, only one of these two models will be the winner.
Graeme Allan is managing partner of Aberdeen-based accountancy firm Anderson Anderson & Brown LLP (AAB). AAB moved into the Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list this year – one of just three accountancy firms present.