This is the clear message from Matthew Lee, managing partner of Bishop Fleming – one of just two accountancy firms to make this year’s Sunday Times ‘Best 100 (medium sized) Companies to Work For’ list.
There are relatively few professional services firms on the list, and we’re making it our mission to share their stories and methods. So far we’ve spoken in depth to the managing partners of two ‘Best 100’ firms: Mills & Reeve and Stephens Scown. Both told us that one thing has been critical to their success: a culture that elevates respect and teamwork and breaks down hierarchy. Of course, both achieve that ambition differently, but the themes are tellingly similar.
Now a third firm on the Sunday Times Best 100 list – Bishop Fleming – tells us that it too makes a culture of teamwork and respect its utmost priority.
“My view is that if you look after the staff and look after the clients then the money follows,” says Matthew Lee, who has been managing partner of Bishop Fleming for 15 years.
If you look after the staff and look after the clients then the money follows
“If you want to change behaviour, you have to change the way you keep score. So if you want accountants to act differently, you have to judge them – and in turn financially incentivise them – appropriately. At firms where people are strongly incentivised on individual financial performance, you encourage silo mentality and poor behaviour. Bishop Fleming rewards based on four criteria: clients, systems, staff and finance. Finance is the least important measure.
“The criteria are enshrined in our LLP and we use them each year when awarding partner bonuses. We look at things like retaining clients (as well as attracting them), staff retention, assisting others to win work, and developing junior partners. Last of all we look at the numbers.”
Encouraging behaviour that benefits the firm as a whole – rather than dog-eat-dog individualism – is clearly a key factor at Bishop Fleming. Matthew gives the example of a failed business he acquired a few years ago. “At the firm we acquired, everyone had personal fee targets and was incentivised above all else to generate new work and boost turnover. That created many bizarre situations. For example, the corporate tax team did personal tax returns rather than handing them to the personal tax department because it generated fees for their line. The model was setting everyone against everyone else.
Matthew continues: “If you say to accountants, the person who gets the biggest profit share this year will earn the most money and get the most respect, you create an unholy scramble and some very negative behaviour. People think: ‘I want my numbers to be higher than yours, so I’ll do everything I can to make that happen, rather than see how we can work together to make the overall cake bigger.”
I want my numbers to be higher than yours, so I’ll do everything I can to make that happen, rather than see how we can work together to make the overall cake bigger
At Bishop Fleming, fee earners do not hold all the aces and clients are not seen as ‘belonging’ to individual partners.
“It’s all about finding the right person for the job,” says Matthew. “We encourage a culture where the job is handed to the best team for that particular client. If someone ‘gives’ a job away, they are rewarded more highly at the end of the year than the person who eventually got the client.”
That ethos has resulted in a ‘pool’ system where work is divided objectively. Matthew explains: “We work as an office team and let the managers – not the partners – decide the workflow based on client need. The partners do not interfere. We don’t say to the managers that we want A, B and C on my job because they’re good. We say to the managers: ‘You guys must manage this lot based on best balance’. To avoid silos we have a pool of staff who work to a pool of managers, who work to a pool of partners.”
So far we’ve seen the carrots but what about the sticks? How does Bishop Fleming deal with undesirable behaviour? “I monitor every exit interview to see if patterns emerge,” says Matthew. “We have zero tolerance for bullying – in the past we’ve asked financially high performing individuals to leave because they’ve achieved their high performance by hammering their staff. That doesn’t make for a happy ship.
If anyone creates an atmosphere that contaminates those who work with them, that person has to go
“From time to time a bad egg will appear. And if anyone creates an atmosphere that contaminates those who work with them, that person has to go. If you have someone with corrosive nature, my view is that you should squeeze them out.”
Bishop Fleming has a crystal-clear approach: down with individualism and up with teamwork. It’s equally clear that approach is the driving force which has pushed the firm into the Sunday Times Best 100 list. Profit is of course important, but more important is having a happy, fulfilled ship. Last word to Matthew: “In professional services you are selling people’s time and you can only do that successfully if those people are engaged with you, engaged with their clients, and happy in their work.”
Matthew Lee, managing partner of Bishop Fleming – one of just two accountancy firms to make this year’s Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list