With few exceptions, talent challenges are a common theme for practices all over the world. The pressures are legion, from experienced staff leaving for industry roles to a tight pipeline of new entrants to the profession, from Covid-19 and the great resignation to greater salary demands amid rising inflation and a worrying global economic outlook.
All this at a time when practices are seeing a ripening environment for business development, with new clients falling from the branches of the Big Four and other firms, combined with brimming SME and startup sectors.
‘There’s a big chance to win marquee clients, but a tricky dilemma if you can’t service them’
Scott Golding, associate portfolio director at practice recruitment specialist AJ Chambers, says: ‘What must be incredibly frustrating for owners and equity holders is that this crisis for talent has coincided with an opportunity to win bigger and better work. With EY offloading its advisory services and the cascade impact of these larger clients trickling down to the wider market, there’s a big chance to win some very exciting marquee clients, but a tricky dilemma if for capacity reasons you can’t service them.’
Dipping into the talent market for the skills, knowledge and experience you need is an increasingly expensive option and a wild ride for many HRs and practice owners. The much more practical alternative is to focus on retaining key staff by showing they are valued. Golding says: ‘Setting your stall out early, with clear communication of what milestones need to be met to achieve promotions, and allowing more freedom and responsibility and earning potential, is key for ambitious personnel.’
A focus on learning, development, progression and succession is also vital, as are non-salary benefits such as flexibility, work with purpose, mental health schemes and private health insurance. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a retentive environment, but the sooner you make a start on the effort the better.
The firm’s culture is based on trust, empowerment and a sense of belonging
While staffing challenges and skills shortages are real, they are not insurmountable, as the case of Scrutton Bland shows. Over the past two and a half years, the UK-based practice has increased its staff numbers through hiring and retention.
The firm has cultivated a culture based on doing the right thing, trust, empowerment and a sense of belonging. It mentors and knowledge-shares, encourages self-development and exploration with learning and development tools, and promotes internal moves.
Key to the firm’s long-term retention strategy is internal progression and ‘growing its own’ through apprenticeship, trainee and graduate schemes, looking externally only to supplement the workforce. ‘The idea is to get, keep and grow staff,’ says HR director Caroline Bixby. The nine current equity partners pursued a mix of career routes, from trainees to graduates and industry experience, showing that there’s opportunity to climb to the top whatever the background.
Many employees also want to be part of something good, to feel they have a say and are listened to
The practice’s neurodiverse-friendly L&D systems understand and support different learning styles and paths to provide the best possible on-the-job training. And staff are encouraged to move between departments to gain experience and a better idea of what the firm does – and where their career could go within it. It also gets people to work in inter-service groups for specific purposes, such as identifying and resolving technology barriers. It helps build a feeling of ownership, and may also bring benefits to clients and the firm’s bottom line.
The strategy of cultivating an inclusive and engaging company culture has proven effective amid the talent war. While being well rewarded is very important, many employees also want to be part of something good, to feel they have a say and are listened to, that there’s a place for them, and that they’re recognised for their work. ‘It’s a thread that runs through the whole firm, people wanting to do the right thing,’ says Bixby.
And people want to trust and be trusted. A key retention proposition, especially since the pandemic, is providing genuine flexibility, something highlighted in ACCA’s Global talent trends 2023 report. Flexibility comes down to trust, says Bixby, who has noticed a rise in performance and a fall in sick days taken by staff since the pandemic’s darkest days.
‘People have felt able to take time out when they need to and work to their own schedules to meet commitments,’ she adds. ‘One of the things we really pushed in the early days of the pandemic was trusting our people, communicating, making sure they know what’s expected, but also making sure they’re not working excessively at home, because it’s easy to do.’
Compensate, communicate, collaborate
Scott Golding’s top three retention tips:
- Be competitive with your benefits and offer flexibility and progression.
- Have constant communication with your key team members on what the opportunities look like for them and what they need to accomplish to achieve the next pay rise, promotion, etc.
- Build a team-oriented environment, by encouraging collaboration and team-building exercises, events, etc.