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How to avoid progression block at your firm

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Feb 2023

Young talent want to see a clear progression path if they are to commit themselves to an organisation. How can audit firms provide them with that path?

Appreciation and progression matters. A 10-year, 200,000 person study by OC Tanner Learning Group found that 79% of employees leave their jobs not because their pay is too low but because of a lack of appreciation. 

“If I see another employment survey where people are saying: ‘My manager is not interested in my development, my manager doesn't consult with me, my manager is not interested in my progression…’” says Dominic Ashley-Timms, CEO of Notion Business Coaching and creator of the management development programme STAR. “I see this regularly in employment surveys even now, when we’re facing all the retention issues we’ve got. We’re not responding fast enough as employers.”

Younger millennials and Generation Z, particularly, are driven by the need to feel they are progressing, says Ashley-Timms. They have grown up in an environment where a lot of things are gamified: they are used to being given challenges and goals, meeting those goals and being rewarded for doing so. They’re more willing to openly question their superiors about their opportunities for progression. 

Post-pandemic, older millennials and Gen X are also looking for more coaching and progression, so this issue needs to be addressed without delay, he says. Having worked with accounting firms to develop progression plans that attract and retain more talent, he is aware of the issues within firms with a traditional model: “It can be years before you get a promotion, and there’s nothing in between. There’s no sense of accomplishment.”

Senior partners need to create the conditions for progression if they want to compete effectively for new talent, he says. There must be a structure for regular development. There needs to be a culture of positive engagement and encouragement, “Otherwise, people are just coming to work to do their transactional job.”

Firms need to identify the levels of advancement they can put in place; this might be based on the scope of the work people are able to do, the size of client they can handle or the functional nature of the work they can do and what they can take on. 

“We need to sit down and think about how we can do that – and not in an artificial way. We can build a competency model around this that clearly indicates what employees will need to do to move to the next step. We need to set goals, and we need to have them strive to accomplish those goals.” 

This also requires those in management to develop different relationships with their employees. A structure with clear competency models and progression plans will still not work if senior leaders are not engaging with their employees. Managers need to spend more time speaking with their team members about their progression goals, challenging them with targets and offering support to help them meet those targets. 

“We want to push them hard, we want to stretch them. We want to help them get to a point where they’re contributing meaningfully to our business as quickly as possible. It’s a high-coaching culture, with regular one-to-ones.”

Every one-to-one has two purposes, says Ashley-Timms. First, to help the individual progress according to the goals set for them. Second, to help them progress towards their personal development objectives. The aim should always be to encourage them to get where they need to be. 

“We need to create a culture where we are inviting people to come in, and tell them we are going to develop the heck out of you because we’re going to push you hard. People really like it, in my experience, because we’re acknowledging that we think they’re capable. It’s no good if you chuck stuff at them without helping them, because they’ll just flounder. So creating a culture where you genuinely want to help people to progress through those levels, and at the same time be adding value to your business, will actually lead to engagement. But knowing how to engage with staff is a real challenge.”

One of the biggest issues is that partners and managers within firms have never been trained to deal with the people management aspects of their roles. This is not unique to audit and accountancy: the Chartered Management Institute has calculated that around 70% to 80% of all managers in the UK are ‘accidental’ managers, promoted into the role because it’s the next natural step for them. As a result, they are ill-equipped with the skills to help support and develop their people.

“I could give you any number of partners who rarely spend development time with their team members, choosing instead to focus efforts on dealing with clients and the big issues of the day. That’s not a criticism of their work; I just know that if you’re not comfortable with knowing how to coach and motivate people, it's easy to let that fall to the bottom of the list. That’s true for all of us, myself included.”

However, it’s important to remember that the quality of the work you deliver comes from the people within the firm, he explains. It is why, in the current climate, developing people management skills is critical. 

Ashley-Timms endorses what he calls operational coaching as a method of developing these skills. It’s about using coaching behaviours as part of your management style: “It’s helping managers learn how to use powerful questions to stimulate people. It removes concerns about saying the wrong thing or upsetting someone. We’re not advising anything, we’re simply asking questions.”

This is a method that could greatly benefit the audit and accountancy professions, he says. It’s a sector with good-quality, structured training, which is half the battle. Supportive management will create forward momentum that is very attractive to new talent. “There are so many great opportunities within accounting. Getting our management response right early on, and helping people progress, means we retain people within the profession. We will be actively nourishing their forward momentum. The evidence shows that if you can start using that inquiry-led approach, you tend to win about 20% [more capacity from your employees] because you’re inviting people to step up and take on more responsibility.”


Attracting talent to accountancy

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