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How to seek and nurture young talent

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Feb 2023

Find junior staff willing to be shaped by your business, encourage them to step outside their comfort zones and make them feel part of your team, says SafeLane’s Jonathan Kennedy.

As someone who makes a point of sourcing young people to work in his finance team, Jonathan Kennedy is well placed to comment on what inspires accountants who are in the foothills of their careers – and the business model in which he works is rarely short on excitement.

Kennedy is Financial Controller at SafeLane Global, which specialises in clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO): mines and munitions that have been deposited or launched onto territory in recent or bygone conflicts and then lain dormant.

“There aren’t that many UXO companies around,” he says. “So, there’s a specific set of skills that help people succeed in this environment. The emphasis is on flexibility, adaptability, response time – and having an even more go-getting attitude than one would typically be expected to have in finance, because you must often go to great lengths to deal with people who are very much outside accountants’ comfort zones. You have to be up for it.”

Given SafeLane’s particular challenges, its senior management team decided just after Kennedy joined that it wanted a type of people development for the business that wasn’t rooted purely in hiring seasoned, ‘premier’ talent. So SafeLane’s finance department went down the apprenticeship route, aiming to equip its junior staff with skill sets tailored to how the business works, rather than taking on experienced accountants who could be clouded with preconceptions from previous roles.

Soft landing

“A young man who’s recently done very well with us came here as a school leaver, following his A levels,” Kennedy says. “We took the opportunity to integrate him into the business as quickly as possible, so that he’d feel part of its inner workings – not just as an accountant, but as a team member. When you’re working in difficult, dangerous environments, having that human buy-in to what you’re trying to do makes a significant difference.”

With that broad, team-building goal in mind, Kennedy’s approach to training his young colleague has focused on developing him as a person, rather than as a finance professional per se. “His studies are taking care of the accountancy part,” Kennedy says, “and I oversee how those learnings emerge in practice. But the business is shaping him on a personal level, and he’s developed incredibly quickly – while being exposed to everything from transferring cash to Sudan to dealing with the UN.”

As an organisation with, in Kennedy’s words, “its own way of doing things”, the UN requires special handling and attention during tenders, and Kennedy is eager for his junior accountants to participate. “You have to pick up the UN’s ways of working if you are to do well,” he says, “so we get our juniors involved with bid writing – even if it’s only on a small section, and even if it just requires something like data collection – to ensure they feel part of the process. You learn our thoroughness by doing, not by being told what to do.”

As part of nurturing that capability through tangible experience, Kennedy also takes a different approach to mentoring. “It’s not massively structured, as in, ‘Let’s have a catch-up for an hour every Wednesday afternoon’,” he says. “It’s about being available to sit in the same space as juniors and spend as much time as necessary helping them to be comfortable with what they’re trying to do.”

Juniors are present when Kennedy sits with his team of management accountants and are free to add their thoughts on any questions that may come up – for example: how should we approach this problem? What should this document look like? What are we trying to achieve? “Plus, I welcome debate and even argument. That way, the learning process becomes a continuous feedback loop.”

At the same time, Kennedy is committed to ensuring juniors have a soft landing on occasions when they fail. “It’s all about trust with younger people,” he says. “When they first join, they haven’t learned to trust that you’re on their side. So if you ask them to stretch themselves and something goes wrong, you have to be there to say, ‘OK, that didn’t work out – what can we do differently next time?’”

Despite the uncommon nature of SafeLane’s business model, Kennedy believes many of the principles that drive how the company seeks and nurtures young talent could be applied to finance departments in other types of business.

Giving back

In the interests of providing young accountants with further opportunities to soak up wisdom from experienced names in finance outside their work, ICAEW has unveiled details of its Inspiring Future Leaders 2023 programme. Over six months across two cohorts, a series of online roundtables will enable young professionals to gather around seasoned veterans and find out how they built their impressive careers.

Drawn from a wide range of businesses, the senior figures set to take part in the initiative so far are: 

  • Andy Agg, Group CFO, National Grid; 
  • Sonia Magris, former CFO, BBC Studios; 
  • Mike Scott, Group CFO, Barratt Developments; and 
  • Becky Taylor, CFO, DHL Supply Chain UK and Ireland.

“We’re looking to garner interest from younger members who are five to 10 years post-qualified, and are working in large businesses,” says ICAEW Business Engagement Manager Caroline Wigham. “Attendees will be able to select the senior leader they feel is most likely to provide helpful tips for their careers, based on factors such as the sector in which they are working. Among the topics our four participants have already said they would like to cover are work-life balance, career decisions and personal branding.”

The initiative has evolved out of a well-received pilot scheme held two years ago – the Future Leaders Development Programme – which aimed to foster a sense of community between experienced and younger finance professionals amid the constraints of the pandemic.

A FTSE 100 CEO who took part in that event said: “It’s important to give back and the opportunity to network with younger ICAEW members was both fulfilling and rewarding.” A younger member said: “It was a privilege to be mentored by a FTSE 100 Group FD, who was engaging and open in sharing his journey, learnings and abundance of knowledge.”

Younger ICAEW members who are interested in Inspiring Future Leaders 2023 can find out more and apply here.

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