Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before - the staff merry-go-round
Updated: Jan 29
Do you ever feel that employing staff is a merry-go-round? No sooner have you trained them, they leave! And you have to start all over again with the recruitment and training process. It's the way of the world, especially in professional services, but it does seem to be more disruptive and unpredictable than it used to be...although the good news is, you can make it easier for yourself.
I remember when I was training in the 1990s, there was an assumption that a firm would train 3 times as many juniors as they wanted to retain as seniors/managers after they qualified. In the days when the training programme was a steady three years, you would progress from junior, to semi-senior to senior each year, and then within a year or two after qualifying, my firm typically planned that one-third would leave to move into industry, one-third would leave to go into practice elsewhere (or another part of our practice) and one-third would become Assistant Managers and so progress up the leadership in our firm. And, looking back, on average that is pretty much what happened.
The current market
When reviewing the (medium-sized, regional) firms I work with now, I find that typically they are always struggling for qualified staff - assistant managers/supervisors, managers and senior managers. They are often found to be recruiting, and this is costly, time-consuming and risky, not least because of the eye-watering agency fees. Since the 'credit crunch' when firms, large and small, slashed the number of trainee recruits, the market hasn't really recovered and qualified staff are now a scarce resource. The basics of demand and supply mean that prices have increased. It is a very competitive world for qualified accountants, and understandably, newly qualified's are having their heads turned by larger firms, maybe in larger cities, who are tempting them with salaries and benefits which smaller firms just can't justify.
Oh the stress of it all!
When staff leave unexpectedly, or staff go on long-term leave, it definitely causes some stress for the rest of the firm. In the short-term you have to manage the work left behind, asking others to step-up and work longer hours or in a different role. The recruitment process is often unpredictable, veering completely off course sometimes as you finally make an offer, and then it's turned down by the candidate and you have to start again.
And when you do recruit someone, often paid more than anyone else in your firm at a similar level, you are taking a huge risk that they won't have the skills you need, they will require more training on your systems and tech before they can be useful, and will they 'fit in'? Will your expectations of them match how they foresee their role and contribution to the firm?
And did I mention the time this all takes, away from your own other day-to-day client and staffing responsibilities?
Making your life a little easier
I think there are some basic rules which many firms have forgotten over the years. As we obsess about keeping up with the latest tech and client expectations, many firms appear to have mislaid the basic principles of running a business which is, after all, totally dependent upon the quality of its people. Here are my essential building blocks for any professional services firm:
I believe that nowadays most firms don't recruit enough juniors, or have a disciplined approach to move them up the levels every year, to give themselves that foundation of enough staff, trained in-house and reliable (hopefully!) The way we train our professional students has changed with the apprenticeship schemes, and the way we recruit, often younger, juniors than in decades gone by, has had a bearing on all this. But the basic principle of bringing in sufficient, (ideally more than you need, in fact) juniors, allows for any issues of losing staff to study leave or even to alternative careers. These staff are cheap(er), can always be utilised by an organised firm, and provide you with the insurance for the years to come when you need more managers than you originally expected. It's easier to make redundancies or redeploy in other areas of the business, or with clients, than to recruit again. And this goes for specialist departments too, not just audit/accounts. Bring in tax trainees, corporate finance trainees etc. These service lines require higher skills sooner, so it's even more important that you don't rely on the risk of recruiting an unknown and expensive manager into these departments - grow your own!
When you have them, look after them! Really look after them! All these areas should just rollout without any stress or question:
continuous training needs' assessments and investment in upskilling them;
performance reviews and appraisals;
communicating a clear and transparent route to promotion and career progression;
benefit options and working practices;
consideration of their work/life balance and wellbeing;
diversity and inclusion policies;
participation in charitable activities, community giving and CSR;
An understanding of the vision and values of the firm to give them pride in the firm they work for!
Now you may think that you do all these things, but the key thing is...do your staff believe you do? Most of the work I do with firms shows me that most staff don’t feel valued or nurtured by their firm. They are being courted by recruitment agents & other firms all the time, probably every day, so you can’t risk them having a low moment where they feel they would be happier elsewhere.
This may seem like a long list and a lot to ask, especially when you are paying these staff substantial amounts, but once a firm has organised itself for this development to flow naturally, year on year, you'll find that less staff leave, you'll be spending less time and money recruiting, and the future will be more certain. Less stress all round!