Securing the right talent when scaling for growth

Forward-looking accounting practices across the UK are looking to set themselves up for the future – they are actively using data to make targeted technology investments and to ensure their talent pipeline will aid them to scale

Dated: 9 March 2023 Author: Richard McNeilly, Chief Executive Officer

2022 has been a challenging year for accountancy firms as they endeavour to help their clients restore their financial health whilst also being faced with rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.

As firms look to review and augment the services they offer to clients, seeking the right talent to help practices scale will be crucial.

Over the past 12 months, firms have recognised the need to invest in talent; this could involve hiring a more diverse skill set – those who can support research and lead tech conversations with clients - or looking for tech providers that can offer relevant support.

Dains’, one of the UK’s leading mid-tier accountancy firms, has taken a unique approach to ensure it has the right talent onboard as it looks to continue its growth journey.

Richard McNeilly, Dains’ CEO explains that from January 2022, the firm’s senior team “prioritised recruitment, retention, training and career development above other areas”.

“This year, it remains top of the agenda,” he says.

Attracting the right talent for growth

Over the past decade, the need for accountancy practices to expand their service offering has been driven by client demand.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, the request for advisory services rose exponentially and has been exacerbated by recent regulatory changes related to Brexit and the timing uncertainties around Making Tax Digital.

“It’s about reflecting what clients need,” McNeilly explains. “It’s about attracting not only the best but the right people for your practice.”

With the right people in seat, practices will be able to provide deeper specialist support to clients and address their evolving needs. This, in turn, will result in better outcomes for clients and contribute to practice growth in the long run.

But in the current talent market, McNeilly emphasises accountancy practices will need to work hard to become the employer of choice – something which does “not come about overnight”.

Dains has chosen to focus on “authenticity” in order to retain and recruit the ‘right’ people. This has involved being “upfront about what is on offer and ensuring both parties commit to this”, McNeilly says. ‘We believe in helping our team to develop their skills and build a successful career and we are not about saying the right thing for effect. Great teams thrive on honesty and trust which leads people to become accountable and feel a genuine sense of empowerment’.

Skills in demand

Over the years, the most sought-after skills within the accountancy sector have evolved – largely as a result of digitalisation.

While a strong proficiency in technical skills is still a must for most roles - including knowledge of accounting principles, financial reporting, tax laws, and regulations – the ability to use accounting software skills as well as data analytical skills has risen.

Most firms will now expect their accountants to be proficient in accounting software and systems, such as QuickBooks, SAP, and Xero among others. Similarly, the ability to analyse financial data and make informed recommendations to clients will also be crucial.

But McNeilly notes it is not just the technical skill sets which will help practices scale – at Dains, a large proportion of its advisory team are “non-accountants”.

And while he notes that individuals with technical qualifications will always be necessary for the success of accounting practices, for Dains, it is no longer the sole focus.

Developing the softer skills to complement new technical skills, is essential for all Dains employees. McNeilly says Dains is fully committed to training its managers in areas such as people development, emotional intelligence, interviewing and relationship management. Similarly, McNeilly notes those who are “brilliant with data analysis” should also have great people skills. These people, he says, can not only “unlock data” for the practice, but more importantly, provide advisory services in this area to clients.

“These are areas where SMEs are unlikely to have an in-house professional,” McNeilly says. “If we can offer this service, it can make a huge difference.

By example, Dains launched a customs practice in April 2020; well-timed, given many clients had uncertainty about import and export policies post-Brexit.

“We took on the people, then began marketing, and invested in complementary  technology for the division,” McNeilly explains. “It’s done extremely well and is an important differentiator for us. Overall, we believe in investing for the long term.”

The addition of this new service line allowed Dains to expand its offering to clients and recruit new talent into the organisation. But the practices’ focus on its existing employees has not waned.

“When you are scaling up, there are a lot more opportunities,” McNeilly explains. “It becomes less about competing interests and more about allowing people to develop at the right pace for them.”

The small changes make all the difference

This expansion of services has meant accountancy practices have either had to look externally to recruit new skill sets or provide development and upskilling opportunities internally.

As part of its scaling journey, Dains has made a substantial investment in a new microsite to make external applications swift and easy.

“Our approach is to reach out to prospective employees, and provide them with the tools to make connecting with Dains simple. This is largely done by ensuring that our software works brilliantly on hand held devices, rather than laptops – it’s a simple change but nevertheless important.. We often hold the initial interview via Teams which suits candidates and means that we can cover a lot of ground quickly and top candidates expect to move at pace” McNeilly explains.

Encouraging new skills

When scaling, there is a risk a business will invest far more in recruiting new people than developing its own workforce.

Mercer’s latest Global Talent Trends research report demonstrated that staff want to work for businesses who encourage staff to commit to upskilling and to have a culture that enables people to thrive. Ignoring the needs of your existing workforce therefore not only risks widening the skills gap further but also increasing recruitment costs.

Dains was acutely aware of this conflict when embarking on its growth journey and has ensured its existing workforce has been offered opportunities to develop as the practice evolves.

“When you are scaling up, there are a lot more opportunities,” McNeilly explains. “It becomes less about competing interests and more about allowing people to develop at the right pace for them.”

Meanwhile, as more and more accountancy practices adopt new technology to automate certain day-to-day processes, the need to educate staff about the benefits of digitalisation has also become a priority.

“Technology is an enabler and about helping people do their jobs - not replacing them,” McNeilly says. “Learning about how our systems work is a key part of the induction process as is looking to provide whatever technology someone may need - it’s about having the right tools for the job.”

Future-proofing your workforce

To ensure practices are investing in the right talent, some – including Dains – have chosen to undertake a skills audit, evaluating the skills required to support the scaling of the business.

If a practice lacks a clear scaling plan, this process can be challenging. Merging with other practices can provide an alternative solution, offering employees a broader range of work and development opportunities while keeping specialists engaged and motivated.

However, McNeilly says acquisitions should be about “a flight to quality”, not achieving scale for the sake of vanity. Our whole strategy is around building a brilliant business that delivers for all stakeholders – we’re not chasing a turnover target, we are creating excellence.

Read the next article in the leadership series: Dains and Isosceles: a new type of partnership