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The war for practice talent

Faisal Sheikh gives his views on how best to retain talent at small and medium-sized firms.

The war for practice talent
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  • Faisal Sheikh
  • September 17, 2021
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Recently over dinner a good friend, a director in an SMP, grumbled about the ‘war’ for practice talent and pined for the ‘good old days’. I offered my ten cents and reminisced about my time in practice where I cut my teeth more than 20 years ago. I may have gone on to become a partner, but academia found me and the rest is history.

Employee retention remains a major problem for all practices, including the Big Four firms, which has been exacerbated during the unfolding pandemic.

The skills gap in smaller firms has widened: they will have a large portfolio of incompletely-recorded clients, which is a test of basic accounting skills (including complex journals) and above all, patience. Practice is perceived as a painful stepping-stone into a well-paid industry job, overly bureaucratic where even partners will regularly work weekends. So why build a career in practice?

SMPs are an ideal ground to learn about how a business functions and make a difference, especially when calculating client tax liabilities.

Normally, when an employee is promoted to a semi-senior or senior position, they will be assigned a block of fees which are essentially a complex web of interesting relationships. I enjoyed the client contact and fondly recall memorable lunches where the owner manager of a business would recount their life story.

Over time, the senior will become a trusted adviser for their clients and, at partner level, there will be lucrative opportunities to join a board or make strategic investments.

However, this all takes time and is analogous to test cricket which demands resilience. It’s not a fast and furious mixed martial art three-minute bout where winner takes all.

Putting clients aside for a moment, partners need to invest in a proper HR system and create genuine career paths for their staff.

New hires, including graduates, should be slowly acclimatised into the practice and made to work on jobs that become increasingly difficult. They should be carefully mentored, given extensive feedback and richly praised as appropriate so that they become more independent.

Personally, I would require new trainees to undertake mundane office work such as filing, photocopying and even brewing up for clients as they will become grounded and learn to get on with colleagues.

Millennial hires are usually tech and internet savvy and should be at the centre of an SMP’s marketing and cloud accounting strategy. This will breed loyalty and deep interest. However, this takes time, investment and crucially buy-in from those in senior management. It has been an employer’s market, but this is changing.

I would not recommend paying less than market rate for staff or exploiting graduates desperately seeking work experience as the practice will get bitten and be back at square one of HR ’Snakes and Ladders’.


Faisal Sheikh is an IFA fellow and accounting and business lecturer at Salford Business School.

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