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Lessons Learned

Posted on September 1, 2022 by Tom Francis

In the wake of the COVID lockdowns, GeersSullivan, like most businesses, struggled to find and hire qualified staff. While we knew the issue would eventually correct itself as the country re-opened, we also knew we couldn’t wait that long and continue to properly service our clients. Our solution was to adapt our business practices to deliver the services our clients needed with the people we had.

Since then, our staffing has returned to normal. However, we continue to apply the lessons we learned over the past 12 months and in doing so, the return of several team members from leave and the intense training of our junior staff has positioned us for a period of strong growth rather than recovery.  Our hope is that by sharing some of the lessons we learned, you can apply them in your own business to equal effect.

  1. When hiring replacement staff, look to fill the role rather than replace the person

In small business it is easy to be focused on filling the spot of a person who has moved on rather than analysing what they did within the business. Often the role can be separated into distinct areas to isolate certain skills that are harder to replace. These specific skills may be covered by remaining team members allowing a less experienced, new hire to move into the role and potentially learn on the job. Alternatively, a skilled person seeking part-time work may be just what you need to cover part of the former role and their reduced hours are no longer a barrier to the position.

In our firm, this process saw directors and managers focus on training junior staff to produce tax returns and other compliance items as opposed to focusing on business and tax advisory and client relations. This allowed us to expand our junior accountant program and a put a lot of one-on-one hours into our young team. While it did mean some increased hours and stress for our senior team, the result was an excellent cohort of junior staff with skills and experience well beyond their years in the profession. Their success is now part of what underpins our firm’s growth strategy.

2. Be responsive and decisive in your hiring process

In a tight employment market, it is easy to miss out on hiring the right employee because you were too slow to respond to an interview request or waited too long for several people to review and give feedback on the resume of a candidate. If multiple people are involved in a hiring decision, it pays to set your candidate criteria in advance and empower a single person to interview for the position based on those criteria. The set criteria streamlines decision making and also focuses the recruiter when assessing potential candidates. Having a single person responsible for hiring also centralises communication with external recruiters and candidates to keep a consistent message and prevent mistakes and misunderstandings.

In our business, recruiting and HR is the portfolio of a single director. As the only point of contact for candidates and recruiters, as well as the hub for all staffing issues, they are aware of the needs within the business versus the prospects available and can make the best possible decision with all the information to hand.

3. People will leave; be ready for it and don’t take it personally

While loyalty is a highly valued quality in our business, we also accept that accountants have highly transferrable skills, and the best staff are often those who regularly seek out new challenges. In building a team, it is important to have some level of redundancy to provide stability when team members eventually decide to move on. In setting your attitude, its important to remember that employees come with their own set of motivations that are completely independent of the business. So, even where employers work hard to provide a good working environment and competitive remuneration, people may still choose to pursue other options.

We manage this process by investing in our team and upskilling staff as much as possible:

  • Where your business employs technical staff, providing training to team members at all levels provides better coverage than siloing people in areas of expertise
  • If tasks within your business are repeatable, documenting processes and procedures assists in transferring the institutional memory from the current staff to the business itself
  • When new staff join, exposing them to as much of the business as possible can alleviate the stress of covering a vacancy in the event someone leaves
  • Communicating with your staff about projects the business is working on, and challenges it faces, keeps your team up to speed with the bigger picture and may also aid in staff retention as they learn more about what they can do within the business

4. Always be on the lookout for talent

Anyone who works in recruitment will tell you to beware of businesses who are ‘always hiring’ as it suggests a constant flow of staff in, and out. We agree with this sentiment and our experience tells us that these businesses often treat staff as a commodity or resource to exploit and their reputation is well deserved.  However, we are big believers in keeping an eye out for new talent, especially in highly skilled industries where staff have readily transferable skills.

The temptation is always to run a lean team and keep costs low to maximize efficiency and therefore profits. However, the same lean team suffers more, when a member leaves and is also unable to pursue growth opportunities without going through a hiring process first.

In our business, we keep in regular contact with recruiters and incentivise our staff to keep an ear out with friends and contacts who may be looking to move. Even where we have no need for extra capacity, we prefer to have the resources and chase the growth rather than the other way around. This was particularly useful during the COVID shutdowns as, although the whole accounting industry was struggling to find qualified staff, we had recruited a higher number of promising juniors than we strictly needed in the preceding months and spent our time training them instead of looking for staff or missing out on opportunities entirely.

5. Be honest with your clients about what you can achieve and by when

While failing to deliver for your clients can hurt your reputation, nothing is more damaging than abusing their trust and goodwill. Even well-meaning business owners can fall into this trap by setting overly ambitious targets or deadlines and assuming they will find a way to ‘just get it done somehow’. This operating method almost always leads to unhappy customers

Our approach to managing client deadlines and expectations is rooted in honesty:

  • When taking on new work, be upfront with your clients about your turnaround times and what the potential risks are to meeting your deadlines
  • Be realistic with yourself in assessing the amount of work you can handle at one time
  • Be scientific in working out how much work you can handle, lean on your past experience and put some numbers around what is achievable by your team on a normal day
  • Keep your clients informed about delays and try to avoid open ended extensions
  • Be honest with your clients about what is going on within your business; issues with capacity and suppliers are often shared in the community.

6. Re-think your own role within the business

The majority of business owners wear many hats as they move between productive work, administration and management. When staffing constraints hit, it is important to review the roles we fulfill within the business and whether it can be reimagined. This may mean keeping productive staff working by taking on more of the administrative roles, or conversely the owner returning to a productive role and looking for new staff to take on the administrative and management functions. The best solution will vary from business to business but some principals are universal in choosing which course of action is best:

  • If the employment market for skilled staff is tight, consider what parts of your role as an owner you can pass off to non-professional staff to enable you to fill that breach temporarily. When you can fill that position, you will have the added bonus of trained admin staff freeing you up to work on growing your business.
  • If skilled tasks can be redistributed amongst your team, look at what tasks can be taken off staff to enable them to be more productive and focused on their roles without compromising quality

In the businesses we work with, we always encourage owners to find ways to extract themselves from the day-to-day operations to focus on improving their business. This also benefits businesses that have staffing issues as the owner is not already committed to a fulltime role and can focus on recruiting and temporarily covering the shortfall. In a business where the owner is already fully committed in an operational role, the added pressure of recruiting and making internal arrangements can be extremely stressful and have a knock-on effect to other areas of the business that no longer get the attention they need.

In the near future, we will be restarting our evening seminars where we discuss many of the above issues along with other business improvement topics. If you’ve found this article interesting, we strongly encourage you to look out for our seminar notices coming soon and also our upcoming survey canvasing opinions for future seminar topics and format.

We hope you have enjoyed this more introspective style of article and, if any of the above lessons have struck a chord with you and you would like to know more, encourage you to get in touch so that we can organise a time to meet and discuss further. We look forward to seeing you all in person again soon.

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