A few years ago, I saw a business where the owners genuinely only wanted ‘enough’ income for themselves. Their key aim was to provide employment for the local community ensuring the locals had a job, income certainty and a secure future. Commendable? Certainly. Unusual? Probably.
Professional practices of all shapes and sizes value their people and will publicly state that fact: ‘We are a people business’ ‘People are our main asset’ ‘Our people are our success’ ‘Happy people make happy clients’.
But running a professional practice is hard. And made harder with the relentless quest for more, more, more. More turnover. Better margins. More new clients. Better recovery rates. Lower overheads. Higher profits. Ever increasing profit per partner. Higher rankings. In our drive to be seen as successful have we stopped seeing people as individuals with their own lives, hopes and dreams? Are they merely becoming our machinery, just pounds and profit?
I’ve been there. Every new budget I’ve seen demands more. We’re ambitious. We’re successful. We want more. Yet at the same time partners recognise the current performance is invariably off the back of working our people too hard. We know it’s not sustainable, but we have an income to protect, right? We can justify the ‘why?’ – growth creates opportunity, standing still is moving backward, we all want to be part of something successful. But do we really have the answer to ‘how’? How do we achieve our ‘more’ whilst allowing our people the financial rewards and work / life balance we so actively advocate?
So, the vicious circle continues, placing ever increasing demands on us and our people. Some lose heart. Some suffer, too often in silence but hey they’re professionals so they must be tough enough to cope? Some leave – clearly they’re making a mistake as we’re a great firm! Those remaining pick up the pieces and things just get that little bit harder. But it’s temporary as we’ll recruit. We might complain about the lack of available talent. We’ll vow to look after our people a bit better, but a few more leave than we budgeted for. But it’s okay, another financial performance is achieved albeit off the back of overworking our people. But things will change next year…
Then the pandemic hit. A new world. So perhaps a new beginning?
Professional practices reacted quickly. Loans and grants claimed, staff furloughed. But were the right people furloughed? Too many furloughed? Did we react hastily and put pounds and profit before our people? I’ve seen single people furloughed but those with young families trying to work from home and balance the impossible. Neither given an explanation to their fate. Neither asked if that decision was okay. Both unhappy and confused. But that’s okay as doesn’t the business come first? Definitely, but weren’t our people our greatest asset?
Our people will judge us. Do they feel cared for, valued? Or just a number, a piece of machinery left dormant whilst not needed. Now fearful that redundancy might be their next fate as business leaders start to realise that their previous quest for more, more, more might have been misguided. This new, forced, leaner, smaller business is more manageable, more enjoyable; a reminder of ‘the good old days’ before things got too big and complicated. More profitable? That’s a surprise. And with lower risk. And less staff to contend with…
Never has there been a better opportunity for a new beginning, a new way forward. Restructuring plans and brand-new, zero-based budgets are still being finalised. We still have a chance to get the balance right for our people and for ourselves. A chance for professional practices to lead by example and emerge as a business where the owners only want enough for themselves and to be that great employer – one that genuinely sees people and not just pounds and profit.
Paul Dearsley is founder and owner of Aston Ley Limited a management consultancy accountancy practice started in October 2019 after over 30 years in accountancy practices of which over 15 years were as an equity partner in leading regional and national firms.