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Senior Associates Ask: ‘Why Should I Work So Hard Only to Get Permission to Work Even Harder?’

Serfdom in the Middle Ages art

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has written about the talent shortage, more specifically how accounting firms can retain talent in a world where sticking it out until partner is no longer something staff are interested in doing.

For “Broader career paths attract accountancy talent” ICAEW spoke to Michael Smets, Professor of Management at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, an expert of sorts who’s dedicated two decades of his life to observing, analyzing, and advising professional service firms (and also has a cool George Michael circa Faith era beard).

He talks about how the current model is broken, how certain people with exceptional technical skill may fall short in the checklist of things that make a good partner like relationship building and bringing in business, and how professional services firms could retain more talent if they didn’t operate a caste system whereupon partner-type partners sit at the top. On director roles he says: “What that has implicitly done is relegated all other contributions to the firm to inferior or second rank. In the words of one research participant who had just been promoted to director level, ‘my business card might as well say, not partner’.”

Most of note in the post is this part:

“One of the key problems for professional service firms is that many associates simply no longer want to make partner. And if the major carrot you’re dangling in front of everybody’s nose suddenly doesn’t seem so appetizing any more, you need to think very hard about what motivates people to deliver the kind of work that is expected of them.

“That career typically means very long hours, lots of personal sacrifices, typically a poor work/life balance. I hear time and again from senior associates: ‘Why should I work so hard only to get permission to work even harder?’ Does everyone have to become a partner? Does everyone have to become a leader? Or is there a place for technical experts to remain in the firm even if they don’t step into a revenue-generation business development-type role?”

So we know the traditional partner carrot doesn’t work, you can’t string someone along with the promise of one day being a thing they don’t want to be. And as much as “human capital” thought leaders throughout the profession love to convince themselves that conveying a higher purpose is key to motivating the younger generation to sacrifice their best years for the greater good, real or imagined “purpose” clearly isn’t working right now either. If only there were some effective way to motivate people hmm…

We’ll leave you with this to chew on should any leaders be reading this:

The symbiotic relationship between the different roles is the key to success, Smets explains. “You can have a business that wins a lot of business but if no one is there to deliver the projects, you won’t have any client retention. If you have great leadership and great execution but nobody wins new business, you’re going to be very profitable for a very short period of time, and then you’re likely to go under or be acquired. And if you have partners who deliver very well or generate business very well but there is no leadership, you will degenerate into a mercenary set of personal siloed fiefdoms.”

Sounding a little too familiar these days.

Broader career paths attract accountancy talent [ICAEW Insights]