From Accountant to Trusted Adviser (Buzzacott)

Talent Development
March 30, 2022


This is a thought leadership article from Alastair McQuater, Partner at member firm Buzzacott in the UK. Alastair presented 'Redefining the CPA Relationship - from accountant to trusted adviser' at PrimeGlobal's Technical Conference in March 2022. 

In this article, Alastair shares his knowledge on how to train, develop and unlock the potential of your employees and his experience in building and creating a successful team of advisers.

Most firms in PrimeGlobal talk of being a ‘trusted adviser’ to their clients. If so, how does that help client and staff retention?  How do firms develop future generations of advisers?

Back in the Autumn of 2019, in the halcyon days of an in-person conference every few months, I suggested that this might be an interesting discussion topic for the EMEA Technical Conference due to be held in Budapest in March 2020.  Little did I know that almost exactly two years late, I would be handed presenter duties.

I have been asked to summarize the discussion that took place in early March this year in Budapest.  So, here you are …

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a partner at Buzzacott in London and lead our business tax team.  We are currently around 40 people and growing revenue at c20% per year, with a significant proportion of our work being advisory projects, both for clients and one-offs.

I am an accountant, rather than an auditor or tax specialist, what we call a general practitioner – a nearly extinct species in larger firms. I had the great benefit of working directly for partners and spending most of my training as the principal contact with clients for much of our work. I found our clients fascinating and still enjoy having the opportunity to talk to people about their businesses.


Trust in your team

My period of rapid development was in the four years before I joined Buzzacott. I moved to a small firm in their tax advisory function. I was far too inexperienced and had no support; I was on my own.

An extended period of learning on the job was the making of me, but it is not the way to develop a team of advisers.

Having taught myself, I had to learn how to develop others – a far harder prospect!

I doubt that I am alone in this, but delegation is not a natural skill for me. I had to accept that there are a multitude of ways of approaching things, that perfection can be the enemy, and that I must trust my team that I chose myself. I can’t ‘do’ every project myself.

In the early days, we also had to encourage people to want to take on advisory tasks. We had a busy team, with plenty of compliance work to do; they felt comfortable dealing with relatively ‘black and white’ issues and uncomfortable forming their own opinions. It was far preferable not to take a position, so we needed to make some changes to turn this around.

Now, we have a team that is eager for advisory work, who fit their compliance work around the advice, and who are happy to reach a conclusion and then test that conclusion in discussion with the partner group and the client.

In the office, I hear regular discussions about how projects might be approached with knowledge and experience being freely shared. I have several requests to ‘run something past me’ every day and the discussions are valuable for us all.


Invest in a robust hiring process at every level

So, how have we got to where we are? We have great people.

We hire very carefully at every level from graduates through to directors and above. We don’t just look for academic excellence but take on characters who show us that they are interested in what goes on around them.  At a junior level, we expect them to be inquisitive about the firm and our clients; at a more senior level, we expect enthusiasm about what they do and a desire to talk to us about the type of work they want to do.

We look for people who listen and engage in conversation and who are not thrown by unexpected questions.

Our manager group runs our graduate recruitment, and they are very demanding recruiters. 


Focus on the training and development of your team

We train our team as well as we can, we invest in them and try to make them the most sought-after specialists in the market.

By this, I don’t just mean technical training.  All our team’s trainees are studying to be Chartered Accountants and Chartered Tax Advisers and the technical training is excellent.

We share knowledge freely, including weekly calls where anyone can ask anything (the one rule is that there is no such thing as a ‘stupid question’) and know they will get help and learn from shared experience. These were introduced at the start of lockdown as a way of staying in touch and have been so valuable that they are now a permanent fixture.

But technical ability is a given. It is not a differentiator for us in the market for clients or for people. Where we think we differentiate is in soft skills training and this comes in a variety of forms.

At its most basic and, perhaps most important level, we include trainees in as many meetings as possible, taking notes, observing and, as soon as possible, contributing.  We also involve our trainees in networking events, so they get to meet clients and contacts and see that they are not ‘scary’.

‘Simple’ advice requests are delegated to the most junior person possible, even if it will take them longer to research a point. They may or may not ultimately send the email, but they will be involved in the process and will see the finished product.

As individuals progress, we include them in ‘Transition to Manager’ and other training as early as possible.

We know from speaking with them that our trainees are given responsibility and soft skills training well in advance of their friends in other, larger, firms.

This has an obvious impact on their enjoyment of their job and on their self-confidence.

At a more senior level, Manager and above, we provide skills training on an individual and peer group basis, and we provide personal business coaching where it is appropriate.


Developing your team of advisers

What is the difference between training and coaching?

The best analogy I can think of is learning to drive a car - you quickly learn the skills involved in accelerating and braking, steering and changing gear, but you need to be gently coached in a car park and then on quiet roads so that the skills become embedded and don’t fall apart when you drive on a motorway or when a cat steps onto the road in front of you.

Business coaching, like counseling, requires a huge personal investment from the person being coached, but the confidence that quality coaching gives to the recipient can transform a back-office person into a hugely successful adviser.  We have living proof in our team.

We also have whole group training. Normally this will be focused on learning about people, so it includes personality profiling, social styles, and more. 

As an example of the lack of boundaries in this training, our most successful session was three hours of ‘Improv’ (improvised comedy) at the Comedy Store in London. We went into the theatre as a nervous, edgy bunch and came out having had a wonderful time learning about listening, impacts, overcoming stage fright, and that nerves will pass.

The whole group sessions are key to the development of the team as advisers. We are all in it together and the partners are as anxious and involved as the first-year trainees. The sessions break down barriers and build trust and camaraderie. Once you have seen a partner as nervous as you on stage, where is the fear in asking them a question?

A successful adviser has gravitas and we see this as a mixture of experience, empathy, courage and flexibility, together with a willingness to truly listen and an ability to communicate clearly.

The development of all these indicators, bar courage, are dealt with above, but the courage we are thinking of is in the DNA of our firm and yours. It is the courage to do the right thing; to say ‘no’; to provide an alternative solution to a problem, and to ask for help. Its importance shines through in the experience our team has working with one another.


Summary

In summary, we believe we choose the best potential when we recruit and that our team members are becoming advisers because of the investment we and they are putting into their development by:

  • Involving them in meetings and projects as early as possible in their careers;
  • Delegating work and giving/taking responsibility as much and as early as possible;
  • Helping them develop the personal/soft skills that will allow them to succeed; and
  • Taking away fear and encouraging open discussion.

I thought a career in tax meant spending all my time writing reports and planning or managing the tax aspects of transactions. For a while it did, but now I have a team that wants that for themselves. My role is increasingly that of adviser, and a safety net to our team.

It is amazing to see how the team developed once I let them.