Compasses, pyramids and career junctures: engaging employees in professional services


Improving employee engagement is a challenge for talent leaders in any industry – but it is particularly critical in professional services where ‘people are their asset’. What was once a very stable model of career progression is being fundamentally shaken by new technologies, evolving employee expectations and changing operating models.

Leaders from 32 different professional services companies gathered for a GroHappy breakfast event about engaging and retaining talent. Since learning and development is one of the biggest drivers of employee engagement and retention, speakers were invited to share their perspectives and lessons on the topic.

Richard Goold, Partner at Moorhouse, spoke about the responsibility of professional services companies to equip their people for the future of work.

Karina Brown, Co-Founder at GroHappy, explained how career junctures are a critical opportunity for employers to engage and retain talent.

Finally, Harry Gaskell, Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at EY, talked about the evolving structure in professional services – moving from traditional pyramids to a network model.

What you’ll find in this article:


What problem were attendees facing?


At the start of the event, attendees were asked to share the main problem they were looking to address via a live survey. 68% were primarily looking to improve employee engagement in their organisation, while 29% were focused on improving employee retention.


Richard Goold, Partner, Moorhouse


Be realistic about retention


Richard Goold from Moorhouse believes that attrition could soon become an outdated or redundant metric as retention is seen as “putting your arms around people and not letting them go.”  The focus will increasingly be on how organisations can engage and excite their people so that they choose to stay with them.

He shared his perspective on what this means for him and his fellow Partners: “The days of lifetime employment has gone and people naturally move on from a company now,” he said, “and our role is to ensure that their time at our organisation is engaging – so that they stay, but also so that they have a good experience during their time working with us.”

Richard emphasised that we need to look at careers differently, since there are no more straight lines. He used the idea of a ‘career constellation’ to articulate that people today are motivated and excited by the prospect of being able to move around and see their careers as an aggregation of different experiences rather than a linear route.

To tap into this, Richard suggested seeing each employee’s time at a company as a ‘tour of duty’. “People look at what they can contribute and what they can gain in terms of experience and reward in a three to five year time horizon.  At the end of this ‘tour’ people may decide to explore what else they can do with you or alternatively, may decide to move somewhere else. If we go in to these conversations with an open mind and do not compromise the goodwill we will have developed, then they may come back to us further down the line… and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Understand that people may stay for only a few years and expect a fair value exchange – where the employer gets value from their contribution and the employee makes meaningful progress in their career.

Watch part of Richard’s talk on retention:


Employees need a compass – not a map


Richard shared that compensation has increasingly become a hygiene factor and it is development experiences that are setting employers apart.

At Moorhouse, Richard shared that he is asked more about client and project opportunities than he is about benefits or salary. Employees want to work on things that excite them and that align with their career goals.  They want to be able to learn from experiences and learn from others.

Because of this, leaders in professional services need to curate meaningful development opportunities. Richard advocates providing a career compass, instead of a map, to enable people to craft their own career journey. Instead of emulating the ‘well-trodden path’ or steps their seniors took.

Equally, Richard recognised the challenges of the entrenched belief in professional services that progression equals promotion. Shifting employee mindsets to show that progress can come in many forms is an ongoing conversation, particularly with junior team members.

Watch part of Richard’s talk on the importance of conversations:


Embrace the 5-9


Often we just focus on what employees experience, learn and contribute between 9am – 5pm (or the ‘working day’ which, in reality, often extends beyond this) and neglect to recognise the learning and development that takes place outside of work or between 5pm – 9am.


Richard noted that there is a huge drive to learn – a learning hunger – that talent leaders should take advantage of. Employees no longer learn purely ‘on the job’, but engage in a variety of things in their 5pm to 9am that is valuable to what they do during the day. Extracurricular career development is becoming more common, through side gigs, volunteering or further learning, development and training.

Richard referenced how the half-life of a learned skill is now 5 years and how ‘soft’ skills are becoming more in-demand, and employers need to discover ways to foster empathy, teamwork and communication skills in their employees. Many of these skills are developed outside of the working day and should be recognised and embraced by employees – allowing them to bring their full selves to work.

5 lessons from Moorhouse Consulting

Richard outlined five ways that Moorhouse is focussing on in its employee development.

  1. Beyond Moorhouse – Moorhouse have stated an ambition to be a good organisation to have ‘come from’ – thereby recognising that employees won’t stay forever, but take their experiences at Moorhouse forwards in their career as an asset. Richard recommends that: “Instead of focussing on keeping your employees, become a good organisation to have come from.”
  2. Learning – Moorhouse understands that learning happens in many different ways and that there are many accessible, quality resources beyond the four walls of the firm to tap in to. In addition to their internal Moorhouse Academy curriculum, Moorhouse encourages people to use  tools such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and Khan Academy to support their development on-the-go and in a way that works for them. Soft skill development is supported through actor-training workshops with RADA, evening workshops with the School of Life and How:To Academy events.
  3. Coaching – Moorhouse work hard to build a coaching culture, having learned from experience the importance of having their finger on the pulse of how their people are doing. “You cannot outsource the important conversations that you need to be having with your people,” Richard explained, “we found that external coaches knew more about our company and our people than we did and it was important to strike the right balance!”
  4. Transparency – expectations around progression, promotion and competencies are integral to career development and progression in Moorhouse. Transparency is key and everyone understands what they need to develop and demonstrate to progress in their careers – and what to expect of other colleagues.
  5. Feedback – Richard spoke about one technique that he uses at Moorhouse to help with this: Win, Learn, Change. Teams are encouraged to informally check-in after a significant meeting or project to share a ‘win’ from the session, something they learned and what they would change next time. He explained that this can happen over a coffee, at a debrief or even when walking in-between meetings.

Watch part of Richard’s talk about what they do at Moorhouse:



Karina Brown, Co-Founder, GroHappy


Harness the energy at career junctures


Karina Brown from GroHappy then took to the floor to talk about the power of career junctures and the audience were invited to reflect on a time where they had been at an important crossroads in their career. In professional services common career junctures are when someone gets their professional qualification, or leaving a long-term project, or a significant lifestyle change like starting a family.

Drawing from her own experience of reaching a career juncture in professional services, she shared how often employees at this time are feeling “anxious, overwhelmed, daunted or sometimes excited and positive”. Whether positive or negative, there is a lot of energy at these career junctures.

These junctures are typically a time in an employee’s career where they are craving change and growth – yet it is often a time where the company remains in the blindspot. This often results in missed opportunities for organisations to motivate and retain talented people – since by the time an honest career conversation happens, the employee may have already decided to move on.



Offer a climbing wall, not a ladder


Karina explained how these career junctures are happening more frequently and are more complex than ever: “We are all likely to have 12 careers in our lifetime, and there are infinitely more options available to people – whether working flexibly, freelance, or doing something totally different.”

Karina contrasted the traditional career ladder in professional services (from graduate to Partner) with the reality that today’s careers resemble more climbing walls: “People are free to make their way up the wall in whatever way they want, sometimes moving down in order to climb up a different way.”

Despite this, many organisations don’t provide proactive career support at these moments, unless the employees are on leadership track or a ‘high potential’ programme.

Karina shared how this no longer needs to be the case, since technology is making resources and tools more accessible and affordable than ever.



How one of the Big Four is taking action


Karina shared a case study from one of the Big Four who GroHappy have been working with, who were seeking to increase employee engagement and retention among their newly qualified accounting employees. This was an important career juncture where the firm saw that engagement declined and attrition was much higher than average.

Instead of the usual response of hosting career workshops, this company sought a solution that was could reach more employees (across different regions and client sites) and deliver the same results in a more bite-sized way.

Karina showed how, by using GroHappy’s platform, the firm was able to increase retention – 53% of employees were more likely to stay at the firm after using GroHappy, with a very small percentage being more likely to leave. These positive results were reinforced by a number of other positive outcomes showing an increase in self-leadership skills and confidence in having honest, open career conversations.


3 lessons from GroHappy

    1. Retention – Supporting employees at key career junctures can increase employee retention and therefore, in professional services, have a direct impact on the bottom line, client delivery and workplace morale.
    2. TechnologyTechnology is making it easier for companies to serve the masses, rather than the select few, at these career junctures. Using technology-enabled solutions, like GroHappy, firms can provide essential career support to people across different levels in the organisation – including the more junior populations.
    3. QuestionsKarina invited the audience to consider three questions when exploring how they might enhance their career development offering:
    • Where are the key career junctures in your organisation?
    • What is the impact that these junctures are having on your firm?
    • How can you best support employees at these career junctures?



Harry Gaskell, Chief Innovation Officer & Partner, EY


Where have all the pyramids gone?


Harry Gaskell from EY asked this question at the start of his discussion. Of course, he wasn’t talking about Egyptian pyramids, but the pyramid structure that has long characterised professional services firms with the Partner at the top.

Harry then charted the rise of this pyramid structure, from the early origins in Medieval shoemaker shops to the mammoth organogram within EY. It turns out that this model – with the specialist supported by layers of ‘doers’ – has been replicated through most of the professions that we know today, whether law firms, accountancies or consultancies.

With Partners at the top, the goal of each individual in the lower layers of the pyramid is to make their way up the pyramid, until they are the Partner at the top.

This clear career path has been easy for firms to replicate, communicate and manage for over a hundred years. But Harry makes the case that the pyramid is falling down, “the pyramids within large firms are now so big that they stop working. Employees are losing the personal contact and experience from above that pyramids used to offer.”

He also mentioned the differing generations. With a tongue-in-cheek prod at demanding Millennials, Harry shared how Millennials are no longer interested in a bottom-to-top climb up the pyramid. Equally, older employees who may be in semi-retirement or attracted back to the firm for a one-off project aren’t interested in the pyramid either.


Watch part of Harry’s talk on disappearing pyramids:


Watch Harry’s talk on moving to a networked model:


Technology as a catalyst


Technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are quickening the pyramids’ disintegration. Before, professional services firms sold smart people’s time. Now, with the rise of automation and AI, firms won’t always need scores of juniors doing the grunt work. Indeed he gave the example of how a new technology in the EY tax practice has transformed a task that takes a junior team member 42 hours to complete into a few seconds computing effort.

However, as professional services increase how they service clients with smart software (combined with smart people), firms need more data scientists, engineers, UX specialists and so forth. There are new roles that juniors and other employees can step into that were never available before.



That has transformed the pyramid into more of a network-like structure, with the Partner in the middle. Lots of interactions happen within the network, with some workers being part of the non-permanent workforce (freelancers and contractors, for example) and many being distributed across different geographies. This requires a fundamental shift in the way organisations support and direct career development.


Becoming an employer of choice


Harry finished with some predictions for the future, “Soon people will realise that they will have to learn for themselves. Give it a few years and offering our kind of learning and development opportunities will be a hygiene factor. In other words, if you don’t do it now, you’re going to be left behind. Then, in the future you won’t be an employer of choice.”

Simply put, the onus is increasingly on employees to develop and manage their career. Organisations should provide the resources and guidance, in the form of GroHappy or similar tools. But the responsibility lies with the individual.

Watch part of Harry’s talk on evolving employee expectations:


2 lessons from EY

  1. EY badges – EY has developed EY Badges as a way of recognising the skills that their people develop. Employees can complete short courses at different levels to learn skills in data science and product design (to name 2 of the 20 or so courses). These take the form of virtual learning through services like Udemy, as well as on-the-job validation through assignments.
  2. GigNow – EY has also set up GigNow, a platform for freelancers and contractors that keep them engaged with the firm and to help it build its employer brand in the market. Being part of this network also gives these gig workers access to EY’s learning resources – a valuable opportunity that they hope will attract the best freelance and contract talent.





Clear themes from the event


Throughout the breakfast event there were a few clearly repeated themes around:

  • Disintegrating career ladders for less-linear structures (whether climbing walls, constellations or networks)
  • How development is becoming ever more important to engage and retain talent – what is currently a differentiator will quickly become a hygiene factor
  • The importance of individual ownership of development, and how leading companies can encourage and support that.


What people thought of the event


Feedback from the breakfast event has been overwhelming positive, with an NPS score of 100% and several people commenting that the event was very thought-provoking:

“Great job! Enlightening and thought-provoking.”

“An energising and thought-provoking morning”

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