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.
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Richard Goold from Moorhouse believes that attrition could soon become an outdated or redundant metric as retention is seen as “putting your arms around people and not letting them go.”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:
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:
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.
Richard outlined five ways that Moorhouse is focussing on in its employee development.
Watch part of Richard’s talk about what they do at Moorhouse:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
Throughout the breakfast event there were a few clearly repeated themes around:
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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