Great firms: great people, Or great people: great firms?

In this next installment of their six part series revealing the secrets of great firms, PACE turn their attention to the make or break component of professional services, the people.

Sometimes we’re asked which is more true – great people creating a great firm, or a great firm attracting great people. From our experience it is a bit of both. Typical consultants, you may say!

But to achieve a great firm you do need great people. Beware though greatness as a label. We sometimes hear of talented professionals headhunted by a rival firm only to find that the new firm’s culture and systems are at odds with the very things that made them great at their previous employer. In this new role, they struggle and soon lose their ‘greatness’ sheen. This isn’t their fault or weakness. Great people are created when their values, aims and goals align with those of their firm. It is why there is always a risk in poaching star performers from one firm to replicate their success in another. It is also why such activities sometimes lead to a disappointing outcome for both parties. Great for our firm, rather than just being great.

Recent quotes from senior partners and CEOs in the business press reveal that the best and greatest people seem to be those grown by the firm. The challenge for many firms, in the current ‘war for talent’, is retaining them. The better a firm is at aligning individual motivations with its corporate goals, the more chance it has of attracting staff loyalty.

What is great?

So if your firm wants great people it needs to define what great is. It needs to consider its goals, ambitions and the values and ethos behind them. These define the profiles of the people who will indeed be great in this business and for the business.

In marketing and HR departments across the UK’s professional services, much effort is currently being focused on supporting the firm’s recruitment and retention efforts whether they be targeted at graduates or those further down their careers. How much of this effort is based on a clear definition of the skills, behaviours, competencies and attitudes that each role needs to satisfy? Such clarity is evident in the great firms and the search for talent is focused on the desired profiles. These are not idealistic or in search of super humans that don’t exist. In contrast they are very realistic with an understanding of the components the firm needs and those it is happy to develop with the individual over time.

Attracting great people

A firm’s reputation is key to attracting its great people, just as it is in attracting great clients. Less effort has historically been given to building the employer’s element of a firm’s reputation. This however is changing, especially as Generation Y gains more influence and the current candidate-driven employment market gains strength.

Increasingly we hear how candidates are more discerning in who they work for. Questions that would have been unheard of in job interview a decade or so before, are now being asked (and are expected to be asked). Both potential employees and clients are actively seeking evidence of a firm’s culture, beliefs, values, work vs. life balance and corporate social responsibility activities. And firms are waking up to this very fast.

This all creates a great opportunity for marketing to apply its expertise and skill-set in reputation building with those of HR and senior management. The great firms do just that. They bring together multi-disciplinary teams to build and sustain the image and reputation, which will attract the profile of people they need to drive the business forward. It isn’t always about being the biggest or even being in The Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Companies To Work For’. It’s about deciding who you are, where your firm wants to be, the type of people you need to achieve that and what they will be looking for in an employer.

The recruitment experience should demonstrate the reputation’s promise. The really great firms appreciate that influential communication sources such as Facebook, blogs, etc are gaining in popularity. If a candidate has a bad experience or believes the firm doesn’t live up to its perceived image he/she will let it be known, probably far and wide. So the best firms go out to assess their recruitment methods and the candidate experience at every stage. They then make the necessary changes to ensure the experience elements builds the right candidates’ motivation to want to join the firm. For those who don’t fit (or the firm doesn’t fit with them) the experience is still made positive and one they’d recommend to others.

And where do these candidates come from? The more successful firms look beyond the conventional recruitment sources. They look to see where a number of their greatest people have come from and get closer to those sources. This could be a particular department in an academic institution, a specific recruitment consultant, a referring colleague, etc.

Increasingly firms are forging links with specific university departments. By supporting the curriculum of particular undergraduate and postgraduate programmes through special lectures, visiting professorships, competitions and project simulations, the firms are able to become more visible to potential employees. It means that come the milk-round or other recruitment events, these candidates will possess a clear (and hopefully positive) understanding of their firm rather than their rivals’.

In fact a few firms have been very proactive in using their involvement with higher education to talent scout and allocate places on their graduate schemes before milk round takes place.

Motivating to say

Retaining great people is always described as a challenge; however, if an individual’s values and motivations align with their employer’s it shouldn’t be such an uphill struggle. Too many people leave an employer because of their manager, not the fundamentals of their job. Many UK managers are guilty of the A word – assumption. They assume that people:

  • Are motivated by the same things they are,
  • Work in the same way as they do.
  • Would like to be rewarded with the same things they like.

By contrast, management in the great firms heavily features the U and the E words – Understanding and Empathy. It is recognised that great people need support and encouragement in different ways to achieve their potential in the firm. It means that from day one, when an employee’s motivation is at its highest, the firm communicates direction, demonstrates genuine interest and support and creates a positive experience for them. How many of your firm’s employees talk with relish about their induction? How many describe it as exciting, motivating and stimulating? These descriptors are just what the best firms set out to achieve. But their work doesn’t stop there.

To keep people motivated, they assess those areas in which individuals need support and guidance. Often based on regular appraisals, the results are the right development programme, training, mentoring, support network, etc. being brought into play for each person.

Yes it is important to get the remuneration of good work right, but so many studies are pointing to the fact that other hygiene factors are equally important in securing a great person’s loyalty. Understanding these in the first place is crucial. It’s then important to use this knowledge to communicate ‘what’s in it’ for them by supporting the firm’s goals, plans or a particular initiative.

It’s easy to build a person’s skill-set and capabilities, it’s harder to build their motivation and engage their support. Like clients, once motivation and trust is gone it is very hard to re-engage. Motivating great people to stay isn’t about pandering to employees at all costs. In the long run this strategy won’t work for either party. Instead it’s about giving people a voice and aligning the career aspirations and motivations of the individuals to the corporate aspirations of the firm. It’s about setting up recognition systems, which endorse rather than detract from the key goals and motivations inherent in the business.

People want their firm to be successful, they want to contribute to that success and they want to be r ecognised for doing so. The nature of that recognition is however different for different people and their profiles.

Firms are beginning to realise this. Different (and sometimes innovative) working practices and reward mechanisms are starting to be introduced. In doing so, professional services organisations need to be careful of the underlying messages their reward activities convey. A colleague recently commented ‘what’s rewarding gets done’ and that’s very true. People will follow where the reward is greatest. If cross-selling is seen as important, but a firm rewards new client acquisition then cross-selling will get very little attention. Similarly people will tend to treat others as they are treated, so firms would be wise to consider what behaviours and communication styles are prevalent within their organisation.


In it for the long run

Life constantly evolves. It is one of it’s most exciting features. So ensuring great firms and great people remain great requires continuous monitoring, evaluation and fine-tuning. Marketing has an exciting role to play in all this, whether it is supporting the firm’s reputation building, recruitment drives, internal communication, helping fee-earners and others in the firm to achieve their potential and business targets. Their creativity, research and experience will be invaluable. Great firms. Great people. They are inextricably linked.