THE PEOPLE PARADOX: Hiring “Advisors” Who Will Never Advise
This post is an excerpt from MC Carter’s upcoming book — SHIFT: 12 Shifts in Thinking to Transition the Accounting Profession into the Modern Era. Click the button below to get a FREE PREVIEW of the first four chapters a week before release, and stay in the loop as we move closer to launch. You can read the chapter one excerpt here.
A high school student visits the school’s career guidance counsellor. After a few discussions, some testing, and profiling the student’s natural aptitudes, the guidance counsellor calls the student in to share her insights and suggestions.
The conversation goes something like this:
“You’re a great communicator,” she says. “You connect with people. I feel that you’re present and truly listening to me when we speak. You’re engaging and enthusiastic when you’re with people. You’re confident, and I get a strong sense that you like helping others. I can tell you’re energised by interacting with others, and your profiling results support this. Basically, you’re a ‘people person’.
“You know what? I have just the career for you. You should be an accountant.”
This never happens, does it? What’s far more likely is the conversation will go more like this:
“You’re good at maths. You’re good with numbers. Very logical and analytical.
“I have just the career for you. You should be an accountant.”
And so the number-crunching issue I raised in the previous chapter is perpetuated. The profession’s population continues to be dominated by Analyticals (or ‘Grinders’), creating recruiting challenges for accounting firms. And it’s all due to what I call the People Paradox:
THE PEOPLE PARADOX
Accounting firms are advisory firms.
They want to provide future-focused
advisory services to their clients.
Yet they keep hiring advisors who are
not suited to being advisors.
‘Grinders’ is a reference to the Minders, Grinders and Finders model often used to explain different roles within a professional services firm:
- Minders are good at minding client relationships
- Grinders are good at grinding through the technical work
- Finders are good at finding new clients and engagements.
Another way of looking at it:
- Minders love a client meeting.
- Grinders love a task list.
- Finders love a challenge.
This model—made popular by authors such as David Maister—is useful for understanding the different roles within a firm, and the need to match the natural strengths and aptitudes of team members to their position and achieve a balance of these abilities across a firm.
The Achille’s Heel of the accounting profession, particularly in small- and medium-sized firms, is they are ‘Grinder-heavy’. Team members, especially those in professional advisory roles, tend to be Analytical in their social style. (More about social styles in a moment.)
Of course, Analytical skills are essential for an accountant. But in many ways they are really ‘back office’ skills, not client-facing advisory skills.
Why do I say that?
As an accountant, if one of your business clients put production workers into client-facing roles, you’d question it, wouldn’t you? You’d want to make sure they were matching the skill-set and natural aptitude of their employees with their roles.
It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, a lot of accounting firms tend to do just the opposite.
Let me give the Analytical and Grinder terms some context for you.
In our work with accounting and business advisory firms we use a profiling tool called the Merrill-Reid Social Styles model, which pre-dates the similar and well-known DiSC® personality profiling tool.
The Merrill-Reid model assesses two aspects of the way a person relates to others:
- Assertiveness, and
The Assertiveness scale is a spectrum from Ask to Tell. Some people prefer to ask other what to do, while others are more than happy to tell others what they see needs to be done. Most of us sit somewhere along this spectrum, and where we sit—how we choose to behave—depends on the situation.
The Responsiveness scale is a spectrum from Task to People. People with a low-responsiveness profile would prefer to work through a list of tasks than communicate with or respond to others. Those with a high-responsiveness profile love speaking with and meeting with others.
Plotting these attributes against each other creates four quadrants:
- Driver and
Each of us has elements of all four styles in our profile. It’s important to note that social style profiling isn’t about suggesting any particular quadrants or ‘types’ are superior or inferior to any others. Each has its role in a team, and achieving a balanced team in an advisory firm is crucial.
When looking at these four quadrants and overlaying the Minders, Grinders, Finders model, four things quickly became apparent to me:
- Minders tend to be more in the Expressive quadrant,
- Finders tend to be more in the Driver quadrant,
- Grinders tend to be more in the Analytical quadrant, and
- The Amiable quadrant is not catered for in the 3-part Minders, Grinders, Finders
I thought through the many accounting firms I’ve advised and recalled the different team members who played key roles across ‘chargeable’ (fee-producing) and ‘non-chargeable’ (admin and management support) roles. It struck me that key admin team members are often in the Amiable quadrant in that they are High Responsiveness (eager to please people around them) and low assertiveness (happy to be given daily, weekly and monthly tasks lists to work through and be delegated to).
So I created a fourth term, Reminders to expand the Minders, Grinders, Finders model out to a more useful and complete Minders, Grinders, Finders, Reminders model as shown here:
A well-functioning advisory firm is like a sporting team. You need a balance of different players. A balanced team tends to be a winning team.
It’s the same with the team in an accounting firm. When hiring advisors, it pays to know an applicant’s social style.
The stark reality I’ve observed, however—having advised and worked in accounting firms across two decades—is that small- and medium-sized accounting firms typically lack this winning mix.
So how do you know when an accounting firm is missing this crucial mix? What are the symptoms of this team imbalance?
I’ll never forget overhearing three accountants having a stand-up chat in the open-plan cubicle area of their firm, coffees in hand. They’d just been in—and politely nodded and smiled their way through—a team meeting where the Principal of the firm spoke passionately about how their role as accountants was to help their clients achieve a better financial future through doing future-focused services, rather than solely doing their compliance work.
The conversation between these senior advisors went like this:
“Man, I have so much work on.”
“I hate it when the phone rings.”
“Oh yeah, me too. The last thing I need is interruptions.”
“Oh, and how about when clients want to come in and actually meet with you.”
“Yeah, it’s the worst.”
“I hate client meetings.”[They all laugh.]
“Oh yes. I’m feeling your pain.”
Grinders see client interactions as interruptions. And even as ‘pain’!
And these so-called ‘advisors’—that word was on their business cards in their position titles—with this perspective are somehow expected to learn about their clients’ plans, hopes, aspirations, frustrations, fears and obstacles, and come up with solutions and make suggestions to improve their clients’ lives?
It’s never going to happen.
What underpins that ‘I hate client meetings’ conversation is simple. And it’s holding back the accounting profession.
A person with a strong Analytical profile would prefer to look at a spreadsheet than meet with a person. They’d prefer to work at their computer than communicate with a client.
Why? Because their Analytical social style is more task-focused and less people-focused.
Analyticals also tend to have lower Assertiveness, and often prefer to be told what to do rather than telling or suggesting to others what to do.
These types of people don’t help to grow and develop a firm other than by producing good quality work.
That’s clearly important, but it’s production work. Not advisory work. It’s not a client relationship management function.
For a firm to grow, it needs what I call True Advisors. To me, this is a level above being only a Trusted Advisor. Being trusted is just the first rung of the ladder. And people don’t buy from those they merely trust. They buy from those they feel they know, like and trust.
True Advisors are people who make suggestions to clients. They grow the firm’s Clientshare™ *, and actively and ethically cross-sell appropriate additional services to clients.
They are advisors, not order takers.
To be an advisor is to sell courses of action to clients that they are willing to pay for. It’s as simple as that.
But making suggestions and, dare we say it, selling services to clients not only doesn’t appeal to Analyticals, it positively frightens them. Some might even say it sickens them! They hate the very idea of selling. They don’t understand that advising is selling.
Grinders don’t want to do it. Their belief system includes mantras such as:
- “If a client wants something, they’ll ask for it.”
- “Our clients won’t pay for those extra services.”
- “I don’t sell anything to anyone.” (Often said proudly.)
Accounting profession benchmarking survey results support this. Firms are not selling or advising. They are order-taking.
In surveys such as The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of the Accounting Profession by Business Fitness, nine out of ten firms surveyed state they’d like to provide more value-add advisory services to their clients. So the intention is there. But when you analyse the revenue mix across the different types of services from tax and compliance to value-add advisory areas, it’s apparent that only one in ten firms is actually achieving this to any significant degree.
Nine want to do.
Only one is currently achieving it.
I term this gulf between intention and execution in the accounting profession The Value-Add Chasm©. It’s not a wide chasm—note that I use the word ‘chasm’, and not ‘canyon’—but it is a deep abyss that most firms either fear to cross, or fall into when they try.
The answer to solving this serious issue within the accounting profession isn’t a piece of software, or a checklist, or a client needs review questionnaire. Yes, these are useful tools. But in the wrong hands these tools are just potential.
So what are the practical steps for addressing this Grinder-heavy imbalance that’s present in most accounting firms, and in the accounting profession as a whole?
If you wait for the accounting professional bodies to invest in changing the public’s perception of the profession, you’ll be waiting a very long time.
So change needs to take place at the firm level.
I’ll share my views on that with you, in the next chapter…Before a firm can start to attract and recruit young talent that has more of the Minder and Finder attributes—that is people with higher Expressive and Driver profiles—it needs to shift its own thinking about which skills is values the most.