The People Paradox – Grinders Grind, They Don’t Advise
A high school student visits the career guidance counsellor. After a couple of 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 great ‘people person’.
“You know what? I have just the career for you. You should be an accountant.”
Never happens, does it? What’s far more likely is the conversation that will end 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 we covered in the previous Numbers Paradox post 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 this People Paradox:
The People Paradox:
Accounting firms are advisory firms.
They want to sell and provide future-focused advisory services to their clients.
Yet they keep hiring people who are not suited to giving advice.
‘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.
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 the opposite.
Let me give the Analytical and 'Grinder' terms some context.
In our work with accounting, financial planning and 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. (I describe it as “DiSC without the royalties”.)
The Merrill-Reid model assesses two aspects of the way a person relates to others:
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: Amiable, Expressive, Driver and Analytical. And we all have 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.
It's like a football team. You need a balance of different players across the back, mid-field and up front. A balanced team tends to be a winning team.
It's the same with the team in an accounting firm.
Sadly, having worked with accounting firms for many years, we’ve noticed that small- and medium-sized accounting firms typically lack this winning mix.
What are the symptoms of this team imbalance?
I'll never forget overhearing three accountants having a chat in the open-plan cubicle area of their firm. 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 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 want is interruptions."
"And how about when clients want to come in and actually meet with you."
"Yeah, it's the worst."
"I hate client meetings."[Laughter]
"Oh yes. I'm feeling your pain."
Client interactions as 'pain'?
And these 'advisors' are 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.
People with a strong Analytical profile prefer to look at a spreadsheet than a person’s face. They'd prefer to work at their computer than meet with a client, 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.
But that’s production work. Not advisory work. Not a client relationship management function.
For a firm to grow, it needs what we call True Advisors. (This is a level above being a Trusted Advisor. Being trusted is just the first rung of the ladder.)
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. (Clientshare is a term we’ve coined to measure how many services your firm provides per client group.)
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 is more than an idea that doesn’t appeal to Analyticals. It positively frightens them.
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 proudly.)
Accounting profession benchmarking survey results support this. Nine out of ten firms state they’d like to provide more value-add advisory services to their clients, but only one in ten actually achieves this to any significant degree.
Nine want to.
One achieves it.
We call this gulf between intention and execution in the accounting profession The Value-Add Chasm. It's not a wide chasm—we teach firms how to cross it—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 to addressing this Grinder-heavy imbalance in an accounting firm?
We'll cover that in our next post.
What’s been your experience in getting your accountants to meet with clients? To make suggestions and successfully sell value-add advisory services to clients? What frustrations have you experienced? And what has worked well for you? We’d love to hear about it in the Comments below.
Portions of post originally appeared as Chapters 1 and 2 in The True Advisor eBook by MC Carter.
End Note: This blog post will form the basis of a chapter in the upcoming book, The Practice Paradox – Reinventing The Accounting Profession by Michael ‘MC’ Carter, founder of PARADOX.
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