Shaye Thyer is National Cloud and Advisory Specialist at BDO. A recent conversation with a colleague forced her to consider how change is managed, challenged, then executed within more traditional accounting firms.
I met a colleague for coffee the other day. It was the first time we’d met in real life rather than online, and he asked me about what I do. I told him that, in a nutshell, it’s my job to transition our 500 traditionally trained, compliance-obsessed accountants into being client business partners. My new friend, as it turns out, is very much a realist (I’d say teetering on pessimist) and he turned to me and said, “You won’t be able to do that.” Given we’d known each other for just under half an hour, I was a little offended to tell you the truth, but I parked that and kindly asked him to explain his attack on my capability and ambition. His message was, “Accountants are dinosaurs, especially old ones from big firms. You won’t change them.”
The key change management question: what’s in it for me?
My experience of change management in professional practice looks a bit like this:
“Dear staff, We’re changing.”
“Why are we doing it?”
“Because I said so…”
“What do we need to do?”
“Your job, and what I say”
And the typical response includes a one-handed gesture involving one or two fingers…
We must start with why; not why from the business perspective, but from each individual staff member’s perspective. Why should they care? Why should they do that thing differently? What’s in it for them? There is a place in this message for the broader why – the firm’s why – but a blanket approach doesn’t work. We can’t expect to raise a big banner that says, “Hey everybody, do this thing ‘cos we think it’s good,” and expect everyone to be equally motivated to change. We might be accountants, but we’re humans, not robot sheep.
Onwards and upskilling
Organisational change capability is the new black. All industries are dealing with significant competition and disruption, and the ability to cope separates the thriving from the struggling. We often hear people say of successful businesses, ‘Oh they’re so nimble’ or, ‘They thrive in the chaos.’ The thing they do differently is equip all levels of their business to manage change. At the very least, all senior staff need to clearly understand their roles in the change process, and be provided with the tools to manage the change for themselves and their teams. Change becomes the new business as usual, just part of the day job.
Haters gonna hate
Shooting for 100% adoption of any change is unrealistic. Change resistance, particularly in unionised factions within the firm have the potential to spread, fester and completely derail projects that once looked perfectly viable. Anticipating resistance and committing effort to strategies that target and minimise resistance is key. At the end of the day, haters gonna hate, but proactive containment will stop them sinking the ship.
Don’t pretend this is a corporate
Regardless of what the legal structure is, accounting firms operate like partnerships – the partners are the boss, jointly and severally. Their level of influence within the business is absolutely critical in the change journey. We need to take care of their WIIFM first, and equip them to assume the critical role of influencing other staff as change champions. The single most significant factor in failed attempts at change stems from the lack of active and visible sponsorship of that change – partners who don’t walk the talk. For they need to be laying the path and flying the flag, not just walking it.
Proving the pessimistic wrong
Accountants are not dinosaurs. They’re not change adverse. And there’s no such thing as change fatigue. When we invest the resources and effort into giving all staff the tools to manage change and take a structured, bespoke approach to each organisational change, then we succeed. That’s what I’ll do, and I’ll prove my pessimistic new friend very wrong.
Tips to manage changing to a new way of working
- You need an organisational change office just like you need a marketing department
- Take a structured, bespoke approach to every change. Blankets don’t work
- Always start with why for the individual
- Deal with humans like humans, not robot sheep
- Partners must lay the path, not just walk the talk.
Shaye’s story is taken from the new issue of Partner Pages – a magazine of beautifully curated content, written by partners, for partners. Get your free copy at the Roadshow Australia 2018.