This is podcast three of five of the ACCA strategy series.
Where's the value in having a crystal clear sense of purpose for your accountancy firm?
In this podcast discussion, you'll hear James Lizars and Steph Rickaby, two sole owners of two modest size accounting firms that think big!
They think big about their core purpose, what they stand for, their raison d’etre.
And you'll hear me ask them, where's the payoff? Where's the value in having, building, creating and living a real sense of purpose?
"I think purpose leads you into the more detailed parts of your clients' makeup.
"So straight away you look at their purpose and you can then ask ‘What does that look like - what do you need to do then - and how can I help you do that?
"This shifts the gears of the conversation quickly into what we can do to help them meet that purpose – it’s not about the spreadsheets anymore."
Connect with James
Connect with Paul
Connect with Steph
Paul Shrimpling: [00:00:00] This is podcast three of five of the ACCA Strategy Series. Welcome to the Humanise the Numbers podcast series. Leaders, managers, and owners of ambitious accounting firms, sharing insights, successes, and issues that will challenge you and connect you and your firm to the ways and means of transforming your firm’s results.
James Lizars: [00:00:28] But yeah, I think purpose sort of leads you into those more detailed parts of their makeup. So straight away you look at the purpose and you're like, okay, so what does that mean? What does that look like? What do you need to do then? And how can I help you do that? So you shift gears fairly quickly into the other aspects of, you know, what can we do to help you meet that purpose?
And it's a much more granular conversation.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:00:56] Where's the value in having a crystal-clear sense of purpose for your accountancy firm? On this podcast discussion, you're going to hear from James Lizars and Steph Rickaby, two sole owners of two modest-sized accounting firms that think big – they think big about their core purpose, what they stand for, their raison d’etre.
And you'll hear me ask them, where's the payoff? Where's the value in having and building and creating and living a real sense of purpose? Let's go to that discussion with James and Steph now.
Steph Rickaby: [00:01:31] Hello, Paul, my name's Steph Rickaby. My firm is Sunflower Accountants and we're based in Hilmarton, a little village in Wiltshire.
I've got two children, Emily, who's six, and Gabriela, who's 29, and two grandchildren. Why did I get into accountancy? Well, I left school with just four O-Levels and I became a single parent at 24. And I felt that I didn't want a life on benefits. And I knew what it was like to struggle and I wanted some purpose to my life.
So I took myself back to college, retrained, and six years later, I was an accountant.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:02:20] How many people in your team, Steph?
Steph Rickaby: [00:02:22] So there's eight of us. And I've gone through a bit of a growth change over the last 18 months, because 18 months ago it was just myself and my husband and we had a team member and she went off long-term sick, and I realized that I didn't have a proper purpose in my firm.
I didn't have proper values and I needed to take myself on that journey. I joined the Gap Portal. They were really instrumental in sort of helping me discover some of these ideas. And we started with our values, first of all, starting to identify our core values and what we stood for. And we came up with “inspiring and educating our clients to love and understand their numbers while helping them to achieve their personal and business goals”.
And it was very much centred around wanting to help our clients achieve and be the best business and have the most enriched life that they could possibly have, because that's what resonated with me when I was starting on my journey as an accountant.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:03:42] Yeah. Brilliant. Thanks for that, Steph.
James, do you want to introduce yourself and a little bit about your firm?
James Lizars: [00:03:50] Sure. So I'm James Lizars and I run Thrive Accountants. We're based down in West Sussex near Gatwick. And we work to a London client base that’s predominantly tech businesses. So I set this up in 2013 having come out of a career as a finance director in the advertising industry in London, which is an interesting place to be an accountant.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:04:18] Yeah. Lots of opposites, I would have thought.
James Lizars: [00:04:24] Well, I've never worked in an accounting practice other than my own, so my frame of reference is my business. I've got two kids, two and five, and they've been very much part of the fabric of the firm's purpose.
I found it to be quite an elusive thing, this concept of purpose and, you know, Simon Sinek's in the background there, you know, imploring us all to find our why and start with a pithy little phrase – that pithy phrase has always been a bit...
Paul Shrimpling: [00:04:58] Easy to say, hard to do.
James Lizars: [00:05:00] Yeah, exactly. But yeah, it's been a journey and it's changed over the eight years.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:05:12] Oh, right. Okay. We might touch on that. So, how many people in your team, James?
James Lizars: [00:05:16] So, including me there’s three and a half, well, there’s five of us, but three and a half FTE.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:05:21] Right. Yeah.
James Lizars: [00:05:24] I've just recruited my first full-timer, which is something I sort of swore off doing. But now, I’m absolutely delighted to have done it.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:05:35] Right. I was just going to say, what does it feel like? It almost feels like a lumpy step, doesn't it? I remember when we hired our first full-timer in this business, as opposed to my previous businesses, you know, it's like, ah, all of a sudden there's someone else to throw into the mix in terms of values and purpose and so on.
James Lizars: [00:05:57] Exactly that. And you know, I, for ages, I haven't wanted to work full time or manage someone full time as a result. It's a pretty big decision from that angle.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:06:08] Yeah. Okay, great. So rather than, because we are going to zero in, focus on purpose in this discussion, but rather than focus in, to begin with, on purpose within your firm, I wonder, have you got a client story that you can tell, which explains or demonstrates how a sense of purpose, a real sense of purpose, has either helped or hindered if they haven't a sense of purpose – a client.
Now that's called tumbleweed, which I think is always brilliant on a podcast, but that's okay.
Steph Rickaby: [00:06:48] It's really tricky, isn't it? Because when you're speaking to a client and you're wanting to try and do a strategic core business plan with them, and you start talking to them about their purpose, generally, most of them don't understand that they should have a purpose and you're very much starting from the basics with them. And you're having to develop something and really ask some questions about why they're doing…, I know it goes back to that WHY, doesn't it, why they first started their business, the emotions that they went through, why they created the business.
Why did they want to take that leap of faith? So for me and my clients, it's very much about developing and introducing them to the concept of having a purpose.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:07:50] Cause if you're talking to them about their personal and business goals, it's presumably an unavoidable subject for you and your clients, Steph?
Steph Rickaby: [00:07:57] Absolutely. It's got to start with that. So any new client that comes on board now, they've got to put together a strategic plan and we are always starting with their purpose and their values.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:08:09] All right. Okay. So the pregnant pause is interesting then if it's not as obvious a benefit to your clients. Or is it, have I misunderstood or misinterpreted that?
Steph Rickaby: [00:08:22] It is a benefit, but it's something that evolves, isn't it?
It's never an instant, clearly-defined purpose. And even though you start with some ideas at the beginning of the process, by the time you get to the end of the process, I feel that you're only maybe 30% there. And then we start having either monthly or quarterly meetings. It still develops, because we then might lead on to their core values and other goals that they're trying to achieve.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:08:59] So, how do you kickstart that conversation with new clients coming in? So if you're saying that, actually you only work with new clients if they actually agree to put this strategic plan piece together, what are your opening gambits?
What are your questions that someone listening to the podcast might go, hmm, I could do with knowing what those questions are? Because then I can ask them myself and then we can crack on. What questions are you asking?
Steph Rickaby: [00:09:20] So we use GoProposal for a pricing mechanism. And the very first line is about developing strategic plans and having quarterly meetings at a minimum.
And the very first question that we're talking to prospects or new clients about is, why are you in business? What are you trying to achieve? What are your goals personally? And it's either time or money or exit strategy. So there's all different ideas. And then we recommend, we start recommending the services and it's got to start with having a plan.
And then to have a plan, you've got to start with a purpose.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:10:11] And do you think purpose evolves out of their personal views, their personal desires, wants and needs? Is that what you're saying here?
Steph Rickaby: [00:10:23] Well, I think for me personally, the experience that I've had is that it links back to an emotion and a personal experience or a personal purpose. And whatever that personal purpose might be, it's the emotion that kind of seeps through into why you started your business or why you're doing what you're doing. But for me personally, the obstacle that I came across was I was Sunflower at the beginning.
I was Sunflower Steph and it had to become more than me. And that was the stumbling block for me personally. So when I'm dealing with clients that are just them, or just them and another team member, and they're wanting to grow their business, they've got to think beyond just them.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:11:20] Right, and that's my experience as well, Steph, is that a sense of purpose isn’t just for you, the business owner, the sense of purpose has to mean something to yes, you. Yes, your team. Yes, your clients, your customers. And yes, I would argue, the community in which you work as well. How would you respond to that?
Steph Rickaby: [00:11:42] Absolutely. Because once you've discovered what the purpose is and what your values are and the direction that you're going in, you just naturally start attracting the right clients, because you know who your ideal client is. And also people that you want to work with – suppliers. You just naturally attract those sorts of people in those businesses.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:12:09] Yes. I was having that conversation this morning with a colleague of mine, Douglas, based on, you know, the work that we've been winning since the beginning of the year which seems to be finding us at a rate [xxxxx]. But it's, and I used the phrase with Douglas, that there's a, whether you read the Bible or the Qur'an or any other religious literature, there's a saying in there, which goes something like, if you take a step towards me, I'll take a step towards you.
And for me, purpose is one of those things where if you take a step towards working it out, something positive happens, even if you haven't got it absolutely nailed at the beginning. And like you say, Steph, there's just no chance you're going to get it nailed at the beginning, because it's an evolving process.
I think that's a really powerful insight, thank you. James, what are your thoughts on, you know, what and how your clients have responded to this sense of purpose and whether it's paid off for them?
James Lizars: [00:13:04] Yeah. I mean, certainly it's a popular thing these days, you know. It was mission statements, but they seem to have faded into the background somewhat.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:13:16] Or perhaps evolved into purpose. That's how I've read it.
James Lizars: [00:13:20] Exactly. And I think probably for me, it's to understand what the client says their purpose is. And, you know, some of it can be quite deliberately outward-facing to their clients. It's kind of a signal for me as to what kind of person or organization they are.
So yeah, it's kind of a qualification test. One – do I like the sound of what you stand for? If not, then we move on to the next. But if that is aligned….
Paul Shrimpling: What if they don’t know?
James Lizars: Well, I think then you look to try to establish other traits or values or whatever within the early conversations.
But yeah, I think this sort of leads you into those more detailed parts of their makeup. It doesn't come up very often in our conversation, but then it doesn't change very often. So it's, straightaway, you look at the purpose and, you know, so what does that mean? What does that look like? What do you need to do then? And how can I help you do that? So you shift gears fairly quickly into the other aspects of, you know, what can we do to help you meet that purpose? And it's a much more granular conversation.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:14:46] So how do your clients respond to the fact that they think they're about to have a conversation with an accountancy firm and here we are talking purpose, and probably values as well, and personal goals.
Does it create any sort of disconnect or affliction? What sort of response do you get?
James Lizars: [00:15:06] I mean, they … I think anyone who doesn't value that conversation is slightly odd. It positions you kind of as someone to work with rather than someone to buy from. That’s what we're for.
You know, we're not about filing things. We're about working with clients to help them get where they're going. So it's kind of a natural conversation to have. If you're not having that conversation, then, well, your competitor probably is.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:15:43] Well, they are, or, maybe if that conversation doesn't actually go anywhere they're, like you suggest James, they're self-regulating, they're qualifying themselves out of being one of your clients presumably.
Which is sounds harsh, but you know, you've only got so much time and so much energy to invest in so many people. So I like the fact that you're using it as a qualification process. I think that's very powerful.
So let's turn the spotlight on to you and your firm, James – what’s your core purpose of your firm?
James Lizars: [00:16:19] So yes, it has certainly evolved from when it started off. It was 2013. Xero was relatively new on the scene and I'd been a finance director and I saw this gap where an accountant was a grudge purchase quite often. There was a budget there and there was this wonderful tool that could add value through a year, throughout a whole year.
And so I just thought, well, there's an obvious positioning there for me to bring my skills and experience, along with that tool, to bring finance function to small businesses. And that's how we've developed. And obviously things change. You stop demoing Xero and start working with clients who say, hey, I work on Xero.
And then as I mentioned, my kids have been very much part of this journey and the whole reason why is the light bulb moment of, hey, I could be a business owner, occurred was because of conversations with my wife who had her own consulting business and talking about starting a family and not wanting to be on the employment treadmill bringing home money, but not really having the mornings and evenings with the kids.
So we wanted that balance, that flexibility in starting a family. And it's been wonderful, frankly, it has been absolutely wonderful, the flexibility I've had as a result of that. But I think my eldest was about two at the time I got introduced to the UN global goals as a thing.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:18:10] It’s worth just actually talking about what they are, not listing them, but just explaining what you're referring to please, James.
James Lizars: [00:18:14] So, yeah, in 2015 the United Nations adopted these 17 goals to be achieved by 2030 for a sustainable world. And they cover things like no poverty, zero hunger, climate action, you name it.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:18:37] That's number 13. I know that one's number 13 because that's the one we support with the podcast.
James Lizars: [00:18:42] It’s a very popular one, and quite rightly. So yeah, I had never heard of these before. I got introduced to them maybe about 2018 and then carried on doing my thing and then learned about B1G1.
Yeah, so that was about six months later – “buy one, give one”, the concept of micro giving. And when I heard about that and linked to business, just exploding light bulbs everywhere.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:19:14] Great stuff.
James Lizars: [00:19:16] So in my finance director career, I'd actually been a real driving force behind employee engagement because the advertising industry runs on creative talents.
You have the best talent, you win, broadly. So employee engagement was a huge, you know, it's a huge thing and we were a relatively small agency and we won multiple awards for our approaches. Media Employer of the Year likely came from the fact that the panel could not believe that the finance director was in the room talking so passionately about this subject.
We blew them away on that rather than necessarily the merit of what we were doing.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:19:59] So James, I'm now going to be an awkward so-and-so and ask Steph what you think James’ core purpose is.
Steph Rickaby: [00:20:08] What, now?
Paul Shrimpling: [00:20:09] Yeah. Cause I can't, at the moment. I've got, I can tie a few stands together, but I don't know what James’ core purpose is.
My core purpose is humanise the numbers. You know, only when accountants connect the human side of the world they work in with the number side of the world they work in (and then when I talk humans, I mean, team and clients) do they then achieve a level of meaning and a sense of purpose that they otherwise wouldn't achieve. So that's my core purpose. I've got Steph’s. And I made a few notes and tell me if I've got it right, Steph. So, it's inspiring and educating clients around the numbers in their business so that they can achieve their personal and business goals. Now I've probably not got the wording exactly right, but am I somewhere close?
Steph Rickaby: Absolutely.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:20:52] Okay. So it's now your turn, Steph, to tell us what James’ purpose is.
Steph Rickaby: I don’t know.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:21:02] Okay. So let's ask James again, then. So what's your core purpose, James?
James Lizars: [00:21:05] So we niche on tech businesses. So our core purpose is empowering founders to think bigger, act bigger and accelerate their journey.
So nothing about global goals or micro giving or impact or any of that stuff.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:21:25] Brilliant, brilliant. So tech companies that want to get bigger – you help them get bigger and accelerate the rate of growth.
James Lizars: [00:21:32] Yep. Absolutely.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:21:33] Brilliant. Okay, so you've identified who you're after, who you want to work with and who you don't.
And actually what you want to do is facilitate their journey to a bigger, more successful, faster growing business.
Paul Shrimpling: Why?
James Lizars: [00:21:49] Because we can and we can do it really well. And that is where we create value. That's our contribution to the economy. Yeah, so I could, because of my passion for the global goals, I could, well, say, hey, we niche on sustainability businesses or parts of it, that's not it for me.
I'm not going to work with toxic unethical types. There’s not so many of those out there to be perfectly honest.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:22:26] I think everybody wants to make the best of it, don't they?
James Lizars: [00:22:31] Exactly, exactly. So in helping people to achieve what they're setting out to achieve, I just bring the whole giving thing along with it. And in the same way that employee engagement was hugely adopted over the last decade, so I would hope that impact in giving would be hugely adopted over this decade.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:22:55] Yeah. But now I'm going to ask Steph to ask you a question about the purpose side of your business in a minute, but I'm just going to ask one more question.
So I understand now that your firm's core purpose is to help tech companies take action to get bigger and get bigger, faster, accelerate. And the reason you want to do that is because you can and it's where you add value to the economy. What's driving you adding value to the economy?
James Lizars: [00:23:26] I mean, it's what we've got. You know, there are some people who would seek to change the whole fabric of the way this country operates. But it's what we've got. That's not happening. So for me, it's shaping what we've got in the right direction.
Steph Rickaby: [00:23:54] It feels like you want to make a contribution there, James. Cause you seem to be contributing towards the global goals, contributing towards the businesses that you work for.
James Lizars: [00:24:06] Absolutely.
Steph Rickaby: [00:24:10] Contribution seems to be jumping out at me.
James Lizars: [00:24:12] Yeah. I've got a big, hairy goal just sitting on my plan and it's 10 million giving impacts by 2025. And yeah, in B1G1 numbers, as a minimum, that’s £75,000 worth. And that's probably not coming from my back pocket.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:24:38] Yeah. It's a nice hairy goal though. Let me just shift this conversation a little bit. Cause there's a firm I’ve worked with and I've worked with them for the best part of a decade and they've grown successfully. They've got a lovely team. They've got a well-established set of behavioural values and three, possibly four, times over the last decade I've gone, right, chaps, now let's have a talk about core purpose. You know, what's behind, what's the raison d'etre, what is it the firm stands for? And they, we sort of kickstart the conversation with “Paul, this is too hard for us. We're not sure we want to invest time when there's so many other things that we can be doing, tactically, et cetera, et cetera, to continue the successful growth of the business.”
What do you think I should do?
Steph Rickaby: What do we think you should do?
Paul Shrimpling: [00:25:28] Yeah, what do you think I should do to engage these, you know, bright, intelligent, actually successful, lovely people to work with, who, if I talk to their relatively large team about what they think the core purpose of the firm is, no one will be able to tell me because they haven't worked it out.
But I've done what I can so far to help engage in a purposeful conversation, which I know pays off based on other work that I've done with other firms. But I've stuttered and stalled. I've yet to get them to go, right, let's just close the doors, switch the phones off and let's talk purpose.
And I guess if I was to twist the question, it'd be, what's the payoff?
Steph Rickaby: What's the benefit?
Paul Shrimpling: What's the payoff? What's the benefit of having a core purpose, Steph?
Steph Rickaby: [00:26:16] So for me, the realization was that it was all centred around recruitment and being able to attract the right team. So I had to be very clear on what my core purpose was going forwards.
So when I started my business, it was Sunflower Accounts, which was me depicting this happy sunny, positive person. And the strapline was ‘helping your business grow to new heights’. The Sunflower.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:26:45] Well, you’re making that sound quite glib, but I bet it wasn't at the time.
Steph Rickaby: [00:26:48] Oh no. At the time, I absolutely loved it.
Paul Shrimpling: It’s a lovely image.
Steph Rickaby: [00:26:55] But for a team, I needed to be able to attract the people that shared my values. So my values are education, communication, teamwork, innovation and, underpinning all of that, it's sort of the work-life balance and having fun. So I had to be clear on my core purpose in the journey with my clients so that I was able to communicate that to the team. And when I was recruiting them, I was having to ask them, what are your core values? So the first thing we do is we ask for a video, a one-minute video about one of their core values, what's important to them. And why do they want to work for Sunflower?
And I've told them about our core values. I've told them about my purpose, our purpose.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:27:52] Where does this video show up in the recruitment process? Is it right at the beginning?
Steph Rickaby: [00:27:58] Right at the beginning. As soon as the cvs come through the door, we've sifted through those, and then we send a message: please send over your video.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:28:09] Right. And presumably some don't because they don't want to do it. And therefore you ain't hiring them.
Steph Rickaby: [00:28:15] The majority that we've chosen, I think all of them, this last recruitment drive, everyone sent a video through. They're all pretty nervous about it, but I think a lot of people are embracing video now over this last year because of the whole COVID situation, they’ve got used to it.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:28:35] Very good. So you're very much in that, like you almost can't separate entirely values from purpose, purpose from values. So what you're saying, in answer to my question is, the payoff of getting crystal clarity on what your firm's core purpose is that it facilitates and enables you hiring the right people for your firm.
Steph Rickaby: [00:28:55] Absolutely. And I'd be questioning how well the team are gelling together. Are they the right fit for the firm? What issues are there within the firm? I'd be asking them those questions.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:29:12] …that might be undermining the performance of the business? Yeah. So okay, so I appreciate that if you’re sharing a sense of purpose, a clear sense of purpose, what you stand for, and you're sharing your core behavioural standards, your values, that you will appeal to a certain type of person and therefore recruit the right people, if you’re fortunate. In what ways though, Steph, have you seen it actually help win out recruiting someone that was maybe looking at two or three firms as well as your own? Have you got any experience with that?
Steph Rickaby: [00:29:46] Yeah, absolutely. Recruiting our full time person, who is my right-hand lady, she was attracted to our purpose. She was attracted to the fact that we really wanted to be speaking with our clients on a regular basis, that we weren't just that once-a-year compliance type of firm. We wanted to meet with our clients three months before the year end and have that tax planning meeting.
We had a process in place. We were having that post year end meeting where we were educating them on the numbers and they really looked forward to that meeting. And they loved us talking about the numbers because we put it in such a way that it was translating it into the goals that they were wanting to achieve, what was important to them.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:30:42] Right. So if I've heard you right then, your core purpose and values, and I'll pick on education, cause you brought it up, in your purpose, the focus on personal and business goals, so whether it's a pre year end meeting or a post year end meeting, those subjects are actually showing up as part of the way you work.
Steph Rickaby: [00:30:58] Fundamental. Fundamentally with our clients, fundamental with our team.
Our team have targets around educating themselves as well.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:31:05] Okay. Right. So your right-hand person is now with you because she actually bought into those processes, as well as the effort you've put in, in advance of that recruitment meeting, that interview.
Steph Rickaby: [00:31:20] Absolutely. And she's taken it to the next level now.
So, where I'd got to one point, she's now building on those processes herself. So we've implemented the practice management system and she's taking care of that process. And she's helping to drive the business forward because she's really bought into our core purpose and she shares our values as well.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:31:47] Yeah, brilliant. So therefore what you're saying there, Steph, you're signposting that if you've got your purpose clear, it means something, it's not just a strapline. If you've got your values worked out, then it will facilitate and assist you in recruiting the right people, but also keep the right people as well.
That's the natural follow-on, isn't it? Yeah. Okay. So I get that.
James, what would you add to that? What would you add to the, you know, the recruitment and retention piece, if you want, but also, what would you add to, what else is the payoff of having a core purpose that’s crystal clear and meaningful to everyone in the firm?
James Lizars: [00:32:24] Yeah, I mean, I think I'm in a quite different situation. So the last two months, I think have been a rather pivotal shift for our business, in that recruiting this full-timer, I have recognized that suddenly we're an organization. Previously, it was James, and I had some capable people helping me. Now, it’s a full-time bookkeeper that we recruited. Terrific, but she reports into one of my client managers. So there's this stuff going on over there that I'm not completely in the loop on. And it's just, I think I've recognized it pretty swiftly, but it's really geed me on to get this stuff down.
So my purpose statement is something that I had been dallying with, for, you know, yonks. My values has been on my to-do list for over a year. Suddenly over the last few months I've gone, enough is enough. We need to get this down, because it is going to be the framework behind all of what we build next. What we build next stuff is all the processes that we need for an organization.
So yeah, hiring process, I've just hired someone. It was better than the way I used to hire someone you know, an online test and a video and stuff. But it was informal. It was shooting from the hip, which has very much been my style to this point. And I know I need to move beyond it.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:34:09] So if I've heard you right there, what you just said is you you've hired a bookkeeper that's the best hire compared with other hires you've made shooting from the hip. Because you've got this core purpose and you've got this set of values you’re actually more confident about the standard and calibre and performance of the individual you've hired than you've ever been before.
Or am I stuffing words hard and fast in your mouth there?
James Lizars: [00:34:33] I would chuck a little dab of fortune within it that just happened to stick.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:34:43] Right. Yeah. We can't get by without a good dose of that.
James Lizars: [00:34:49] Absolutely. I knew what I was looking for person-wise and had actually made some choices that I would never have made previously.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:35:00] Right. Go on, expand on that then. What do you mean you've made choices you wouldn't otherwise have made? Because that's interesting – the reason I ask the question, just to give you a bit of space on that, is if we've got a core purpose and we follow that, we pursue that, and ask questions around that, and then seek to make decisions around that, it actually takes us somewhere we weren't expecting to go. That's a sign, isn't it, that it's actually one of the drivers of the firm, the drivers of your decision-making and drivers of the action. So explain what you mean by that, you went somewhere you weren’t expecting to go.
James Lizars: [00:35:35] So, I was hiring for a part-time bookkeeper. And I suspected it's for 25 hours and I had a budget for it. I ended up with a full-time bookkeeper who is north of the budget pro rata, even.
Paul Shrimpling: That you’d set?
James Lizars: Yeah, absolutely. And I think previously I would taken help, any help. This time, I was, no, I can absolutely see how this person I can work with and build something around that's beyond bookkeeping.
And she's relatively new to bookkeeping, actually, but she's got oodles of other capabilities.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:36:30] So how does that connect with your purpose then, James?
James Lizars: [00:36:32] Well, I think she was kind of a spot-on values match. And that personality match, the energy, you know, great with clients.
We're bringing our bookkeeping back from an outsourced India solution, so one of the problems I really wanted to solve was direct client contact. And yeah, I absolutely see her being a client manager if that's what her ambition is.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:37:05] Right. Cause what I'm hearing is actually you saw in this bookkeeper the opportunity for you to accelerate the performance of your business.
James Lizars: [00:37:16] Absolutely. And I mean, here's an example from like two weeks ago, we're on our huddle, we were having a moan about Amazon and how you’d grab the documents to get it through to Xero and, you know, if only, and they're using their personal account, we're seeing things like dog food coming through, and it's such a pain.
And we talked about Amazon business and setting that up, and setting it up to actually explain to the clients, it’s really easy, just flit between the accounts and, you know, order from the right account and how you can limit the suppliers so that you only get the ones with the [xxxx].
And I said there needs to be a blog on this, to be honest, and just on that throwaway comment a blog landed in my inbox three days later.
Paul Shrimpling: From your team member, right?
James Lizars: [00:38:06] Yeah, from this new recruit. I mean, it's that kind of calibre is what I ended up with, I didn't even need to edit the blog. It was, you know, and I'm a terror for that.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:38:17] Well, I should imagine you are, if you've worked in an ad agency, because I've been in that environment as well, and it's brutal when it comes to editing. Brilliant. So, we've got recruitment – yes, purpose pays off. Retention of key people – yes, purpose pays off. In what other areas, what other aspects does having a core purpose really pay off for you as practice owners? Steph?
Steph Rickaby: [00:38:41] Ideal customers. Being able to know who your ideal customer is, who you want to attract, who you want to work with, the type of people. So that links in with your values as well. So for us, for example, we're not really interested in clients that want to just give us their stuff at the year end for us to churn out their compliance.
We want to work regularly with them to help them to achieve their goals. And also by having our core values of education, we want clients that are interested in learning how to do new things. And the innovation side is, well, are they interested in new technology? So yes, we are Xero users, obviously receipt bank decks, etc.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:39:36] So you're saying that you get this real, what looks like a peach or a plum of a potential client, but they're not really interested in you educating or inspiring them. So you don't go anywhere near them, even though they could be paying your fees of, you know, 5, 10, 20, 30 grand a year, you aren't going to go anywhere near them.
Steph Rickaby: [00:39:58] No, because I know that it will go wrong, because we'll be in conflict with our values. We've had a situation recently with a client that hasn't worked out and we had to say goodbye because they were extremely rude to one of the team, and we had to say goodbye.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:40:19] Because that didn't stack up with your values and therefore… So did you take the opportunity to maybe educate the client before you said goodbye to them?
Steph Rickaby: We did, yes. We didn’t just say, right, you’re out of here.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:40:33] Yes, thanks, but no thanks. Brilliant. Okay. So core purpose is signposting better recruits, it's signposting delivering the retention of high caliber people who really fit with your values and your purpose. It's also having a positive impact on your ability to win the right type of clients who want to work the way you want to work with those clients.
How else does having a clear sense of purpose actually pay off for you and your firm?
James Lizars: [00:41:01] So from a service delivery perspective, it's crucial. So I think what I've recognized and owned up to lately is that I've just not been doing well enough at keeping the promises that we make from the outset. So I make promises when I sign a client and take them through that process, and the reality is that I have been winging it and delivering on those promises purely by virtue of turning up to a meeting and being good and being capable. But that's not really a platform to grow a business from.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:41:49] No. It's people dependent, rather than systems and process dependent.
James Lizars: [00:41:55] Yeah, exactly. So, to look to the core purpose, are we helping our clients to think bigger, you know, give them the information that allows them to have bigger plans. Are we actually helping accelerate their journey or are we just doing VAT returns? Are we just keeping Xero up to date? So, for me, that purpose is going to really define how we now lay out the processes and the way that we deliver these services. That's a central part of our 2021 strategy – to get our processes properly documented so that we're not in a situation where I'm turning up to a client meeting to talk through their finances and I'd failed to let one of the team know that this meeting was even in the diary.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:42:43] Yeah, indeed. But I think you make a really valuable point there, James, in that actually, when you get to a place where you've got clarity on purpose, what you’re actually doing is making, you're making a promise, aren’t you, you’re making a promise to your team, a promise to your clients and a promise to the wider community as well.
And so, there's a downside risk attached to that as well, isn't there? And I'm just wondering if that downside risk is what dissuades people from even grasping the nettle on pursuing a crystal-clear purpose. What are your thoughts on that? I see you smiling and nodding there, Steph. What are you thinking there?
Steph Rickaby: [00:43:19] Yeah, you're absolutely right because it challenges us every day, our purpose and our core values, because we were challenged last year through the whole COVID process, on communication. We failed miserably when COVID hit on communication because we were being contacted by all our clients, all at once, and we had no mechanism in place to be able to service this. So we had to quickly adapt and introduce some sort of Calendly-type system, 15 minute COVID call or whatever, but we, we had to challenge ourselves immediately on the whole communication value.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:44:05] Because if you're not in, you know, at a time where there's an absolute desperate need for the education and you were letting your clients down, even though you've made the promise to inspire and educate, but they couldn't get ahold of you.
Steph Rickaby: [00:44:18] Yeah, absolutely. So we had to adapt really quickly. So it was the webinars, the newsletters, a Calendly link for a half hour, free COVID call. And we just had to communicate that as quickly as possible to our clients. So we turned it around, but by having those values and by knowing our purpose, we were challenged instantly.
And we knew that we had to adapt immediately because we had that purpose and those values in place.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:44:53] Yeah. It's interesting. There's been this, I don't know whether you've come across it, there's been some amazingly insightful and valuable content coming out of McKinsey over the last 12, 18 months.
And they've talked….. and, because you've mentioned the speed of you and your team adapting to the need, and one of the big, big messages from McKinsey, (one of the oldest consulting firms in the world is McKinsey, been going 93 years, they operate in 188 countries, I can't imagine how many team members they've got)….
they've been talking about agility is, you know, a key sustainable competitive advantage. So what is it that drives that agility? And what is it that agility, in other words, the speed, and what they point to is that having a crystal-clear sense of purpose and values actually contributes to that because the ability, and it's your point, James, that it's all very well you sort of knowing what you stand for. But actually what we need is everyone in the firm knowing what we stand for. And if that's the case, people make decisions on your behalf and they've got anchors or, a better metaphor would be, rudders that influence their decision making, which is likely to be 80%, 90% accurate because they're making those decisions based on your core purpose and the values that you've set for the firm.
And I think that McKinsey – it's worth getting the McKinsey app on your phone and just, you know, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea in your hand, just diving into the content because it's inspiring (so I'm now tapping into your modus operandi, Steph), it's fabulously educational.
And I can't doubt for a minute that it would accelerate anybody's performance (I’m now tapping into James' core purpose). And the reason I love it so much is because it taps into mine, which is, you know, we've got to improve the way humans connect with the numbers that really matter in the business.
And that brings a humanity to the business, which means the business will perform better. And for me, it's a good way to finish this podcast because if we can make decisions and take action better and faster, because we've got a core purpose, and it helps us recruit people, helps us retain people, helps to select and attract the right type of client, aren't we going to have a a pretty successful business, a pretty successful accounting firm, in your case. What are your final thoughts, James? What do you think I've missed, would be a better question, in and around the power and value, or even the risk of having a core purpose?
James Lizars: [00:47:30] Yeah, I think on the point of the risk of a core purpose, I mean, it's just about perspective really.
I mean, it's something to live up to. The day that you achieve your core purpose, then what? So yeah, you’re kind of always going to be striving for it. If you're not, it's not your purpose.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:47:54] So there's that aspirational, there is an aspirational piece, isn't there? It's a fundamental component.
It's almost never achieved. And that needs to be built into the language you use. Interesting. Steph, what are your final thoughts?
Steph Rickaby: [00:48:12] What concerns me is business evolution. Where else do we go? How do we develop? And how does it change with time? Do our values change? Does the purpose ever change as the business changes? Do you think?
Paul Shrimpling: [00:48:34] Well, it’s a good question. I would, based on the evidence that I've, having been in this space for a long time, based on the evidence I've got, I think when you set out to develop a set of values that you…. you work out…. core values exist in every business.
It's just, some businesses have worked out how to put labels on them and get the right words working. Now, in some businesses, the core values are helping sustain the business and grow the business. In other businesses, the core values are actually undermining what's going on in the business. And so there's a need for honesty and candidness around values when working them out.
And you know, if you identify that you've got some unhealthy…, cause I think it's about organizational health, isn't it? The sense of purpose and a sense, a clear communication around the core values of the business about business health. And it's a, you know, buzzword subject on Google now and you look at all the big consulting firms and the education that's coming out of them, they’re talking about organizational health. And I think that's been exacerbated because we've all been focused on personal health for the last 12-18 months. And one of the key channels to go down, the routes to take, is get clarity on purpose and values. But do they change? Well, the world's changing at an ever increasing rate, which is why when we talk strategy, we've also got to look to the trends, the inevitable trends that are coming our way and should, must, influence strategy.
But strategy's got a blend of two things, some things that are stable in time, and some things that we have to adapt, like you were describing your firm adapting, Steph, to the communication process changes you needed to put in place to support your customers during that first lockdown period. So I think there's something about values being rock solid and unchanging. I've got a daughter. And my favourite movie that I used to watch with my daughter was Mulan, the cartoon. And there's a scene in it where the emperor is facing the baddie in the movie, who is trying to force him to kneel. And the emperor says something like, no matter how the wind howls, the mountain shall not bow to it.
And for me, values are a bit like that. You know, once you've worked them out, this is what we, this is how we behave here. And yes, there's nothing wrong with tinkering, but ultimately I think as long as they're supporting and sustaining the success and the health of the business, then we know they're right.
I think there's something about three things stable in time, which is another part of successful strategy, which we talk about on another podcast. It’s another one of those cornerstones that doesn't change because, just like all customers of Amazon love Amazon because they deliver fast, they've got a massive selection and we know they’re competitively priced and we can send them back if we want to, means that people just keep coming, they keep coming. And that's why, you know, Amazon's turnover curve and cash curve just keeps going up and up and up. But they, Jeff Bezos makes a big point out of building strategy on things stable in time. One of them is values. One of them is the customer focus, what it is they're after. And I liked your point, much earlier, Steph, around this is an emotional thing. If your purpose doesn't connect with the emotions that you feel, your team feel and your clients feel, then you've probably not got a strong enough purpose.
But when we've got that right, I think that's another concrete cornerstone of strategy. So thank you for asking the question because you've enabled me to wrap up and share the other elements which go with this podcast series on strategy. So that was very elegantly done. Thank you very, very much. And folks, I've really enjoyed this little debate around purpose.
Tell me, of everything we've covered and the questions and the answers you've heard today, what's been the most value for you? Steph?
Steph Rickaby: [00:52:39] I've just written down about organizational health. That's a really key word for me, actually. It's making sure that the business is healthy and it's sustainable and we're able to have a plan and a purpose and the values to move forward.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:53:00] Lovely. Thank you. James, what stood out for you?
James Lizars: [00:53:04] I think for me, it's just, I realized yet again, that I need to pull this stuff right in front of my eyes and just have it there continuously.
Paul Shrimpling: Front and central.
James Lizars: Yeah. I was just about to jump down the rabbit hole of designing a management accounts preparation process, but why on earth would I do that independently of what we're actually striving for.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:53:27] Right. So the first word you used, the first words on the page, have got to be your core purpose, haven't they? And this is where, when I work with firms and I know they've got purpose nailed, is the language, the words that show up in their core purpose, then the backstory to that purpose, show up all the time.
What do you mean all the time? They show up in proposals. They show up on the website. They show up in appraisals. They show up in interviews. They show up everywhere and, to a degree, I've used the word accelerate more than you have in this discussion, James. It’s like, well, that's interesting.
James Lizars: [00:54:04] I had it on paper about three weeks ago.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:54:07] Well, and therefore we should let you off the hook and I shouldn’t be so brutal, but it's when the language, when the words show up that you know it's starting to get embedded, because unless purpose and values get embedded in the firm then I think there is a risk that it just looks like corporate bullshit, if you excuse my French. And if it smells anything like that, your team, your clients and your community will just turn away. Actually they won't, they'll get on social media and they'll badmouth you. And so it's a serious business, this purpose and values. It sounds as though you both are taking it seriously.
Yes, it is a journey. It's not something you do in it and then stick it on the wall and bob it in the drawer and let it gather dust. It's something you have to live. And that final point – it will, it has to show up in the language, the words you use everywhere, and then you sort of know it's coming to the fore and it's having an influence.
Steph Rickaby: [00:55:00] It takes time, doesn't it? Because once you've decided on what your purpose and your values are, you've then got to start bleeding it through all your branding as well. So for us, for example, we've just done the rebrand and now our website's changing as well. And until you fully go through that whole process, you're not quite there.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:55:25] You know, in my experience, Steph, you'll go through it once and then you'll look at it six months later and go…ohhh
Steph Rickaby: [00:55:31] Which is why I asked that question, in a way, because you start questioning, don't you, all the time.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:55:39] Yeah. But I think my good friend Douglas, who I work with a lot on strategy work with firms, whenever you're in a zoom call with Douglas, his backdrop is all…, he’s Scottish. He's got dozens of malt whiskeys on the shelf behind him and the shelves run out. And if you ask him to put the camera down, you can see another bunch of them on the floor, but the whiskey is a really powerful metaphor for purpose and values because, you know, you've got a whiskey and then you oak it, you know, you keep it in the barrel, or you distill it a second time, but actually the essence of the whiskey remains the same. The essence is the same. But let’s fine tune it and fine tune it and distill it a little bit more and get another layer, a little layer of the onion of clarity that we didn’t have before.
And that's why, as you started off, Steph, in this discussion, is that it's a journey. And there are some big payoffs. And if you don't take it seriously, there are some potentially big risks in that corporate BS piece. And hopefully whoever's listening to this will have got some value out of thinking that I should take my purpose seriously and set about asking a series of questions about what you stand for. What's your reason for being, your raison d’etre? What's your backstory that put you in the room to do this? You know, your comments earlier, James.
Folks, it’ss been really brilliant. Thank you so much for taking time out and sharing your thoughts on your clients’ purpose and your own purpose, and allowing us to chew the fat a little around all the issues that it throws up. Thank you very, very much.
Steph Rickaby: Thank you, Paul. Thank you, James. That was great.
Paul Shrimpling: [00:57:19] You'll find more valuable discussions with the leaders of ambitious accounting firms at HumaniseTheNumbers.online. Go to the show notes for this podcast and click the link to get access to the full series on strategy for accountants. You can also sign up to be notified each time a new podcast is made available.
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