The small-to-mid-tier practices providing big careers

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Traditionally, the world’s large professional services firms have had the edge when it comes to attracting top talent. But there’s change in the air, as small and mid-tier practices (SMPs) increasingly offer dynamic career paths for both junior and senior professionals.

‘Big firms always had the edge in the war for talent, but recently market dynamics have changed,’ says Shibu Abraham, director – HR & administration at Kreston Menon in the UAE. ‘We can provide exposure to diverse industries and a variety of assignments. People get the chance to wear many hats and be involved in all aspects of an assignment, rather than do a bit of work on a big project.

‘If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, take on more responsibility and upskill to better service clients, mid-tier firms offer unparalleled growth opportunities. With us, you get to become our clients’ trusted partners.’

Scott Golding of specialist recruiters AJ Chambers says that there have been big shifts culturally in the accountancy practice world ever since Covid-19, with an increase in flexibility and hybrid working proving to be a benefit that many crave. 'Certain smaller firms can often be more agile with their benefits and maybe adjust quicker to changes in market conditions compared to some larger firms. We have also seen the availability of smaller/mid-tier firms competing for work that has often landed with larger practices, perhaps brought on by the clients needing to look at reducing their fees.

'With this influx of exciting prospects, smaller firms now find themselves in a position where they are growing out departments, enabling them to offer similar exposure to larger firms and similar progression pathways while still helping staff maintain a healthy work-life balance.'

Phil Shohet, a senior consultant at Foulger Underwood, agrees: ‘In the top 30-40 firms, you get great audit and commercial experience, and many are part of large international networks, which can provide overseas exposure. You also get a good work-life balance and flexible working, which is really important to people since the pandemic.’

Credible brands

Amid a perpetually tight talent market, SMPs are upping the ante when it comes to marketing their brands, cultures and commitment to career development for junior professionals in an effort to attract strong young candidates, then develop and retain them.

‘The talent pool in our local area is getting smaller,’ says Lee Murphy, managing director of UK-based The Accountancy Partnership. ‘The more we grow, the harder we are finding it to recruit senior accountants, which is why we established our Junior Accountant training programme. This helps people start their accountancy career, and then acts as a pathway to senior level.’

Furthermore, Murphy describes his firm as being seen an attractive place to work due to a modern approach in how they do things and a relaxed culture, alongside career progression and support. ‘We try to stand out and attract candidates with the perks we offer, as well as encouraging collaboration among the departments with quarterly company events and the opportunities available.’

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As the firm has grown, Murphy says they’ve found the best way to compete with mid-tier or larger firms is by offering a unique range of staff benefits and by making the working environment as relaxed and friendly as possible to break the mould of traditional accounting firms. 

‘As a result, we have a high staff retention rate and a palpable feeling of workplace satisfaction. We focus on training up our own accountants, so they are fully aligned with the way that we work, rather than a senior accountant having to re-adjust to a new way of working when they’re further along in their career,’ he says.

At Kreston, mentoring and feedback is a highly valued and is informal and personal, as opposed to being rigid or overly structured. ‘The partners and managers are inclined to support the growth of young professionals in their teams,’ says Abrahams.  

‘You don’t have to wait for the annual performance reviews to analyse training and development needs. As the projects are short-term compared to large firms, interim and assignment-based performance appraisals are possible. The pat on the back matters.’

AJ Chambers' Golding says it's important that SMPs convey their brand well during job interviews. 'You’d want someone to clearly communicate how progressive and modern the business is, while being able to balance someone’s ambitions. You can talk about your personal development plans for each member of the team, how you help them achieve both their professional and personal goals. If you show that you are agile and flexible while still showcasing the great work and client service you provide, you can be very successful in securing talent ahead of your competition.'

Competitive salaries

While small firms will struggle to match their large counterparts in salaries, the mid-tier firms are beginning to see parity. ‘Our salaries and benefits are almost on par or at times better than the largest firms, for the right talent,’ says Abraham. ‘We do understand that there is a cost involved in attracting and retaining talent, and we are up for it.’

Shohet makes the point that the path to partner and ownership can be clearer in SMPs and people are doing so younger and younger. ‘I know people who have become owners in their early 30s. You'll never get that at a big firm. Medium-sized firms are always looking for real talent, people who can take them forward, with a real commercial spirit.’

More information

Find out more about working for SMPs and how SMPs can recruit talent with ACCA's SMP career toolkits

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