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Grant Thornton's Owen Butler discusses recruitment, training and retention

Owen Butler at Grant Thornto on Cambridge Science Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Owen Butler at Grant Thornto on Cambridge Science Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

We explore skills and talent in the workplace in our latest series with the financial and business advisors

Owen Butlers responsibility is to make sure Grant Thornton has the right people in the right place. Picture: Keith Heppell
Owen Butlers responsibility is to make sure Grant Thornton has the right people in the right place. Picture: Keith Heppell

How do we find the right people for our businesses? How important is investing in their development? And how do we ensure we’re ready for a world of work that’s changing rapidly?

These are the kinds of questions that director Owen Butler asks in his senior business partner role at Grant Thornton, where he is responsible for people and culture for a region that stretches across six offices, from the East Midlands in the west to Norwich in the east, and covers 500 employees.

“Broadly, my responsibility is to make sure we’ve got the right people in the right place at the right time to deliver the work we’ve got now, and are positioned for the growth we are targeting over the next three years,” he explains. “My big focus is on our leaders across our region.”

Owen is also part of the regional leadership team and a local leadership team.

Recruitment, then, is key to his work.

“It’s about making sure you have a blend,” he says. “We have to deliver for our clients now. That’s what pays the bills and allows us to invest. But you have to have a mixture of skills and experience. If you have lots of people who are great at technical delivery but aren’t particularly great at innovating, you can have success for a period of time but your ability to grow and do things differently can be inhibited.

“So you have to make sure when you are recruiting, training, developing and retaining you are maintaining that breadth. It’s not easy to achieve – particularly if you have a team of only eight, 10 or 12 people, which is why we work regionally, so you have the benefit of those skills more broadly.”

For some companies, the struggle to recruit the right people begins with the dreaded interview process.

“Interview methodologies come and go,” notes Owen. “Until not very long ago, it was thought the best prediction of future success was what you had done in the past.

“Competency-based interview has been around a long time – questions such as ‘Tell me about a time when you’ve done the following…’

“That’s great if you’re looking for concrete examples of what people have done in the past.

“Checking for potential is harder. What we are looking for is that growth mindset, that ability to spot new opportunities, take calculated and measured risks, to innovate, to be willing to fail. You can select around those things but it’s more difficult.

“Does this person have empathy? Can they put themselves in the position of a client that is facing a challenge? Can they work in a team that is very different to them and find common ground and ways to thrive?

“When we look at the people who are growing our business, those are common threads they have running through them.”

For some employers, it’s what is on the CV that counts.

“It’s more comfortable,” says Owen. “And I don’t say that disparagingly, as I’ve definitely done it. But for me it is about leaders being open to hiring in a different mould to their own.

“If they’ve built up 20 years’ experience in a sector, where they know what’s worked, to bet on something different and accept a world that will be different is difficult but if you look at the changes in the workplace in the last 20 years, they have been enormous.

“Anyone in their 40s has had to adapt colossally in the last two decades.”

Intriguingly, five years ago Grant Thornton made the decision to remove any academic barriers to those applying for its trainee programme, which trains its advisers and accountants.

“It was a bold thing to do and against the trend in the market,” Owen observes.

“There was more and more competition for places within professional services firms. It was very tempting to create more and more hurdles to filter down applications. Academic qualifications were a legitimate and convenient way of doing that.

“But what we saw was a lot of evidence that this was creating socioeconomic barriers to people coming to us and was restricting the diversity of people – in the widest possible sense of diversity of thought – coming to us.”

The company has noted no downturn in subsequent exam success.

“The upside is that we are much more reflective of the communities in which we live than more traditional professional services firms have been,” says Owen.

As a company where a quarter of employees at any one time are in training contracts, Grant Thornton invests heavily in learning and development.

“We have a business school which focuses on three curricula for all of our people: technical, commercial and leadership,” says Owen, who adds that people can self-select some of the courses, which are delivered through a mixture of e-learning and face-to-face workshops.

“But learning and development is only as good as the reinforcement that happens afterwards.

“Many of us will have been on a training course for a day that wasn’t immediately relevant to our work, and we’ll have carried on doing exactly the same thing day-to-day.

“We make sure our programmes are really relevant day-to-day or, if it’s something they don’t get to do, they get to practise those skills.

“It’s a combination of structured learning, reinforcement and giving people power over what they do. It is tailored to individuals and their ambitions.”

This tailoring includes ensuring people’s different learning styles are covered – something Owen acknowledges is far easier for a company of 5,000 to achieve, compared to one of 150.

“The evidence is absolutely that if you tailor that training to different learning styles and make it available in different formats it’s more likely to be used in the first place and be effective,” says Owen.

He believes that training and development plans are a useful tool for recruitment.

“Developing people is itself a differentiator,” he points out. “When people look at where they want to work, they don’t just think about the pay and benefits but what are they going to learn and how will they develop.”

Externally, Grant Thornton is active across multiple sectors.

“The firm’s purpose is to shape a vibrant economy where people and businesses thrive, and that means using our skills to help our local communities,” says Owen. “We will partner with education, with charitable organisations looking, for example, to increase access for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We offer paid work experience opportunities locally.

“We provide mentors to school children going through the latter stages of their education to help them prepare for work.”

Educators often come in for criticism for failing to prepare people for the world of work but Owen suggests that could be unfair.

“I think I’ve heard that since I was a graduate. It’s not a new problem and I don’t necessarily put the responsibility directly with educators,” says Owen.

“As businesses we have a responsibility to engage with educators much earlier and I think it has been happening in the last three to five years more than it ever has before.

“We need people who can come into a different environment, cope with failure and experiment – that’s how you innovate.

“Then it’s up to businesses to teach them the specific technical skills to do the job. Laying that responsibility at the feet of schools and universities is deeply unfair.”

He suggests there is “massive variation” in the time and investment in training and development at companies.

“You can understand that to a degree, particularly when you have stark choices to make about where you invest and when there is such competition for talent,” he says.

“Do you invest that in making sure your rewards and benefits are really competitive or do you take the longer-term gamble of investing in training and development? Very few have the luxury of doing both.”

For those who cannot hire the people it needs direct from the marketplace, there is greater emphasis on training. Grant Thornton set up its own cybersecurity academy to find those internally with an aptitude for training in that field.

“One of the things that really scares employers is what if they invest in training someone for a few years and they then just take that knowledge elsewhere?

“But you can’t look at training and development separately from the culture you’re developing or the long-term opportunities you are providing for people. Is there a path for people to continue to flourish? If there isn’t and you invest a lot of money in training people for a job you can’t then offer them, they will go,” says Owen.

Businesses reluctant to invest in training and development should also consider the cost of replacing people and the loss of productivity, he points out.

So how do we prepare for a world of change?

“We need leaders who are looking outwards and inwards. Traditionally, we’ve thought of leaders as Churchillian examples of people who will stand up and make a great speech and people will follow them.

“But leadership is much more complex than that. It is about maintaining a clear picture of what is going on around them, scanning ahead.”

He advises engaging all staff in this process.

Owen suggests: “Take people from all levels and backgrounds in your organisation and ask what sort of business they want to be part of and what sort of challenges your clients will face.

“You almost invariably have the answers within. But are you asking the right questions?

“If leadership teams think they need to have all the answers themselves, they almost invariably fail. Why wouldn’t you bring in diversity of thought?”

:: This article is part of our latest series, focusing on skills and talent, published in association with Grant Thornton and its Vibrant Economy initiative.

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