BDO: Building Relationships

One accounting firm’s employee engagement strategies

Relationships may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about accountants. But this is what you consistently hear when talking to partners, managers, and employees from BDO in Canada. For this professional services firm, building a culture that values people is a clear priority. In fact, BDO’s Canadian CEO Keith Farlinger sees it as the foundation of the firm’s vision and a way to bring employees ?throughout its 95 plus offices together as one.

“We came up with the vision of one firm engaged to make a difference through valued relationships with our people, clients, and communities,” explains Farlinger. “BDO is unique in accounting circles in that we’re in over 95 communities across Canada—relationships are what we’re all about.”

“It’s a balance,” says Emree Siaroff, Managing Director, Human Capital, BDO. “We need to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of partners running individual offices but have employees feel they’re part of one firm. And, as our assets truly are our people, having employees feel valued, building that relationship and keeping them engaged is key.”

Setting a Baseline

Three years ago, Farlinger and his leadership team knew that in order to establish a valued relationship with employees, they needed to have a starting point. They needed to find out what was working and what could be improved. To get this data, BDO hired Aon Hewitt Associates to lead its first-ever employee survey, followed by nationwide focus groups.

The results revealed there was indeed some work to do. The top areas for improvement: Recognizing people for their efforts; better career path planning; and clear performance feedback. Another key finding revealed the engagement levels of managers were lower than the people they were leading.

“In an accounting environment, we’re always telling people what they did wrong rather than what they did right,” explains Farlinger. “We audit work looking for mistakes, which is really anti-recognition.”

“We knew we needed to change the culture and not just put in a process,” adds Siaroff. “We knew it would be a journey because you don’t change a culture overnight. It’s not just about a program, but about training and getting people to realize it’s the right thing to do.”

Seeing the need for a recognition platform that would align with and support the firm’s vision and values, BDO turned to O.C. Tanner. A partnership between the organizations formed and BDO was on its way to creating a recognition culture. This newly conceived culture was going to affect everything, right down to how BDO recruits and retains their people.

Through this partnership, ‘You Make a Difference’ was developed and integrated into the firm’s engagement, communication and training initiatives.

Getting Leaders on Board

In Canada, BDO’s 380 partners are the leaders of the firm. Creating a culture of recognition first required their commitment that they would embrace the new direction. It was at the firm’s Annual General Meeting with its partners that the new vision, values, and ‘You Make a Difference’ was first introduced. The key message: let’s move our vision and values from thoughts on paper to employee behaviours that customers notice.

A follow-up live webcast to all 95 offices outlined the critical business need for increased and improved recognition efforts and invited partners, directors, senior managers, managers, and ambassadors to engage in O.C. Tanner’s interactive online recognition training.

This commitment to ‘grow their people’ has been further reinforced with a partner commitment statement signed by every partner in the firm. Not surprisingly, partners are now some of the biggest recognition proponents, witnessing first-hand the impact appreciation has on their teams.

“It’s amazing as it gives you a way to take something that’s intangible and make it tangible,” says BDO partner and top user Jeanne Mills. “Being able to tie the recognition in to our vision and values, has made it that much more effective.”

Paul Sanga, another BDO partner agrees. “Recognition helps engaged employees remain engaged, while ensuring that the other people who maybe aren’t as engaged—not only become engaged but strive to become leading employees.”

Results to date show an impact at all levels. There is a direct correlation between offices that have high engagement and also do well in the areas of feeling valued, effective leadership, management of performance, and career opportunities. In one year, the engagement driver defined, “I received appropriate recognition beyond pay and benefits for my contributions and our accomplishments” in the national office has gone up by 19%, while manager engagement for all regions overall has improved by 10%.

For Senior Manager Paul Robitaille recognition helps create a great place to work. “There’s not one minute that I don’t want to be at work. The environment and the recognition that goes on in our office brings people together.”

Just in her first year with the firm, Intermediate Staff Accountant Elizabeth Alexander says she feels valued by the partners and managers that work in her office.

“I feel like people respect you as a person and as an employee,” says Alexander. “They all want to help you grow and learn in your field and in the areas that you’re interested in.”

Warda Chaudhary, a Senior IT Specialist at the company reports, “When you get recognized, you re-evaluate yourself and say, ‘Okay. I’ve done something good and was recognized for it. Maybe I should continue to do that.’ It creates that constructive evaluation of yourself, which others follow because they want to be recognized as well.”

Ask BDO Managing Partner Ted Hargreaves his thoughts and he emphatically feels it’s one of the keys to his region’s high-performance. “How has this new focus helped us be successful? My region has 12% growth. In a recession that’s phenomenal.”

Creating connections

The success of this new direction was so important to Farlinger and his leadership team, they decided to head out on the road—literally. “To have a relationship, you have to know somebody,” says Farlinger. “So, we ?went out and visited 80 of our offices. We talked to all the staff about where we wanted to go as a firm and how important a relationship with them was to us. We then invited them to talk about what things we could do differently to help our culture.”

Farlinger and team blogged about their cross-country tour—with future road shows planned to continue to spread the word.

“We have the strategy that puts the engagement of our people on even par with growth and reputation,” explains Siaroff. “As long as we continue to stay consistent and focussed, we’re headed in the right direction.”

A direction Farlinger agrees is working. “We’re establishing relationships with our people that go beyond nine-to-five. We care about them as people. We care about their careers and other issues in their life that really affect their day-to-day. It’s become a much more caring culture than we’ve had in the past.”

Clearly, for BDO, this is just the beginning.

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