Something Different – Guest Blog

At Grant Thornton there is a culture of openness and communication between people of different grades. Jam, the Grant Thornton internal social network, has further facilitated this, as the experience of Freddie Light (Audit Associate based in London) shows. Freddie takes up the story…….

“So since coming back to the office on Monday from my Christmas holidays, I haven’t had much work to do. Busy season seems to have given us (or maybe just me) one week of grace before sinking its teeth into us. So I’ve posted every day on Jam [the Grant Thornton internal social network] to indicate my availability for work, to stony silence and tumbleweed. Until Friday afternoon when Sacha Romanovitch, Partner and CEO-elect, took pity on me, recommending, if I really had nothing else to do, that I should read the Valve Employee handbook, which I did. It’s great and a superb half hour read. I had never heard of Valve before, but I had (and you may have) heard of some of the games and software they have produced – half-life, Portal and Counterstrike, and the software distribution platform ‘Steam’. 

So why on earth would I want to read the handbook of a relatively niche software and games company? 

For starters, it’s not really a handbook: it’s a vision. 

In their words: 

“This book isn’t about fringe benefits or how to set up your workstation or where to find source code. Valve works in ways that might seem counterintuitive at first. This handbook is about the choices you’re going to be making and how to think about them. Mainly, it’s about how not to freak out now that you’re here.” 

So what is it? 

It’s a description of their culture. Their way of being. An explanation of how they want their new staff to behave. And it’s amazing. If you don’t read it and think ‘Wow – I’d love to work there’ you need to take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. Especially with sections like: 

“The office

Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stumptown- roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, don’t freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use. And if you stop on the way back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, it’s not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com start-up.”

I think most of us in Euston would have a wry smile at the Stumptown-roasted espresso line in particular (Disclaimer: The new coffee machines are a marked improvement on the old ones). I can also leave the massage rooms but a microwave might be nice! (Disclaimer: A microwave might have appeared on the 8th floor during the Christmas holidays…)

But it’s not just gym, code, laundry. Valve are preaching a serious message of how they think businesses should be run. They say:

“Q: If all this stuff has worked well for us, why doesn’t every company work this way?

A: Well, it’s really hard. Mainly because, from day one, it requires a commitment to hiring in a way that’s very different from the way most companies hire. It also requires the discipline to make the design of the company more important than any one short-term business goal. And it requires a great deal of freedom from outside pressure—being self-funded was key. And having a founder who was confident enough to build this kind of place is rare, indeed.

Another reason that it’s hard to run a company this way is that it requires vigilance. It’s a one-way trip if the core values change, and maintaining them requires the full commitment of everyone— especially those who’ve been here the longest. For “senior” people at most companies, accumulating more power and/or money over time happens by adopting a more hierarchical culture.”

So what is the Valve way?

They operate as a completely flat organisation. So there’s no hierarchy. Their view is that hierarchy gets in the way of doing work: over time the hierarchy becomes self-perpetuating or exists more to fulfil itself than to create the best environment for people to work within and develop themselves.

This is miles away from the Associate Directors and Assistant Managers of the major accountancy firms. Hierarchy seems to me one of the things that accountancy firms pride themselves on. You need to know where you stand, and there are more levels than Candy Crush. And I don’t really see how you can run an audit business without those levels. To me there’s not an immediately obvious way of structuring us differently. They seem essential for the review process. Maybe it might be more applicable in a different, less rigid, department or a more creative business, perhaps. But I just can’t see how we could change that much.

So are we able to learn from this (somewhat ‘hippyish’) software company? Is their thought process just a bit too far removed from doing bank and cash on a rainy Thursday afternoon in Andover?

Not quite. The thing that stood out the most to me on reading the handbook was Valve’s thought process on hiring. For them, that’s the most important thing within their business. In their words again:

“Any time you interview a potential hire, you need to ask yourself not only if they’re talented or collaborative but also if they’re capable of literally running this company, because they will be.”

New hires, within Valve, are immediately asked who else they think that Valve should hire, and are encouraged to get involved with the hiring process as soon as possible. Valve hope that this ensures that their company is so dynamic and fun to work for, and that all the staff are so brilliant that no-one will leave. Anywhere else would be a step down. Therefore the only challenge is to hire the right people. The rest looks after itself.

And like Valve, and any other professional services firm, hiring the right people has got to be a very high, if not the highest, priority for Grant Thornton. We make money out of the advice and services that our people give, not by selling some identikit widget. People are our revenue. And, as Valve notes, hiring the right people has the secondary effect of making sure that they don’t go off somewhere else and make money for our competition! So hiring the right people to work with and for us is key. And I think we’re doing pretty well in this regard.

But the other half of this battle is retaining the right people once we’ve found them. And from what I’ve seen so far, this is where I think we could improve. One of the things that I’ve found most odd since starting in September 2013, and I obviously only have experience within London Audit, is the hiring-merry-go-round that comes round every September once training contracts are up. It seems like only a handful of the class of September 2011 (who qualified in September 2014) are still working in the firm, and even fewer are still working in London Audit.  We put so much effort into hiring the best people for those training contracts, that it seems terribly wasteful to lose them as soon as that contract ends.

Within London Audit, over the past few months, we’ve been talking about how we take the business forward to 2018. As part of that Perry Burton, Head of London Audit, and the leadership team are looking at what we can do to retain our best people. And I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with, because I think it’s key to our success.

One of the things that stood out for me about Grant Thornton when I was writing graduate job applications in 2012 was the vision that Scott Barnes, Grant Thornton UK CEO, and the rest of the National Leadership Board had in ‘Ambition 2015’. No other accountancy firm seemed to have (or at least made public) such a clear idea of where they wanted to be, and how they were going to get there. But there’s no resting on any laurels, as shown by us as a department looking forward to 2018. I’m just happy to be involved with that process, rather than an outsider looking in.

Let’s just hope I’ve passed those pesky exams…”

If you want to have a read of the Valve handbook yourself it can be found at the following link:

http://www.valvesoftware.com/company/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf

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