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A taxing transformation: Interview with Colm Coffey, UK people director at KPMG UK

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KPMG’s Colm Coffey has experience of what a positive engaging culture can mean. The UK people director tells Greg Pitcher about identifying clients’ needs, effecting change at line manager level and promoting honest conversations – to create a high performance culture.

Putting the spotlight on markets & customers

Colm Coffey’s decision to join professional services giant KPMG last May was partly based on his experience with the Partnership more than a decade earlier. “I was working for Atos Origin in Holland when it acquired KPMG’s UK consulting practice in 2002,” says Coffey. “I was impressed by the people focus at the firm and the standards it set for the colleague experience. This stayed with me when the opportunity came up later in my career to move to KPMG.”

“Simon Collins was elected chairman and senior partner in 2012 and set out a clear strategy for the organisation,” Coffey recalls.

“We are clear about how we will be successful – by being market-focused. Our people need to understand clients’ markets and help them identify solutions to their biggest challenges.” This means KPMG wants its consultants to be able to identify clients’ strategic enablers better than the clients can themselves. But where does Coffey fit into this? “My role is to support the Partnership in developing the best of the KPMG culture and align it with our growth
aims,” he says. “It’s a case of working out how to enable an environment that allows people to perform at their best. “A lot of that is harnessing activity from partners, people managers and the people function. We are one firm and must use the best of what we have for the benefit of our clients.”

To this end, Coffey spent his first six months at the firm learning about the organisation and meeting partners and directors to understand their needs over the next three years.

He also assessed how the people function was operating across the wider business. The aim is to create a people plan that supports KPMG’s wider strategy. He hopes to see increases in mobility, career development, engagement and diversity that will lead to an overall enhancement of colleague experience at the firm.

Transformation at the coal face

Coffey is clear that it is line managers who must deliver change on the ground. “They are the face of the organisation. It is the day-to-day decisions of managers that will affect colleagues’ perceptions of how the firm is delivering against its people commitments.”

He wants to ensure managers throughout KPMG get to know what motivates their teams so they can align this with the needs of the firm. This, he believes, is a key component in creating the high performance culture that will support the ambitious business strategy.

“When our people have honest conversations with their managers, it helps them achieve and outperform,” he says. “Last summer, we spent a lot of time training our people management leaders – the people who engage employees, the performance managers and partners – to understand what it takes to make this communication happen. “We want to set a standard that everyone is entitled to have an honest conversation with their manager about their performance and career development.”

In addition to an engagement survey, a colleague survey will be carried out to gather feedback on the performance process to understand the colleague experience. This will be used to inform future management development and communication activities. “We also want to shine a light on the leadership behaviours that make a winning people culture,” says Coffey. “We will spend time talking about best practice in the firm, encouraging collaboration and recognising
excellent people leadership.”

Getting under employees’ skin

One important reason for enabling honest conversations is to help managers understand what makes employees tick. “Do we really know our people?” asks Coffey. “We know that people leave a manager; they don’t leave a firm. “If someone wants to be a deep expert in a particular field and we give them projects to help them understand the market, they might do a good job, but they might not feel they are getting the stretch and development they really want from KPMG.”

Coffey says the global firm, which has 145,000 employees in 153 countries, can offer most people the type of work they want. “We have the opportunity through global and national mobility programmes to allow people to get what they want out of their career with us – but we want this to be led by the colleague themselves,” he explains. “For managers it comes down to the art of handling the tension between the individuals’ personal goals and the opportunities available in the firm.”

The professional services industry lends itself to accelerated learning and development through the potential breadth of client work, meaning decisions about which projects to allocate to people are critical. “Tackling difficult projects is what motivates our people. It is hard work so you need to know you have a manager that is making sensible decisions based on the conversations you have had,” he says.

In keeping with the way KPMG is trying to spread knowledge across the organisation, much of its employee development naturally occurs while working on projects. “We have a global objective that 70% of learning is on the job, 20% online and 10% in the classroom,” says Coffey. “People who are successful in professional services are highly intelligent, active learners. We need to focus on creating an environment in which they can learn and access knowledge.”

Spreading expertise – Smart Development

This theme is continued into much of the people activity at KPMG. Graduates are helped to pick up the skills that they need to become managers from a variety of sources. “We’ve put a lot of time into our Smart Development Programme, which aims to provide a consistent development framework for student recruits and newly qualified staff in their first five years at the firm,” explains Coffey.

A firm-wide programme sponsored by partners across all KMPG’s service lines, Smart Development is designed to give employees the tools and resources to take ownership of their personal and professional development. In this way, Coffey says KPMG is able to develop agile resources with the skills needed now and in the future, encourage mobility and offer compelling long-term career propositions to retain the best people.

So far, 85 Smart Ambassadors (graduates and newly qualified) have been appointed across the firm to help embed the programme locally. Coffey believes that people are increasingly taking an interest in collaborating as a firm. “Our Peer2Peer knowledge sharing initiative was started outside the people function in 2010 by a group of highly motivated employees who saw the benefit and value in working together in this way,” he says.

This initiative consists of running a series of events, which focus on sharing key business issues facing clients through lively peer presentations followed by drinks and networking. So far, the group has held 13 of
these meetings. Coffey hosted the last event and was “amazed by the quality of the presentations and the turnout”. He will now meet with the organisers to see how their approach can be replicated elsewhere in the firm.

Online conversations

Another way of seeking employee engagement in spreading best practice across the firm is using its online portal, known as The Hub, which Coffey describes as an “internal Facebook”.

“This recognises that people are connecting in different ways now,” he says. “Individuals can create profiles, join groups and share information. You can access The Hub on your phone or your computer.”

He is also considering using crowd sourcing to speed up the process of getting feedback from staff and engaging them in the development of the longer-term people strategy.

“We need to ensure everything the people function does gets the best out of our people,” he adds. Another facet to this is ensuring the business is not missing out on talent, externally or internally, who could add to its skill base. So diversity is business critical.

Embedding diversity and inclusion

“Diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility – from the most senior partner to the most junior team member,” asserts Coffey. From attraction of new recruits to development of current employees, diversity is a key part of KPMG’s global values and, for Coffey, makes clear business sense. As such, the firm is implementing diversity and inclusion training for all staff and adopting the spirit of the public sector equality duty in dealings with employees and clients.

“It’s important that everyone understands that this is a critical business issue and we all have a role to play,” he states. “Clients are increasingly asking about our approach to diversity and inclusion – they want to see suppliers who share their values. “And more of our people are getting involved in helping us drive this agenda – with 12 employee networks which we sponsor and which are going from strength to strength. These are helping us build employee engagement internally and providing opportunities to build relationships with clients and others who share a diversity characteristic or interest,” adds Coffey.

“Partners are passionate about the long-term success of the firm and it depends on attracting talented individuals,” he says. Ultimately, Coffey wants the people function to help the business meet its strategic aim of improving its knowledge of clients’ markets. “We want people to have the right skills and expertise, and to be on the right job for them and the client. Then it is about core values, which have been in place for years,” he says.

Having known the firm for more than a decade before deciding to join KPMG, Coffey is keen to see the fruits of his labour. He hopes that towards the end of 2014 he will notice the first signs of success. “The first result I will look for will be in the tone of the organisation,” he says. “I want to hear colleagues saying they feel the change.”

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