Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
10 Feb 2014

Philosophy for behavioural change

10 Feb 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Feeling change within the company

In its recent service reviews, clients of Grant Thornton – one of the largest professional services firms in the UK – are consistently commenting on feeling change within the company. With a population of about 4,500, including a national leadership board of six headed up by CEO Scott Barnes, it has ambitious plans to grow the business from its current turnover of £410 million to £500 million by 2015.

Following the launch of its ‘Ambition 2015’ initiative in October 2011, Grant Thornton’s leadership team – along with Mel Wombwell, who joined as head of talent development and resourcing in September of the same year, and her new talent team (now seven in total) – have been taking their people on a journey of change.

It was at this time when the board, made up of six partners, had a reshuffle. Three remained, and three fresh faces were brought in. In February 2012, global CEO Ed Nusbaum revealed the new global brand promise for the company, with the taglines: ‘An instinct for growth’ and ‘Unlocking the potential for growth’.

The first step for Wombwell and her team was to bring the new board together and ask: ‘What are the questions we need to explore together?’, ‘What is the vision?’, ‘What’s the culture we need to have in place to achieve that vision?’, ‘Who are you and what do you stand for?’, ‘What’s really driving the need for change?’and ‘How much do you want this and why?’

Making the difference

“The ‘what’ of Grant Thornton is to provide tax, assurance and advisory services, but the ‘why’ is to share knowledge, expertise and insights with our clients,” she says. “The way financial structures are set up within organisations makes all the difference between success and failure. Our future growth will come from building collaborative partnerships with clients.”

Wombwell and her team began to create tools to help employees transition their belief systems from solely ‘getting things done expertly’ to connecting with clients on a more emotional level. She explains: “Although people who come to work for Grant Thornton are exceptionally brilliant, they’re used to task and process. Our people are extremely professional and work hard with their clients to get the job done.

“Now, we’re coaching all our colleagues to listen to their clients, and treat them more like they would a good friend by asking open and insightful questions. For example, you wouldn’t not ask a friend: ‘how’s everything going?’

You’ve got to build strong relationships with people and understand what’s going on inside them so you can create a meaningful relationship on a much deeper level rather than operate at the surface. We’re asking our people to genuinely engage with clients as individuals, and lay themselves open to being more vulnerable, ‘to show the real them’ instead of being reserved and contained. This can be quite a scary and frightening concept.”

First wave of change identifying brand promise

To give people the space to think how they would carry this out in practice, Wombwell and her team devised a series of two-day workshops, plus a day’s follow-up six weeks later, called: ‘Being a Game Changer – leadership & advocacy’. All participants were asked to pair up with someone else as their coaching buddy and in the follow-up day they were encouraged to share stories, experiences and ideas from their learning.

To ensure a smooth cultural change programme, the board were first asked to identify the partners they felt were passionate about leaving a legacy, positive spokespeople and could energise others. “You need to find early adopters,” she comments. “Picture a business in the shape of an hourglass. We wanted to cut right through it from the top down to identify the 10% of our people who stand out from the crowd and are the change makers – then give them the tools to become even more influential in championing the change programme.”

The first workshop was piloted with the early adopters in January 2012 with 40 partners and directors. Between February and August, the programme was rolled out, and 400 colleagues have now taken part.

Second wave of change exceptional connections

In June 2012, the talent team introduced a more in-depth programme called ‘Exceptional Connections’. Wombwell likens it to a kind of rewiring process that takes place over five days during a six-month programme. It involves extensive coaching, emotional intelligence analysis and deep enquiry questioning, for example: ‘How do you think you’re perceived?’, ‘What do your clients think of you?’ and ‘How do you have the conversation with clients around the brand promise of ‘instinct for growth’?

She says you can’t just tick a box to say ‘right, that’s it’ and that the cultural change has ended. “It’s like going to a gym – it’s never a done deal, or like waves on a shore – there’s always the next exciting one on its way. Cultural change is ongoing,” she adds.

“It all comes down to a coaching ethos. Change can come from all levels in an organisation, it just takes bottle and when you’re trying to game change, you’ve got to engage people emotionally in their hearts. That only works when you change behavioural and belief systems to get personal buy-in so everyone is aboard the same boat. “We’re already having phenomenal success. There’s been a big management shift.

Traditionally, if you look at elders in tribal cultures they are expected to know all the answers. We’re saying to our people that it’s ok not to have all the answers. Instead of grappling with that, it’s ok to feel vulnerable, we’re only human after all,” says Wombwell. “We’ve taken a leap of faith and the shift has changed to listening to clients. Just by asking more open questions, our partners are now winning new business.”

She offers an example. “One of our partners simply asked their client: ‘What’s important to your business going forward?’ By the time the partner walked out, he had won a huge chunk of business. And the partner’s feedback?: ‘It’s brilliant.’” As part of the cultural change and to meet ambition 2015, the Exceptional Connections programme will continue to be rolled out over the next two years.

Wombwell and her talent team have created a suite of 20 additional programmes aimed at new joiners, colleagues and leaders. “Grant Thornton is a great place to work. We’re really investing in our talent and they really appreciate it. Not only that but we know we’re adding so much more value to our clients too. Cultural change is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, but it’s worth it,” smiles Wombwell.