An interview with Julia Paulding, HR Director, Saffery Champness

The UK Accountancy sector has consistently provided HR professionals with the opportunity to develop their careers whilst supporting highly diverse and challenging business populations. As the regulatory climate in financial services appeared to stabilize further in 2018, attention has swiftly turned to the UK Audit market and 2019 could be a critical year for the sector.

The Brydon review into UK Audit Standards got underway in December and comes as the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) publishes its interim findings on competition in the market. Proposals have also been made for replacing the sector’s regulatory body, the FRC (the Financial Reporting Council), with a strengthened watchdog. The ‘Big Four’ firms, which have historically enjoyed an uncapped market share, could be further restricted by a market cap which will allow smaller rivals to eat into that market share.

At the same time large scale HR Transformation programmes have been launched by many firms with a particular focus on centralisation and the deployment of new HR technologies. There have also been several high-profile changes in Senior HR Leadership positions prompting either succession management appointments and/or external executive search mandates.

In our continued HR Director interview series, I spoke to Julia Paulding, HR Director of Saffery Champness, about her HR career in the accountancy sector and some of the challenges her team face in 2019.

Tell us about your career to date with Saffery Champness; it seems to have offered you excellent succession opportunities?

I consider myself very fortunate to have spent the majority of my career at Saffery Champness, joining them in 1997! Since then, I’ve covered all aspects of HR, progressing to more senior roles and specialising in L&D for a large proportion of that time as Head of Learning and Development. Having a long career at one employer is becoming quite rare, but Saffery Champness is a true learning organisation, and one that’s provided me with many professional development opportunities and challenges. Since taking over as Head of HR in 2015, I’ve enjoyed re-familiarising myself with all of the generalist HR areas and helping the partners to deliver the Firm’s strategic objectives. Saffery Champness is a member of Nexia International, a leading global network of accounting and consulting firms, and I’m part of Nexia’s International People Development Committee, which adds even more variety to my work. I enjoy the diverse nature of my role, particularly people and change projects, and having the pleasure of leading and being part of an 18 strong team of talented and hardworking HR professionals.

Although in its infancy, what opportunities could the Brydon review offer Saffery Champness and the industry as a whole?

These are interesting times for all auditors – it is easy to find a lot of commentary in the press on how auditors should be better at identifying failing businesses, be more independent and better at serving the needs of stakeholders. A lot of this is in the context of very large and/or listed businesses. The Brydon review is focusing on UK audit standards, so we hope it addresses the concerns by ensuring redrafted standards give auditors clear, unambiguous direction for the work they need to do – this should assist all auditors. We have large and listed audit clients and we also have smaller owner-managed audit clients, so it is to be hoped that the review also results in proportionate standards that can be readily applied to smaller and less complex scenarios. But overall, a lot of independent reviews taking place means a lot of interested and informed parties will be putting their minds to how audit could be improved; this must be a positive message for current and would-be auditors.

What are your team working on right now?

People objectives lie at the heart of the firm’s business plan, and the HR team is playing a central role in delivering these. Key initiatives include developing our flexible working strategy as part of our commitment to provide an appropriate and progressive working environment, undertaking a review of our performance management systems to align them more closely with delivering excellent client service and, on the L&D side, the firm is further increasing its investment in skills and development at all levels to ensure that continuous learning truly remains at the heart of what we do.

Having published the firm’s first Gender Pay Gap review, what did you learn and what does the future hold?

Overall we were very happy with our first set of gender pay figures, particularly when compared to our main mid-tier accountancy firm competitors and the UK economy as a whole. We learned that our policy of providing equal opportunity for all of our staff is very robust and, as a result, both men and women have been able to progress to senior levels within the firm. This was demonstrated by our almost 50/50 gender split in our highest earning quartile.

In terms of the future, we remain committed to providing equality of opportunity to all staff through continually evolving our wide range of training, career development, coaching and mentoring opportunities, as well as offering competitive remuneration and benefits packages in order to retain and attract the best people.

I know you are passionate about personal professional development; how do you structure your own development and what advice would you give to others?

I approach this in a methodical way, setting objectives to meet gaps in my knowledge and areas of experience, and allocating diary time very deliberately across the year. In a very busy role, day-to-day operational deadlines can dominate, so it’s important to prioritise and structure my own learning in this way, and this ultimately means that I’m able to perform more effectively in my role, as well as remain personally motivated and engaged.

How important a role does HR technology and analytics play in your annual people strategy?

This is increasingly important. We’ve particularly recognised the need for our systems and HR technology to meet staff expectations of being able to access real-time information on-demand and fully use the self-serve functionality of the HRIS, mirroring the way we live our lives and access information and services outside of the workplace. We’re not there yet, but we’re investing in new technology and developing our existing systems to provide a more sophisticated offering to staff and deeper analysis of performance to the firm.

What should a new fee-earner or business support professional expect from the culture at Saffery Champness having made the decision to join?

Saffery Champness has a positive and inclusive culture, and our new recruits appreciate our collegiality and enthusiasm from day one. We undertake regular external reviews of our people practices, and feedback has, to date, consistently supported this. We receive great feedback on the high quality and variety of work that our staff can be involved in, as well as the learning and development support provided in all parts of the firm. The firm works hard to provide an environment that enables its people to thrive and progress, and I think that’s visible in all offices and departments.

What advice would you give to an HR professional considering a transition into professional services?

Be prepared to take some time to fully understand the culture and appreciate the need to consult more widely than you’d probably expect (on everything!).

As far as you can tell, what keeps a Partner awake at night?

At Saffery Champness, our focus is firmly on providing excellent client service, and ensuring the very highest standards of work is something that our partners prioritise. It would, I imagine, keep them awake at night if they weren’t able to ensure this. Managing large workloads and multiple deadlines can also be a challenge at times.

How do you switch off at the weekend?

My active family makes this easy for me as there’s always so much going on at home. My weekend usually begins with Parkrun early on a Saturday morning, which I love, then a family tennis lesson. That generally sets the scene for a busy but very enjoyable weekend with my husband and teenage daughters. I’ve recently run my first marathon, so the last few weeks leading up to this have been structured around various training runs with friends and family. Although a wonderful experience, it’s not something I am planning to do on a regular basis – 26.2 miles is a very long way!

Barry Byrne, Partner, Aretai LLP

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