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Interview with Bryon Smith, Head of People and Culture at Clearhouse LLP

Baron Leacock

When the pandemic hit, Bryon Smith was only a few months into the start of his HR consulting business First Avenue Consulting. What followed was an unprecedented opportunity to be on the cutting edge of one of the biggest re-imaginings of work in history, having to unearth and deploy best practices for navigating the crisis long before any of the dust had settled. He now brings that hard-won insight to his role as Head of People and Culture at Ontario-based accounting and advisory firm Clearhouse LLP. Ranked among the top growing companies in Canada in 2022 by The Globe and Mail, Clearhouse is quickly establishing itself as the firm to watch in the accounting and business advisory space, positioning itself as the one-stop-shop for growing your business and improving the quality of your life.

What follows is an abridged version of our talk with Bryon earlier this year.

Tell me about First Avenue Consulting.

I started the business about two years ago, really just to provide HR services to small/medium sized businesses, fractional HR work for those companies who don’t have HR.  We also did change management work across all different industries.  We were industry agnostic, so we were in cannabis, IT, banking, we were kind of all over the place.  The next year for us was really about promoting our brand, doing a little more work in the change management space, just because of the pandemic and some of the changes that have happened.

“Candidates I find more than ever want to understand, well, what does it actually feel like to be in this environment?”

What changes stand out to you?

I think that the work that we’ve done over the last, say, eighteen months with clients is a bit of a reset on their culture as it relates to recruiting and retention.  So certainly with recruiting of people, it’s been more important for new hires to understand the culture that they’re getting into, especially if they can’t be in the physical building.  Really making sure that the organizations that we work with, that they have a strong, sound, Mission-Vision-Values, and actually living them, it’s not just a bunch of words on a piece of paper.  Candidates I find more than ever want to understand, well, what does it actually feel like to be in this environment?  So the organizations we’ve been working with, we’ve been helping them to create the stories that go along with the Mission-Vision-Values, and how to communicate that to individuals.

I think the other area, in new hires, is helping them acclimate.  Once they’re brought into the organization, what are they doing to support their growth, to support them acclimating into the business?  How are we making sure that they have a buddy or somebody that is there to support them?  Lots of research says that individuals that feel that they are cared for, that they have somebody they can trust in the workplace, that increases retention.  How do we provide those types of experiences, and not just for the one week that they start, but for a period of time?

We've been working on different orientation programs, onboarding programs.  Development, again to make sure people understand not only how they handle induction into the organization but also, how do they manage their career going forward, as they progress into different roles and responsibilities.

“Stay interviews” I think have become more common, and I think we’re going to see more of that over the next little while, as organizations are focusing on the retention of people.  We’ve been doing a fair bit of that as of late.  Some of our clients who are in the accounting space, we’re going to be doing this closer to the spring/summer timeframe, just because it’s their busy season.  But we’re very focused on getting some interviews not just with the high potentials within the organization but a little bit broader, so we can have conversations like, why are you staying, what more could we be doing to help you feel supported, so we can uncover what the organizations are doing well and where there’s opportunity to tweak some things.  Then we can come in and support that.

There are some early indications from our stay interviews that would say that organizations can improve their reward and recognition.  And not to say that’s just the compensation part, but it’s the everyday thank yous, the appreciation factor, that we’re not in bricks and mortar right now, we’re unable to do that as frequently as we did in pre-covid days.

“…it really drilled into the partners for this business that you’ve actually got to walk the talk, you can’t just have a bunch of words.”

About Mission, Vision and Values, how are folks who are doing it well communicating that to their people?

One of the organizations that we work with, I think we started working with them last September, they really didn’t know who they wanted to be.  They had grown really, really quickly, they now have about eighty employees, up from about forty, so they’d grown and doubled their size.  Having a conversation about, what do you want look like when you grow up, if you will.  What do you want to be known for?  The three owners of the business couldn’t articulate that succinctly, or commonly between the three of them.  So we spent some time.

It was very interesting, the business is very successful, which is fantastic, but now they were interested in articulating what their culture is going to be, and what they aspire to be so that they can continue this growth, and then be able to think of the characteristics, the behaviors and so forth of those they want to bring into the organization.  So we spent some time articulating their Mission-Vision-Values, which took some time.  I kind of enjoyed it to be honest with you because it was fun to challenge them, to say well, that’s nice to say, but are you actually going to be able to deliver on that?  You’re saying you’re going to offer flexibility, you’re saying you’re going to be world-class and this kind of thing, but how are you actually going to live it?  And that was kind of fun.  But it really drilled into the partners for this business that you’ve actually got to walk the talk, you can’t just have a bunch of words.

So we articulated it.  We then had their annual offsite meeting with the management team.  We walked them through the storytelling on, why did we design the Mission-Vision-Values?  Why is it important to us?  We talked a little bit about how we expect these behaviors to manifest in everyday interactions, whether it’s a coaching conversation with an employee, or dealing with a conflict with a client.  We really helped the management team understand what that would look like, got their support in terms of, we need to embed this further down in the organization.

Some of the tactics we took were, any meeting that was over a forty-five-minute or so threshold, we want to start the meeting with a quick, here are our Mission-Vision-Values, as just a way to embed it in everyday conversations.  And it helped.  We would be saying, we’re having this meeting today on budgeting, it aligns with our guiding principle of X, so we tried to tie it back as much as possible.  

We then implemented an employee recognition program, where the factors for employee recognition were directly related to the Mission-Vision-Values, and how those individuals were demonstrating those behaviors, internally, with clients, and in the communities that they work with.  And it continues to be a journey, but that was our way of solving the, how are we actually going to get the stories, how are we going to get the experiences that people were having with one another, because we’re not around everybody all the time.  And especially in this virtual environment.

We also had this quarterly award.  We updated the performance appraisals as well, to indicate some of the criteria around the behaviors.  We also just launched their new people manager training, to embed the Mission-Vision-Values, but also to answer, how do we expect the management team to show up and live these values, because they’re ambassadors of the firm.  

And what does that look like, living those values, walking the talk?

So, one of their values is around respect and integrity and the way that manifests for them is to be able to have healthy tension.  They want to encourage people to share their opinions, they want people to challenge other people’s ideas, for the purpose of getting to the best possible solution.  For this organization, respect means being able to operate in an environment where there is some tension, we call it “healthy tension,” and it’s where we may be challenging someone else’s idea or thought, for the purpose of getting the best possible outcome.  

This was an organization that had a lot of millennials–very agreeable culture.  And we know that we can get better solutions if we build in some of this respectful challenge, healthy tension.

“...we’re calling it a ‘culture refresh.’”

Let’s talk about the Great Resignation.  Is this something that you’re seeing?

Definitely a real thing, absolutely a real thing.  I think for the conversations I’ve had with our clients, small and medium sized businesses, we’re calling it a “culture refresh.”  Flexibility is not going to go away.  We may return to the office, but I do not believe that people want to go back, based on conversations with both candidates and existing employees.  There’s an interest to go back to some kind of office environment, but certainly not full-time.

In recruiting conversations I’ve been having, individuals have been expressing that they want a hybrid, or they want more flexibility to be able to work at home more regularly.  And from a recruiting perspective, some of the conversations I’m getting are around, well if I’m gonna be in the office more than 50%, what is the organization doing to support me, either through a transit pass, or some kind of financial support to get to and from the office.  So those conversations I’m finding are more common now than they used to be pre-covid.  

I think also in terms of the culture piece, there’s that development aspect, around, what are the possibilities of my career movement here, what does development look like here?  I find that there’s going to be more of a focus on that.  And I think the third thing just around the culture again is this reward and recognition piece.  How are organizations going to provide that experience, and connect the individual to the organization, given that we don’t see each other as much as we do?  

And that can be a bunch of different ways, whether it’s improved one-to-one meetings with the manager and the employee.  We’re working with some of our clients to create a bit of a resource library if you will, for managers around one-to-one meetings, topics, things that they could be asking their employees to draw out some conversations.  We work with a lot of businesses with new people managers, and they need resources around how to manage some of these situations.

“Those organizations may have gone too far, where they were calling Brian to say, hey man, it’s 9 o’clock, you’re not online, are you working?”

Who is handling this shift well and who isn’t?

I think the organizations that we work with that did it well communicated, communicated, communicated.  They over-communicated, and I think that was important.  The organizations that we worked with that maybe didn’t do it as well, they lagged in how quickly they communicated, they may not have communicated as much as they could have in those times.  I think it’s important to give more information than not enough.

The ones that I think came through better than others had existing technology to support the remote environment.  Some that were more challenged with it were cultures that have much more of a top-down approach, perhaps their people managers were not as skilled at managing remote workers.  Some organizations that still believe you need to see the worker to know that they’re actually producing results.  Some organizations I think went a little too far, where their technology allows them to see if their employee is working, there’s a dot or something that says Brian is on at 9am.  Those organizations may have gone too far, where they were calling Brian to say, hey man, it’s 9 o’clock, you’re not online, are you working?  

So I think those organizations where maybe there was a little more trust, more experienced people managers, cultures where they believed more in, you jump in and you do the work, more of a collaborative than a, I’m going to work my 9 to 5 and here’s my job description and here’s what I am going to do, I don’t think they came out of this as well as others.

“...some of them that did it well, they were sending out care packages to their employees quite regularly.”

What were some of the ways your clients handled the logistical challenges associated with the pandemic?

We deal with a lot of accounting clients and hard copy to soft copy files are very relevant to their day-to-day working.  Many of them did not have the robust technology to get these large files.  Some of the things that were hard copies were actually located in the office in downtown Toronto, logistically getting this information back and forth to people, there were some employees that have second homes or cottages, some of them were outside of the province and they elected to move during the pandemic.  In Ontario, it’s very common for people to go “cottaging.”  Technology is not very robust in those areas, so those that went to their cottages, there was more difficulty, the internet connection isn’t as strong.  So that was a bit of a challenge.  

What these businesses did well is they had office managers, they had somebody that was physically located in the office and they just came up with a system where, I need this information, and there was a kind of sign-in/sign-out of information, they used different couriers to be able to get documentation and files and so forth to different individuals.

In terms of the reward and recognition stuff, I think some of them that did it well, they were sending out care packages to their employees quite regularly.  They were using different individuals and businesses that would offer baskets and care products and food.  A couple of our clients actually, through the pandemic, refreshed their wellness programs, so they invested a little bit more money in some kind of a wellness program that’s very flexible, because wellness means something different to everybody.  And they extended that during the pandemic, in response to feedback from people, that they were stressed, they felt that they were overworked, they felt that they needed resources to decompress.

How do things look going forward in your view?

On the retention side, I think there’s going to continue to be this refresh of culture.  I think that there needs to be more emphasis on employee aspiration, employee development, ways in which organizations need to engage individuals in their organization by showing them that they can have a career with their organization.  And that needs to be an ongoing focus not a one-time discussion per year.  And I think connections, helping the individual be well connected with the organization, not just a manager or a buddy, but how do you build their engagement, whether it's through inclusion initiatives, whether it’s through different types of collaboration experiences.  But there needs to be a focus on connections, and helping individuals, not just new, but the existing group, build a strong network of colleagues and peers within the organization, and I think flexibility. 

What’s something that people aren’t talking about or aren’t realizing, the blind spot that we really should be talking about?

I think the term overworked and stressed is being overused.  I think that there needs to be more of a conversation around what wellness means to individuals.  It’s not a one size fits all, very diverse workplaces, very diverse individuals, everyone has unique needs.  So there isn’t a band-aid solution to stress management.  I really believe in the importance of wellness within the workplace, and I also believe it needs to be incredibly flexible to be able to allow individuals to tailor it to what makes sense to them.

Thank you Bryon for sharing your tips and insight into what actually works!

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