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The search for high performers

Identifying and grooming future leaders have become a top priority for professional service firms.

AS new technologies and a fast-changing business landscape disrupt the professional services sector, industry players are seeking to cultivate high-performing talent that can be groomed quickly into leadership positions.

While being able to do this is critical for businesses in an industry where people are literally their most important asset, identifying and grooming high-potential leaders can be a challenge for companies.

In recent years, this war for talent has narrowed its focus on a group known as "millennials", as more of this demographic group start their ascent in work places around the world.

Experts say that future high-potential leaders from this group look for employers that will allow them to contribute both in terms of bringing innovation to the firm as well as making a broader impact on society.

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However, programmes designed to attract future leaders must be aligned with the direction of the organisation, argues Philip Yuen, CEO of Deloitte Singapore. "Whatever plans there are, they should fit in with the values of the company and with the company's goals," he says.

Importantly for professional service firms, millennials grew up in the digital age, a factor that makes them extremely relevant to the business world today. Their knowledge and insights into technology can help generate new ideas both for process and operations improvements - such as the use of new technology in delivering the audit - as well as new service offerings to improve the customer experience.

"An organisation that is not able to keep up with the needs of this future generation workforce in terms of communication will find themselves struggling to be successful," notes Mr Yuen, who is also divisional president, Singapore, at CPA Australia.

A 2013 online survey by EY about managing a multi-generation workforce found that those from the Gen Y or millennial generation want greater empowerment and clarity on their future and opportunities to progress in their careers.

"To keep them engaged, the work assigned to them must be multi-dimensional and challenging to address these aspirations and expectations," says Vincent Toong, assurance partner at EY. This can be in the form of short-term working stints abroad to give these candidates the opportunity to broaden their exposure and experience.

PwC Singapore executive chairman Yeoh Oon Jin believes that a strong mentorship programme can encourage younger candidates to engage in continuous learning based on their interests.

"When working on projects that go beyond their usual comfort zones, the candidates inculcate the need for innovation and driving change through winning the hearts and minds of those around them," he says. "Such projects may not necessarily be structured. They include, for example, participating in community projects."

At PwC, millennials are empowered through company-wide initiatives such as one known as Junior Board, which is made up of staff from different business units or functions, ranging from associates to senior managers. The Junior Board members go through a nomination, campaigning and election process and are voted into office by their colleagues.

Says Mr Yeoh: "The Junior Board plays a management role in the firm and is empowered to drive initiatives and policies for our people. For example, the Junior Board members gather feedback from the ground, brainstorm, and advise higher management on steps to take. These initiatives allow us to actively understand the needs of a wide range of our employees, including the millennial generation."

However, employers should not treat millennials as a homogeneous group, but rather lay out a development path that best fits an individual's aspirations.

Ong Pang Thye, deputy managing partner and head of infrastructure, KPMG Singapore, says: "While it is convenient to categorise a generation to behave in a certain way, we should recognise that the candidates we have are individuals with differing motivations and there is no one-size-fits-all programme to cater to their diverse needs."

He adds: "What is therefore important is how to address the developmental needs of individuals in a clear and consistent manner when we groom high-performing leaders."

Professional services companies are also no longer just looking for accountants but talent from all fields to build a more diverse talent pool. These candidates can assume diverse roles such as auditors, finance specialists, tax experts, risk managers and corporate treasurers.

Mr Yuen says: "This is good as the leadership needs in the industry are also shifting as the modern professional services firm doesn't just need technical leaders. It needs people who can lead talent; can lead a P&L unit; can lead in the marketplace.

"These are diverse skills and it is rare to find them all in one person. As a result, organisations are looking for leaders who are unique in their own ways."

As the war for top talent intensifies, some companies are putting their high-potential candidates on fast-track programmes to move them into leadership positions in a quicker than usual time frame.

While industry players acknowledge the potential benefits of such a talent strategy, they also warn that some candidates may need more time to prepare for the burden of leadership.

"We still place a fair amount of emphasis on professional maturity of the candidate as a requisite for leadership. We mentor our high- potential candidates to develop the necessary skill sets and professional maturity expected of a leader," says Mr Toong.

What's more, he believes that while performance is a good indicator of whether someone is of the right calibre to succeed, it is not the only one.

He says: " We need people who are not only intelligent and hardworking, but also embody the right values, have integrity, respect others, and have a passion to serve, and that is why we cannot ignore the other aspects of engagement and aspiration in identifying high-potential people."