The British Accountancy Awards: How the winners won...

by Heather Townsend

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26 Nov 2012

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AFTER THE GLITZ and glamour of the awards night, it's time for the inevitable post mortems... Why didn't we win? What was it that made our competitor's entry stand out?

From the judges' perspective, and this is the second year I have been a judge, I can help answer that question. The quality of the entry determines success. There are always a few firms or individuals who you just ‘know' deserve to receive external recognition, but the quality of their entry has let them down.

My motivation for writing this article was to help everyone improve the quality of their application, by revealing what it's like to be a judge, and what we are looking for from the entries for these prestigious industry awards.

Let me dispel one large myth. There is no secret score chart given to the judges.

There are no special judging packs or directives from 'on high' about favouring one network or firm above another. We were, like last year, judging the entries on the criteria - which is openly communicated on the award's website.

The other judges I had the pleasure of working with this year came from different backgrounds - but all linked in some way to the accountancy profession. For example, my fellow judges included a senior person from an institute, a managing partner of an award-winning small firm, and a very senior lawyer who specialised in helping accountancy practices. You could say a very mixed bag who all brought a different perspective, healthy debate and differing views to the discussions around the table.

All the judges I worked with at the judging day had one thing in common. We wanted the best entries to win, but all had a day job outside of being a judge.

Consequently, the time and effort to read all the entries came from our own personal time. This means, that your entry needs to make it easy for us. Don't make us hunt down attachment 5 out of 50+ attachments (I kid you not!), and if possible include all your evidence within one modest document - preferably with the narrative within that one document.

There is always the risk that technology can throw a spanner in the works. It's maybe no one's fault, but always aim to keep your award entry simple. If possible, supply all extra documents in a PDF format, as you can't guarantee that the judge reading your entry late at night will be able to open your version of Word. If you are finding that you need to supply separate hard copies or material on separate disks, then there is a huge risk that these will go missing, or as I found, not always be able to be opened on a home computer.

Even though this was an awards for ‘British accountants', don't assume that all the judges have a high level of technical accounting knowledge. Out of the five judges in my session, only two were (I think!) qualified accountants.

Yes, we all could take the salient facts out of financial statements, and read a spreadsheet - however, make it easy for us. When the judging criteria states that we will be looking for an increase in profit per equity partner (PEP), then tell us what this is. Not the annual profit for the firm as a whole (although we are interested in that), but a clear statement of the increase in PEP over the last year. Preferably referenced to the statement of accounts that you were asked to supply.

One of the biggest weaknesses in many of the entries I reviewed was the lack of hard evidence - particularly with the ‘people' part of the application. I'm sure that if you tell me that your people think the firm is great, then it is probably great - however, what evidence have you got to back this up? E.g. Investors in People? Retention rates that are significantly lower than the industry average? Staff survey results? All the judges were looking beyond the waffle for cold hard evidence, very often benchmarked evidence, to support the entrant's claims.

Depending on what award you entered you were given a word count for each part of the application form. Do try and give as full as answer as possible - without waffling!

The more evidence you can cite, the stronger your entry starts to become. There were some strong entrants in the 3 categories that I judged. In fact, in two of these categories there was no clear winner. This is when your evidence and how you have presented it becomes vital. External verification - for example, feedback from your clients, is often much stronger than feedback from your staff. After all, they have a vested interest in saying nice things about you and the firm!

If you are entering an award for an individual rather than a firm, the judges I worked with thought that the award entry was much stronger if you were nominated by someone rather than self-nominated. Our reasons for this? It makes it much harder to discern what is fact or fiction, if you are writing about yourself, rather than if someone else nominates you for the award and writes the entry about you.

We know that everyone who entered the award put in a large amount of time and effort to their entry. I wish that first impressions didn't count so much, but a well laid-out and professionally produced entry did help firms and individuals initially stand out. However, it was our role as a judge to see beyond the gloss and dig into the substance of the entry. And, boy, when there were multiple stand-out candidates for one award, we really did dig.

If I can leave you with just one thought for your entry next year... look at the award criteria and give us quantifiable and verifiable evidence to show how you met them.

Heather Townsend is the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life', and the author of the best-selling and award-winning book, ‘The FT Guide To Business Networking'. She has been involved as a judge in the last two British Accountancy Awards

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