E9 - Social Agenda is Business DNA - interview with Andrew Sykes, RSM

Andrew Sykes is a partner in the Canberra office of RSM. He will be a Table Host at the upcoming Edge of Leadership Un-Conference, 28 March 2017.

He believes that social agenda should be built in to every business' DNA. He shares how RSM incorporates the sharing of 'treasure, talent, and time' as part of its community support.


Interview with Andrew Sykes, Partner, RSM 

Zoë: This is Zoë Routh. I’m really excited to be here with Andrew Sykes from RSM. We’re going to be talking a little bit about his background and his interest in doing social agenda work through his work and through him personally. Andrew, welcome to the podcast.

Andrew:Thank you.

Zoë:Give us a little bit of background for our listeners. How did you get into what you’re doing and what is your current role at RSM?

Andrew:I came into accounting through doing a degree at university and I spent quite a number of years in the financial markets. When they changed, I just had to follow my first love with is small business advisory and working with small businesses and people. That was in 2001. I’ve been with RSM for the last 15 years and enjoy it. My main role is to work with clients and staff to help build businesses.

Zoë:Great. What’s your current role now at RSM?

Andrew:I’m a partner in the Canberra practice, one of the two partners that run our business advisory division.

Zoë:Fantastic. I love small business too. That’s one of my favorite sectors in business.

Andrew:It’s the most exciting area to work in because you can see the impact on people’s lives.

Zoë:Yeah, absolutely. What do you love specifically about small business?

Andrew:You can work with small business and help them grow so we can work with small business and you can see the results very quickly. Often bigger businesses are harder to turn around and there’s not the same personal involvement and commitment. I enjoy working with the owners and seeing them grow their businesses over the years.

Zoë:Awesome. Are you Canberra born and bred?

Andrew:I’m from Sydney like so many Canberrans. I’ve been here since I was 14.

Zoë:You're really a Canberra citizen.

Andrew:Pretty much.

Zoë:When it comes to RSM and the community, I know that RSM has been really present in helping different charities. What is the approach and what is the philosophy that RSM has?

Andrew:We found at RSM that when we started growing our own business that other elements of the community came to us and started to ask us for assistance. We tried to put formal structures in place to give everyone a fair go with that. We started to think that as we got bigger, we had more of an obligation so we felt that being part of a community meant that we had to try and give back. We’ve really tried to focus on that. In particular over the last three years, we’ve been heavily involved with organizations impacted by NDIS. I think about 15 to 20% of the work that we’ve done in that area has actually been pro bono. We try and make a difference when we go in and work with community organizations.

Zoë:The involvement you have with charity organizations, you go in and basically give them pro bono business advice. Is that the way that you're doing it?

Andrew:A mixture of pro bono. We also support a number of organizations in terms of cash sponsorship as well. It’s not just our time. It’s our resources and energy that we put into it.

Zoë:You’ve been supporters of Menslink, haven’t you?

Andrew:Menslink is a particularly important charity to us. We think they do a great job. They’re a local organization too. We think they’ve come up with a good idea. They impact on an area that’s important to us.

Zoë:I definitely think that supporting young adolescent men in the Canberra community is the key to a better society, and it’s often a sector that gets left behind. There’s a lot of focus on other charity sectors and I think this is a good one to profile for sure. Another interesting thing is because the event that we’re holding next year, Edge of Leadership, where you're a table host, we’re excited for that, is in support of Menslink and Outward Bound. They work together on a project for second year mentees for Menslink. You confessed before we turned on the recording that you actually did an Outward Bound program, and you were telling me a little bit about that. Tell me what you remember because this was a while ago now, what you remember getting out of it.

Andrew:It was a long time ago. I do remember getting camaraderie and companionship from the school group that I did. It brought us together closer and it also gave the opportunity for a challenge to actually learn how far you could push yourself. That’s what I really enjoyed about it.

Zoë:You went to one of the hardest areas. I used to work at Outward Bound for 10 years, and I know that the program you did in Cooleman was pretty tough. What do you remember about the environment out there?

Andrew:We seemed to always do it tough. The school I went to in the coldest part of the year. We had snow. We had rain. We’re up on the frost plains. It was just a fantastic environment. You get away from the pressures of day to day life and you get to focus and be present in the moment and just enjoy what you're doing. That’s one of the very important couple of weeks in my life.

Zoë:Fantastic. It’s wonderful that it had such an impact. That’s why I’m particularly excited that Menslink does this program for their guys in second year because to get a chance to do it as a young man, as a young person, it can make a profound difference as you said, just teaching you how to be present and how to deal with just the basics and be there with other people which is awesome.

Andrew:We work with a lot of young people. We bring young people into our businesses, the future leaders of our organization, and we often find that young men are a little bit lost when they come in. They don’t really understand their roles and where they fit in. There were some challenges with maturity in some of the young men that come through. We think things like that are fantastic.

Zoë:Yeah, right. You mean young men as in your new employees.

Andrew:Yeah. We have new employees as young as 18 years old working with us. We take employees when they come through, finish school and will be starting uni.

Zoë:When you're 18, it sounds very mature. When you're a little bit grayer, it seems very early in life, doesn’t it?

Andrew:From my point of view, it’s a long way back in the past. We think that any assistance that can start developing their leadership skills and start turning them into professionals and give them a little bit of maturity and presence is ideal.

Zoë:That’s right. I was speaking to a mutual colleague, Di Kargas who is a huge philanthropist advocate in the Canberra community, and I know she’s been speaking with you about helping you develop RSM social agenda. She asked you to survey your staff about what they contribute. Has this happened already?

Andrew:Yeah. We’ve done a survey and the amount of goodwill and contribution that goes back from our staff is incredible. Almost every employee at RSM is involved in some sort of social contribution, whether it’s being a treasurer on a board, a director. We have people volunteering overseas. We have people volunteering locally in a whole range of causes. There would probably be upwards of a dozen charities that benefit from just volunteering, and then the number of local associations and small groups that get assistance is quite amazing. We were very impressed by how much our staff do.

Zoë:Right. Did you manage to talk to any of them and find out what it is about the community contribution that gets them to get out the door and do that?

Andrew:While the movie, The Accountant, may have given an unreal sense of how glamorous it is to be an accountant and particularly a tax accountant, we do have … Quite often, a lot of our work is very distant from people and it’s very focused just on money. The main reason given by staff is that they just want to give something back and be involved in something that’s not related to just making profit.

Zoë:Bringing some purpose and meaning into all aspects of their life.

Andrew:Correct. It adds more meaning to their life. It gets them to engage with those that they don’t normally engage with.

Zoë:Is RSM looking to be more structured and focused around the charities that it supports or what’s happening in the strategic aspect of that?

Andrew:We’ve done an assessment of the amount of contribution that our staff are making and us as a business is making, and it comes to a pretty significant value. It’s up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re now looking to restructure that where there’s a process for organizations to come to us and be fairly and independently assessed. We do find one of our biggest themes for the coming 12 months is diversity and it’s diversity across all of our areas of our business. It’s very easy to make a social contribution or contribute to a charity that you like that maybe your friends are running. We think given the size of the RSM practice and our size as a part of the Canberra community, we now need to be a little more equal and a little fair with how we distribute it and give all organizations a chance to benefit, rather than just the ones we like.

Zoë:You have an opportunity to like even more charities I guess through that process.

Andrew:Yes, that’s right.

Zoë:I think that’s interesting. You're right. Bigger companies do have bigger profile, therefore would be more visible to charities wanting some support and so on. I think that’s great that you're coming up with a process to help.

Andrew:It also ties in with our view that it’s not an optional part of modern business anymore. There is a positive obligation for organizations to give back and to be involved in the community. It needs to be a fair and open and transparent process for that.

Zoë:It’s one thing to think about it as an obligation and duty. What I’m hearing from you is that it’s actually more than just an obligation and duty. It’s actually a calling from the heart and certainly, having surveyed your staff and hearing from them that they do it outside of their work and now to bring it and integrate it into your entire firm as a process is more than just a responsibility. It’s more of a calling I think. This is what I’m hearing from you.

Andrew:Yeah. Obligation doesn’t mean that it’s onerous.

Zoë:A distinction point?

Andrew:Obligation means that it’s just not something that’s optional. It’s something that you should as part of your business planning include in your business planning.

Zoë:I’m curious now because you work a lot with small business. Is this something that you have in discussions with your small business clients about how they contribute to community?

Andrew:Yeah. We encourage all of our small business clients to give and to be part of the community that they’re involved in. A surprising number of them do. Most of our clients would be doing something.

Zoë:That’s what I’ve been finding, in interviewing people and meeting people about this event that we’re organizing for next year, is the extraordinary amount of generosity in the Canberra business community for local charities and for charities more broadly. It’s really the untold story of the Canberra business community’s success and contribution. I think the more that we can put light on that, the better it’s going to be, one, for business but also for the communities and services that we support. I think that’s awesome that you include that as a significant aspect of developing small business.

Andrew:It’s also a significant part of providing work-life balance for staff. Staff when they come and work for us or apply for a job will ask us what opportunities we do provide in terms of volunteering. We are about to trial a program where we’ll allow our staff to have two days a year where they will not have it deducted from their leave and they’ll get to go and help other organizations. We find that it’s coming through in all areas of business.

Zoë:That’s great. Di Kargas talks about the three things that business owners and leaders would have available to help; treasure, time and talent. It sounds like RSM is doing all three, so treasure, donating money; time, allowing staff time; and talent, getting your talent bring put forward for pro bono. Congratulations on being so robust in your community contributions.

Andrew:Thank you. It’s part of our business. It’s important to it. It is also beyond business. It’s part of being a good member of the community.

Zoë:For you personally, what charities light you up? What causes, if you like, are you drawn to?

Andrew:Probably more than charities at the moment is the whole idea around diversity. I suppose it’s a reaction to some of the things we see in society at the moment. Also, it comes from … Diversity in terms of gender equality is a major challenge for all professional organizations. It’s probably more towards diversity than any other particular charity but looking at a cause or a charity, I think depression seems to be a major and grows to be a major issue. It’s one that seems to hit professions reasonably hard.

We’ve had a number of examples of staff who’ve had to deal with issues related to depression. It’s a very difficult situation to manage. It’s very confronting, dealing with it in the workplace and having to ask people if they’re okay and moving beyond just flippant interactions. When they say they’re not, the whole process of management move them through taking time off work, dealing with their family, dealing with doctors, psychologists, helping them while they return to work. It can go on for two or three years. Getting in front of depression and learning how to spot the signs upfront and helping people deal with it I think is a critical issue.

Zoë:Seth Godin talks about organizations being a modern day tribe. I think when you have that concept that your people, your staff are part of your tribe, part of your family, your corporate family. That interest and care for them as human beings is really important and that’s really different than 10, 20 years ago when that private life was severed off from your working day and being responsible for it, or being interested and compassionate around it is a sign of more heart in business I think.

Andrew:Yeah, it’s definitely two-way now. I remember when I started working, you never really spoke to the partners in an accounting practice or the senior people and there was a real divide. Now it’s very much two-way communication and it’s very much … Our staff are all of the assets of our business. All of our assets walk out the door every night and we hope they come back the next day. We need to care for them more than just making a profit off of them.

Zoë:Absolutely. That sense of people are the business is an evolving need. The smart businesses think about their people as critical as family. Well done on that.

Andrew:Thank you.

Zoë:Last question for you. What is your advice? You’ve already started talking about this in terms of advice for business when it comes to social contribution. If you were talking to me as a small business client of yours, what would you suggest I do in terms of looking at social contribution? How would I start with that?

Andrew:Start coming up with a plan. First off, make a commitment to it and commit to making it part of your business’ DNA. Promote it with your staff. Put it up on your website. Let people know. We’ve always been very shy about promoting anything we’ve done, but what we find is that the promotion of it actually works internally rather than externally. Letting our staff and our people know that it’s commitment and priority for us is one of the things that we expect to do in business, then it starts to flow through. The first thing to do is just to get started. Have a think and try and work out what some cause. It could be become a Menslink mentor or it could be as simple as take a table at the next Menslink breakfast to get involved or go and attend one of the many charity functions to start learning about it and then to start planning to start to get into it.

Zoë:Great opportunity for folks is to come at Edge of Leadership next year where we’re going to have an extraordinary amount of business leaders sharing their experiences and the different charities they support, as well as the number of not-for-profits in the room as well showcasing their causes and what’s important to them. If businesses are new to this space and wants to integrate, that’s a good place to start. That’s fantastic advice.

Andrew:Yeah, correct. That just becomes about networking with other businesses who are looking to do the same thing.

Zoë:The power of collaboration around that just creates an exponential ripple for sure.

Andrew:That’s correct.

Zoë:Andrew, thank you so much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it. I am so excited that you're going to be a table host at our event, Edge of Leadership on the 28th of March 2017. Everybody else who comes along will get a chance to hear your story more explicitly and have intimate conversations with you. Thanks very much again.

Andrew:Thanks for the opportunity.