Michael Walby admits that he got off to a slow start at KPMG, the global auditing, tax and advisory firm where he is now the award-winning head of professional qualifications training.
But he believes that his early struggles as a 22 year old graduate trainee in the mid-1990s helped to shape his ground-breaking approach to talent spotting today.
“I failed a number of my professional exams during my three years on my training contract and I saw the exams at the time for what they were, which was a necessary evil in order to access the benefits of becoming a qualified chartered accountant,” he said.
He went on to practise audit for ten years, managing the engagements of KPMG’s largest clients in the UK television broadcasting sector, but when his career began to “plateau” he found a new path into professional training.
“What I did learn from my time working in audit was that I had a passion for developing people and I had a talent for it,” he said.
Twenty one years after his own uncertain start as a graduate, Walby is now responsible for 2,500 trainees across the firm’s 22 UK offices.
He won Training Manager of the Year Award at the British Accountancy Awards in November 2011, and has introduced innovative recruitment programmes, including KPMG360°, an apprenticeship scheme for school and college leavers, designed to draw from as wide a talent pool as possible. KPMG chose AAT as the professional qualification for their Technician Level of this new programme based on our reputation as an aspirational qualification for young people from a variety of backgrounds.
The recruitment process, he believes, should reflect the reality that young employees come from a variety of backgrounds and display their potential at different times in different environments, in the same way that he did himself.
“I wouldn’t consider myself a typical graduate who went through a typical graduate journey,” he said about the start of his own career.
The second son of a steel worker and a housewife, Walby grew up in a supportive working class household in the valleys of South Wales.
He was raised to be “achievement-orientated”, his parents instilling in him a lifelong passion for cars, and the belief that education was the key to a successful career.
He got good grades at school and chose to study economics at Warwick University, but it did not go well.
“It became apparent early on in my university course that I’d chosen the wrong degree subject and it didn’t particularly suit my interests, but I didn’t feel empowered to change that,” he said.
As a result he received an “unrepresentative degree classification”, but he still managed to qualify for the KPMG graduate trainee programme.
Despite now being on the path to a stable job with a good company, Walby said he still felt his career was being hampered by his own sense of being an outsider.
“I think the most significant underlying part of me, in my view, that was different, was my sexual orientation,” he said.
“When I was growing up I never doubted the fact that I was gay although I kept that very much to myself for a very long time. Certainly during my early years at KPMG I guess I had a sense of myself as being the only gay man in the KPMG village.”
In the mid-1990s, when societal attitudes towards sexual orientation were less progressive, Walby felt unable to be honest about who he was.
“I felt constrained in my ability to bring my whole self to work. I think that affected the way that I see talent now, in terms of the benefits of diversity in talent and creating an environment in which individuals can be authentic in the workplace,” he said.
“Having to create an identity that isn’t really representing yourself takes a huge amount of energy. That therefore is energy that you cannot put into your work, which then distracts you from doing your best. In that sense it was holding me back.”
Walby finally found the courage to be open about his sexuality ten years into his career and he set up the first LGBT network at the firm.
He has since applied the challenges of his own background to create pioneering recruitment programmes, including a prize-winning graduate trainee scheme that allows new employees to complete most of their chartered accountancy qualification within the first ten months.
The strategy has resulted in market leading pass rates.
But he especially holds up his creation of the KPMG360° apprenticeship scheme as a prime example of a new entry route that attracts a wide variety of candidates, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“115 apprentices are coming to the end of their first year of our apprenticeship programme, many of whom a few years ago would not have known that professional services existed,” he said.
The scheme allows apprentices to move between departments to see the business from different angles.
“What I’m particularly pleased about with that programme is that it’s attracted a broad talent pool. It’s not pigeon-holed them at the early stages of their career,” he said.
Over his own 21 year career, he has helped KPMG evolve towards defining talent beyond a more traditional academic approach.
KPMG360° “sought to redefine what talent means,” also placing value on other skills, he said.
“We’ve shifted our recruitment process away from a slice and dice approach to one that’s more holistic.”
In the past, recruitment was more like to a “100m hurdles race” that eliminated school leavers who failed to clear the obstacles, but it was now designed to favour the most “well-rounded individuals,” he said.
“It’s actually in my view more important to work with a talent pool that is always giving their best rather than those who are simply chasing to be top of the class,” he said. “It’s all about looking for the raw potential and how we can use that in the future.”
The scheme has benefited college graduates like Nadeem, who always wanted to work with numbers but thought a job with KPMG was beyond his reach.
“It was fear of failure that kept me away from even trying to achieve my goal. I knew that I wanted to be in that [KPMG] building but didn’t see how I could get in,” he said.
When he heard about KPMG360° he mustered the courage to apply, but described the interview day as the “toughest moment of my life”.
That fear was soon followed by the “breath-taking moment” when he was offered a place. Nadeem is now so happy with the caring corporate culture that he wants to stay on until he retires, hopefully as a partner.
“The culture here, for a young person, is more than I could have ever asked for,” he said.
“KPMG is the reason I wake up happy every Monday, knowing that I have a job to go to that I love, a great team to be with and an awesome company to work for,” he said.
But despite introducing acclaimed schemes, Walby believes much work still needs to be done to change the definition of talent and that employers should work more with schools to help match skills to job opportunities.
“I think the purpose of education currently is to find out how intelligent a child is rather than find out how a child is intelligent,” he said, citing a quote from renowned British educationalist, Ken Robinson.
In his view the education system is still too focused on prizing academic success above all other skills, leaving many talented people feeling like failures before they reach their potential.
“What we’re trying to work towards is a talent strategy that enables everybody to fulfil their potential where that potential is best applied in the business,” he said.
Photo: Michael Walby;centre and Kathryn Roberts KPMG360° Senior Manager, with apprentices.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.