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Firm Management

Best Practices to Attract Top Talent in a Changing Profession

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The accounting profession is transforming and will continue to evolve rapidly over the coming decade; progressive firms see these dynamics as opportunities and the impetus to reskill their workforce. Firms content with the status quo will become less competitive and less relevant with implications on attracting and retaining top employment talent. We often see firms focusing on the client experience, which is important, but the need to focus on the employee experience can often times be less evident.

The stresses of tax season are a perfect reminder of the importance of attracting and retaining top employment talent, and a time to take inventory of the employee experience your firm offers. Firms should have technology tools in place that free staff of tedious, mundane work, streamline the completion of compliance tasks, and offer flexibility to how and when work is performed. Additionally, a collaborative and team-oriented culture is important. These areas are now fundamental to the employment brand that firms need to possess.

Another dynamic in firm hiring, centers on the shifting skill set needed and the trend away from solely focusing on traditional CPA technical skills when sizing-up candidates. With a greater importance being put on engaging clients over and above their compliance needs, firms need to ask themselves if their internal practices are suitable for the modern employment marketplace. Recruiting and hiring for the accounting profession is an area itself that is under transformation.

If you’re involved with the recruitment and hiring process at your firm, ask yourself how much you’ve adapted to prospects’ changing needs. You may rely on a service like Workable to monitor applicants and you probably take a look at prospective candidates’ social media accounts, but are the fundamental skills and candidate profiles you’re looking for aligned with the next generation service provider you need in your firm? CPA license, 2+ years of experience in tax preparation, and experience with XYZ software is a dated approach and is unlikely to surface top talent. A focus on recruiting candidates that can elevate the type of service you’re offering your clients and positions your firm for long term growth is a more progressive approach. Are you hiring for the next 20 years or the previous 20? These are the questions you need to ask if you want to find the best people for a transformational workforce.

The old way

The traditional approach to hiring new staff persists in many firms today. A focus on technical skills – accounting degree, firm experience, time spent preparing tax returns, doing bookkeeping, processing payroll, etc. These qualifications, which we might call “legacy skills,” are in high demand across the profession. As a result, most firm leaders would tell you there’s a talent war going on out there. “It’s hard to attract top talent and it’s becoming harder to retain it,” is a refrain I hear all too often. Some of that difficulty is down to the nature of the job market, but just as much is the result of firms being close minded on their hiring practices and failing to see unique opportunities to recruit non-traditional candidates.

The widespread focus on legacy skills creates the hiring version of a market inefficiency not unlike the ones that sports free-agency markets experience when a particular type of skill set becomes particularly desirable. If you hire for legacy skills first, you are going to have a difficult time finding high-caliber candidates. Even if they meet your qualification guidelines, they aren’t likely to be someone that will be a difference maker in the firm or bring fresh perspectives to your practice. Luckily, when one group of skills becomes over-valued, a different group will likely be under-valued.

Exploring alternatives

Progressive firms that I speak with are shifting their focus toward hiring tech-savvy individuals with highly developed soft-skills, a customer service mindset, and excellent communication skills. It’s not hard to see why that client expectations have changed and the need to develop more of a consultancy relationship with clients that extends beyond just meeting their compliance needs is now a necessity. The balance between a candidate’s soft skills and innate client service aptitude, with that of traditional CPA technical skills may be tilting the way of the former.

Not only because these skills are more important today for how firms serve their clients, but also because training a new staff person on the traditional technical skills can be easier than helping a new staff person develop client service best practices. Not to mention the rapid advancement of software and technology tools that are making the technical aspects of the job less demanding and less time consuming. Firms are finding that exploring candidates who possess refined soft skills and then training them on the nuts and bolts is resulting in finding better people who bring higher value to the firm and add to a more dynamic firm culture. Where once firms found it costly and time-intensive to put resources into technical education, they are now realizing that training for soft skills is an even trickier business.

Case in point is a firm I know in the Minneapolis area. A growing firm, they found themselves struggling to find and bring on new talent. The managing partner, who is keen on staying fit, noted that the person who worked the front desk at his gym was always friendly, engaging, and mindful of client service. “This is the exact type of person we need in our firm, taking care of our clients,” was the observation he made to himself. He began a dialog with the individual, who had no experience in tax or accounting whatsoever; that resulted in the person being hired. This individual is now one of the top staff accountants at the firm and gets high marks from clients. The firm invested in training the new hire in tax preparation and other compliance skills, but never had to worry about how he would care for clients. Had this firm not thought differently about their hiring practices, they never even would’ve considered hiring this non-traditional candidate.

Hiring is just one salient example. As tech continues to transform our profession, firm leaders will need to regularly engage in evolving their practices. Those who do are poised to prosper and stay ahead of the game.


 Scott Fleszar is Chief Strategy & Operating Officer at SafeSend Returns.