It’s one thing to focus on waya to make a firm more attractive to talent – it’s another to figure out all the things that might actually drive them away.

“We have more people in accounting classes than ever before,” Sandra Wiley, president of accounting firm consultancy Boomer Consulting, told attendees at Synergy 2017, the Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting user conference, held this week in Nashville, Tenn. “There are people out there – they’re just not coming to us.”

As part of her session on the current state of talent in the accounting, Wiley noted a number of reasons why the profession is having difficulty attracting and retaining staff:

  • A lack of clear career paths. Wiley cited a survey of accountants leaving firms that said this was their primary reason – not money or the pursuit of work-life balance (though many of them had told their firm that in exit interviews). “They’re leaving because the perception of what’s going on at their firms isn’t clear,” she said. “They haven’t had good conversations with their supervisors, and they don’t know what the expectations of them are at the firm, and what their career will look like. They saw a clearer path in the private sector.”
  • A failure to focus on culture. “If you can build your culture into something they want to buy into, you will keep the best,” Wiley said. “If you’re not putting any work into this, don’t be surprised when they walk out the door.” The work of intentionally building and defining your culture is as important as the end result, as it will build engagement with staff members.
  • Not preparing staff for leadership. “We don’t talk about what it means to be a partner. We wait until they get to be a manager, and then we go to them with a long list of all the things they have to do, and it terrifies them,” Wiley explained. “You should be talking to them about public accounting and teaching them business development from their very first day with your firm.”
  • A lack of transparency. “When rising stars ask you questions, do you feel they’re being a little inappropriate?” Wiley asked. Younger staff at firms want to know more, and firms that want to keep them will need to share at least some details about the direction, strategy and, yes, the financial results of the firm.
  • Letting them be afraid. “Want to get rid of good people? Don’t share with them what they need to know. Don’t share what’s going on in the firm,” Wiley said. With the changes flooding the profession, many accountants are worried their jobs might not last, so firms need to make sure that high-potential staff know that they are relevant and that the firm has plans for them. “You should be sharing your strategic plan with every single employee, and you should draw a dotted line back to each of them to show what their role is,” she added.
  • Focusing on the wrong things. “The employee experience is not free sodas, or busy-season masseuses, or nap rooms, or foosball tables. These are not the reasons people stay. Don’t get rid of them, but no one ever said at an exit interview: ‘They took away the Coke machine,’ or ‘They didn’t have massages during tax season,” Wiley said. Instead, firm leaders need to focus more broadly on the cultural environment of the firm, the technological environment, and the physical environment.
  • A limited view of the talent pool. “‘They’re not great at the technical stuff, so they’re not a great fit for our firm,’” Wiley quoted a typical firm hiring manager. “But maybe they’re great at something else – at marketing, or administration, or business development.” More and more jobs at firms can be done by people with other skillsets than those traditionally associated with CPAs, and firms that are willing to look beyond their usual talent pools will have access to a greater range of talent. “You don’t have to hire accountants anymore,” she explained. “What if you hire economics majors? Or finance majors? What if you hire people who are not like you?”
  • A limited idea of what an accountant or a partner is. Similarly, not everyone at the firm needs to fit the same model. “We can’t always see our best people, because we have a preconceived notion of what they look like. We need to take a bigger view,” Wiley said. “We can’t have this one little profile of, ‘This is what every partner needs to look like.’ Quit trying to make everyone a clone of you. Find their strengths and capitalize on those. If you do that, people will want to come to you.”

For more ways to create a top workplace, see 20 Days: Building a Better Firm.

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.