Winning the War for Talent

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IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]The most critical issue facing the accounting industry today is the war for talent at all levels.

In fact, the first sign that a CPA firm is in trouble is when the firm is not able to recruit, develop and retain great people, especially to succeed their current leaders. These firms have only three choices: fix the problem, sell out to a larger firm or stagnate. The good news is that war for talent is winnable with focus and discipline.

Making a Staff Referral Program Successful
Many accounting firms have programs that give bonuses to staff for sourcing candidates. In some cases, these programs are highly successful, but in many they are not. What makes the difference? The answer is culture. The firms that do this well set the stage before staff join the firm. During recruiting interviews, the importance of attracting and developing people at all levels is stressed as an important priority for the firm. Candidates are told they will be mentored and will be expected to mentor others as their careers progress. Note the subtle message—working the expectation of career progression into an early interview. They are also told that attracting great team members is an important part of their job. In fact, during orientation, this aspect is covered in detail, along with the importance of networking to their careers.

As one partner recently said, “We tell our candidates that they are joining a great team, and they need to contribute to the strength of the team in two ways—personal development and internal referrals.

The future of the firm is in their hands, and when they sit in my chair, they will understand why. I tell them to build their networks every day. Use them now to help us get other great staff, and use them later to attract business when their network contacts move to senior roles at clients. I say: start today, it’s one of the best career decisions you can make.”

If you want this culture, your partners need to be role model for this behavior and cascade it down to staff by being great mentors and making recruiting a top priority.

Hiring Experienced Candidates
There are two components to hiring great experienced partners and staff: sourcing and interviewing. In addition to a staff referral program, discussed above, experienced staff will generally come from recruiters. You can hire your own recruiters, outsource recruiting to dedicated contract recruiting firms or use headhunters, either on a retained or contingency basis.

Each route has its advantages and most firms use a combination of approaches, reserving retained headhunter searches for senior leaders and partner-level recruits. Irrespective of the mix you choose, it’s important to manage these activities carefully. Recruiters, in-house or outsourced, need to be staffed with the right people who are given compelling information to use with candidates and are measured with proven metrics. Headhunters need to be vetted carefully, making it clear to them that successful firms will get more of your business. Doing this effectively takes a combination of science and art.

When interviewing experienced candidates, the key is to get a good grip on their abilities to solve problems—for clients and internally—as well as to show the agility to learn and adapt to constant change. Here’s an example of an interview question with this focus:

“We’re interested in increasing our focus on making clients more successful. What are your thoughts about how to move in this direction?” This question forces the candidate to think about a problem without any preparation. Look for an answer that shows a thoughtful, forward-thinking approach that will take time, focus and culture change. Recognition of the challenge and the team effort it will take is what you would like to hear, in contrast to a quick formulaic or “I can do that” response. A great candidate will ask you questions to better understand the context. As the discussion proceeds say things such as “tell me more” frequently to get further thought and depth.

Campus Recruiting
Great firms acquire and develop talent from the bottom up, starting with entry-level hires. There are three keys to successful campus recruiting:

Get your partners involved beginning on campus. Nothing gets the attention of candidates more than seeing that your partners are committed to hiring and developing great staff. If candidates “connect” with your partners they will be interested in your firm. It’s important to pick the right partners for this critical role. If you make an honest assessment, only about 15% of partners will shine in this role. You need to identify them and then they need to bring committed energy to the schools that you target.

Interview with curiosity and sell your firm strongly. Keep the questions simple and let the candidate do the heavy lifting, while highlighting what makes your firm great. Here are a few suggestions, keeping in mind that entry-level candidates have little or no work experience from which to answer questions, and the generational difference between interviewer and candidate can make it difficult to “connect.”

• Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered in a single word or phrase. Here is a good example of an open-ended question: “Tell me about your interest in the accounting profession?” This seemingly simple question is very powerful and highly behavioral in nature. The response can go in many directions.

• Don’t ask “why” questions. They put the candidate on the defensive and will make your firm seem like a not-so-friendly-place to work. A safe alternative to a “why” question is “give me some insight into your thinking about …?”

• Ask “tell me more” frequently. It will show how deeply the candidate can go into a subject, quickly exposing borrowed stories from classmates as well as a lack of curiosity and thoroughness.

• Ask the candidate what he’d like to know about your firm. It’s a great test of curiosity and preparation. It’s also much better than you giving him a canned sound bite.

Develop a strong summer internship program. Firms that offer summer internships get to lock up great candidates early. The candidate’s mindset is to get a summer internship, especially after junior year. This way the candidate can be assured of a permanent job before senior year. The best approach is to have a great internship program for top post-junior-year candidates. The key to a great program is to give the interns meaningful work and partner exposure. Yes, this is a big investment. Fortunately, it comes at a time of year when the spring busy seasons pressures are finished. Social events are also important, but they shouldn’t be the centerpiece program. The key is for the interns to really want to work for your firm based on actual work that they did.

In sum, it all starts with partner involvement. Great firms artfully deploy their partners in a balanced way in three directions: business development, talent acquisition and development, and delivering quality work that adds real client value. Don’t minimize the importance of great recruiting practices.

Richard Stanger is the CEO of StangerCarlson LLC. Carolyn K. Carlson is the President of StangerCarlson LLC. You can reach them at and, or (646) 797-4000.

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