Recruiting the best talent in a competitive environment

Bruce Marcus, the author of 15 books and a consultant and strategic planner for accounting and other professional firms, and The Bay Street Group, LLC offer their recommendations for making a firm appealing to recruits and for enhancing the recruiting process.

"CPA wanted. At least
5 years experience with audits. Tax
experience a plus. Benefits."

It's amazing how much recruiting advertising is as sparse as that, seeking accounting professionals with the same limited imagination that a storekeeper might use to hire someone to sweep the floor.

No wonder recruiting is such a problem for accounting firms and finance departments.

In these days of acute shortages of trained and experienced professional personnel, in an era of intensive competition between firms for superior personnel, it's startling to see recruiting techniques that may have worked in the depression years, but are certainly not up to the needs of today's accounting firms.

Of all the competitive points faced today by accounting firms, perhaps the most urgent is recruiting. With the explosion of work caused by new regulation, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, with the shortage of much needed skilled professionals, especially those versed in new regulations and technologies, with the competition for this kind of talent most urgently needed in smaller communities and particularly in smaller firms, with greater demands from an increasingly sophisticated clientele, new views of recruiting become a major concern.

"CPA wanted…" just won't cut it anymore.


The root of the difficulty in recruiting competitively may well lie not just in traditional recruiting advertising, but in the nature of the traditional accounting firm itself. In all of advertising, the best advertising and promotion won't long sell the second-rate product, nor will the poorly run accounting firm be sold by the best recruiting advertising.

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Maybe, then, the structure and management of the smaller and mid-sized firms themselves must be reexamined. Maybe the nature of the profession today should be looked at in the light of the traditional accounting firm structure. And maybe, the structure of the contemporary accounting firm, and the way in which it's managed, must change.

The evidence that leads to this postulate is abundantly clear. Much of it may be seen from a view of a series of surveys taken recently by Bay Street Group LLC. These surveys give us a goldmine of answers, and a strong hint of how to use the information.

For example, a survey on what people like or dislike about their jobs shows that of 461 respondents (49% from public accounting and 36% from business or industry), 53% complain of work overload. Another 36% complain about pay, and 34% feel they don't get sufficient recognition for their efforts.

In another survey, with 378 respondents, 40% report that they could be persuaded to consider a new job, and only 11% said"…they love it here".

A survey with 587 respondents, asked if they were excited about going to work in the morning, reported that 56% said yes, but 44% said no. Asked if they clearly understood what their bosses or clients expected of them, 68% said yes, but a remarkable 32% said no. Less than half -– 45% -- reported a proper work/personal balance in their lives, and 55% said no.

In the face of these responses, there is a paradox in that job benefits, which can be generous, seem not to cancel out the discontents reported in the other surveys.

In a survey of 1,921 accountants and staff about what job benefits matter most, 96% reported that paid vacations were among the most important – but 97% reported they already have them. 96% reported that health insurance was important – and 94% already have it. (95% said that pension plans (401k) mattered – but 91% already have them. Asked how they feel about changing jobs, only 29% were not interested, with the remainder seriously looking or could be persuaded.

The discontent, then, doesn't come from job benefits. Nor are job benefits, apparently, a significant recruiting tool.

Where, then, lies the problem? Based upon the survey information, it seems to stem from three problems –

  • the nature of the accountant's working conditions,

  • the failure to recognize and accommodate to the changing nature of the clientele and its changing needs, and perhaps

  • the nature of accounting itself.

    Nor is the problem just in the recruiting advertising, but in the firm seeking the recruits.


    While the nature of a vast amount of work done by public accountants can appear to outsiders to be dull and mundane, the work itself attracts people who are fascinated by it. Even in an era of high tech, there are aspects of accounting that can't be mechanized. Certain audit procedures, for example, may be enhanced by computers, but decisions must still be made by the meticulous efforts of the trained accountant. Computers and outsourcing may mechanize tax returns, but not all tax returns can be done without some expertise and decision making by a tax professional.

    Not every aspect of the accountant's job is so routine that it isn't offset by other aspects that require skills, expertise, and experience. The problem doesn't lie here.

    On the other hand, the environment and structure of the traditional accounting firm (and perhaps the traditional accounting department in a corporation) not only breeds discontent in a vast number of accounting firm personnel, but certainly paints no attractive picture to prospective recruits. Nor can advertising (or any other cosmetic change) overcome the reality.

    Look at the surveys. They show that discontent lies in these areas…

  • Work overload

  • Compensation

  • Recognition

  • Exciting work

  • Balance

  • Internal communications

  • Expectations.

    …all of which are functions of management skills.

    Part of the problem may reside in the traditional entrepreneurial approach to running a business, exacerbated by the partnership structure. "I own the company and we'll do it my way." Or, "I'm a partner, which gives me the authority to exert my will and whim." What accountant in his or her early years hasn't heard that?

    The problem is that in today's economic environment, in which better people, to do more complex tasks, are sorely needed, the old paradigm of small or medium firm authoritarian management doesn't work well anymore.

    Consider this. In a well-run corporation, the likelihood is that senior management is well trained in management skills. Today's leaders, furthermore, have usually worked their ways up the management ladder, learning and practicing different management skills along the way. Those that usually reach the pinnacle of management have all this, and something more – an instinct and intuition about people, about corporate vision, about the marketplace – none of which would be useful without a basic training in management and communications skills. Where are those skills in even the entrepreneurial firm owner or managing partner?

    Can management skills be learned? Yes, says no less authority than Peter Drucker. And to be successful in today's competitive environment, they must be learned. There are book and courses and seminars readily available for every firm manager, and they should be sought after and used.


    A trained manager of even the smallest firm can make the firm attractive to prospective recruits.

    Looking at the points raised by the respondents to the surveys, we see some great possibilities….

    1. Work overload
    This is a function of two factors – lack of organization of projects, and insensitivity on the part of managers who may themselves be workaholics, but don't see the disastrous results of demanding that malady of others. Organization of work flow, however, is a learnable management skill. Learn it. There are good consultants to help with organizations, if that's what's needed.

    2. Compensation
    A great deal is known today about compensation plans for professional employees. Obviously, this is an important factor in recruiting. It behooves managers to examine the growing number of alternative compensation plans with an open mind, and to be prepared to depart from traditional methods in order to entice the better employees.

    3. Recognition
    This is a problem for the old-fashioned CPA who grew up in a firm that considered decent wages and benefits recognition enough. No more. Professionals take pride in their work, and want to be recognized for it. In fact, it would seem from surveys that recognition is at least as important as compensation, and perhaps more so.

    Two things make it easier to recognize professional staff today – giving good people more responsibility, and citing them in promotional material, such as advertising, brochures, and web sites.

    4. Exciting work

    Let's face it – a great deal of accounting is not, of itself, exciting. But it can be made more so by giving people opportunity to expand responsibilities. The growing trend towards service teams allows people of different experience and expertise to work together, to learn from one another, and to share responsibilities. It gives professionals an opportunity to expand their horizons, and to be innovative. It's certainly worth doing, and it certainly makes working for your firm most attractive.

    5. Balance

    In a buyer's market for accounting positions, the firm that can offer better balance between work and family will win out every time. How? One way, of course, is by improving organization of work. Second is by looking at alternative work plans, such as flex time and off-site opportunities. In today's technological world, much of accounting can be done at home. The good manager today recognizes the value of the balanced life for employees.

    6. Internal communications

    If there is one last great lesson that many entrepreneurial managers, and managers of all size firms, must learn, it is that employees who know only part of the firm's work plan cease to be participants in the firm's growth. They become isolated, and even drones. Who would want to work for a firm like that? What kind of talented professional would long accept that?

    Today, there are a vast number of internal communications techniques that not only work well, but have a great return on investment, measured in enthusiastic and innovative employees, loyalty, and a spirit of support for the firm's own business objectives. You give up nothing by sharing information, and you gain a great deal. You can start by asking your partners and staff to tell you the kinds of things they need to know in order to function better.

    7. Expectations

    The old-fashioned employer expected employees only to do as they were told. Try that today, and watch your staff fade off into the distance, and prospective recruits to fade into the sunset. And clients soon follow.

    Every employee, on every level, both professional and staff, is entitled to know the firm's objectives, the client's objectives, and the quality of work expected of him or her. Nobody wants to work for a firm in which each day and each task is part of a guessing game, or holds hidden surprises.

    8. Technology

    Technology became a major factor in doing business in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At first, many accounting firms resisted, seeing computers and the like as frivolous and expensive. But then the technology revolution exploded. If the clients had computers and word processing, then the firm, however reluctantly, had to have it as well. As the technology proliferated, it became a necessity, and a significant contributor to a firm's daily business. Still, there are smaller firms who lag.

    But can you imagine recruiting for a firm that doesn't have its own web site? That's the first place that recruits go to for information on a prospective employer.

    Can you imagine a firm that doesn't send its staff out to clients without a cell phone? Or a Bluetooth PDA? How does a firm like that expect to get and keep employees, much less clients?

    9. Relevance to changing client needs

    There are two kinds of accounting firms today – those that see themselves as serving their own professionalism, and those that see the client – not the profession – as being at the core of the practice. It is the latter that succeeds as a firm, and succeeds in attracting the best talent.

    Employee satisfaction, as the modern professional firm manager well knows, is not a fringe benefit – it's an investment.

    It pays off in terms of increased innovation and contribution by employees. In recruiting, the firm with satisfied employees is a honey pot to recruits. And a lesson to be learned is that the acoustics of the profession are magnificent. Everybody in every firm knows the working conditions of every other firm.


    Given a firm structured for recruiting, and beyond the word of mouth that invariably exits in every profession. How is recruiting enhanced?

    First, in recruiting, see the process as functioning in a buyer's market for the best talent. The best firms attract the best people – not by benefits, nor salary alone, but in terms of a well-managed firm, recognition, opportunity to do interesting and innovative work, and a chance for the individual to excel in a well-balanced life.

    Second, the firm should be marketed to the prospect. As in all marketing, this means …

    1. Understanding your market

    Know what the talent is out there. Understand what today's recruit wants. It's rarely a secret. Read and listen. Look at the surveys cited earlier. Ultimately, in recruiting, you're going to sell to your market's needs.

    2. Understand your firm

    See your firm as a recruit will see it. Think of not what you do – that's no mystery – but how you do it. Are you a well-managed firm? Is there a benefit (not just benefits) to being part of your firm? Is there opportunity for leadership? Are your goals and expectations clear and realistic? Have you really created a positive work place?

    3. Know your marketing tools

    There are a finite number of marketing tools. Learn them, and understand how each is used. The classic help wanted ad is only marginally useful in today's competitive talent pool. Think in terms of display advertising. Primary today is the web site, without which you have virtually no chance to attract the best candidates.

    See your other marketing tools – your brochures, your individual practice blogs, your seminars, and so forth – as recruiting tools. They demonstrate to the profession, as well as to prospective clients, that you are a good, progressive, modern, and caring firm. That's the bait to catch the good ones.

    And a good recruiting campaign speaks to the clients and prospective clients, as well. It does double duty.

    4. Manage the tools

    Think of your recruiting campaign as a marketing effort. Write your recruiting message in terms of the recruit, and not the firm's needs. "If you want to grow as a professional, see us. We're a growing firm, and you can grow as you help us grow."

    Use individuals in your firm in your advertising and promotion as spokespeople who might say, "In just the two years I've been with Smith & Dale my skills – including client relations – have doubled. I appreciate that opportunity, my firm appreciates what I've learned, and you can do that too. Come talk to us, if you want to grow." That gets 'em every time. (By the way, statements like this had better be true. If they're not, the word about you will spread like wildfire – and there goes your recruiting effort.)

    Learn to improve your interviewing skills. A good interview is not an inquisition, it's a controlled conversation to asses the measure of a person, and for the interviewee to measure you and your firm as well. The résumé tells the bare bones of experience and training, but it's just a starting point of an understanding. Learn how to do it. There are books and articles and courses.


    The profession is changing rapidly. Competition is keener than ever before, and the profession is growing faster than the talent pool. "CPA wanted. At least 5 years experience with audits. Tax experience a plus. Benefits." won't work anymore.

    Being a firm that's well-managed, and relevant to the needs of its clientele – and offering the opportunity to participate and grow with that kind of firm, will attract the best of the profession.

    Reprinted with permission from Bay Street Group LLC and Bruce W. Marcus

    Copyright 2007 Bay Street Group LLC and Bruce W. Marcus. All Rights Reserved.

    For a free review of your staffing practices, contact Bruce W. Marcus today at (203)459-2993, or