Why You're Completely Wrong about How You Hire

Sep 22nd 2014
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Summer is gone and college students are back on campus or will be headed there soon. For accounting majors, this means fall recruiting season is about to be in full swing, complete with all the traditions: "Meet the Firms" events, resume submission deadlines, and encounters with firm representatives eager to find the next generation of talent. For the students who are selected for interviews, it is possible that the evaluation process will fail to achieve its purpose.

For decades, the chosen strategy of accounting firms has been the use of behavioral-based interview techniques. The approach is so ingrained that one can perform a simple Google search of "Big Four Interview Questions" and get a whole host of example questions:

  • Name a time where you handled a high-pressure situation.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Tell me about a project you worked on when someone didn't do his or her fair share. How did you handle the situation?

It doesn't matter which suggested Google site you navigate to, the example questions are nearly identical. And what frightens me is that these are the exact same questions I was asked by recruiters while going for a Big Five internship over 13 years ago! Times have changed, yet our strategy for identifying talent in the accounting profession has not. Is it time for a change?

According to "The Big Idea: 21st-Century Talent Spotting", a Harvard Business Review article written by Claudio Fernández-Aráo, our strategies for identifying talent need to evolve because business has shifted dramatically. We now find ourselves in a fourth era of talent spotting. The first era entailed choices based solely on physical attributes; to build the great pyramids, one looked for the strongest person to do the job. The second era placed an emphasis on intelligence, experience, and educational pedigrees. Sound familiar? "If you were looking for an engineer, accountant, lawyer, designer, or CEO, you would scout out, interview, and hire the smartest, most experienced engineer, accountant, lawyer, designer, or CEO." For entry-level accountants, and perhaps even those with experience, it seems the profession is partly stuck in this second era.

The third era looks at competencies or pre-identified characteristics that will predict strong performance for the particular role. In this dawn of thinking, we began to see that emotional intelligence was just as valuable as intellect.

According to Fernández-Aráo, we are now in the fourth era: an environment described by the military acronym VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In this environment, the skills that make a person successful today won't necessarily help them to succeed tomorrow. In addition to the obvious changes due to technology, the profession is also faced with a whole host of issues that arise from a high competition for talent and the impact of succession planning or lack thereof. The Baby Boomers are set to retire in droves, and this means firms will feel the pains of change in the next 5 to 10 years (assuming they aren't feeling it already).

So what can we do? Hire better. Better hiring means we need to think differently about what an ideal candidate looks like. Fernández-Aráo identified four qualities of potential that are relevant to hiring entry-level accountants.

  1. The Right Motivation. It isn't just about individual ambition. High potentials seek collective goals, have humility, and invest in getting better at everything they do. You can gauge this by listening to their questions and experiences. Is it all about them? Do they want to know how their role fits in with the bigger picture of the organization? Becoming a CPA means you are joining a profession and not just taking a job. Why are they committing to this profession? What is their emotional "how come" for going to work each day?
  1. Curiosity. This is an openness for learning, change, new experiences, and candid feedback. Don't just ask",are you curious?" to assess for it. Instead, Fernández-Aráo suggests you "look for signs that the person believes in self-improvement, truly enjoys learning, and is able to recalibrate after missteps."
  1. Insight: Does the candidate have the ability to gather information, make sense of it, and suggest new possibilities? Interview candidates are usually good at gathering information about your firm. Take it a step further by explaining a challenge you're currently faced with and ask what possible solutions they see. This will support you in assessing for this skill and leave them feeling empowered. And who knows: you might discover a resolution.
  1. Determination: This is described as the moxie to fight for difficult goals and the ability to bounce back from adversity. Personally, I think this is one of the greatest skills that is often overlooked. I'd much rather hire students who earned a 3.0 while working full-time to finance their education than 4.0 candidates with minimal work and life experiences. Determination is the exact skill that makes a person thrive in a challenging work environment.

Just last week, I had lunch with a talented CPA candidate. He chose to take a private accounting position right out of college. He has successfully made the transition from school to the real world, excels in an internal audit position where he regularly interfaces with clients, and is nearly done with his CPA exams. To top it off, he exhibits all four of these qualities that indicate potential.

Now he is curious about a job in public accounting, yet the Big Four recruiters won't touch him with a 10-foot pole. Their advice: go back to school for a master's and get back in the campus recruiting cycle. Seriously? This guy has real world experience that a master's program can't teach but the recruiters aren't able to see that because they are back in the second era of talent spotting. Sage organizations will consider shifting their perspective on what talent looks like. In the words of leadership author Marshall Goldsmith, what got you here won't get you there. It is time for a change.

About the author:
Amber Setter, CPA, MA, is a professional coach, leadership consultant, and university instructor. More about her is available


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By Lenann
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Excellent article! One idea to add: if your new hire is going to be required to be involved in business development, make sure their determination extends to the bus dev arena. We know that persistence in ADDING VALUE is key to success in getting new clients; it's also obvious to me that too many new accountants actively avoid bus dev, or give up too early. They're not taking the time necessary to build trust, and many are failing in this aspect of the profession. When they decamp to industry in Controller or CFO jobs, accounting firms' investment in bringing them up the learning curve is a sunk cost (unless, of course, they bring their new firm's accounting business to their former employer!). Accounting firms should interview for receptivity to bus dev-type tasks, as well as providing updates to selling skills on a regular basis.

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