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How to Engage Talent in the Modern Firm

Dec 20th 2017
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Hiring and retaining top talent is a critical success factor in any firm, but as more firms seek to modernize, what does that mean for the team members you have today and those that you need to hire tomorrow? 

At the recent Xerocon conference in Austin, Texas, CEOs from two of today’s thoroughly “modern,” cloud-based accounting firms shared their advice on how to attract and retain talent in this new era of accounting.

The speakers, Kenji Kuramoto, Founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Acuity and Liz Mason, Shareholder and CEO of High Rock Accounting, based in Tempe, AZ, offered tips tailored to the three phases in the lifecycle of the modern firm’s development: the start-up, or “leap” phase; the growth phase; and the expansion phase.

It is first important to note, and both speakers agree, that firms need to have a full grasp of the definition of “modern” and what that modernization will mean for the team members they have today and those they need to hire tomorrow. 

Mason says, to her, a “modern” firm is a firm that embraces the future. Traditional firms, she says, use outdated technology, bill only by the hour and have a tried and true model that is modestly profitable at best, but reminiscent of the 1950’s.

“Because that model was profitable in the past they never had to innovate,” Mason says. “Today, however, it is getting harder and harder to make that model profitable. The modern firm, however, understands that today’s clients demand better client service at consistent rates with better technology.”

Kuramoto defines a modern firm as a practice that leads the accounting profession by building tools and processes for the new businesses that are being created today. 

“Team members in a modern firm have to embrace change at a much faster pace than in a traditional firm,” Kuramoto says. “One of our biggest red flags when it comes to interviewing candidates is when we sense in them a resistance to change. We’re looking for the exact opposite when we add team members–an eagerness to try something new and learn something different.” 

During the start-up or “leap” phase of a firm’s development, Kuramoto suggests modern firms use the following tips to recruit candidates who are both talented and amenable to change:

  • Be completely honest as to not only what you can offer, but also what you don’t have yet. If you haven’t figured out a benefits plan, tell the candidate that you don’t have one yet, but that they are going to have a significant amount of input when you end up creating one.
  • Be open to a flexible work arrangement. You’re probably not going to be very competitive from a compensation perspective but you can be incredibly competitive in giving a candidate back some control in their work life.
  • Look for candidates who are more excited about building something than just doing something.  

In the “growth” phase, stellar benefits, clear career growth plans, and building community within the firm become critical factors for firms that want to add and retain top people willing to develop along with the firm.

Kuramoto said his company used the following strategies to gather the best players during its growth phase:

  • We let team members help design our benefits programs…everything from what types of insurance were important to them to how they wanted to handle paid time off.
  • We cater our company perks toward the types of employees we have. We have quite a few employees with young families so we’ve bought season tickets to the local aquarium and various sports teams so that employees can take their families. We’ve also paid for house cleaning for around the holidays.
  • We made our office a place where employees only come to it when it benefits them.  They can work from home whenever they want, but if they want to catch up with colleagues or get away from distractions at home they can come in to the office at any time.

Mason says “building a tribe” at High Rock was fun, as it should be for all “modern firms.” High Rock offers three non-traditional perks to keep their people happy, engaged, and employed at the firm as they grow:

  • Vacation stipend – we force people to take a week to disconnect and reimburse $1000 of their trip costs.
  • Personal trainer on staff – the trainer does a monthly corporate wellness presentation and we cover the cost of personal training and nutrition counseling for our team.
  • FOOD – we stock our office with healthy food.

Going forward, as firms experience the challenge of expansion, it becomes essential to keep top performers happy and attract new team members, both of whom should mirror your philosophy as a modern firm–a place that is excited about change.

Kuramoto says his company focused on the following strategies during its expansion to attract and retain change enthusiastic employees who embraced their company’s focus on professional growth and learning:

  • We allowed one of our employees to work for us and travel the world for a year as a “digital nomad.”  He ended up living in 27 different countries over 12 months and did a fantastic job serving clients and working as a great team member. It was an incredible lesson that great work can be done without constraint to specific location or time.
  • When the firm is expanding rapidly, it gets more difficult to communicate, so we put more focus now on communication company results and strategy to the entire team. All employees participate in quarterly strategy planning so that they have an understanding about where we’re going directionally as a firm.
  • At scale, your employees are your best means of attracting other great talent. Use your current team’s personal and professional networks to get the word out about your firm’s culture and you’ll be able to build a nice pipeline of candidates. Use your firm’s Facebook page as a way to demonstrate who the firm is and it may end up being a nice free hiring platform.

As Gen Z hits the doorstep, many firm leaders are beginning to wonder how these latest recruits will shift the equilibrium at their firm. At “modern firms,” like High Rock however, leaders like Mason welcome the new values (and subsequent “needs”) of these latest recruits since those values mesh seamlessly with the values of her firm.

“Gen Z wants to have a real life, work wherever they want, make an impact in the world, and eat gourmet ridiculously expensive food.  We easily cater to that,” Mason says. “In our recruiting, we start the conversation with the impact accountants can have on the economy by advising small and medium sized businesses in a financial way. Gen Z is filled with really hard workers – if you give them the right cause and they can see their contribution influencing things positively.”

Kumamoto says as accounting moves into its new era, forward-thinking firms need to pursue–and cultivate–one defining characteristic in all their recruits. 

“The single best characteristic I see in new employees is an eagerness to learn. I don’t think that eagerness is generational, either. I’ve seen 50-year-olds who are more interested in learning something new than some 25-year-olds,” Kuramoto says. “Right now I think the best place to find people who want to learn in the accounting profession are those who are embracing the new cloud accounting tools. If I meet someone who wants to go to Xerocon, has been certified in, Expensify, or another tool, or is trying to figure out how to account for crypto currency then those are the people I want to hire in our firm.” 

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