"Technical knowledge used to be the only thing a firm really needed," says Rex Gatto, a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and a personnel consultant to CPA firms.
"But now you have to have somebody who can communicate, mentor and coach," he says. "Someone who knows how to build a team and a succession plan and work with others to make it happen."
In this economy, many accounting firms are finding that they can both afford to be — and need to be — more selective in hiring. As a result, job candidates, even at the partner level, are receiving more — and more exquisitely calibrated — scrutiny than perhaps ever before.
Remember the partner for life? "Those days are gone," Gatto says. "Today partners aren't guaranteed anything unless they can perform. It's very different today."
"With the unemployment rate what it is," Gatto says, "there are a lot of bright and capable people available. But what differentiates each firm is how they work together and with clients. Firms are looking for collaborative abilities as much as or more than intelligence."
Gatto suggests firms go beyond technical competence to assess how a candidate thinks and relates. For instance, you might ask, "What would you do if a partner came to you and said I need you to lead a team meeting today — major assignment, tight deadline. What would you do?"
Some candidates might respond with a simple and direct "Okay." But a better answer might show how the candidate thinks and acts. So look for the candidate to ask good questions, like, "What's the general objective, the overall goal? Who's on the team? What does the client really want?"
Or you might ask, "How would you build a new business niche for a firm?" Try looking for a candidate who wants to first make sure that the goals are clear, one who is continually giving and getting feedback, setting the right expectations and sensitive to the concerns of clients.
Changing hiring practices show a lot about how today's CPA firms are adjusting to the new competitive environment. Cleary, technical skills and experience are critically important. But, at a certain level, they become merely the cost of admission. After that, the real competition begins with so-called soft skills.
Talent management has always been one of the keys to successful CPA firm management. But it's rarely been as critical as it is in today's zero-tolerance competitive environment.
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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.
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