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Our 7 stage hiring process: Using marketing principles to get the best employees for your accounting firm

Jan 10, 2020

hiring recruiting accounting firmHiring is exciting.

You’re taking on new clients and you (and your team) literally can’t handle the work. Yay! Growth!

Hiring is scary.

You’ve either hired people who haven’t worked out, or you know someone who has. Some stories are very, very bad.

When you start out hiring, or if you’re using the old ‘gut feel’ process, you’ll simply pick people who are nice, eager, enthusiastic.

People who talk a really good game in the interview, and show up at just the right time.

Your approach to hiring in this case is very similar to the approach you had with taking on new clients at the beginning. If they’re nice, available, and ready to pay, you’ll take them.

But you’re realising (for both team and clients) your hire-by-gut-instinct method isn’t working like it used to. Maybe it never really worked.

Some employees work out brilliantly for a while, and then they don’t.

Some don’t work out at all, and they’re gone within a week or a few days.

Some are incredibly amazing and you wonder how you ever found them and you want more like them.

But you’re not entirely sure why. What was it about this person who worked out so incredibly well, and that person who didn’t? Why were they amazing for a time, but then things changed or they changed or the company changed, and they didn’t change with it?

I’m in a lot of groups of accountants. Facebook groups, Slack community groups, app groups. We attend a lot of events and talk to accountants daily about the pain points they’re experiencing in their firms right now. And one of the major recurring themes is hiring.

How do you hire? Why didn’t it work? How do you find the right people? How do you stay sane whilst doing so?

We don’t pretend to have the perfect hiring process here at PF, but we know a lot about the principles of marketing and how to get the very best clients. So we’ve applied those principles to marketing yourself to potential team members,

Here are a few principles, and I’ve followed them with PF’s seven-stage hiring process.

It will continue to change over time (most likely more and more stages will be added), but we can see already how it’s helping us to make hiring decisions better, and faster.

Faster doesn’t mean we hire with speed, in days (it usually takes weeks and maybe even months), but it means we know much more quickly, at the right stage, whether we will continue to invest in the process or not.

You must have clear brand values, and the entire team must live up to them without exception.

We’ve spent a lot of time at PF on our own brand. We’ve also been getting really good at branding for accountants, and we’re regularly working on multiple branding or re-branding projects for them. It’s one of our favourite services to deliver – first because it’s so core, so critical to everything an accounting business does, and second because we get to really know our clients on a personal level. That’s exciting.

One of the absolute musts in branding is to

1) know what your values are and

2) live them out.

Essentially what you’re saying is, here’s what’s okay and not okay in our business, and in our lives. If you want to work with us, you agree with these. We’re like this, you’re like this.

You’re also saying, “We’re for real”.

You don’t say “we are modern, positive, innovative and fun accountants”, and then have tired offices or negative people or boring conversations or people constantly leaving the company.

Your prospects want to know who you truly are, and whether you’re for real.

Making a list of values is nice. Or a manifesto or a mission statement or whatever. But if you and every single member of your team (right down to the part time person who covers reception for a few hours) don’t clearly understand what you stand for and live up to them every single day, you’re introducing delay into the buyer process. And to the hiring process too.

They’re not sure. Maybe you’re just talk. Maybe you had someone throw together some nice words for a website or a mission and values document.

An employee is literally investing a third of their life (at least) with your business. They want to be sure it’s not going to be a bad decision.

Your hiring process must be based on values

So you’ve developed the values. Written them down. Discussed them with the team. Made sure they are actual real values as such – not simply nice-sounding words.

You hire and fire by values. 

This is how important the list is: because you have to be able to say “yes this person is hitting all of these values” or “no they are not and here’s why”.

The more generic the value is, the harder it is for you to evaluate whether your team members are achieving them.

We’ve worked hard on our six internal values at PF. Currently they’re defined as follows:

Show transparency:

We share the right things at the right time to build relationship.

Have an opinion:

We know what we think, and are able to explain why.

Stay positive:

We look for the good, and believe there’s always a blessing.

Take responsibility:

We take ownership, and we strive to be better.

Be gracious:

We are here to help, and will be patient and generous.

Collaborate:

We come to solutions together, as a team.

Every three months when we do individual team check ins, each team member rates themselves against these values with a yes/no rating. Did I live up to this value, or did I not?

There’s no rating scale: it’s a yes, or a no. You either did, or you didn’t. If they say no for any value, they explain what they will do practically to work on this over the next three months.

You need to be in the hiring stages all the time

The right people don’t always show up at the right time. We’ve had people come to us when we didn’t think we needed someone for that role, but they were the right person (with the right values match and the skills we needed). So we hired.

You want to approach hiring in the same way as you do prospecting: you’re always open for business, always open for new clients, always open for new team members.

That doesn’t mean you never say no, or never say ‘wait’. Many of our clients (and PF itself) have a waiting list, or a preparation list. They give their prospects things to do, videos to watch, blogs to read, checklists to complete, while they’re waiting to become clients. (It also weeds out those who are too impatient to wait.)

You can do the same with hiring. When you’re “always hiring”, it means you’re open to having conversations, starting the hiring process, determining whether this person is a fit for your company.

Here are a few practical ways you can “be hiring” all the time:

1. Create landing pages on your website for the core elements of hiring: 

  • About page: Explain how you do things, your values, what you stand for
  • Example: Raedan’s About page
  • Values page: What are your values? Why? Where did they come from? What kind of people work in your firm and what kind don’t?
  • Example: Avalon’s About page (with values)
  • Careers page: Use this page not to list out the roles available, but to show potential employees what’s in it for them. What will they get from working for your company? Why would they leave where they are, or start with you?
  • Example: PF Careers page
  • Roles available: A page, or individual pages, to explain in detail what each role entails. Include a video so they get a sense of what it’s like, and what you’re like
  • Example: PF Client Marketing Manager (UK)

2. Write blog posts on areas relevant to potential employees – ie use them as your target audience. (This post is a good example: it’s helpful for accountants who are working on hiring; it’s also helpful for people who might want to work for PF.)

3. Share photos, videos, and quotes on social media to give a sense of what it’s like to work in your firm. Most employees are looking for social proof of all the things you’ve said on your website, in the job description, even in the formal or official videos. Get the entire team involved in doing this, so it’s obvious it’s not simply being crafted from the “official” social platform, but is truly integral to your team members’ lives.

Your hiring communications need to show them what’s in it for them.

When you’re doing marketing for new prospects you remember “your client is the hero”, and all your marketing is targeted specifically towards them. Their issues, their problems, their concerns, their fears. They’re the main character.

The same is true for potential team members.

So many accountancy firm websites talk about the roles they have available. And the skills required and the salary offered. They go into detail about the hiring process and say maybe you’ll get an interview if you pass this and do that and show you are the best candidate ever.

But the days of the candidate being on the back foot are gone. Now, you’ve got to impress the potential employees with how awesome you are. This is especially true for accountancy firms: people who are really good at (or at least keen on) accounting and bookkeeping, who know tech or are willing to learn it, who want to work with an amazing team… they have their pick. 

Share things from their perspective. How will this make their life better? Help them achieve their personal and professional goals? Encourage them, bring them joy, build on their inherent skills?

You need professional scepticism when hiring.

My account manager at MAP said this to me when a potential new employee was going through our 7-stage process. We were powering through the stages, and this person was literally moving through them with flying colours. I actually hit the point of wondering if this person was for real. They fit our values SO well. The team absolutely loved them. They nailed the tester project. And on and on.

But my accountant reminded me, this is not about listening to your gut. This is WHY you have a seven-stage process. Because at every stage there are multiple checks and balances to ensure everything is good: and no person is perfect. You could get to the last section of the seventh stage and one of you realises it’s not right.

So, you don’t go easy. You don’t say “well everything looks perfect, i guess we’ll just hire you then”. You rise to the challenge by questioning everything. Asking the hard questions. Choosing to dig deep and push hard. Expecting radical honesty and giving it in return.

And most of all, being open to the possibility that the answer could be no. 

That’s what scepticism looks like when hiring. You don’t get emotionally locked in because they’re nice, because they had a good interview, because it seems to be working perfectly. You evaluate the results of the stages you’ve set up (dispassionately) before you met this person, and you do a values check every step of the way.

Okay. Thats a long intro, but now we’re ready for PF’s seven stage hiring process. The reason I went into that level of detail is so you understand this process is not random, it’s not copied from other companies (although we did ‘steal like an artist’ in a few areas). It’s entirely crafted to help us determine if someone fits the PF values, if they have the skills to do the work, and if the whole entire team is on board with hiring them.

PF’s 7-stage hiring process

Stage One: Video submission

The potential applicant submits a 3 minute video to introduce themselves to the team, explain what role they’re applying for and why. We purposefully don’t give too many restrictions on this other than the 3 minutes: we want to see what people do with it and how they approach it.

Stage Two: Evaluation by team

The entire PF team reviews the video, and discusses it in Slack. Discussions sometimes go long, and there’s good honesty. The team tries hard not to read others’ comments before submitting their own, so it’s truly objective. Then we all review the comments and vote on whether the person moves to the next stage.

(I as the owner don’t actually input much at this stage. This is about whether the team want to move the person forward.)

Stage Three: Tester project

If the team vote to move the prospect to the next stage, we send them a ‘tester project’. This is a live, real project based on an actual client, and the project varies depending on the role being applied for.

If the role is a Client Marketing Manager (requiring project management, strategy, and marketing expertise) we might give them a project template to create or fill in, or some content to create or review. If the role is a Website Designer, we’ll give them some rough content and ask them to design a full website page.

We give the person a deadline, and usually send a video with some accompanying files. We try to give enough information so they have everything they need, but not too much to make it over-easy.

The purpose of the tester project is to make sure the person doesn’t just talk a good game, but is able to deliver a good game as well. We instituted the tester project years ago after a few interviews that seemed to go amazingly well, and then a few days or a few weeks in, we discovered the person literally couldn’t do the work they were hired to do (or couldn’t do it well).

Again, the team review the tester project and vote whether to move the person to the next stage.

Stage Four: Group video call on Zoom

This is our equivalent of hanging out at the pub or in a coffee shop. Anyone who works for PF is going to be spending a lot of time with the team, on Zoom and Slack and (more often lately) in person at events and workshops.

The group video call is an opportunity for the prospect to meet the team, and vice versa. The team spend time beforehand preparing questions they want to ask, and these vary depending on the person, the role, the outcomes of the previous stages.

Stage Five: Reference requests

Following the group video call, the team make the decision whether to move the person to the next two stages. (Stages 5 and 6 can happen around the same time)

We have an online form asking questions about how this person has lived out the values by which we stand, and this form is sent to three different people who know the person well. Ideally at least two of the three people have worked directly with them (either as a client, an employer, or a partner). These are sent out and the team review each one when they come in.

Stage Six: Value fit analysis

This is a self-assessment: so the person tells us how well they feel they fit the values. Up to this point we’ve been asking questions with the intent of understanding our impression of how they could  fit within the PF team, can they do the job, what do we think of what they’re saying and doing.

Now it’s their turn to say, this is my opinion of me. This is how well i think I hit these values, and where I don’t, and why, and what I’m going to do about it.

Based on the results of the references and the self assessment, we all decide if the person moves to the final stage.

Stage Seven: Interview with the owner 

As the owner of PF, I’m the last one to have an in depth interview because by now the team have done everything they can to make a good judgment and they’re handing the prospect over to me as the final hurdle.

This is where I go very, very deep. I ask hard questions. I ask questions I have no idea the answer to, and questions that are uncomfortable. I try not to talk very much (although I’m not great at that, I admit, and have to practice simply listening). I try to leave space and quiet so they can think about their answer if they need to, and remember everyone processes things differently.

I hold to my professional scepticism strongly at this point. If I go into this interview thinking, “Great, they’ve made it through six stages, we’re pretty much good to go”, then I’m not using my opportunity well. I have to be open to the possibility that this is where something could come out that changes everything. And from time to time, that’s happened. We’ve gotten all the way to this point and then suddenly something comes out. Or we hit a sticking point. Or they’re not sure.

And that’s where we hold firm to who we are, what we’re offering, what our salary ranges are, what the job entails, and what they’re expected to do.

If it’s the right place for them, both they and we will have a pretty good idea of it.

If it’s not, we’ll feel that too.

And that is the purpose of a hiring process: to find out, to the best of our ability, whether they’re for us and we’re for them.

It’s a process because you’re looking for patterns. How does this person behave? Are there any red flags (or white flags or pink flags)? Are there consistencies or differences? What stands out, what’s still hidden?

Our process isn’t foolproof. And it’s not a formula you plug into your own firm. You’re very welcome to borrow as much of the concepts as you like (stealing like an artist), but don’t just use our process, or anyone else’s, exactly as is.

Think about your own values. Your firm. Where you’re located and how the team works together. How you want people to work and live and communicate.

Then craft your process so you’ve done everything possible to get a sense of who this person is, and how they and you could fit together.

And if all looks well, give it a go, and evaluate regularly based on these same principles to make sure it continues.

And enjoy your new person.