Especially within the past 6 months or so, accountants are looking for your people. Employees who love what they do, are good accountants, and will help you serve your clients as you grow.
Because you are busier than you’ve ever been. Throughout the global crisis, businesses have recognized more than ever they need a good accountant. Your work is piling up and it’s tempting to hire and hire fast.
While facing hiring feels costly and sometimes downright discouraging, it’s even more so if you hire too quickly. Or hire without a process in place. I’d like to offer a fresh perspective.
Building a hiring process that combines the applicant’s skills and values helps you hire faster, reduce expensive hiring costs, and build a productive team of people who genuinely love working together.
Hiring is a physically, emotionally and financially taxing process.
Valuable time, energy and resources are being used throughout this process. And if it’s going to result in someone getting onboard and then being exited rather quickly, it’s just not worth it.
I have a client who was hiring for a high level CPA position. They went through hundreds of applications and narrowed it down to 3 candidates for interviews.
Each candidate was highly qualified. Even after interviewing each of them, it was a difficult decision. They ended up choosing one person and sending an offer letter. The offer was accepted and as they were getting ready to onboard the new team member, suddenly the person backed out.
My client went back to each of the other CPAs and sadly, each had already accepted another position.
You can feel the gut punch there can’t you. After all the laboring and decision making, to lose the opportunity of having any candidate at all is a rough gig.
And if you hire someone who seems the right person in terms of a “fit” with the firm, and they need more skills training…or they have all the skills but you discover they need some values refinement, the process is still going to require more time, energy and resources. You need to decide if that’s something, or someone, you are willing to invest in.
After all you can teach skills, but can you teach values?
Your values drive your firm.
Skills alone are not enough to have a successful firm. You’ll end up with a bunch of robots. Automation and AI in your chosen accounting software have already done this for you.
You don’t need more robots!
You need real humans.
Ones that eat and sleep and breathe and care about your clients. And there is no way to know if you’ve got the right person unless you fall back on making sure they have skills and values that align with your firm.
Name your values.
Start by thinking about what’s most important to you and your firm. What are those behaviors and characteristics you stand on and without them, you wouldn’t be in business at all? If you need a list to get your mind going, take a gander at the personal values list Brene Brown has in her book Dare to Lead.
Many of our clients started with this list and did some deeper work to decide what their values would be. Some of those came from work they’d done before coming to PF and some were a result of the uncovering they did during our Foundations workshop together. Almost every Accelerator member discovers during the Branding session more about what their values actually are.
Here are a few examples.
The reason these values are so powerful is they are:
- specific to the individual accounting firm, both for clients and team
- lived and breathed by the firm, both for clients and team.
Without those elements, these accountants may as well have copied straight out of Brene’s ideas list without giving much thought to it at all.
“If your values are on your wall but they aren’t in your heart and life, it’s worse than not having them at all.”
That’s what our MD, Karen Reyburn pointed out during a PF lab session on hiring. I wholeheartedly agree.
It’s virtually impossible for everyone to have the same definition of a word. Particularly when it comes to firm values, you need to go beyond simply choosing some words you like the idea of. You need to define them by what YOU mean.
You need to know:
- What does this value actually mean for your firm? What does this value look like, lived out?
- What does it mean for someone you are hiring? How will their life and behaviours reflect these values?
During a PF Lab group coaching session about Hiring, one of our clients mentioned the value of being “inviting.” When we asked what she meant by this, her definition was a personal take on the concept of being approachable. This is a fairly typical ‘value’ for accountants – friendly, personable, approachable – so we talked about what it meant for their firm particularly. In her case, she wants both her clients and team to know they are always welcome to ask questions. They as a firm are inviting, and they invite questions.
Bringing this into the hiring process, this accountant will need to craft questions and situations which will make it almost impossible to answer if they don’t hold to that value.
One easy way to test this would be to ask “Do you have any questions for us?” during the interview. If the applicant doesn’t, it would be a good indicator that they aren’t really engaging at the level this accountant would like them to. Everyone has questions. And for this particular firm, if an applicant hasn’t come with any from the beginning, it seems unlikely they’ll be brimming with them after being hired. Then the quality and type of questions asked will help them determine whether this person is living out the value of being inviting. Are the questions inviting story? Inviting interest and personality and humanity? How is inviting being lived out? As this accountant builds their hiring process, they’ll uncover new ways of discovering this value in potential team members.
Values lead your decisions, and make hiring easier.
If you don’t know what your personal values are, you won’t make good decisions. You’ll decide based on how you feel at the time, and that varies massively from day to day, week to week, year to year. When you know your personal values and are seeking to live and breathe them, you’ll have something to fall back on, something to help determine if your decision falls within your own core life principles or not.
The same goes for the values you identify as belonging to your whole firm. You will make hiring decisions more easily and quickly when you know your values, are actively living them out in the life of your business, and are involving them so deeply in your hiring process you wouldn’t possibly hire someone who didn’t live those values, too.
Structured values and a defined job description means there is less chance of disaster.
A structure protects you from making a purely emotional decision. There have been many times at PF when we’ve seen a 3 minute intro video (the first step in our hiring process) and wanted to hire the person immediately. Their enthusiasm was on point and they talked about all the values and seemed to have an amazing skill set.
But we didn’t offer them a position right away.
Why? Because we trust our process.
We once had an applicant send in a video. They seemed a perfect fit based on everything we knew about them from their previous position, personality and such. By the time we got back to them to say they were moving onto the next stage in our process, they’d already taken another job. And several months after that, they’d moved onto yet another job.
There’s no problem with that and it doesn’t reflect badly on that person. They found what they wanted (or are still figuring it out), and we respect that. It simply means that person wasn’t a fit for the PF team. We want to hire people who are looking to get stuck in and don’t see it as “just a job”- something they’d easily throw away if an offer for more money or greater prestige comes their way. We want people who live and breathe our values.
We loved the idea of that person working for us and saw their potential. From the little we knew it seemed they lived our values, too. We wanted to help them and give them the benefit of the doubt, figuring they’d fit in well and the rest would be history.
Trusting the process helped us avoid the pain of hiring someone we loved and wanted to help, only to have them leave 6 months later. It also protected this person from signing on with a company which wouldn’t be a fit for them. When you or the applicant says no, it’s a release. You’re releasing them to the best place for them.
You too can trust your own process when you’ve built it to hire for both skills and values.
Hiring is not the time to give candidates the benefit of the doubt. This is the time for them to prove themselves to you. Sadly, people lie. It does happen. And sometimes it’s not on purpose! Sometimes they really do believe they are amazing and thoughtful and are a perfect fit for your firm, and they just aren’t. People’s impressions of themselves are not always reality. It’s your job to discover who they truly are, what their patterns of work and life are, and look for the overall fit with your firm – far more than simply “yea they seem nice” or “they’re available”!
A good dose of professional skepticism does the body good.
As an accountant you’ve been trained to be skeptical. It’s why you’re so good at what you do. You’ll check and recheck to make sure a client’s financial statements are accurate. They can’t make good decisions unless they have good numbers- their business depends on it.
Your accounting business depends on your ability to be skeptical in the hiring process. You need to find the right people, with the right skills and values to help your team both thrive relationally and produce high quality work. You must have them both together, skills AND values. If you only have one of the two, you’ll run into problems later.
It’s for that very reason we have an intense hiring process at PF. We vet both the skills and the values throughout each step. This process is the result of years of work: people who we hired and are still at PF, people we hired who are no longer here, people we never hired, people we weren’t sure about or they weren’t sure. If you’ve ever hired a team member at all, you’ll have a story (or many stories) of someone who didn’t work out. Instead of saying “oh, well, it was because…” and putting the blame on them, take the responsibility upon yourself. As we say at PF, “sometimes you win, and sometimes you grow. And at all times you learn.” What have you learned? What (or who) worked, and didn’t work? Why? Where does this come from? What was in (or missing from) your hiring process or onboarding or training which made that difficult?
At PF, we examined all these things and began building a hiring process. At first, we simply started by requesting a video because it helped us get to know potential team members faster. (Plus anyone can say anything on a CV or resume.) Then, we added a tester project to make sure the person could actually do the work. (We had a lot of interviews where we absolutely loved the person or they were kind or pleasant or fun, but they didn’t have the skills they needed.)
Here’s how the 7 stage process works now:
Video submission: This is our first chance to “meet” an applicant. Since we spend so much time on video, it’s important for us to know they can communicate well via that medium. If a person can’t show up in this way, we know they are not going to be a good fit with our team or our clients. At this stage, we give a lot of benefit of the doubt. If someone seems really quiet, or their video didn’t feel as creative as others, we are willing to give them a chance. We’re looking for patterns through the whole process.
Tester project: This shows us if they have the chops to do the work we need them to do. A person can have years of experience and still be really bad at what they do. Giving them a tester that is on par with the skills we need helps us see if they can perform the regular tasks in a given role. If they won’t complete the tester, or it’s not at a level we’d expect for their experience, it will be a no. It took us a while to figure out what we’re looking for with a tester project: because it’s not about “getting the right answer” or doing the tester the way we’d do it. After all, we’re a creative agency. We’re looking for HOW the tester was completed as much as what the outcome was. We can see patterns of their values in the way they dig in, the questions they ask, the approach they take, whether the tester is delivered on time or ahead of deadline, excuses made, requests for extensions, the way they explain things in their tester project video. The tester project itself is helpful, but it goes far deeper than simply a task.
Group interview: During this interview a portion of our team digs in and asks the hard things. (We used to have the entire team do this group interview, but as our team has grown we found that was rather overwhelming for the applicant, and it used a massive amount of time for every single team member with all the interviews. So now the group interview is done by 4 or 5 team members.) This gives us the opportunity to ask more questions and evaluate both skills and values. It also shows us how they interact within the team. Do they easily gel with the conversation or is it awkward? Are they transparent and open or rather guarded. And as much as you can tell on a Zoom call, what do their body language and facial expressions say? We also used to keep this really casual, saying “it’s just an informal chat”. Now, after doing so many of them, we’re clear: this is an interview. You are being interviewed by several members of the team. Be ready.
Pillar fit and references: These questionnaires ask the same questions of the applicant as well as the people referring them. We need to know what the applicant thinks of themselves and what others think of them, and how those fit together. If these are a match, we have a fairly good idea if their skills and values will match our own. We also look for the applicant’s rating of themselves. Are they overly impressed with their own self? Do they have any humility or sense of growth?
Interview with MD: In this final interview, our MD seeks to uncover anything that we could have missed throughout the other stages of the hiring process. Usually by this point the team are fairly clear whether we might offer a role to this person, so this is where we dig deep into the professional skepticism, and presume nothing. This is not a chit chat, and it’s not really about skills or experience anymore (although that might be discussed some). She asks personal questions like “what are you addicted to” or “what do you struggle most with in your family”? This gives us a good idea of how the applicant does with being both caught off guard as well as with vulnerability. Do they take it in stride or struggle to answer with honesty? This interview is recorded and the entire team watch it, too, before voting on whether to offer this person a role.
We don’t want to be harsh, but we’re willing for people to be a little uncomfortable if needed so we can determine who they truly are. It’s not about us being nice or them being nice: the world is full of really nice people. We live and breathe by our values, so everything in our hiring process is crafted to help us see whether this person is going to do that as well.
After each of these stages, the entire team evaluates and gives feedback in our hiring slack channel. Everyone has equal opportunity to express the pros and cons of each phase and to voice any major concerns they have.
This level of hiring process takes a long time to build. We’ve been building ours for years. You can always evaluate where you are at now and where you could use some improvement, even in a small way.
Determine the skills needed for the job.
Remember skills are based on both talent and effectiveness. Without the proper skills, no one is going to get any work done. You’d never hire someone who has spent years as a professional basketball player to be a bookkeeper. (Unless they happened to also be a qualified bookkeeper, and I’d imagine that is fairly rare.) The basketball player has lots of skills: they don’t happen to be in the areas you need for this role. Accountants often approach a hiring situation with a presumption of skills. “Oh, they have this qualification, so of course they can do the job.” Or, “they’ve worked for 10 years as a bookkeeper, so that’s all good.” As you’ve no doubt learned, having experience doesn’t mean having expertise. Having qualifications doesn’t mean having understanding. It’s your job to figure out not only whether the person is a fit in terms of values (do they live and work like you and the rest of the team? Will they fit into your brand?), but whether they can actually do the work you’ve hired them to do.
Hiring for the right skills will help make sure the job gets done.
Most accountants know what skills they need in someone they are hiring. However, you may not have taken the time to write it out. You might have started looking for a perfect new team member without precisely defining exactly what you need.
As we continued our hiring process, we had a big learning moment about defining job roles. We had begun the search for a web developer and had an amazing applicant. They fit all the PF values and had web dev experience. They made it through to the point where we were asking for references and we were ready to send them to our MD for an interview.
There was a hesitation though. Among all of us. We loved this person as a person, and could see them on the team and fitting in well at events and all the things. BUT, they didn’t have WordPress experience. This person was willing to learn and it seemed they would pick it up quickly, but the skills weren’t there. It wasn’t their fault: this was simply something they hadn’t learned yet. And it was entirely our responsibility for not being clear about how much we needed WordPress experience, and how important that was to the role. We were still figuring out what the qualifications were for this role, and we figured it out during the process. Unfortunately, in this case that meant it wouldn’t be a fit. And unlike in the early years of PF, we’re no longer in a position where we hire someone who is learning, and pay them to gain the skills over many years. We’re now an agency with a bigger team, a lot of work, and a great deal of potential. We needed someone who could jump in and get to work immediately – and all of our websites are built on WordPress.
When we recognized this, it was time for us to live up to our own values, specifically transparency value. This meant explaining to this excellent applicant that though they were an amazing values fit, it was on us for not being clear in the job description. We hadn’t provided all the information they (and we) needed in our job posting. We hadn’t realised how critical it was for this person to have significant WordPress experience. Since they didn’t, we’d need to remove them from our process. They were disappointed, and rightly so. But it wouldn’t have been fair to them or to us to carry on.
We adjusted the role description to be clear about what we needed.
What type of job are you hiring for? Do you know what this role needs to include?
- Determine which specific skills this role needs to fill. There are non-negotiables. The applicant absolutely must have these to be considered.
- Decide how much experience this person needs and list it explicitly.
- Figure out how you are going to determine if this applicant does have the skills and experience needed for the job.
Once you’ve figured this part out, it’s time to add in all the work you’ve done on values.
Make sure you add those to the job description: what they are and what they mean. Some firms even include a video from the team on what the values are and how they play out in their firm. Here’s an example the PF team created.
You might decide to focus more upon values than skills.
This could be a good option if the applicant has many of the skills and only needs to learn and improve in a few key areas.
We’ve gone through seasons where it was okay to focus more upon values than skills. As long as we had someone who fits the PF values, we could train them and help them grow. However, as our team has gotten larger and with more defined roles within the company, it no longer serves us well to hire solely on values. We need to hire for skills as well. We need people who can learn “the PF way” of doing things AND primarily know how to do the technical roles of the job. We need people with years of experience doing exactly this job: and we’re in a position where we can ask for that. And wait for the right person.
In our most recent graphic design hire, we did just this. We were looking for the right skills (someone with relevant experience, a good portfolio and a high performer on our tester project) first. In our team interview and subsequent hiring steps, we were looking for a fit on the values. When those two things flow together in harmony, you get comments on Slack like “hire her yesterday” “yes, yes, YASSS” and “amazing I can’t wait for her to start.”
For the new team member, what an exciting way to start a job, knowing your team is so stoked for you to join! And what an exciting way for the team culture to grow, knowing your whole team are all excited about the new person coming in: not only to have someone who can do the work and jump in straight away, but also to have someone whose company they enjoy and who will work alongside them, living the values the way they do.
Hiring people without the right skills can be risky.
When you hire someone you like (and even if you think they have the right skills), what happens when you realize they don’t have the right skills and you have to let them go? It can be a real heart clencher. Especially if the person has been a long time team member and has appeared to be high functioning, but then it’s revealed they aren’t doing the job you need them to be doing. You can imagine how hard it would be to let that beloved team member go.
You aren’t a family, you’re a business.
As much as businesses may talk about how “we are all family” and we love one another and everything, the reality is, the reason you are all together is because of this business. You coexist in the business space and if someone decides to leave or has to be let go, that is the way of business. This doesn’t mean being overly harsh, firing someone without any feeling to it; but it means being practical and realistic about whether the right person is in the right role, or even in the right company.
Many accountants want to make sure their employees are in the right seats on the right bus. One of my clients, after having a well loved team member leave, mentioned he cares so much for his team he wants them on the right seats on the right bus – and also if that firm’s bus isn’t right, he wants them to find the bus that is right for them.
You likely feel this way too. That doesn’t make you a family- but it does make you a team.
My daughter had her first softball game yesterday and they lost. Miserably. And she was bummed about losing. “But mom, I really just wanted to win the game.” I felt her pain. And I also recognized how much the team means to her.
She was cheering her teammates on from the bench, tried her very best when she was out on the field and carried heavily both with victories and downfalls of the game. Those girls aren’t her family- but she cares for them and wants them to do their best. They work together for a common goal and for the good of the team as a whole.
So it is with your team and your firm.
This isn’t meant to harsh your family vibe, but to state facts as they are. Your family will be your family no matter what. You are connected by bloodlines and legalities. Your team members are only on your team until they join a different one. This means if someone is in your accounting firm and it’s not the right company for them, you call it. And to prevent this happening too often, you absolutely must hire for both skills and values. It helps you hire the right people, for the right roles, in the right company: and it helps them stay in a job they love.
When everyone is a high performer and a culture fit, your whole firm gets more done.
Hiring the right people who know how to do the work makes you a better firm. You aren’t bothered by the little niggly things. If something is getting in the way of productivity you talk about it and fix the problem. No need for making a big deal of it, you just get that shit done.
If in the process you realize it’s not that simple, you bring other team members in to figure out what needs to change on a systems level.
This is the way things work in a team that has committed to hiring only high performers that fit with both the skills and values. Everyone knows they are good at what they do and they all hold in esteem the same team values- so whatever needs to shift and change in the work environment isn’t a reflection of them personally, but rather something within the firm.
And if there is a personal issue, everyone has built enough trust to call that out and walk alongside the team member, in ways that are appropriate, to encourage that personal growth.
This only works with a hiring process which puts equal weight on values and skills.
Document your hiring process.
If you are on your own, you’ll have to go about this yourself. If you have a team, this will be a helpful exercise to do together. It’s always helpful to ask your team for input on hiring- as they are typically the people who will be working more closely with the new person that’s hired.
Take time to follow these steps.
- Write down what your process is now.
- Determine if your process allows evaluation of both skills and values.
- Adjust your process accordingly, putting in check points to make sure you’re taking appropriate time to determine skills and values.
Once you’ve documented your process, you can start testing it out. Along the way there will be lots of learnings and adjustments. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t and change processes as needed.
One core concept remains: Your gut is usually right.
Intuition, gut feel, whatever you want to call it, we all know what it feels like. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book on it.
In his introductory chapters, he shares a story about a statue claimed to have been dating from the 6th century BC. The art museum to which the seller was trying to strike a deal proceeded carefully. They brought in experts to examine every aspect, to take samples, to figure out if this was indeed what the seller claimed it was.
One particular expert took one look and proclaimed without wavering- the statue was a fake. He knew it in his gut.
However, that wasn’t enough for the art museum to go on. He had to lean back on the process he knew worked over and over again, to prove that he was correct.
And in the end, he was.
Sometimes you receive an application or have an initial call and you don’t know why, but you feel like it’s not going to work out. Your gut is telling you something and you need to do the work to figure that out.
Doing the work will help you uncover where those feelings are coming from. In putting words to your feelings, you’ll be able to express to your team why you think it won’t work. It will help them learn the red flags you are recognizing. This helps when you begin to hand off more of the hiring process to your team. They will have been trained more specifically in what to look for and won’t be going on gut alone.
Your hiring process needs to protect you (as well as the applicant). You wouldn’t want someone to feel unsafe or unwelcome in your firm. So it’s important for them to know you are taking care to make sure this hiring process is just as much about them feeling it’s a fit as it is about you.
You are the boss. This is your company. The process you are creating is to protect you from pain and help you listen to alarm bells and listen to other people’s alarm bells. Find out what’s underneath the alarm. Ask yourself these questions and really take time to answer them thoroughly:
- Where is that feeling coming from?
- Does that person remind you of someone or some other experience?
- What about them feels like it won’t be a good fit?
Paying attention to your gut and answering the questions underneath will help you avoid the pain.
How do we know this? Because we’ve felt the pain ourselves. We too have spent valuable time, energy and resources investing in people who didn’t live up to the skills and values they showed throughout our hiring process.
Rarely, very rarely, that happens: and when it does, we have to let that person go. It’s tough, but not terrible. We knew we were doing the right thing, and it wouldn’t be fair to let someone stay with PF if they weren’t truly a fit in both skills and values. You can be the most lovely person ever, but nice isn’t enough. Lovely isn’t enough. Even having the right skills isn’t enough: it must be both.
There was a time long ago, when we had a smaller team and were still trying to figure out our hiring, when letting someone go in the early days of a hire would have really done a number on our team. We’d have spent ages trying to figure out what went wrong and where we could have done better. We may have even delved into a shame spiral- “how could we possibly have missed all the warning signs.” And to be fair, it still could be a momentary thought in some of our minds when this kind of decision comes up.
But we’ve learned to make decisions quicker. To not labor on and on about what might be or what could have been- but to recognize the red and pink flags that were present (if we missed them early on), and use them as learning experiences for next time.
You’ll never be perfect but you can get better.
Even with our extensive hiring process we don’t get things perfect. Why?
Hiring too fast takes away from vetting the values.
The temptation to hire fast because your work is piling up is real. You want to make sure all your clients are taken care of and the quality of work doesn’t slip. Perhaps you’ve got ideal clients pouring in, and you need the revenue, so you take on the work but aren’t quite sure how you’re going to get it all done.
You hire fast and things are going okay for a bit, but it still feels a bit unhinged. The systems and workload aren’t getting easier, in fact it might be getting more difficult. And then you end up letting people go just as quickly as you’ve hired them.
This is no way to relieve stress in your firm.
More than likely, because you were anxious to get someone in to do the work, you missed valuable steps in the hiring process.
We’ve had circumstances (it’s rare, but it’s happened) where we truly believed an applicant was both a values and skills fit. They were confident in their previous work performance and gave all the indicators of having the same values. We discussed it at length, reviewed our process, and decided it was a go. We were also anxious because our work was piling up and it felt like no relief was coming unless we got someone quickly.
But when the new person started and got into the day to day work, we quickly saw we had missed something here. We went back to our values and recognized we had hurried the process, and looking back many of those boxes could not be ticked on many occasions. And while we could have chosen to keep training for skills, we knew we couldn’t train on the values.
There were also things we had every reason to believe – and it wasn’t possible to see the patterns until the person started. That’s a risk you always take when hiring, and it helps your humility and your process to realise there is no perfect system. You will not always get it right. And when you don’t, and there’s not a fix to be made with training or support, call it. Call it quick, for everyone’s sake. Don’t let it drag on.
When skills and values are of equal priority, and your hiring process reflects this, you’ll make better hiring decisions more quickly.
As the business owner, you have some tough decisions to make when it comes to employees. Your team is a part of that process, but at the end of the day the buck stops with you. When you have a process to rely on, it makes those decisions easier.
You’ll be getting the most from your team because you’ve trusted the process and continued to hire high performers who are also a cultural fit. Everyone works together better when the source of competition is negated- when people all know how good they are and how they contribute to the betterment of the team as whole.
Feeling amped up to take this on? We’ve got some help for you. For two weeks in September our PF Lab training sessions are on this very thing. How to hire for values, skills and culture and how to build a process. You can sign up for these sessions on their own here, or you can join PF Lab and attend these as well as all our other Lab training sessions for free!
You’ll get coaching from the PF team within these sessions, and hear from other accountants who are working through these hiring questions as well. We’d love to see you there.
Until then, keep living into your values and building the skills within your team. It will make everyone stronger. You and your team will be better collaborators, communicators and decision makers for the future of your hiring. Your team members will be the right fit for the right roles in the right firm: yours.