Understanding the Best and Brightest

Here’s the scoop on what your highest achievers want from your firm.


To find out what promising young accounting professionals want from employers, the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) conducted a new “Top Talent Study.” CPA firm partners asked their most highly valued nonpartner employees about their hopes for growth opportunities, job benefits and firm culture, and how those factors influenced their decision to join or stay with a firm. For comparison PCPS had partners rate the same issues.

The survey found that talented staff members are a complicated group concerned with balancing their careers and their personal lives: Their top reasons for joining a firm are career growth opportunities, paid personal/vacation time and salary.

The partners who are hiring and working with this group of young people seem to understand they are a multifaceted generation. The two groups appear to be on the same wavelength about many career issues but partners and young staff order their priorities differently.

There are some disconnects: 76% of the young CPAs said they were interested in being groomed for a senior position. Ironically, another recent PCPS study found that the vast majority of the CPA firms surveyed did not have a leadership development program, a career professional program or a partner-in-training program.

The most valuable young staff members prize financial incentives such as good pay and generous benefits, a clear career path, an inspiring workplace, an opportunity to use their talents, shared information about the firm, a balanced schedule, respect for their opinions and recognition of their efforts. Those factors are persuasive in keeping the best talent.

Anita Dennis is a JofA contributing editor and freelance business writer.

t’s a stubborn fact that just isn’t going away: Finding and retaining qualified staff is the top concern of CPA firms—still. The latest AICPA PCPS “Top Issues in Practice Management” survey showed that result again, as it has done since 1997, when it began polling. Even though enrollment in accounting programs has gone up, the demand for accounting expertise also has grown tremendously as firms and companies scramble to find qualified staff. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says accounting is one of the most popular majors among employers hiring at the bachelor’s degree level.

To address the staffing challenges, the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) set out to learn more about the attitudes and aspirations of the most promising young accounting professionals in order to provide valuable insights for firms seeking to recruit and retain them. Its “Top Talent Study,” much like one performed in 2000, asked the most highly valued nonpartner employees about their hopes for growth opportunities, job benefits and firm culture, and how those elements affected their decisions to join or stay with a firm. For comparison purposes, PCPS also asked partners to offer their opinions on the importance of all the same issues in hiring and retention.

CPAs clearly appreciate the value of knowing what bright prospects want. “The most important thing we can offer our clients that makes us different from other firms is the quality of our people,” says Deborah Sessions, a partner of Porter Keadle Moore in Atlanta. “So we need to develop good relationships with the promising people who work here.”

Interest in the Profession

More than 400,000 students have responded to the AICPA Start Here, Go Places campaign.

Source: www.aicpa.org/pubs/cpaltr/nov2003/recruit.htm .

The talented staff members who took this survey are a complicated group, people who appear to place a balanced emphasis on their careers and their personal lives. Their top reasons for joining a firm are career growth opportunities, paid personal/vacation time and salary—in that order (see exhibit 1 ).

  Top 10 Reasons to Join a Firm

The good news is that the partners who are hiring and working with this group of young people seem to understand that they are a multifaceted generation. While both sides are not always in lockstep in terms of how they would order their priorities, the two groups are on the same wavelength (see exhibit 1 and exhibit 2 ).

  What Firms Offer

Career growth expectations, time off and salary continue to be important to hires and are a big factor in retention. Again, partners were generally in sync with this group, understanding their ambition and their desire to be associated with a great firm (see exhibit 3 ).

  Top 10 Reasons to Stay With a Firm

But while firm leaders may be aware of promising younger staff members’ expectations, other AICPA research raises questions about whether they have taken concrete steps to meet them. In the “Top Talent Study,” 76% of the young CPAs said they were interested in being groomed for a senior position. Another recent PCPS study of firm staffing policies found, however, that 93% surveyed did not have a leadership development program, 90% did not have a career professional program and 89% did not have a partner-in-training program. Such programs can reassure ambitious staff members about the career opportunities within a firm and clarify firms’ expectations. The same study also found that most firms did not have a documented pay-for-performance plan to align compensation with firm strategic initiatives. Such plans can reinforce firm goals and reward talented staff members for efforts that help achieve them.

The “Top Talent Study” provides insights into some of the benefits, perks and opportunities that are likely to be of importance to your most valuable young staff members. In addition, PCPS asked partners at some firms with particularly low turnover to what they attributed their success. Here are some of their best practices for recruiting and retention.

Line up your incentive pay programs with your firm’s strategic goals. In the race to create a place where people want to work, begin by determining your firm’s unique values and long-term goals. Then create policies and procedures that support them, says former AICPA Board Chair Leslie Murphy, group managing partner of Plante & Moran in Southfield, Mich.

This focus is important to top talent, whose “respect for [the] firm’s mission statement” is a chief reason they stay. “It’s a matter of thinking through the firm’s core philosophy and determining what people should be rewarded for,” Murphy says. “Is their compensation commensurate with their overall contribution to the firm?” Does it appropriately reward recruiting, mentoring “and other nonfinancial areas?”

The program needn’t be elaborate to be effective. It can address simple issues such as whether this person is a good technician, relates well to clients and gets along well with other firm members, she says.

Understand what matters to your staff. “Staff members today want more quality time,” says Herb Schoenfeld, managing partner of Schoenfeld Mendelsohn Goldfarb in Woodbury, N.Y. He points out that while people used to be willing to work overtime for just pay, for instance, today many “want comp time and more vacation.” Once firm leaders determine their own strategic goals, they should consider what incentives will motivate their staff to achieve them. The answers may be different at each firm; it’s worth asking staff in order to find out.

Provide a clear career path. “Understanding the next step is important to getting ahead,” Murphy notes. “We always try to paint staff a picture of what happens next.” You can create your own career paths and competency assessment continuums or adapt a resource such as the AICPA Competency Self-Assessment Tool (CAT) for your own needs ( www.cpa2biz.com/CS2000/Products/CPA2BIZ/AICPA+Competency+SelfAssessment+Tool.htm ).

Training is a vitally important prerequisite to advancement. Lattimore, Black, Morgan & Cain in Brentwood, Tenn., created a continual learning platform that establishes the technical and systems knowledge benchmarks and the marketing and business development skills for each level. A learning coordinator works with departmental managers to design courses that appropriately address the firm’s training needs, says managing principal David Morgan. At smaller firms, partners can scope out career and growth paths by brainstorming about the skills and training requirements for each level.

Make the best use of your talent. At many firms staff members perform some clerical functions that could be handled by administrative staff. Adding support staff to cover these tasks could pay for itself if it generates more billable hours or marketing time and helps retain key people.

Share some financial information with staff. Sessions and her partners believe that doing so shows employees “ ‘we’re proud of what we’re doing and we want you to understand it.’ We don’t share all the details, but we give them snapshots of what matters,” she says. “We want them to know how we make money and how we create value and bill for their time. It makes them better business people.”

Reinforce the need to strike a healthy balance. Some practitioners report firms’ work/life balance programs aren’t being fully used. Even if promising staff members aren’t using flexible schedules, it is important for firm leaders to fully support those initiatives. (See “ The Work/Life Balance Sheet So Far, JofA , Aug.06, page 45.)

One step toward achieving work/life balance is to shift the workload out of busy season as much as possible. “That’s one way to make more money and keep people happier,” says Morgan. His firm has focused on year-round engagements related to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, such as internal audit outsourcing.

Find out whether they are satisfied. Morgan’s firm used employee surveys to determine staff satisfaction—and reaped a surprise dividend. “When we learned that about 98.5% of our staff said they’d join the firm again if they had the chance, we used that information in our promotional materials. It’s a way to tell people this is a great place to work and it has helped us attract good talent.”

The firm also makes an effort to recognize staff efforts. “You never forget how you felt when you were a staff accountant and your weekend was ruined because you had to finish an assignment, but you’ll remember if someone thanks you for doing it or recognizes you for a job well done,” he says.

Include staff in the hiring process. “We won’t hire candidates if the staff members don’t like them,” says Sessions. “They are the people who will have to work with them.” When recruiting new staff or interns, Sessions’ firm involves younger firm members to obtain their perspective and to demonstrate confidence in them.

Treat staff as well as the people you’re trying to hire. Many practices roll out the red carpet for potential recruits, but often it ends there. At Sessions’ firm the partners provide numerous social events for the people already on staff, as well as outings to baseball games and other events to show the firm’s appreciation. “We want to constantly show them that we are glad they’re part of the team,” she says.

Be generous. At Schoenfeld’s firm, long-term employees might receive a company credit card or partial payment of their car lease. “If they take the CPA exam, we loan them the money,” he says. “If they pass the test and stay with us for a year afterward, we forgive the loan.” Long-standing employees also have their professional dues and CPE paid. The firm gives new employees vacation based on one day for every full month they work. The practice also allows up to two weeks’ comp time. Staff might also get impromptu bonuses for extraordinary efforts. “People have told us, ‘No one else would do this for me,’” he says.

Make work fun. Games and competitions are one way to motivate and reward employees. “Our firm is very competitive,” Sessions says. For example, in one program called Innofix (for “Innovation Fixation”), people competed to come up with the best firm-improvement ideas in any area, from administration to client service to internal accounting to recruiting. At the end of the contest, six winning teams presented their ideas to the partner group for implementation consideration and they got monetary prizes. “We were letting them know we were interested in their ideas,” she says.

Overall, the results of the “Top Talent Study” are very positive for the profession. Firm leaders may not offer everything their top talent seek, but they seem to be well aware of what’s expected. That’s good news, because the stakes are high. “The worst thing you can have is turnover,” says Schoenfeld. “There is extensive training to be done each time someone is hired and it can affect the work product. It’s worth it to do all you can to prevent it.”


Work/Life: Striking a Balance, a free DVD from the Work/Life and Women’s Initiative Executive Committee, e-mail educat@aicpa.org .

JofA articles
Staffing Update: Issues, Trends, Initiatives ,” Sep.05, page 87.
Nothing Succeeds Like Succession, ” Jul.05, page 63.
Outrageous Employee Benefits, ” May05, page 32.

Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook, loose-leaf version (# 090407JA); e-MAP, online version (# MAP-XXJA).
Promoting Your Talent, a guidebook for women in accounting (# 872566JA).

For more information or to make a purchase, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the AICPA at 888-777-7077.

Web sites
For more information on how to help aspiring CPAs learn more about the accounting profession and available career opportunities, go to www.startheregoplaces.com .
For more information about small firm staffing issues, go to the PCPS Firm Practice Center, http://pcps.aicpa.org .
For more information about guidance for staffing and training-needs analysis, go to www.cpa2biz.com/CAT .
For more information about careers and work/life opportunities, go to www.aicpa.org/worklife .
For more information about online workplace flexibility for CPA firms and corporations e-mail educat@aicpa.org or order FlexWise on www.cpa2biz.com .


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