Hiring for culture: How to find the best staff for your firm

Hosted by Courtney Vien

Staff who aren't a good fit for your firm's culture aren't likely to stay long. In this second part of a two-part podcast, Guy Gage, founder of consulting firm PartnersCoach, talks about interview questions to ask that can determine whether a job candidate will integrate well to your culture, and other key aspects of hiring for culture.

What you'll learn in this podcast episode:

  • The difference between an applicant and a candidate.
  • What a candidate profile is and how to create one.
  • Onboarding tips to set new hires up for success.
  • Two revealing questions to ask during interviews.
  • What to ask management candidates to determine whether they would be a good fit.
  • What to know about hiring in a tight market.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


[intro music]

Courtney Vien: Hello and welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm Courtney Vien, a senior editor with the Journal of Accountancy.

Staffing is a perennial concern for CPA firms, as it is for many organizations. And a crucial element of staffing is hiring the right people: the ones who are a good fit for your workplace and who are thus likely to stick around. To learn how employers can make better hires, I spoke with Guy Gage, founder of PartnersCoach.

He spoke on this topic during the 2021 AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE event. Guy has 20 years' experience coaching accountants and working with accounting firms.

We'll hear from him in a moment, but first, please listen to this message from our sponsor.

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Vien: Hello, Guy.

Guy Gage: Hi, how are you?

Vien: I'm doing great. Nice to have you here.

Gage: Good to be here. Thank you.

Vien: In your ENGAGE talk, you discussed the difference between an applicant and a candidate. And you said that an applicant is basically anyone who sends in a résumé and fits the criteria you are looking for. A candidate is someone on your short list, someone who you think will fit your firm's culture and who might make a good hire. How can knowing the difference between the two help you?

Gage: I guess it was never made clearer to me in a conversation I had with a firm. I was speaking to the HR director and the director of recruiting. In that course of that conversation, they were expressing some concern and some laments at their attrition rate. They would bring people in and they would stay for months, or a little over an year, to a couple of years, and then they would move on. They were attributing that as a certain characteristic for a particular generation.

I'm willing to go to a certain degree down that road, but I'm not willing to attribute all of attrition to a particular generation's style. The more I talked, the more I heard that what they would do is they would put the word out through social media, talking to headhunters, however they got the word out, and they would gather up a collection of people and they would look through them quickly and say, ''OK, these people seem like they would be able to do the job that we're looking for.'' They would take that bunch, and they would give them to the partners. The partners would look through them and interview, and they would finally hire someone that they thought would be good.

What their frustration was, partners were hiring people that weren't the right kind of people that were going to fit our firm. Therefore, they tended to be short-lived. Even though they were handpicked by those partners, in months the partners were complaining about them. One of those things. So I made the reference, I said, ''Just because you have a résumé, it doesn't mean that that résumé gets passed on to the partner. You only pass on candidates, not applicants." I started talking about the difference between the two. An applicant would be a résumé, someone with references, maybe prior experience, just a sense about them, what their style is. When you get into the candidate side, that's when you get into the more deeply held values they have. What are their career aspirations? What is their style and their approach?

But I helped them to delineate the difference between the two, and it was like a light bulb went off for that recruiter. "Yeah, we're passing on applicants and very few of them are candidates. The candidates seem to do better than the applicants."

Vien: So there needs to be a winnowing process before the applicants become candidates and before they should go before the partners.

Gage: Sure. That's part of your whole hiring process.

Vien: One tool that can help you differentiate applicants from candidates is the candidate profile. Now a candidate profile isn't just a description of the skills and experience someone needs to fill a role. It goes beyond that. And you note that it should include four different aspects. Can you tell us about those?

Gage: Part of the profile, though, tends to be very narrow to technical competence. If it's a new entry-level staff person, the technical competence basically are your grades, your GPA, your internships, your references, what are you professors and other people you worked for, what do they say about you? That's your experience, if you will, your competence.

But I think there's more to it than just your competence that way. I think there are other aspects that need to be considered. For instance, what are the personal traits of this individual?

I think another thing to look at are interpersonal characteristics. How do they relate to others? In your interviewing process, talk about how do you deal with people that have different opinions than you do, or don't follow your lead, or you're somehow in conflict with them, or it's a stressful relationship. How do you interact with those things? You try and get an idea of what their interpersonal style is.

Then a fourth area, besides technical competence, personal traits, and interpersonal characteristics are what are your career aspirations? Where are you going with your career in this firm? There are some people that have career aspirations that are far greater than what the firm can really provide for you. There are other candidates that just are not going to have the aspirational drive for some firms.

Vien: How can having a candidate profile help you? Can you give an example?

Gage: It's really hard to interview for a position that you don't fully understand what you want that position to be and to do, and the kind of person who would be ideal for it. I learned this early on when I was doing the interviewing in the firm I was in. We would go to these fairs, if you will, and different associations would hold activities where you could meet and greet candidates, people who were looking for jobs in the CPA firms. It occurred to me there's a lot of good people out there. I remember interviewing a particular candidate. He was actually played for, was the Division I football team and he was a CPA aspirant.

He was finishing up his fifth year, and he played varsity. He was actually a starter. As I got to talk to him, I realized this guy is going to be awesome, but he would die in our firm. We are just not the firm for him; he's too driven. He's too focused on getting things moving and happening. He needs a bigger pond to swim in than what we could provide. I pretty frankly said, ''I just think you're great. I just don't think we're the right place for you.''

Well, that took me a few years to get to, to be able to say that. On the other side of the coin, there were candidates I interviewed who I thought we were not the right fit, but it was less about who we were and more about who they were. That they didn't have the right mix, if you will, to fit into our firm.

Vien: How should firms go about creating a candidate profile if they don't have one?

Gage: Some of the things that we've done in the past have been around looking at our current top candidates, our current best performers. What are they like? Typically, they're going to vary. Some may be quiet and introspective and almost introverted; others might be much more expressive and social and out there.

Well, OK, that's fine. That means that introversion-extroversion are not factors. What are the factors? That's when you start teasing out. Usually there's two or three, maybe a fourth one that really matter. There's not an easy way of doing it. I know there's some assessments out there and some different benchmarking strategies that you can employ. But I think it's something that you develop over time.

Vien: Are there concerns that having a candidate profile could lead to unconscious bias due to hiring people who are exactly like the ones you already have?

Gage: Yeah, that's a real danger, because as soon as you create a profile, you're saying, "I want someone just like that person." Well, what we tend to do, though, is we put too much emphasis on the wrong things. We might put too much emphasis on gender or on ethnicity or on the school they attended. Or we can go so far as their GPA, where they interned. We could go so far as, when we used to do it a whole lot more, where they live. So we'd have people that would come to school from far away, and we bring them in as interns. One of the first questions is, "Are you thinking about staying around the area?"

Well, now we know location isn't really the barrier that it was once. Point is, we all have our biases. They just exist. The issue is to move them from unconscious to conscious and then determine are they legitimate. Are they really valuable? Do they really make sense?

That's where your firm's maturity comes in and the lay of the land, where you're headed. I think one firm in particular, for instance, that I work with, they're an international CPA firm and that's basically their primary practice. One of their criteria early on when they are in the interview process is are you bilingual.

Where you're bilingual is as nearly as important as the fact that you're bilingual. Because we are international, that's who we are, that's who we aspire to be.

Vien: So how do you get to that point? I How do you identify a candidate who's a keeper?

Gage: Yeah. I love that term. Well, first of all, I wish I knew. My second answer is you just don't. There's no way of knowing. What you can do is your best in terms of interviewing. You'll learn a lot through experience, as I said earlier. For someone who didn't work out that you thought would, what would you have liked to have known beforehand? That becomes a question that you would add to your interview process.

But once you've done your due diligence and you believe you've gotten some real strong candidates, now it's up to the firm to create a successful contributor to their firm, a successful careerist if you will, and how do you do that? Well, you already mentioned a huge one which is the onboarding process. Onboarding is more than just the procedures, and the software, and where you enter your time, and what the vacation schedule is, and sign these forms for insurance, etc. It is much broader than that.

It's how do you get along here. A lot of time is having a buddy, for instance, is really helpful. The most important thing on a new person's career and I don't care if you are a staff person, a new administrator, or a new partner, the number one first critical issue is feeling like they belong. If you can't get to that point, then all the rest of it just is going to fall short. I think a full court press on getting people to feel like they belong is absolutely essential in bringing on these keepers, if you will.

Vien: One question that you recommend firms ask during job interviews is "If we hire you and you show up on the first day, what do we get?" But you also caution that interviewers need to qualify that question to make it really meaningful.

Gage: Yeah, I learned early on that I would say, "If we hire you and you show up on the first day, what do we get? Who comes?" And I heard the same two things over and over and over again. One is, "I got a strong work ethic. I work hard." OK. You probably do. You got good grades in school.

The second one is, "I'm dependable. You can rely on me." Well, I started hearing those two so often that I finally said, "OK, here's what I'm going to assume. I'm going to assume you've got to have a strong work ethic, and I'm going to assume that you are a reliable, dependable person. Those two aside, what else? Who else shows up on that first day and every day following? What can we expect from you?"

What that shows is a number of things. One is level of self-awareness. I remember I asked this one candidate that and she said those two things.

I said, "OK, I understand. Those are very common ones that candidates tell me. What else?" She paused and she thought, and she said, "I can't think of anything." Now, obviously, she had all kinds of things. In fact, I could have probably said a couple just from my interviewing that I picked up on.

But the fact that she was so self-unaware that she wasn't even aware of who she was coming to a firm, that was really, really interesting, really telling. First is, find out how self-aware they are by asking them what they know of themselves.

Vien: What's another good question to ask in an interview?

Gage: So I like to ask, "Who do you become when you're stressed? What stresses you? Being overwhelmed, being criticized, being found unworthy or less than, or being in a situation that you're unfamiliar with? What stresses you, and what does stress in you look like?". Some people cave in. They get very quiet. Some people lash out. Some people get distracted and do something else. There's a lot of different ways we've learned to handle our stress.

But the bottom line is, that's what I want to know. Because you're going to be stressed. I want to know what can we expect from you and what kinds of resources and support do you need as you go through your stress? Some people need a pat on the back. Some people need a hug on the shoulder and say, "We believe in you. " Some people need to be challenged, "Come on, suck it up, you can do this. I believe in you. I know you can do this." Everyone has their own needs in terms of how you do this. That's all a part of your culture. That's part of what I see in firms as I work with them. What shapes ideal candidates?

Vien: If you're hiring for a management position, what's a good thing to look out for? What's a good question to ask them?

Gage: Yeah. There's a lot of ways of getting into it. I always like to start off with figuring out what environment, going back to the cultural archetypes, that they would feel most comfortable with. You could ask a question about, when push comes to shove, do you find yourself referring to people and what they're going through and trying to appreciate their struggles and stresses? Or do you find yourself leaning more toward the procedures and policies and following the right way, going through the checklist, and that becomes a priority? Or do you see it more as something about the market? Which is, "we've got to produce results. We've got to get to the end, however we get there."

Sometimes managers will start tipping their hat to one of those and begin the conversation around which environment they're more amenable to.

Vien: Just a note for listeners, in the first half of this podcast, Guy talked about three different types of cultures he often sees in CPA firms. There's the clan culture, which is very friendly and people-oriented; the hierarchical culture, which is based on procedures and policies; and the market culture, which is very external-focused and competitive and client-focused.

Guy, you mentioned that you can ask candidates questions that would give you insight into which of these cultures they might fit into best.

Gage: So let's say someone says, "I'm really attuned to the workload of my staff." That is obviously tilted toward the clan side at first blush. Now it may change as we unpack it, but that's the first hint. Then I would say, "How did you go about supporting your people when you see them stressed and in an overload moment?" What's their style?

A lot of times if they're focused on the clan side, on harmony, people getting along, they will take work back, or they'll reassign it, or distribute it differently, or change deadlines and timelines for the sake of the staff person as opposed to, for the sake of the client. Now, obviously the client matters, and if a client has a hard deadline, then you want to stay true to it and you would reassign the work so the client got what they want. But everyone has the primary motive or driver that precipitates certain kinds of behavior, even though that behavior may look similar in different archetypes.

Vien: I am anticipating what listeners might be thinking. They may be thinking, "This all sounds great in an ideal world, but the hiring market is so tight right now. I feel like I need to hire just anybody that'll come along." What advice would you give firms about hiring in today's market?

Gage: That's the hard part. There are times when you just got to hire a body. You just need someone to fill a slot. The important thing is to know who you're hiring. "We know this isn't an ideal candidate, but we think they will help us in a pinch." What do you need to build around that person to hire them?

If you hire someone who's more relational and harmonious, but they're remote, they live in a different state, your connections with them on a regular basis, preferably daily, five-minute check-in to start your day. "Hey, how are you doing? Just want to see how you're going. What's going on? Everything going OK? It's not work-related. I want to know how you're doing."

That's going to matter more to them than someone who's more driven and achievement-oriented, taking on the world. They're just going to bust it open. That daily five-minute check-in is going to be seen as an intrusion and then as an interruption.

Even though the candidate may not be ideal for you, you need to change your support and your interaction with them so that they can thrive as best they possibly can. Who knows? They may come around and you may expand your capabilities in terms of managing people.

Vien: Again, that was Guy Gage, founder of PartnersCoach. This has been the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Thank you for listening.