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"Practical Accountant"

Reprinted from the January edition of "Practical Accountant"  

Retaining top accounting talent

 Sound advice for managers from industry insiders

 By Steve Brody


Executive Resource Systems

No question about it – in today’s labor market employees are sitting squarely in the catbird seat. Top talent is hard to find and keep in every profession, as managers in accounting firms know all to well.

Locating and retaining top talent is a full time job these days; fortunately there are a number of tried-and-true methods for holding onto talented staff, applicable to accounting outfits of all sizes.


Secrets of the big firms

Israel Barriga, Director of Recruiting for Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), the world’s largest accounting firm, is charged with the task of maintaining a content staff for his huge firm. Barriga is careful to make keeping employees satisfied a top priority, rather than an afterthought – as is so often the case in many companies.

"Today’s retention methods no longer focus solely on money," said Barriga. "Employees expect personal growth and development opportunities, so we’ve put a solid, well-thought out infrastructure in place to support those employee needs."

Barriga said new employees are assigned an experienced mentor to assist in guiding the individual’s career. PWC strives to have a number of communication channels open to employees at all levels, and all staff members are encouraged to share their concerns and needs with their superiors.

"Our goal is to effectively and efficiently integrate employees into our corporate culture, and this can be done only through an open corporate environment with clearly established lines of communication," Barriga said.

One method the international accounting giant utilizes to offer growth opportunities for employees is the chance to relocate.

"Someone from the Los Angeles area might feel his or her career would be significantly enhanced by a move to New York, for instance," said Barriga.

"People grow bored, and even a two year rotational assignment – whether domestic or abroad – can really jumpstart the enthusiasm and grow the skill set of an employee."

PWC also offers many of the standard amenities to employees that they’ve come to expect over the years: Encouraging staff to acquire advanced degrees through higher education reimbursements; bonus incentive programs based on individual and office productivity; flexible work hours; telecommuting; and regularly scheduled corporate training seminars are a few of the extras PWC offers staff.

As for salary, Barriga says they are on par with the market. "We don’t feel the need to offer lavish salaries above market value," said Barriga.

"Candidates are interested in working with a diverse client base and exciting projects. They want to work with high tech companies, or brick and mortar outfits which are aggressively utilizing technology within their respective markets.

"There is much more to the employment equation than salary," continued Barriga. "The bottom line is employees leave when they aren’t challenged. Compensation certainly can be an issue, but managers need to have a basic understanding of human nature – people have an innate need to grow."

"Putting employees in challenging situations, constantly reviewing their capabilities to make certain their skill sets are being utilized fully, and fostering their leadership skills are more important than simply focusing on salary," Barriga said.


Lewis Sharpstone, Partner at Singer, Lewak, Greenbaum and Goldstein, California’s top-rated regional CPA firm, believes employee retention boils down to three things: A sense of security, a pleasant work environment, and the opportunity to grow.

"I adhere to the goldfish style of management," said Sharpstone. "Put a goldfish in a small bowl and the fish will stay small, but put the same fish in a lake and it will grow and thrive."

Sharpstone said employees come to his firm looking to grow professionally, and he said it’s his firm’s obligation to see that they do so. Sharpstone added that an important part of this process is employee reviews, conducted every six months. He stressed this interviewing process is a two-way street.

"Typical reviews in many companies center around the manager telling the staff member how he or she is doing," said Sharpstone. "In our firm, we have an actual dialogue, with each person doing 50-percent of the talking."

Sharpstone said this gives his firm an excellent opportunity to ascertain what the employee needs in order to be happy.

"This communication allows for mutual growth. Perhaps the person wants to switch to our tax department, or wants to work in a different industry. Or maybe he or she doesn’t want to travel. These are things we need to know," said Sharpstone.

Sharpstone realizes being frank with an employer isn’t always easy for a subordinate to do. His firm’s mission statement, shared with all employees, stresses the need for an upfront, open corporate culture.

"Our employees have four or five different avenues available for expressing concerns and needs," said Sharpstone. He added that his firm strives to be open-minded to the ideas of all staff.

"Occasionally staff members, from new employees to partners, desire to branch out into a new ur firm is not currently involved. We take a serious look at the request, and try to give the green light to ambitious, capable staff members whenever we can."


Hope for small firms

Sharpstone and Barriga agree that while smaller accounting firms typically can’t offer relocations to Paris, or the chance to work in several different departments, there is a lot these firms can do to retain skilled employees.

The two said if the opportunity for growth isn’t available in the firm’s immediate environment, than management should consider changing that environment. Sharpstone and Barriga encourage managers to allow bright, capable staffers to expand their firm’s business by branching out into new areas. And increasing market share if done in a controlled manner, they add, is a sound business practice anyway.

Allowing employees to interact with larger clients can also present an exciting challenge: Look for opportunities to give your employees a chance at working with a large client. Or consider partnering with other CPA firms, to offer your employees the chance at working in new areas. Again, this keeps your staff happy and grows your business.

Keeping the talent pipeline flowing

The accounting profession suffers, unfairly in Sharpstone’s opinion, from the stereotype of being a rather boring profession to enter for students. He said undergraduate accounting curriculums typically focus on the basics, which can be rather dry. The remedy, in Sharpstone’s opinion, is to expose students early on to actual case studies.

"I believe that if students were exposed to the more colorful side of our profession early on through a focus on real world case studies, we’d likely see more students entering the business," said Sharpstone.

"As a profession, we don’t let the outside world know how interesting accounting really is. I believe," continued Sharpstone with a smile, "that our profession would make a great TV series, in the tradition of LA Law."

A TV series based on the accounting profession may be a long way off. But keeping top talent can happen at your company right now, by following the sound advice outlined above.


A Preferred Member of the Top Echelon Recruiter Network, Steve Brody founded Executive Resource Systems (ERS) in 1983 to provide CPA firms and major corporations with accounting and finance professionals. Prior to starting his own search firm, Brody served as an accountant and manager in both public accounting and private industry. To contact ERS, call (800) 366 7029, or visit their web site at http://www.erscareers.com


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