insight magazine

Leadership Matters

3 Keys to Attracting and Retaining Accounting and Finance Talent

Winning top talent in a tight labor market doesn’t have to be one of the CPA profession’s biggest challenges.
Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC Executive Leadership Coach, Lokhorst Consulting


It comes as no surprise to me that “finding qualified staff” and “retaining qualified staff” were among the top five issues named across all size CPA firms in the most recent AICPA Private Companies Practice Section survey. Truth be told, attracting and retaining top talent has always been a massive challenge in our profession, but even our corporate peers are facing a tougher time on the talent search. For only the second time in its 21-year run, Duke University’s and CFO Magazine’s survey of business and industry leaders identified “attracting and retaining qualified employees” as a top concern. Considering our current historically low unemployment rates and demographic trends, we’re all going to be scrambling to secure talent for some time. But, does it have to be a challenge or chore to attract and then retain top talent?

Mark Miller shares three essential ingredients in his recent book, “Talent Magnet: How toAttract and Retain the Best People.” His approach is unique in that he sought out what “top talent” wants from their employer and how that differentiates from “average talent.”

Miller and his team mined employee databases for performance evaluations, surveyed 7,000 employees online, and interviewed workers identified as “top talent” by their employers. The research spanned a variety of industries, business sizes, and employee age ranges to ultimately reveal that all talent wants fair pay, a safe work environment, equitable treatment, healthy culture, and an organization with a positive reputation. No surprises there, but workers identified as “top talent” want three additional elements compared to their “average talent” counterparts: a bigger vision, a brighter future, and a better boss. So, how can the accounting and finance professions tap into this insight?

A Bigger Vision

Your top talent is concerned about where your organization is going and what it’s all about: vision, mission, values, and impact. This desire is especially powerful among Generation Y and Z workers. They want to know their work matters and that they’re not just crunching numbers; they want to make a difference in the world and have a purpose-filled vision to serve.

Now, how do you articulate a greater sense of vision and purpose as an employer? How do you differentiate yourself from other employers?

Mississippi-based Horne LLP describes itself as “The Wise Firm” and states their purpose is “creating value and making a difference.” HubSpot has achieved a reputation as a top employer through its founder’s passion for a mission “bigger than any sort of profit objective.”

Real estate firm Keller Williams celebrates RED Day every May, a day to renew, energize, and donate in the communities they serve. In 2019, Deloitte marks 20 years of its Impact Day, an annual day for their teams to serve together in local communities. Providing opportunities for your team to serve together in the community is a significant way of promoting a bigger vision.

A Brighter Future

Top talent is also looking for a clear career path and opportunities for professional development. For too long, CPA firms have shrouded the road to partner in ambiguity. Staff move through the ranks to senior and manager, wondering about the process, timeline, and expectations to become a partner. Leading firms now offer structured partner development programs to retain their top people, those identified as future firm owners.

Corporate accounting and finance staff are looking for similar clarity, asking questions like the following: What does it take for me to advance to the next level? What are the benchmarks and milestones to be eligible for promotion? How do I gain the experience necessary to succeed in this organization? Who will walk alongside me to help navigate the career path here?

In-N-Out Burger seems to have gotten this right. Beloved for its burgers, the California burger chain is also beloved by its employees. As one shift leader wrote on Indeed, “This company gives us opportunity to work with others and also to guide others in their careers. It gives us opportunity to train and gives us a reason to come back to work.” The company has become a top employer because it prides itself on developing team members, which is something we can all take note of.

The best leaders show team members the potential that lies ahead and create pathways to success. They offer training, mentoring, coaching, and stretch assignments to help staff succeed in their current roles and prepare for their next ones. These leaders provide regular, specific feedback to help employees build skill sets, even at the risk of seeing them leave for other opportunities. They know that offering a brighter future keeps the leadership pipeline fresh and enhances succession planning.

A Better Boss

Providing top talent with a better boss is essential to close the exit doors that increase turnover statistics, which we know run quite high in public accounting firms. Top talent simply doesn’t tolerate bad bosses or bad relationships with their bosses. Today, especially, there are too many other workplaces for them to go.

So, here are four suggestions to help you become a better boss and build better bosses in your organization:

1. Pursue leadership development opportunities. CPAs tend to gravitate toward technical skills for training and CPE. Pay more attention to non-technical skills as you move to new leadership levels within your organization. Over time, you will rely less on your technical skills and more on those of your team members. At the same time, developing non-technical skills will build your leadership capacity.

2. Integrate producer and leadership roles. As CPAs, we have a get-it-done mindset. It’s easy to think, “If it wasn’t for all these people I supervise, I could get my own work done.” Shift your mindset to see people as an essential part of your work and beyond just completing tasks yourself. Improve your delegation skills to better leverage your time and energy, which will free you up for more leadership functions.

3. Prioritize your schedule for leadership activities. The whirlwind of deadlines, due dates, and daily operational demands often pushes leadership to the back burner. Put time on your calendar for leadership activities, like staff development, strategic thinking, and change management. Treat that time like you would your most important meetings with clients, investors, analysts, etc.

4. Get to know and care for those you lead. Holding a regular check-in meeting with each team member is like hitting the trifecta: it makes you a better boss and enables you to provide a bigger vision and brighter future for each of your team members.

Attracting and retaining top talent shouldn’t be a challenge or a chore to you or your organization. It should come naturally as you build your reputation as a top employer. The key to winning in a tight labor market isn’t more perks or gimmicks, it’s showcasing how you provide a bigger vision, a brighter future, and a better boss. Do this while engaging your existing team to share their experiences in your recruiting efforts and you will master the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent today.

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