What do Accounting Firms look for in their staff?

This is the million dollar question – what skills and qualities do public accountancy firms want to see in new recruits?

There is not a huge amount of qualitative research on this topic but there is a recent study by the AICPA (American Institute of Chartered Public Accountants), which has findings that are applicable right across the public accounting profession. This study looked at the recruitment processes of six public accounting firms, 2 of them were regional accounting firms containing around 200 employees and two of them were local firms with 15 to 65 employees. Although the survey discovered that CPA recruiters were looking at a broad range of characteristics, there were three areas that were thought to be especially importance; these were: ‘Leadership Potential’, ‘Strong Interpersonal Communication Skills’ and ‘Enthusiasm and Motivation Towards the Profession’.

These findings make sense in a lot of ways when one considers that a CPA firm is a professional services firm. While there is a clear technical basis to what they do, CPA firms are increasingly finding that they need to deliver their services in a consultative way. This approach requires a team of accountants who can see beyond the numbers and who can cultivate and nurture, strong and productive relationships with clients that will generate customer loyalty and encourage referrals.

Gone are the days when an accountant could merely expect to sit in the corner and lose themselves in spreadsheets without a thought for the subtleties and nuance of client expectation. The days of the traditional ‘bean counter’ are gone and today’s accountant should also be able to demonstrate the qualities of a business consultant. This is something that their clients will be increasingly looking for – hence the requirement for interpersonal skills.

Another core challenge that CPA firms face, especially small and medium size firms is the need for effective succession planning. The most effective and high performing CPA firms will have a talent pipeline that flows right from the bottom to the top of the organization – graduates can join and work their way up to accountants and accountant can become partners, succeeding other retiring partners or growing the business. Either way the succession planning process is the arterial system of the accounting firm. If the succession planning process fails then the firm will begin to struggle and be less competitive as a result. This is why CPA firms are attracted to graduates who are enthused and motivated by the profession over te long term and who also have the leadership potential to progress into accountants, managers and partners.

It goes with out saying that all these consultancy based ‘soft skills’, as they are known, must be based on a bedrock of technical competency or else the accountant will not be of value at all. It was no surprise then that the AICPA surveys also showed therefore that CPA firms were looking for graduates who possessed excellent scores in business and or accountancy topics during their degrees.
So finally, if you are looking to secure an entry level position in a CPA firm you will find that a strong technical foundation may get you an interview but what will differentiate you from your peers and get you the job are your communication skills, leadership potential and your desire to progress in the accounting profession.