The Importance of Winning the Beauty Contest
The business world’s version of the beauty contest – those award schemes, surveys and rankings of great places to work such as Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For - seem to increasingly earn headlines in the business media. While these contests are a source of water cooler discussion and debate, there is of course a serious side. These contests reflect how organizations treat their people—but they also can help organizations attract new people, and retain the ones they have. Accounting firms often rank well in these contests; but the truth is, our profession really needs to focus on the talent issue—at least that’s what’s emerging from the development of IFAC’s strategy for the next few years. So what is the extent and nature of the issue, and the implications? And how can IFAC and the global accountancy profession win?
An Environment of Change and Disruption
People are our most scarce and valuable resource, and the key to successfully navigating the current context of a relentless pace of change and disruption is having the right talent in place. But this change and disruption will have deep and far-reaching ramifications for how we attract and retain talent.
As the global economy has gotten back on its feet after a bout of financial crises, labor markets have generally tightened – with some notable exceptions such as the chronic youth unemployment in Europe. One might think that this tightness is temporary, a by-product of a long overdue economic upswing. But I feel that competition for talent—and I would extend this to our ability to retain and leverage talent through training, engagement, and empowerment—is now not only intense, but will also be enduring.
Evidence is accumulating to corroborate this conclusion. Groundbreaking research from Dr. James Canton, as we reported here, predicts that the business environment for professional accountants, accounting firms and their clients will be characterized by “unprecedented, massive, and highly accelerated change” through at least 2025. Specifically, the survey reveals that 80 percent of US accounting firms have concerns about recruitment to meet future needs. I strongly suspect these concerns are shared globally.
Changing Needs and a Changing Generation
Needs are changing. Many accounting firms are morphing into professional service providers. Future growth in practice revenue will be propelled more from advisory than assurance work—demanding not only a different technical skill set but also new approaches to marketing and pricing. Also, there are opportunities and threats posed by technological change. The professional accountants of tomorrow will need to be as much at ease with data analytics and cloud computing as they are with debits and credits.
Meanwhile, on the labor supply side we have a generation of young people with different skills, priorities, motivations, values, approaches to work, and habits. Forbes has reported on insights on millennials by the Intelligence Group; one study reveals that 64% of millennials say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place; 72% would like to be their own boss, but if they do have to work for someone else, 79% of them would want their boss to serve more as a coach or mentor; 88% prefer a collaborative work culture rather than a competitive one; 74% want flexible work schedules; and 88% want “work-life integration,” given that work and life now blend together inextricably.
Accountancy, accounting firms, and the profession overall need to evolve into a more attractive destination for these millennials workers. This will likely demand innovative approaches to education and training, flexible work, and greater emphasis on staff engagement and empowerment. Accounting firms will need to convince millennials that their organizations can make a make a difference and offer the opportunity for them to contribute to making that difference.
The Profession’s Response
How can the profession win this beauty contest? It will demand a competitive talent strategy—for accounting firms, for IFAC member organizations, and for IFAC.
IFAC is already hard at work developing a new HR strategy to best serve and support the global accountancy profession. This new strategy includes “sharing knowledge on emerging trends affecting the profession, such as the attractiveness of the profession, ways to retain accountants, the impact of new trends in education and training, preparing for a new generation of accountants, and issues relating to competition with other professions for top talent” among IFAC member organizations, firms, and the profession as a whole.
Some of our member organizations are also already taking action. This is especially true in the US market, where ACCA and The CFO Alliance, a global community of senior financial leaders and decision makers, recently announced a partnership to explore the current state of the global “talent gap.” Meanwhile, the AICPA is sharing experiences and lessons on how to find candidates among Millennial women, forging a strategy to shape the future of education and training with its Future of Learning initiative, and addressing the needs of students interested in becoming professional accountants and those preparing for the professional exams via its new website, This Way to CPA.
IFAC aims to accelerate this activity and help our member organizations learn from each other. Indeed IFAC’s President recently stressed that to achieve its potential the profession needs to look for future leaders leveraging the entire pool of available talent. This will demand us being diverse and inclusive—in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality, background, experience, and more.
We all want our organization to be the one discussed around the water cooler—but, in truth, the stakes are high. We cannot afford to lose this beauty contest. The success of our profession in an environment of relentless pace of change and disruption will be determined by whether we are able to attract and retain the best and brightest. We invite you to share your organization’s successes and challenges in attracting, retaining, and developing talent.