Grow Your Firm

A Creative Solution to the Talent Shortage: Ignore it (and Cultivate Your Own Talent)

Christine Farrier Head of Channel Marketing at Gusto 
woman hiring

Before we get to accounting, let’s talk talent. Star talent. Did you know the actor Jennifer Lawrence was discovered on a family vacation in New York City? Actor Chris Pratt was scouted by a director while waiting tables at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. A truly astounding number of models got their start when talent scouts approached them at the mall.

Like talented actors and models, star performers are coveted in accounting. And for good reason—according to research by McKinsey, top performers are as much as 800% more productive than their peers. In accounting, top performers are such a hot commodity that the Big Four accounting firms in the US scooped up pretty much all of them during 2020, leading to a major talent shortage for everyone else. (The unemployment rate for tax professionals is just 2%—half the national average for all jobs.)

Yet client demand is as high as ever—so what’s a smaller firm to do? Well, going up against the Big Four to compete for candidates is a losing game. With star performance comes diva-worthy pay. Top-performing employees typically earn 4.6% more than their colleagues, and the Big Four have fat pockets to offer enviable salaries and benefits that smaller firms just can’t match.

But don’t despair. If Hollywood discovery stories tell us anything, it’s that talent is hiding in plain sight—if you know where to look.

That means ignoring the talent shortage. You can make like a savvy Hollywood agent and cultivate your own stars, using a mix of training and technology. Here’s how.

Get your 30-day talent shortage playbook
Get your 30-day talent shortage playbook

Set an inviting stage with the right tech and tools

If you want to develop star performers, give your people the tools they need to do their jobs well. Only then can they thrive, and when they do, all you have to do is get out of the way. An important first step is to make sure your devices, software, and back-office services are up to date. These are your set pieces for a successful performance.

Ensure employees are equipped with the right tools. This includes hardware, like monitors, audio headsets, and scanners, as well as up-to-date software. Not only will this help your employees get more done, but it also helps create an environment where people enjoy their work and feel inclined to stick around.

For instance, consider supplying each employee with a large-screen monitor (or a stipend to buy one) if they don’t have one already. With two screens, they’ll be able to work more efficiently, since they won’t have to constantly switch between tabs. It’ll also make it easier for your employees to enter a flow state: a sense of total absorption in a task, which has many mental health benefits, including greater fulfillment and creativity. Providing your team with this equipment is a relatively small investment, but will pay big dividends in terms of productivity and goodwill.

And it’s not just monitors—you can apply this thinking to the rest of your office setup too, whether you’re in-person or remote. What can you give your team to help make their work more productive and satisfying?

Pick the right props—aka your software—to help each person accomplish more

By some estimates, employees waste more than two hours a day on tasks they feel are pointless—things like producing duplicate documentation, recreating files they know exist but can’t locate, and sending messages that aren’t read. Optimizing your tech stack can help you win back time and free up your employees to focus on the tasks that really matter, allowing them to take on new challenges and build their skills. (After all, you’ll never get to play Hamlet if you’re always being cast as Gravedigger #2).

One of the biggest opportunities is in automation. Data entry and other mindless tasks can take up a lot of time, without adding a ton of value. Choosing software that can help automate data entry, sending routine forms to government agencies, or client updates can free your team from soul-destroying busywork—and let you gain back the hourly equivalent of a part-time employee.

Another area where software can help your team function better is in communications and project management. Instead of piecing together endless email threads, consider adopting a cloud practice management tool. These allow you to track tasks, collaborate on projects, and chat with teammates—all in one place. Today, there are a ton of great options available, including Xero Practice Manager or Monday.com.

The benefits of freeing your employees from drudgery have far-reaching effects: Employees who aren’t bogged down in minutiae can spend more time where it counts, such as on providing exceptional customer service. Some of the most successful accounting firms right now are the ones focusing on guiding clients and their people with business recovery services. To help serve your customers better, you can also adopt cloud People Advisory tools, which can provide support with things like strategic forecasting and advising (LivePlan) and day-to-day payroll and benefits management (Gusto). By better serving your clients, you’ll also advance your practice.

Host an open casting call to discover hidden talent—internal and external

Once you’ve created the right environment and selected the right tools, you’re ready to seek out your stars. And, you don’t need to look far—with the right approach, you can find talent right under your nose, by hiring or promoting non-accountants and equipping them with the tools they need to do accounting work.

Already, 82% of firms are considering recruiting from non-accounting backgrounds and 43% of them believe that technology skills are the most important qualification candidates can possess.

Look for people (sometimes already within your firm) who may not know accounting, but who are smart, willing to learn, and who, empowered with the right tools, can do the work. Once you identify them, you can make like a savvy talent agent and prepare them for their big break.

First, make learning a priority at your company. Ensure employees are aware of the training that’s offered and give them guidelines on how to use it. For instance, some may feel hesitant to take online classes on company time because they think work should always come first. Give them ground rules to know that learning is OK, and to pursue their learning objectives knowing they won’t be punished. (As a bonus, it’s a way to attract younger, tech-savvy professionals who put a premium on personal growth.)

Just getting your learning program off the ground? A great place to start is your software vendors. Many offer free training programs and some even provide official certifications, with nifty LinkedIn badges upon completion. Your employees will be able to get more out of your subscriptions while leveling up their skills.

As a reward for their hard work, you can send your most engaged learners to conferences and in-person training to further cement their skills. When they return, encourage them to share their key takeaways with the rest of the company, so everyone can benefit.

Take a bow before the client-winning encore

Accounting firms grappling with a talent shortage should be encouraged by what Hollywood has always known: Talent is everywhere if you keep your eyes peeled. Instead of trying to out-compete the Big Four, you can cultivate the top performers of tomorrow by creating the right environment, adopting the necessary technology, and upskilling your existing talent pool. And who knows—you might just have the next Jennifer Lawrence on your team.

These insights have been adapted from our playbook, Ignore the talent shortage. Check it out for a guided, step-by-step plan to level up your team and technology in just 30 days.

Get your 30-day talent shortage playbook
Get your 30-day talent shortage playbook
Christine Farrier
Christine Farrier I lead Gusto's channel marketing and communications efforts focused on audiences like accountants and ecosystem partners. I'm an NYC-based urban explorer whose social media handle ought to be "boring but exceedingly relevant." Connect with me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/christinefarrier/.
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