A company is only as good as the sum of its people – fact. In an era of close to full professional employment, attracting and retaining real talent has never been so important; nor has it ever been so difficult. In this article, recently published in Accountancy Plus, Ed Heffernan, Managing Partner with Barden explores why this is happening and how small and medium sized companies in Ireland can be competitive.
Why is it so competitive for talent in Ireland?
With a record 2.3 million people employed in Ireland we in the midst of war for talent in almost all parts of the labour market – particularly within our specialist area of accounting & tax. Employers are competing with each other to attract and retain the best and brightest at a level never seen before in Ireland. From graduate recruitment (this year saw what was possibly the biggest ever intake by the Big 4 firms) through to mid-level/experienced management roles there is far more demand than supply; inflating wages and frustrating hiring managers in what firmly is a candidate driven market.
Conversely, the very senior end of the market (CFO/FD) remains reasonably challenged with an oversupply of high calibre people and an undersupply of relevant roles at the top of the finance organisation; causing slight salary deflation and frustrating senior finance professionals in what still remains a hiring manager driven market. The tipping point between these two extremes is at circa the 110/120K mark in larger companies and at FC/FD level in SME businesses.
The take away here for small to medium sized business in that it might actually be easier to find a Finance Director than perhaps a recently qualified or part qualified accountant. It’s counter intuitive but it is the real consequence of supply and demand for finance talent in Ireland today; or what we like to call recruitment economics.
What has driven this change?
Demand has been primarily driven by the creation of new roles in challenger Irish companies, larger Irish multinationals, FDI and by service innovation in larger practice firms (consulting, advisory and related areas). FDI has resulted in an increased proliferation of international finance hubs (and the nature/geographical scope of their services to internal customers) and the establishment of strategic business units with finance, commercial and technology teams to serve European customers. People taking up these “new jobs” will often create a gap in the company they are leaving. This creates a “domino” effect that can result in a succession of similar opportunities arising from the creation of just one new role.
The SME space in Ireland has seen reasonably consistent growth in recent years but the oversupply of senior finance people in this area (the hangover from the recession) has dampened the feeling of competition for finance talent in the SME space.
In tandem with these increases in demand there has been a significant shift in part of the supply curve. Minimal graduate intakes into the accounting profession from 2009 to 2011 resulted in a decline in the number of qualified accountants entering the market from 2012 to 2014/15. Add to this the fact that large numbers of accountants move overseas after qualifying, for longer periods of time and, cumulatively, you have some serious supply issues at a certain level of PQE. This experience “bubble” is here to stay and while supply has been increased at intake levels since circa 2012/3 the aforementioned gap will stay with us for many years to come.
A swathe of global tax changes and the heightened media/political scrutiny around tax cases like Apple, has put tax high on the agenda of many corporates, leading to an increase in the demand for tax professionals at all levels.
How can SME employers compete in this new reality?
When companies like Google have almost infinite resources to attract finance talent, at any level, it can be hard for smaller companies, with limited resources, to attract talent in the first place and to then retain that talent for a meaningful period of time. We’ve prepared some tips that we hope will help you with both sides of this tricky challenge
There is no point in trying to compete with the employer branding and advertising budgets of bigger companies. Instead, it’s about trying to out think them. There is no one way to do this but here are a few things that you definitely can do that, cumulatively can create a tipping point in your favour:
- Control your first impressions: You will be judged by your website, both it’s content and user experience. You will be judged by your hiring managers LinkedIn profile and how it represents both their and your employer brand. You will be judged by your Glassdoor reviews. You will be judged by your companies profile on LinkedIn and other social media. It does not take a lot of money and it does not take a lot of time to get these things right, but it does take effort. Making sure that you cover these basics is your first step.
- Showcase your people: People join people and people leave people. Use the more human friendly social media platforms to showcase your people inside and outside of work. Sharing the odd photo of a company event or activity can do wonders for your employer brand. As long as you do it consistently, over time, you will build up a simple online history of how it feels to work in your business. Never underestimate the importance of simple consistent effort in this area.
- Write job specs for external, not internal use: Too many companies create job descriptions that list duties, contain internal acronyms, talk to tasks and demand experience. People do not apply for jobs because the tasks involved were so well detailed. They apply for jobs because there is something about the company and the role that appeals to them. They apply to jobs because of how they feel. Write the job descriptions to appeal to your audience. Invite them in. Include quotes from the hiring manager or an existing member of the team. Talk to general task but speak to the activity and the opportunity. Speak to how it feels to work in your business. Simple tweaks like this can make a big difference. You won’t have as many roles as the bigger companies so make sure to put the effort into the roles that you do have. It can make all the difference.
- The personal touch from day 1: These days if you think it’s OK to email applicants to set up interviews you’re wrong. If someone looks good then the hiring manager, or someone capable of engaging with the person in a meaningful way, should take the time to pick up the phone. This personal touch can really go a long way. Accommodate their diary, invite them in to “meet the team” rather than interview, make them feel wanted and feel important. Most importantly keep control of the process – they can choose not to email you back but if you get them on the phone they are much more likely to engage and participate.
- Develop Your Unique Value Proposition: Contrary to popular belief, the interview process should not be a candidate interrogation. Yes, of course, it is your opportunity to evaluate an individual’s skills, competencies and achievements, but just remember, they are also evaluating you and your business, to decide whether this proposition is going to give them the opportunity they are looking for. When you’re dealing with top talent, it’s absolutely vital to remember that they won’t just be interviewing for one job, they are likely interviewing for 5-10 other opportunities, and could achieve up to 50% conversion to job offer. If this is the case, you have a fight on your hands, and this should be fought from the first time you shake hands, not at the end of the process.
- WIIFM (what’s in it for me): We’ve all heard of this acronym. Understanding your audience’s priorities is key to negotiating, and closing, a mutually beneficial deal. If your strategy is to attract and secure top talent, you must take time to consider the drivers of aspirational and talented finance professionals. It’s absolutely critical to develop a real and engaging value proposition for why your leadership, this role and the wider company is right for them. Providing a full briefing on company vision, a clear role direction and a demonstrable career path for future development is pivotal. Consider bringing in peers, previous holders of this position and company success stories to talk through their experience and support your case.
- You Are Your Company Brand: What you, and your interviewing partners, say and do throughout the interview process will create an impression of what it is like to work in your team. Put yourself in their shoes. If you were in an interview process, what would you be looking for in a new boss? Vision, integrity, the feeling that you would be valued? Most likely all of the above. Beyond interacting meaningfully in an interview to bring them into your world, it is absolutely essential to manage expectations fully. Demonstrating indecisiveness, not giving feedback on time, or worse, not giving feedback at all is a sure-fire way to cause irrevocable damage to not only a potential offer acceptance, but also your reputation as a hiring employer in the market.
- It’s not all about the base but salary is important: Today base salary is very much a hygiene factor – paying the right salary or above is not a motivating factor but paying even €1K less than expected is highly demotivating. Don’t play games with salary. Be clear as to your range at the very beginning, clarify expectations as you go through a process and when you do make an offer make it in person, explain your reasoning and at the same time pain a future vision for how you will help the person increase their learning and earning into the future.
There is one thing that is more important than any of the above. The thing that SMEs have and multinationals can never have. With SMEs it’s personal. People in SMEs have far higher connectivity with what the business does, with customers and with each other. People in SMEs have broader roles and more exposure than in multinationals; often enjoying a wider variety of activity and the ability to get involved outside of their department. Never underestimate the value that variety and a personal touch can have for prospective employees.
This is about living the reasons that the person joined your business in the first place. Reflecting how the interview process felt in how it feels in the office on a Monday morning. There are loads of different things you can put in place to increase talent retention but you can’t expect any magic bullet. You also need to mean the things you put in place and your leaders need to live it. Some simple things that we know work include:
- Flexibility: every salary survey in the last three years has pointed to flexibility being key. Flexibility to start a little earlier/later, to work from home from time to time maybe even to finish at 4pm on a Friday. Small, simple things like this empower people and encourage them to build a life around work. The more integrated life and work are the less likely someone is to leave.
- Learning: build small, regular learning opportunities into the working week and your people will feel invested in. It does not have to cost anything but time. Supporting study (leave, fees and encouragement) is also very powerful. Offering opportunities for people to take on new duties can develop them horizontally (rather than vertically) and solve lots of problems for you at the same time. Learning is key to keeping your team together.
- Wellness & Mindfulness: There’s lots of literature out there on this and it’s worth spending a little time and picking one or two things that make practical sense for you to implement. Small gestures in this space can be the glue that keeps people together.
- Random Acts of Kindness: These are the most powerful things an SME owner can do. Getting in ahead of an expected salary review and offering the raise before it is asked for; telling someone to finish up early of a Friday as you know they have put the hours in this week already; being cognisant of life events and thinking of ways to make them feel important to you too. Random acts of kindness build loyalty like nothing else.
Implementing some of these simple, low cost, approaches to talent attraction and retention can creating lasting value for you and for your people. Get the mix right for you and you’ll win the war for talent in the long run.
Source: Accountancy Plus
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