Convention ≠ Strategy: Impact on Talent Acquisition In the Accounting Industry

Today I want to address talent acquisition for accounting firms. I’ve been hearing more and more that this is a problem in the Portland-metropolitan area, including Vancouver, WA. And, reading blog posts in the accounting space, I’m learning more and more that the problem is industry-wide. I believe I have a resolution.


Convention ≠ Strategy

In my last post, Stories Differentiate Accounting Firms, I alluded to the same, boring portrayals of accounting firms in this region. Strategic messaging–that I argued was neither compelling, nor defined by the ambition of those running accounting firms–gets lost in translation. Human interest in the good fortunes of others is not served by accounting firms’ messaging.


No Differentiation

Seemingly everyone offers the same advantages (see bullets below) – even if some firms are better at them than others.

  • Competence.
  • Technology / Resources.
  • Comfort.
  • Relationship / Communication.

What real value do those attributes provide clients’ businesses anyway?

Compelling to Prospects?

Just as compelling, how do these values match up with the values of coveted, top-notch talent? In other words, why would the free agent prospect choose one accounting firm for which to work over another? Is it because…

  • Competence?
  • Technology / Resources?
  • Comfort?
  • Relationship / Communication?


To be clear, strategy is the answer. We must be clear about convention first, and then exhibit how strategy is, indeed, different and compelling.

Why Is It So Hard To Recruit Talent?

What was difficult back in 1998 (Chamers, et al., 1998; see quotes from graphic above) remains difficult, still, more than 20 years later.

What The Pros Say

A recent article in spoke to Four Tips for Recruiting Accountants in 2019. The author wrote, “freshly graduated accountants…and other CPA job seekers will have many employment options and it’s important that your company stand out from the pack.”

Already that advice is challenged in this Portland-metropolitan area. I am not a career expert, but from a small business standpoint, the strategic positioning of local accounting firms is not unique. Reread the beginning of this article or my last few blog posts. There’s not much making accounting firms “stand out from the pack.”

Four Tips

For the sake of learning, let’s review what four tips were offered:

  1. “Companies have to work harder at selling themselves.
  2. “Be prepared to meet employees’ expectations for perks and benefits.
  3. “Once a candidate has signed on the dotted line you must still work to get them engaged with your company.
  4. “A staffing firm with strong expertise in the accounting and finance industry can help connect you with the right candidates for your open positions and help streamline the recruiting process for your company.”

Halted by Convention

A presumption of differentiation between one accounting firm and the next has to hold true for the above to make a difference. The reality is, point-for-point…

1) Companies that sell the same messaging don't differentiate themselves.
2) Perks and benefits are superficial additives that substitute for more fundamental purpose.
3) Different than training, engagement is meaningful support to then collectively express what makes the firm different.
4) A staffing firm cannot strategically usher the right candidate to the firm if there is no strategy that differentiates the firm!

Conventional accounting firm marketing fails.

Strategy is too important to take for granted.

Ambition. Purpose. Differentiation.

Thinking About Hiring: VRIO for the Prospect

Let’s use an analysis tool called the VRIO framework. It was established in 1991 by Jay B. Barney, Ph.D., then of Texas A&M, when he wrote for the Journal of Management:

…Sources of sustained competitive advantage are firm resources that are valuable, rare, imperfectly inimitable, and non-substitutional….The study of sustained competitive advantage depends, in a critical way, on the resource endowments controlled by a firm.

In terms of talent acquisition, let’s break that down and figure a new way to think about hiring.


That list–Competence; Technology / Resources; Comfort; Relationship / Communication–serves function again so we can ask ourselves the question: Are the firm’s services valuable (i.e. based upon the same individual values) to the prospective hire? We value these things. Do employees and prospects value the same?

  • Competence.
  • Technology / Resources.
  • Comfort.
  • Relationship / Communication.

For employment how and why is the firm rare or unique?

How similar or how difficult would it be for one firm to copy (imitate) the benefits or advantages another firm has at present?

How organizationally capable is the firm to position itself as valuable, rare and incomparable?

VRIO Conclusion: Convention Isn’t Strategy

If an accounting firm is one of convention, then think about this:

What is valuable, rare, inimitable and incomparable about an accounting firm such that its existence compels prospects to express themselves, be themselves and improve themselves according to their ambition?

Based upon my observations, it is not

  • Competence.
  • Technology / Resources.
  • Comfort.
  • Relationship / Communication.

Rather it is human interest in the good fortunes of others.

Once more, convention ≠ strategy.

Accounting firms have choices to recruit talent because their, the firms’, resources are under their control. This means firms

  • Can battle one another for the same talent using the same boring messaging for the same activities and positioning.
  • Can excruciatingly focus in on a niche in the market and yet remain similar in most every other way.
    • Competence.
    • Technology / Resources.
    • Comfort.
    • Relationship / Communication.

‘Or they can do and be different.


Focus On Ambition

Defy Convention; Embrace Uniqueness

Support and provide for the market. Think about it. That market needs accounting services anyway.

What else does that market need?

It needs a way to ensure individual client’s success. Accounting as a service–bookkeeping, accounting, tax services–does not do that. So how can an accounting firm focus its talent acquisition on the firm’s overarching ambition – human interest in the good fortunes of others?

The answer is another four tips:

  1. Differentiate the firm in accordance with that ambition.
  2. Instill and promote that ambition to the core of the company’s being.
  3. Hire talent who by way of his or her individual personality, character, motivation and aspiration share that ambition.
  4. Provide additional professional services to clientele that will help them
    1. Grow their business acumen.
    2. Become more resilient to industry threats and competitive deficiencies.
    3. [Re]Discover alignment with their personal ambition.

Need help?

Rehr Consulting

In a 30-minute to 1-hour informational interview (in person, telephone call, Skype, etc.) I would get the answers to 3 basic questions:

  1. Why did you get in business in the first place?
  2. What are your Top 3 goals, and Top 3 risks?
  3. Is your business operating in alignment with your personal ambition?

From there, I would work with that client to figure goals, devise ways to achieve the desired business performance (strategy), and strengthen resilience.

Chambers, Elizabeth G. et al. “The War For Talent”. The McKinsey Quarterly, no. 3, 1998, Accessed 3 July 2019.

Teague, Brady. “Four Tips For Recruiting Accountants In 2019”., 2019, Accessed 3 July 2019.

Barney, Jay. “Firm Resources And Sustained Competitive Advantage”. Journal Of Management, vol 17, no. 1, 1991, pp. 99-120. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/014920639101700108. Accessed 3 July 2019.

Chambers, Elizabeth G. et al. “The War For Talent”. The McKinsey Quarterly, no. 3, 1998, Accessed 3 July 2019.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: