What to look for in an accountant?

Accounting Skills and Attributes - Thinkstock

If your organisation is looking for a new accountant, you need to think about how to maximise your chances of hiring the best candidate - the individual who promises to offer greater value than all the others. It can be difficult making your final selection - particularly if you are offering attractive terms and, as such, have received an influx of promising applications.

So, what do you look for in an accountant? It is important to have a clear idea of what - or who - you are looking for in a potential hire. This understanding feeds directly into the recruitment process, as it allows you to set an appropriate job description and candidate criteria. The decisions made at this initial planning stage will influence who applies, and how many submissions you receive from suitable individuals.

Choosing from the talent pool

Accounting continues to be a popular profession in the UK - one that many young jobseekers aspire to. There are a number of potential reasons for this - aside from an enthusiasm for finance and bookkeeping - including the high salaries paid to top talent, the well-defined career paths and opportunity to progress, relative stability of the market and job security enjoyed by industry professionals.

Understandably, there are always talented individuals looking to join the profession or progress their careers by applying for new roles. Each individual is likely to have completed their accounting qualifications, or be working towards them, and have the technical grounding needed for the role. So how exactly can you choose between them?

Setting role criteria

In order to ensure they receive suitable applications, employers need to clearly outline their expectations of the successful candidate. This helps to naturally filter applications. Just as advertising for a senior accountant should dissuade recent graduates from applying, promoting an entry-level position will put off the high-flyers who have greater salary demands.

But the fact remains hiring managers may still be required to choose from a number of similarly skilled and experienced candidates, all of whom are qualified and technically capable of working in the role. The first task is to ensure the right people are invited to interview - those who look like the best fits for the organisation - and the second is to make the correct appointment.

In order to do so, hiring managers need to assess candidates against a wide range of criteria, going beyond hard skills and qualifications. Soft skills, motivations and personality traits will also be important - these may well be the differentiator between similarly competent individuals.

Should a number of candidates perform well at interview and make a strong case for being hired, there needs be a way of making the final decision.

What to look for in an accountant?

Aside from essential qualifications and skills - those you should expect to see in every serious applicant - the following attributes may be valued in an accountant.

  • Industry awareness - as accountants get more involved in strategic decision making - recognising the importance of the finance function to organisations as a whole, and demands for regulatory compliance - industry awareness is becoming all-important. Professionals need to understand what is happening within their own team, department, organisation, jurisdiction and sector as a whole - and where the industry sits in the global economy. They must also appreciate how their own role can influence the actions of colleagues, bosses, clients, partners and even rival organisations.
  • Commercial nous - on a related point, a general understanding of business issues is highly desirable in accountants. Being able to manage and interpret figures is only one aspect of the job - finance professionals need to communicate what the numbers mean in the wider context of the organisation. Not only this, they need to offer input on business decision making, based upon the information they are presenting to the board. Without an understanding of the mechanics of business, in the applicable context, accountants are only capable of doing half a job. Particularly with the world of business changing at such a pace, and new markets opening up all the time, general business knowledge can be highly advantageous to professionals seeking accounting roles. This has led to the rise of business partnering within organisations.
  • Communication skills - gone are the days when accountants could operate largely in a silo, given a straightforward mandate to look after their clients' books. In the 21st century, professionals are expected to work alongside people from a variety of different roles and departments, collaborating on projects and communicating key information to non-finance staff. This requires both a willingness to work as part of a team, and an ability to communicate well - both one-on-one and to group audiences.
  • Commitment - with employers looking to build stronger teams and position themselves for growth, they require individuals who genuinely want to work for them. Some candidates may see the advertised role as just the next step on the career ladder - a temporary stop as they acquire the skills and experience needed for their next move - but others will be looking to the long term, thinking about how they can achieve their professional goals as an employee of the hiring organisation. On the basis that employee attrition costs businesses time and money, and potentially impacts on productivity rates for weeks or months afterwards, many employers look for professionals with solid CVs and significant periods of service at particular employers. Loyalty is a much valued attribute, particularly with voluntary turnover on the rise in an improving labour market. The longer employees stay, the greater the opportunity for the organisation to realise a strong return on its investment.
  • All-round ability - accountants who have a wide range of skills across many areas are highly sought-after by employers. These are the individuals who can turn their hand to any task, and operate with maximum flexibility - responding to the particular needs of the organisation at any point in time.
  • Of course, they still need to be competent with numbers - since they are primarily being hired to strengthen the finance function - but being an all-rounder can certainly be advantageous. Employers are looking to achieve more with less, in order to improve the health of the bottom line, so the more agile and multi-faceted their people are, the better.