With accountants in short supply, CFOs use automation, flexibility, and career planning to retain existing staff.
By Russ Banham
In November in CFO, executives at public accounting firms, staffing agencies, and corporate accounting chiefs articulated the reasons behind the precipitous decline in accountants. The consensus was that to draw more young people to accounting, and the profession needed rebranding.
Indeed, rebranding seems in order, given that 87% of accounting managers have trouble hiring talent in general accounting, financial reporting, and FP&A. But what can be done in the meantime to retain the accountants you already have on your payroll?
We asked this question of four public company CFOs. In turn, they cited four successful approaches, described below. One of the four — “providing a clearer career path” — is particularly important to counter perceptions that the job is a dead end.
As Ken Stillwell, CFO at low-code software platform Pega, put it, “Accounting used to be a stepping-stone to a job at a big consulting firm or a ladder to becoming CFO, but that is less and less the case today.”
Here’s what these CFOs are doing to ensure their accountants stick around.
1. Continuous Investments in Back-Office Tech
Anyone who has ever prepared their income taxes has an idea of how boring and time-consuming technical accounting can be. Thanks to automation technologies, mundane work is made easier, freeing accountants for more interesting value-added projects. CFO Paul Rouse dubbed the digital transformation of his finance and accounting organization “The Great Simplification.”
“We’ve gone headlong into technology from Workiva, Alteryx, and BlackLine that automates work, eliminates work, reduces work, and optimizes work,” said Rouse, finance chief at software-as-a-service company Thryv Holdings. “We put together a team to find the best ways to simplify work, with goals like fewer keystrokes and journal entries. Morale among accountants skyrocketed.”
“We’ve gone headlong into technology … that automates work, eliminates work, reduces work, and optimizes work. — Paul Rouse, CFO, Thryv Holdings
At Ulta Beauty, automated systems in finance and accounting send a message that the company is an innovator that cares about people, said Scott Settersten, the retail beauty chain’s CFO. “Accountants want to be part of an innovative company; you’re not going to be perceived as such without automating the back-office systems,” Settersten said.
2. Flex Work is Table Stakes
Many companies and public accounting firms provide hybrid work options to accountants, not surprising since much of their work is digital. The challenge is striking a balance between remote work and more traditional office assignments, said Richard Galanti, CFO at global retail giant Costco Wholesale.
“We have different variations of hybrid work in our central office and other offices, but we’ve found that a 3-day/2-day workweek is a desirable job feature for mid-level accountants and below,” Galanti said. “It gives them three days at home to balance work and life and two days at the office to meet with teams and absorb the culture.”
“From a company standpoint, all the work that needs to get done gets done.”
Rouse agreed. “Work-from-anywhere … energizes the staff and makes them feel heard,” he said. “To retain (accountant) stickiness, you have to pay attention to how they want to work.”
Settersten is doing just that. “Many people want remote work, but that doesn’t mean they want to work remotely all the time,” he said. “There’s a `yin and a yang’ to this. Younger people want to come into the office, which they see as important to their training and development.”
3. Money Matters
While the interviewees say higher pay is a factor in retention strategies, more than money is needed to keep accountants in place. “If you’re competing on compensation to retain accountants, there’s only so much you can do,” said Galanti. “Many other jobs out there in my view overpay, the case with technology companies.”
“Accountants, like everybody else, want to be sure they’re on an actual career path. — Scott Settersten, CFO, Ulta Beauty
Ulta Beauty regularly benchmarks accountant pay trends in its sector “to make sure we’re super-competitive on compensation,” said Settersten. “But while compensation is important to our retention, it’s not the most important (factor), which is making sure we’re providing a clear career path.”
4. It’s the Career that Counts
That path was more transparent 20 years ago, said Stillwell, who rose to his job level through the accountant ranks. “You couldn’t get a CFO job then unless you were a controller first; now, CFOs come in as chemistry majors, while accountants are stuck in the back office doing technical accounting,” he said.
The solution is two-fold: rotate accountants through different finance and accounting positions and corporate functions. “We’re rotating junior-level accountants into positions like managing a small team handling fixed assets or into higher transactional-level departments like accounts payable,” said Settersten. “And we’re rotating FP&A people through functional areas like supply chain, marketing, and merchandising … to learn about the business.”
Rouse is doing something similar. “We recently tasked an accountant in revenue optimization with leading an important strategic project for the tax department,” the CFO said, noting that the accountant’s job had become so boring she considered leaving the company. “When people see a career path, they stay.”
Stillwell said the finance function needs to be an “incubator for accountants to have great opportunities elsewhere across the enterprise.” Pega encourages accountants to support teams in sales, operations, engineering, and cloud “where they can get a deeper appreciation of what we do,” said Stillwell.
“Accountants, like everybody else, want to be sure they’re on an actual career path,” said Settersten. “We make sure their managers help them develop a longer-term view of what their career will look like, and then provide internal and external training opportunities … to acquire the skills they need.”
He’s philosophical that many accountants will move on. “The grass always looks greener somewhere else,” he said. “If this is not the case, the door is open to them returning. If they leave and realize they made a mistake, we tell them beforehand that if they want to come back, we’ll find a spot.”
Several have returned to the fold.
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.