Date posted: 09/04/2021 10 min read

Why you need to invest in talent

How do you attract, and keep, the staff you need in challenging times? And what skill sets mean a machine can’t replace you?

In Brief

  • With a lack of overseas talent available as a result of COVID-19, many financial services firms have been scrambling to fill positions.
  • According to Altius Group, workplace wellbeing programs can result in a 25% decrease in absenteeism and keep staff.
  • For job seekers, soft skills could clinch getting a role as automation eliminates many entry-level accounting roles.

Story Josh Gliddon & Ben Power with additional reporting by Abigail Murison

More than half (53%) of respondents surveyed in a Deloitte 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey said between half and all of their workforce will need to change their skills and capabilities in the next three years.

More recently, PwC identified that CEOs with more advanced upskilling programs cited improved engagement among staff, more innovation in their organisations, and a greater ability to attract and retain talent.

However, that same study found that while 77% of employees would be happy to learn new skills or retrain to ensure future employability, only 33% felt they had been given the opportunity to develop digital skills outside their normal duties.

This year, as the accounting profession deals with skills shortages due to international border closures, financial services firms are realising that investing in people and workplace wellbeing has never been more important for business growth.

Candidates will dictate your priorities

With a lack of overseas talent available to assist with busy reporting seasons, many financial services firms in Australia and New Zealand have been left scrambling to fill positions as a result of COVID-19.

“That traditional model has always been that if you need someone, and you’re working for a big firm, you can always find the person you need and bring them in on secondment from overseas,” explains Dr Jason Talbot CA, managing director of Graphite i2i, a specialist boutique management consulting firm.

Megan Alexander, managing director at recruitment agency Robert Half in New Zealand, says: “The New Zealand jobs market finished 2020 incredibly strongly, with demand for accounting and finance roles all the way from clerical to senior roles.

“With the borders still closed, we expect to see strong demand and candidate shortages right through to the end of 2021.”

There’s another reason for staff gaps, too. With redundancies across most of the Big Four firms last year, and remaining staff being put on reduced hours while still handling big workloads, some simply walked – or have taken extended leave due to burnout.

Indeed, a report from IT solutions provider Telus International found 80% of US workers would quit their current position for a job that focused more on their mental health.

David Cawley, regional director at recruitment firm Hays in Sydney, says there has been an environmental shift.

“Over the past six to nine months, we have seen a change from the cost-conservative, headcount-controlled environment to one focused on finding and investing in talent,” he says.

“We are moving from a client-led market to a candidate-short market, which means as movement increases, candidates will be able to dictate their priorities.”

Employee wellbeing comes first

Smart organisations are investing in employee wellbeing. According to Altius Group, a provider of health and wellbeing services, workplace wellbeing programs can result in a 25% decrease in absenteeism and a 41% decrease in workers’ compensation costs, which represents a A$5.81 saving for every A$1 invested.

Studies have found that while mental health issues present substantial costs to organisations, those that take action to create a mentally healthy workplace – such as by investing in an employee assistance program (EAP) – can expect a positive return on investment.

Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s EAP, available to all members and their families, is a case in point. Simon Hann, CA ANZ’s group executive, education and learning, says there was a CA candidate who was thinking of dropping studies due to mental health issues. The candidate accessed the program, found assistance and decided to resume their studies. They ultimately passed.

Skills that are in demand

Accountants have been hearing the same thing for years: as automation eliminates many entry-level accounting roles, soft skills – or human skills as they’re now more commonly referred to – are increasingly sought after.

A Forrester study, released in February this year, found 58% of cubicle workers – bookkeepers, accountants, human resources staff and office clerks – will be gone by 2030.

According to both Cawley and Hann, people with better-than-average communications skills and the ability to explain financial insights to non-finance stakeholders are in high demand.

“All in all, 50% of accounting jobs are going to be impacted,” says Hann, citing a study CA ANZ conducted with Fathom research, that showed within eight years 15% of accounting jobs would be automated, 20% would be new jobs created by changes in technology and market demand, and a further 16% of jobs would be augmented by technological change. So, what is to be done?

Be curious, make decisions, collaborate

Harriet Molyneaux, co-managing director of London-based research consultancy HSM.Picture: Harriet Molyneaux, co-managing director of London-based research consultancy HSM.

Harriet Molyneaux is co-managing director of London-based research consultancy HSM, which was founded by Professor Lynda Gratton, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and advisers on the future of work and organisational behaviour.

Molyneaux has witnessed firsthand technology’s impact on jobs. As an assistant in the legal department of a large international firm, one of her earliest jobs was to enter colleagues’ work hours into a spreadsheet and create pie charts. She was soon replaced by automation.

“An openness to change and the ability to work in a fast-paced environment are really crucial for both the banking sector and also the Big Four accounting firms,” she tells Acuity from her home in London.

Molyneaux argues the onus on preparing for the future of work doesn’t sit only with accountants, but with organisations. Future-oriented organisations are moving away from classroom settings and encouraging greater learning on the job, she says.

An investment bank she works with wanted to increase the successful outcomes of its traders, which in some cases meant increasing their tech skills, but in many cases simply called for better communication between traders and the back office. So the bank sat its back-office IT function with the traders.

She says collaboration is a key skill for the future: the ability to work with other companies is becoming vital, particularly with large accounting firms buying smaller rivals or technology companies.

The ability to network, be curious, communicate well and influence decision making will also be essential.

Molyneaux says accountants need to ask: “What are those unique human skills that I can bring to the table that machines find really difficult to do themselves so I’m still a real value-add?

“Previously, accountants needed to get numbers out of the system in an error-free way to make a presentation,” she says. “But now they need to do something meaningful with the numbers and advise businesses. That is a different skill set to high-skilled routine analytical work.

“They are used to being the expert with all the answers,” she says. “But in the future, they won’t have all the answers. Instead, they need to display curiosity and also listen to their teams and external partners to co-create.

“They will move more into the decision-maker space. That requires an understanding of the drivers of the business and trends outside the business. Systems thinking means stepping back and seeing the system as a whole, rather than zooming in to one skill.”

If accountants can adapt, Molyneaux says the future is bright. “There is potential for accounting roles to become richer and more diverse down the line. There is an opportunity to stretch out that role and really play a meaningful role in the business, particularly enabling some junior accountant who says they feel like a cog in a machine to have a more influential role in the business. There will be exciting opportunities for people who want to be broadening their roles.”

“There is potential for accounting roles to become richer and more diverse down the line.”
Harriet Molyneaux, HSM

Accountants as data analysts

Another area in which accountants can really add value is in working with big data.

“Most organisations have more data than they know what to do with,” says Molyneaux, adding that accountants have a key role to play in interpreting that data and communicating their insights.

Technology skills may extend to coding: learning to write the language that underpins software, apps and websites. Molyneaux says Linklaters, a law firm she’s worked with previously, is teaching its employees, including senior talent, to write code.

Amir Ghandar FCA, CA ANZ’s assurance and reporting leader, agrees CAs shouldn’t fear technology, but learn how to work with it.

“The skill sets are changing but IT will allow auditors to be more effective at what they do,” he says. “IT lets us analyse data faster, but it also brings to the fore the need for skills to be developed in reasoning and analysis – as well as data science.”

To assist upcoming CAs develop the skills they need for workplaces of the future, CA ANZ has undertaken two major initiatives, the new CA Program and the Capability+ model.

The new CA Program

CA ANZ’s revised CA Program examines the skills needed at the start of a CA’s career and allows for greater flexibility and personalisation in the course.

“Research showed us that employers and the market are looking for an amplification of soft skills,” Hann explains, adding that these include ethics and the role of a CA as a trusted collaborator and adviser, communicator and influencer.

“The CA of the future is a digital transformation leader and a problem solver,” he says.

Ghandar believes “personalising” the model is important, as there are many differences between what generations want from their careers.

Millennials, for example, want freedom and flexibility in their roles.

“They want to do a project and then work with someone else, or on something else,” says Ghandar. “These people are going to become a greater percentage of the workforce, and it’s going to change how firms work and how the profession works and sees itself.”

Gen Z, on the other hand, who are now entering the workplace, are far more conservative, both fiscally and in their career paths.

“These people lived through the GFC [global financial crisis] and now the pandemic, and so they’re far more interested in a stable career path, salary and remuneration,” says Ghandar.

But one thing that links the two generations is their desire to make a difference. They’re acutely aware of environmental and social issues and want the companies they work for – and their own work – to be agents of change. They want to focus on building a better tomorrow, both for themselves and the generations that follow.

“This is something we need to emphasise as a profession,” says Ghandar. “We need to communicate that auditing is something that has integrity, and that integrity [is what] makes the economy work. This is a message that suits the generational ethos and it’s something we need to work on. It can be a challenge to get that message to cut through.”

One way to attract and retain these new generations is to let them work in a way that suits them, rather than force them to adopt the methods of the past.

“We need to change our approach, and not have them change their approach for us,” says Ghandar.

CA ANZ’s Capability+ model

CA ANZ’s Capability+ model is a framework designed to help CAs futureproof their success.

The model looks at several domains in which CAs might need to improve their capabilities, including in business – communication and problem solving – as well as personal, which looks at mindset and critical thinking. There is also a technical domain, and one that includes governance and risk.

“The domains are defined at three levels,” says Hann. “There’s early career, then there are mid-career leadership roles, and finally executive roles.”

Capability+ is defined by its online self-assessment model. This lets members identify their current role and a role to which they aspire.

CAs are able to do a self-rating and produce a development program that identifies gaps in career development and maps out professional development programs offered by CA ANZ and LinkedIn Learning.

“It closes the loop and gives members the ability to focus on what is relevant to them,” says Hann.

The program, which launched towards the end of 2020, has so far seen 2000 members complete assessments.

New CA ProgramGraphic: The new CA Program is here. Click image to enlarge.

Identifying weaknesses

Capability+ has also enabled CA ANZ to gain some insights about CAs that employers would find valuable. In terms of ethics, integrity and future focus, CAs rate their abilities highly. Where they see their weaknesses are in areas critical to the future of the profession (not to mention employers), including data analysis, problem solving and reporting.

Bringing the circle back to new generations, who will need to be strong in data analysis and data science, CA ANZ is tailoring its continuing professional development programs to offer personalisation.

“In the past, programs have taken a sheep-dip approach,” says Hann. “That is, everyone got the same treatment. Now we want to help people learn in an authentic way that replicates the workplace.”

How to attract young talent

Ed Chung CA, CEO of TechnologyOnePicture: Ed Chung CA, CEO of TechnologyOne.

Every quarter, TechnologyOne, an ASX-listed software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm, brings graduates and potential hires to its Brisbane campus, where its different departments set up stalls designed to provide an insight into what company life is like. It’s a similar concept to a university orientation week.

Teams from a cross-section of the company make it their job to give new starters a rapid immersion into TechnologyOne culture, sharing the tools and processes used to get their jobs done.

“It’s designed to indoctrinate people into the heart and soul of what we do,” says chief executive Ed Chung CA.

TechnologyOne has deep connections with universities and sees attracting young talent as a priority. The company, Chung explains, prefers to promote from within.

“We have rolled out, in parts of the organisation, defined career frameworks. For us, it’s not about a job, it’s about a career and promoting people who know and love the company and can become the leaders of the future.

“We have a leadership model rather than a management model,” he says, meaning team leaders are experts in their field and can guide their reports effectively to develop products that “help the customers of our customers”.

More than “just an accountant”

Deven Naran CA, head of operations at HSM research consultancy in LondonPicture: Deven Naran CA, head of operations at HSM research consultancy in London.

Deven Naran is a chartered accountant and head of operations at HSM research consultancy in London. He collects and analyses data and communicates what it means to HSM’s leaders. His use of data analysis is adding significant value to the firm and helping boost profitability.

Naran’s close analysis of HSM’s service line, for example, found that one of the firm’s offerings, which should have been one of its most profitable, was the least profitable.

“On further investigation we discovered this was due to how people were spending their time,” says Harriet Molyneaux, the company’s co-managing director.

“To mitigate, we’ve provided a time management course to everyone at HSM and implemented ‘sprints’ in this service line. We have seen quarter-on-quarter improved profitability of this service line.”

Naran has the autonomy to shape his role and bring ideas to the table. “Providing insightful analysis to HSM’s leaders and making efficiencies through technology enables me to really make an impact to the organisation,” he says.

Naran believes businesses are already starting to ask their finance teams to go beyond the traditional role of an accountant.

“In my view, accountants should look to continually develop their analytical skills to help turn data into decisions,” he says. “Being aware of broader market trends and tailoring communication styles to the audience are also key to making a big impact on an organisation.”

“Accountants should look to continually develop their analytical skills to help turn data into decisions.”
Deven Naran, HSM

Find out more:

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