The Definitive Guide to Interviewing Finance and Accounting Pros
Interviewing for an open position can be a frustrating experience. And yet – some of the most transformative changes happen to an organization when you hire the right person. The interview process involves a lot of art mixed with science; in other words subjectivity. As finance professionals, that’s something that isn’t natural to us.
We reached out to our network – C- and VP-level finance executives from the Fortune 500 and prominent startups and asked them what technique(s) they’ve used to identify the strongest candidates. Here are the 5 most common lessons we heard.
LESSON #1: Use a Test-First Approach
If you are looking to hire an entry-level accountant, you should look for someone who you can project as your next controller or CFO, not a highly paid bookkeeper.
Let’s admit it, with automated systems, the mechanics of the job have gotten a lot simpler. You’re looking for someone who can and wants to become a strategic partner to the org and not just input numbers into Netsuite.
So practically speaking, that means you need to adopt a ‘test-first’ approach.
Don’t be shy about testing before you even bring the candidate on-site. For example, provide a scenario where a business undergoes a business model shift and ask detailed questions about the financial or accounting implications
Our favourite technique came from a CFO of a well-known startup:
Hi Steve – I’ve always asked my candidates to go to a whiteboard and walk through our company’s P&L. The test shows me who’s done their research on our company and can ask the right questions to get to an acceptable answer.
LESSON #2: Look for Candidates on a Journey
Most reasonable people understand that switching jobs every now and then is common for a variety of reasons, especially at startups. In that sense, your role is never a destination nor do you want a candidate that thinks that way. Pay attention to the clues that separate the high performers from the average ones.
Have you ever heard a candidate say “I’m thinking about getting my CFA”? A person that is used to getting things done will use more productive language: “I’m studying for my CFA Level 1 which I’m taking in September.” That’s the language of someone who has a plan. Those types of candidates are the ones that will transform your team.
Here’s the thing, you’ll see clues in other places too:
- Promotions or changes in job duties on their resume
- Speaking about wearing multiple hats not particular to the role
- A successful shift in a career path in the past
- Genuine and specific accomplishments about current or previous jobs
We loved these questions: “What did you accomplish in the past that you never thought about achieving” & “What do you consider yourself world-class at?”
LESSON #3: Make the Offer Competitive
Be upfront about the starting salary before you meet the candidate and make sure that it’s in-line with the market. We’ve personally seen companies that view the finance role as a back-office function and really limit the budget for the role. Put it this way, for a team that is responsible for the strategic deployment of resources, a high-performing candidate will pay for themselves many times over.
Here’s an anecdote that really resonated with us:
“We hired this really ambitious AP/AR specialist. One day he was auditing invoices and found that we were paying for 600 Google enterprise licences – 3x the number of licences than employees working at our company. We were able to correct it the following month and he earned half his salary right there.”
LESSON #4: Don’t Overemphasize Cultural Fit
This is literally the most overused term in all of recruiting. It’s one of the hardest terms to define. Just look at the various problems with interpretations we’ve encountered:
- Does the potential hire need to attend “Happy Hours” to be a “fit”
- Does the person crave instruction and require 9 to 5 working hours? That’s not a lack of cultural fit, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding on how to drive value at an org.
- Is your candidate a micromanager and you need them to scale a team? Then that’s a person not suited to the requirements of your role.
The term “cultural fit” needs to be a more defined term. The best companies are the ones that really emphasize the notion of a collective desire to succeed. Hire the person who clearly understands the specifics of the job with the ability to work alongside various personality traits.
LESSON #5: If All Else Fails, Play The Long Game
Some of your best candidates will not take your job offer for one reason or another. Don’t take it personally; but if you really liked them, stay in touch. Here’s what one startup CFO had to say:
“I’ll say, ‘Let’s grab breakfast or a cup of coffee and I’ll ask them what are you up to? And we’ll cultivate that. I may continue to meet that person every couple of months for six months. And then I bump into them at some point and that’s the moment they’re ready to make a move.”