In this episode of the Recruitment Hackers Podcast Lana Morgan, VP of Talent at TOA Global goes over the intricacies of hiring at scale for a niche role: accounting. With “Big Fours'' acting as talent development firms, the recruiting set-up is truly fascinating (and a lot more focused on personality, rather than skills).
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MAX: Hello and welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers Podcast. I'm your host Max Armbruster and today, I'm delighted to welcome on the show Lana Morgan, who's VP of talent at TOA Global. TOA is an Australian based outsourcing service provider, which is specialized in accounting services and so I was interested in inviting Lana to talk about the art of hiring for a position that every company in the world needs internally, and then sometimes also with external support, which is accounting, which might sound like a bit of a dry specialized topic for some of our listeners, but we'll try to make it interesting, Lana.
LANA: Thanks, Max. It absolutely is a very interesting career for people who love numbers in particular. So I think accounting used to be dry but now it's absolutely very interesting.
MAX: Yeah, great, I took up accounting when I was in school and I thought it was the foundation of all, the balance sheet, profit and loss statements. If you can't read those you're not going to get very far in business, so absolutely essential foundation. So, Lana, thanks for joining, thanks for coming on the show and sharing some of your specialist knowledge on this topic. Before we dive into recruiting accountants, tell us a little bit about TOA. Let's start with TOA, what do you do?
LANA: So TOA Global supports our local clients, so both in Australia, New Zealand, and then in North America and Canada, to find support from an accounting function so that could be accountants book keepers, or financial support staff, and they would work in our Philippines office on behalf of their clients. So we really need to present the clients with really great candidates that not only can do the functional aspect of their role, but they still have to be a good cultural fit. And they treat them like they would any team member. And during this period of the pandemic when lots of onshore companies have become remote, it is just like having a remote team member anywhere in the world so we provide that service to our clients. We have over 1600 employed accountants, bookkeepers, and financial support people across all of our regions. So, including all of our support staff, we've got 2000 employees at TOA Global so we're growing, we're definitely in that growth phase, and really specializing in accounting, because a lot of our counterparts or our competitors do a little bit of everything, whereas we just focus on that niche market of accountants bookkeepers and financial support.
MAX: Great, so I'm trying to make a mental picture of like 1600 accountants, all gathered up in a place so I guess there's a lot of coffee, and a lot of calculators.
LANA: Exactly so many calculators.
MAX: So, yeah it sounds like a great business to be in because, for people who go into accounting, to have that kind of support where you have 1600 peers that you can learn from and exchange with. So, you're allowed to develop your deep domain expertise, and to help onboard people that are younger in their career, right.
LANA: Exactly, up and coming, accountants who have finished their qualifications in the Philippines, would have exposure to that global platform of our clients and to their peers as you said, who potentially have been in the role for a little bit longer who would guide and train them in their role. So our candidates are very much aligned once they've employed with the client who employs them, and they've got sort of mini teams within that group, the 600-800 ads spread over three different sites in the Philippines. So we're in Clark, in Cebu, and in Manila, the biggest site is in Clark so that 1200 there.
MAX: Okay. I can't wait to get into the topic so let me just ask you about psychology. I know we're gonna generalize a little bit. I apologize in advance. But the psychology of an accountant, so if you're an accountant, sorry for the generalization that may be coming up, but we're talking strategy here broad lines of course there are plenty of exceptions out there but what is the kind of environments that an accountant is attracted to, to begin with, what is the persona that we're targeting from a recruiting marketing standpoint?
LANA: When we're looking for someone who's entering the accounting career after finishing their degree qualification. It really is, I suppose, once upon a time it used to just be numbers if you're good at numbers, good at the analysis, you had good attention to detail, you would be attracted to doing accounting, and that would sort of be a job for life right you just go through and you would potentially work with one or two firms for your whole career. That profile of accountants now has changed so we are expecting a lot more from our accountants, we want them to be strategic, they're almost like a project manager, they're communicating with stakeholders, they're also making recommendations to the business based on their analysis. So, it really has evolved and as you said before every business needs an accountant, but we are now relying on that function a lot more to provide that strategic direction so even we're looking to make a decision, we get that information from that accounting function within our business and then we move forward, that profile of the accountants therefore when we're interviewing we need to make sure that they're comfortable communicating, and particularly at different levels of the business so they may be communicating at their level or with a very senior manager, they do have to be in a space where they can make recommendations and be a little bit more confident than potentially in the past. So it really has evolved as a more of a project manager as a career for someone who's a little bit more dynamic I suppose and what they used to be years ago.
MAX: Yeah. When you say adapt to your audience. It means to be able to move up from doing reporting for a departmental manager to all the way to the CEO of the board.
LANA: Yes correct, yeah so now we sort of rely on that function at all different levels of the business which wasn't the case, I would say 10 years ago, so it really has changed and evolved.
MAX: What are some of the macro trends that are helping your business grow from a talent perspective as well as technology, or just general trends.
LANA: Yeah, we would say, from an outsourcing perspective we're really focused on the people, the technology and the processes. So it's really about making everything simple, easy to follow and be able to do things more efficiently through these platforms. So that's sort of what we're doing at the moment, from an internal perspective. So when it comes to recruitment, we utilize testing platforms and we do different types of assessments for these candidates as they come through. But one thing that we don't do is remove the personal touch. So we sort of feel like we still might need to make sure we're doing that, face to face interviewing. So when we say face to face, it's all online these days so we had to pivot very quickly during the pandemic. We used to run assessment centers on-site and do a lot of our interviewing in the office. We now as the rest of the world do, now do it all online. And it's actually proved to be really efficient. So, allows us to process that higher volume, and to make sure that we're really able to connect with people, and in our recruiters being able to do that it's about developing the rapport on a zoom call that we're doing today so that I would have a candidate online. There would be standardized questions so that the candidate would have already completed all of their testings, and that final interview is really for cultural fit, and the ability to work in this outsourcing environment so we make sure that they had that adaptable nature that they can communicate well that they were able to understand instructions and follow up.
MAX: When you are hiring an accountant, they already have their accounting degree and maybe some certification, what is the bare minimum that you look for from a candidate?
LANA: So that would need to be degree qualified, so that's a degree in accounting in the Philippines, that is very aligned to the accounting principles globally really across Australia and in the United States. So they have really defined the foundation as you would get if you had qualified here in Australia or in the US, and then we're moving towards a training program which we're calling the accelerated program where we will help and enable those locally experienced degrees qualified candidates to then be able to apply their skills in that global platform whether it be Australia or the United States.
MAX: As you said, accounting is a global practice. I mean there are some mild adjustments from one market to the next, mostly nomenclature, but it's the same principles that rule the entire world. So, there are no barriers to relying on the international outsourcing provider other than perhaps the cultural barriers that you were referring to earlier. And so the minimum standards for applying for a job would be. I've got my accounting degree, that's the basics. What are we talking about if I'm hiring an accountant coming out of school, what should I be looking out for, what are some of the essentials that I should be looking out for if I'm taking somebody who's quite junior, and I want to be, let's say running, accounting for my small business?
LANA: That's a great question. So a lot of our clients are small to medium businesses so they need to make sure that this person that they hire, as you mentioned before, not just has the principles in accounting because that is something we would expect all of our degreed qualified candidates to have, but they need to be able to adapt that experience to the client's requirements. So you would be looking for a cultural fit. The fact that they are able to listen to instruction and follow through and also follow up, to be able to make sure that they're deadline-driven, able to manage to prioritize their tasks during the day, but I would say, a key thing is to be able to put their hand up and ask for assistance when they don't understand something because we sometimes forget about that cultural difference but that is something a skill that they need to have. So if they're not understanding an instruction or they need additional guidance they need to be comfortable and confident to be able to ask their manager to help them in that way.
MAX: Is that something that you would find out once they're on board or is that something that you can establish in the recruitment process like the ability to put your hand up because nobody wants this. Everybody is afraid of sounding stupid in the interview process.
LANA: Yes. So we use behavioral questions to try and understand how they've performed previously in a role and how they will perform in this role if they're successful. So we ask for examples, for example, one of the interview questions we have is we get them to do a video to explain to us when they've made a mistake at work before and how they would explain that to their manager for example. So we can get an understanding of how they approach the question, what their communication skills like, and how they can then apply that in their new role. So we try and have a good understanding but as you said, really, when they get into the job that's when you uncover how confident they are in that space, but as long as the manager is giving them the feedback that they require to be successful and encourage them, I think they're relatively streamlined into the team as if they were sitting with them in their onshore.
MAX: You mentioned in that interview question that you would refer back to their past experience and tell me about a time when you made a mistake. The risk inherent with hiring somebody who has zero experience in this domain might be too much for many employers to stomach. And thankfully, there are big houses like PWC and others that seem to be taking the majority of graduates into their fold, and then releasing them into the market, is that dynamic that's a play for you as well?
LANA: No. We pretty much pick up those candidates once they've worked for a PWC or an Ernst and Young for a couple of years; they don't hoard on to them generally. And then they would come to a company like TOA Global with that two years experience, and the feedback we get from the candidates is they have a much better work-life balance so they work very hard in those graduate years when they go for one of those big four firms, and then they come to us for more of the ongoing career. So we would hope to retain that candidate for at least five years so we sort of putting them through, we offer different training and learning plans to try and keep them with us. So they have a career with us rather than that turnaround time of two years, but it's definitely valuable experience. An experience that we would seek out so we would definitely try and attract those candidates to us who've graduated in the Philippines, they've gone to one of the big fours and they've done two tax seasons, and then that would come into us.
MAX: Okay, so then they've got tax seasons under their belts, plenty of mistakes that they can talk about in the interview. It's almost too good to be true when you think about it. It's like these Big Fours producing all of this talent. Is the supply thinning out? Are they able to continue to attract sufficient numbers for graduates? Are the Big Fours still hiring at the same volume today as they were ten-twenty years ago?
LANA: They absolutely are, if not increasing in the number of graduates they're taking, and expanding into different areas of the Philippines. So setting up more of those hubs where they're able to attract those candidates. So their strategy is changing, and as is also when you're looking at the talent insights of that market in the Philippines. They're definitely an emerging market of graduates, and also those candidates that then have two years experience. So at this stage, we're not running out, but we are trying to be very targeted as to which areas those candidates are located in.
MAX: Alright. Will you give us a good tip with the interview question and tell us about a mistake and how you communicate it with your manager? What are some of your other favorite interview questions to ask accountants to make sure you've got the right fit?
LANA: Very good. We do technical questions, so we will give them, as you mentioned before, like a P&L or a spreadsheet and we will ask them to do the workings in the background so we're able to see how they applied themselves to that question. It's not always about the answer we want to see how they've gone about it sometimes so it is very much the technical question. And then, before the cultural fit, like as I mentioned we want to know more about what they've done in their previous work history, how they would apply themselves to this role if that was successful, definitely understand in their previous roles how they have practically applied the accounting principles. So for example, if they mentioned that they're zero certified during the interview, we would ask them to demonstrate how they applied that in a practical sense in the workplace. So great, you've got this certification, and that's fantastic. Tell us about how you've applied that in a practical sense within the workplace. So we can not only understand the qualifications, skills, and experience. But sometimes, if you've just done a certification but you haven't really applied it is not as practical or as useful as you would think. So we're getting better at asking those questions. Our recruiters at TOA Global are not accountants, so, therefore, their responses we need to make sure that we're able to understand the examples that they're giving us. So our recruiters would go through training, I mean, we call it internally, accounting for non-accountants, so we try and have the basic principles so we can understand the examples that they're giving us, and we rely heavily on tools so we use testing tools that are specific to the accounting function so we can make sure that we're getting a true indication of what their accounting experiences.
MAX: You said you've got over 1600 accountants on your payroll.
MAX: Surely one or two of those will end up in your recruiting team.
LANA: We've got one at the moment, so yes. We took a graduate into the recruiting team and she's working out very well actually. I think she's got about two years till she starts asking us for an accounting job. But definitely, I think the profile of what you're looking for in a recruiter is slightly different. So we look for very outgoing people, they have to be a little bit more sales oriented. So, I'm not sure if an accountant would be able to do the volume of activity that we do in recruitment.
MAX: Well sure, but some people go into accounting because it's a safe career choice. It was something that made their parents happy. But perhaps a couple of years into their career they realize actually I am an outgoing person that needs to hit the phone every day. So does that happen quite often, and it's a source of miss hire?
LANA: I would say that there are different types of accounting roles so they would therefore gravitate to the ones where they have more of the customer-facing experience, and they might go into something, there's a good example in our team. In the Charter Academy team recently we hired an accounting trainer who has completed his accounting degree in Australia, he's worked for a couple of years, exactly what you said, I want some more dynamic role where he's chatting to people every day, so he's gone down the path of being an accounting trainer, so he understands the principles he's applied it for four years and now he's moving more into that L&D space with a certification for in training, so that's probably a good example of someone who's gone into accounting loves the numbers loves the financials, but also a people person.
MAX: Yeah and in your company, until he's going to find what he's looking for for sure.
LANA: Yeah, exactly.
MAX: There are enough people to train there.
LANA: We've definitely got enough people to train that's for sure to keep him busy.
MAX: One of my favorite questions, and it'll be my last one for today is one that I ask around hiring mistakes because everybody's made mistakes.
LANA: Everyone has made mistakes. Absolutely.
MAX: And it's easy to talk about them in general terms, but where it really stings, is when you think about that one person that you hired maybe this year or maybe 10 years ago, where you were deeply invested emotionally, intellectually into their success, and it didn't work out professionally into their success and didn't work out. Lana, can you walk us back through that moment when you hired somebody, and it was a complete fail, and what do you learn from that experience for us to learn from your mistakes.
MAX: From a personal perspective in my own team. I absolutely try to learn from my mistakes, and I have made a few over my career history. So, thinking of one example, I think, probably a good example of when someone has the technical expertise you bring them into your team you think they're going to be the superstar, but potentially that cultural fit is not there, and they're disruptive to the rest of the team. So I think I've learned from my previous mistakes that that cultural fit, making sure that person is going to be a positive influence on the rest of the team is so important that I just wouldn't compromise the skills and experience over that so it definitely is my number one, to make sure they've got a positive attitude, they come to work, ready to perform and be successful. I'm really lucky with my current team actually so we've really got that philosophy that we bring in the people that we really get energize us from an activities perspective and when we invest in them from training and get them up to speed so they're able to perform at the same level. So I think once you have the formula and try and repeat that you think about not only five years but the real success stories and how can we then look for people with those similar skill sets to be successful in our team.
MAX: I'm trying to dig a little bit for some dirt here now. You're talking about somebody with a positive mindset so that's sort of a bad hire that you're thinking about as somebody who was smart, but, sorry, what was the word?
LANA: Disruptive maybe. I think in recruitment, you can have great recruiters, but they're not team players, they're sort of in it for themselves and they're not necessarily there for the overall success of the team, and for the client, so that's what we're looking for because we're really there to support our clients. Outsourcing is really sort of like a recruitment agency when you think about the model right. So we've just got to make sure that we support those team members to be as successful as we can, If we have one person in there that's really self-focused and disruptive to the team that has a negative impact. Absolutely.
MAX: Yeah, so don't go for the short-term win with that Maverick superstar. It's gonna demotivate everybody around him or her.
LANA: Absolutely, yeah, it causes more damage in the long run, you're right. So that short term gain for the long term pain so we just stick with the tried and tested formula of the cultural fit that we're looking for, and invest in those people for the skills that we need as we move through. Recruitment is a real personality fit. I think once you've got that right, you can then train them up and make sure they're successful.
MAX: Smashing. Well, I hope one of our listeners will avoid that long-term pain. Thanks for your good advice. Thanks, Lana for joining us today.
LANA: Thanks, Max. Thanks for having me today.