Earlier this year while training first year staff at a national training conference for a Top 15 firm, I was struck by the diversity in my classes, including women and men, people from all cultures and backgrounds, as well as non-natives to the United States. What really caught my eye, however, was the span of ages in the classroom.  Here’s why: I would estimate that at least 20% of these first-year staff were slightly or significantly older than the traditional 22-year old college graduate.

These more mature “first years” stood out in their classes not only because of their appearance. In general, they were more vocal with their opinions and ideas and openly shared their experiences. When we began the exercises and hands-on portion of the training, many of them were highly focused and on task. An experienced employee, even if their experience is in a non-CPA environment, offers obvious advantages. They provide more maturity and wisdom than their younger counterparts and can set a positive example for those behaviors. Most will have honed their communication skills and have experience working in a team setting.

Experienced hires from other CPA firms also offer benefits to your organization. They might require development in certain areas, or intensive training on the way your firm operates; however, they have seen another way and can offer ideas and open minds to the possibilities available to solve your firm’s log jams and operational problems. Presumably, they come with technical knowledge already in place, something it will take you a few years to develop in someone with less experience.

Not all firms are open-minded about hiring experienced talent. We often hear statements like “we have to find someone with public accounting experience. Candidates with only private experience don’t understand what we do, and I can’t teach someone how to keep a detailed timesheet or interact with clients.” Or leaders will tell us that they’ve tried it, and they just can’t make experienced hires work for one reason or another. But if you aren’t looking for experienced hires, I wonder how you’ll work around the holes in your team that naturally occur with the turnover most firms are experiencing today.

We believe you can successfully find and retain experienced hires. In this blog, we’ll focus on the retention side of the equation and share six ideas for more successfully on-boarding and “locking-in” experienced hires to your firm. For ideas on where to find experienced hires, see our blog on the topic.

  1. Enroll your whole team

To start, sell your team on the benefits of hiring experienced staff. Highlight the gaps in your team and discuss the pressure and stress it puts on the team, as well as the opportunity costs it creates because seniors, managers and partners can’t delegate and push work down. Set the stage for your team so that they understand what’s at stake. From there, enlist the team’s help in making your new hire feel welcomed. Sometimes teams make it hard to break in and feel like an insider, so ask the team to include the new hire in lunches and activities. Teach them how hard it is to start something new and ask them to be open and welcoming to your experienced hire.

Next, start a discussion about the learning process that will need to occur. Be clear that this person will look different from someone you grew in-house. Experienced hires will be missing key knowledge about how you operate and what’s important to your firm, so the team needs to be patient and diligent in identifying and filling in those gaps. So many firms throw up their hands and quit early in a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I knew this experienced hire idea wasn’t going to work.” Be unstoppable in your quest to successfully integrate your experienced hires and be sure you get the whole team on board.

  1. Be honest with your experienced hires BEFORE you hire them

Another key to successfully hiring and integrating experienced talent is setting clear expectations with the candidates who apply. Discuss in the interview process that it isn’t easy to go from experienced to new, and talk about the fact that they’ll be in more of a learning role for the next year. You want to assess their willingness to accept and adapt to the feedback that will naturally have to occur to shape them into a successful member of your firm. Here’s a great interview question to assess openness to feedback: “Tell me about a time when you received tough feedback from a supervisor.  What happened and how did you respond?” Listen for their ability to identify a time when they received difficult feedback and how they positively processed it.

  1. Assign someone to own their success

Once you land an experienced hire, assign them a coach who will take responsibility for their success over the first year. The coach should then work with Human Resources to develop a plan for the training and on-the-job learning necessary to accelerate development.

The owner is also responsible for ensuring that the new hire develops relationships across the firm with a variety of individuals to strengthen and deepen their connection to the team.

  1. Revamp on-boarding programs for experienced hires

If you have a campus recruiting program, you probably have a strong on-boarding process that supports the interns or first-year hires through their transition into the firm. That same process won’t support experienced hires for a few reasons. To start, most firms aren’t hiring experienced staff in groups and so the usual training programs and methodologies don’t fit. Second, experienced hires won’t necessarily need the full technical training program you send young staff through, but instead will need bits and pieces, depending on the work they’ve done in the past and the specific role your firm needs them to play. As a result, you will likely need to build a more customized program for each experienced hire.

On-boarding for experienced hires should be more heavily weighted towards experiential learning, or learning done on-the-job. See our newsletter on the subject to kick-start your thinking on experiential learning. We’ve also attached our New Employee Orientation Checklist, a sample tool that outlines an orientation process. Consider adding a new tab and mapping out your experienced hire processes there.

  1. Feedback is key!

Before I came to ConvergenceCoaching I was a Firm Administrator at a CPA firm. I had 12 years of experience in the role with responsibility for managing the time and billing system and recommending changes to client service procedures, but when it came time to be a consultant myself, I realized I knew nothing about actually being a billable employee, entering a detailed timesheet and managing clients. My ConvergenceCoaching leaders taught me the systems necessary to be a successful consultant, and then they patiently gave me feedback as I made mistakes or misunderstood the focus. They never stopped and said “Renee should already know that.” Instead they showed me the right way and turned me loose again.

You can teach experienced hires what it means to be successful at your firm. Identify the skills that are missing and make a plan to teach them your systems and processes. Assign them the right kind of coach who will give them regular feedback and patiently help them adapt to working for your team. Make sure the coach and the firm are aligned around the time necessary to mentor your experienced hire and expect that it will take at least a year for them to come up to speed.

  1. Get them involved in meaningful activities, fast!

As you get to know your new hires, start thinking about ways to get them involved in making the firm better in some way. People who have worked at other places have an outside knowledge and perspective that your firm can leverage on committees and in improvement efforts. Collaborative activities will build rapport and relationships and strengthen the bonds between your new hires and the team, while giving them a way to make a difference at your firm.

Which one of these six ideas will improve your ability to successfully integrate experienced hires into your firm? Pick at least one, and work with your team to make some changes.  When you do, you’ll make a big difference in your firm’s morale, client service and ability to grow!