Four keys to successful hiring at professional services firms


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Four keys to successful hiring at professional services firms

A professional services firm (think lawyers, accountants, consultants) is unique in that its core asset is its “human capital”—that is, the people who work there. In our modern economy, all firms must prioritize talent; however, manufacturing and product firms must also manage equipment, inventory, quality control, efficiency, and production processes.  A professional services firm’s primary lever to drive success and sustainability is its ability to attract, develop, and retain excellent talent. 

Therefore it stands to reason that professional services firms must have particularly high standards for the individuals they hire. But how can they ensure success in those recruiting efforts? 

First, use marketing to provide a window into your culture. According to the 2015 LinkedIn Survey “Why & How People Change Jobs”,[1] the number one obstacle for candidates is “not knowing what it’s really like to work at the company.” 

At Charles River Associates, we launched a multi-year collaboration with our marketing and communications teams to use social media, our website, and hard copy materials to tell the stories of the people who work here. We started by defining the key themes we wanted to highlight:  our culture of learning and intellectual rigor, our entrepreneurial spirit, and our collegiality.  We then instituted a two-pronged effort:  the first prong was to leverage our “corporate” communications to talk about official programs and initiatives, such as our Tech Labs training workshop series and our Innovation Grant program.  The second prong was to empower our employees to be recruiting ambassadors by writing for our online blog, by posting about CRA on job search websites, and by creating and producing videos that are featured on our YouTube page.  We are structured in how we curate our employee content to ensure that we are showcasing a breadth of stories across multiple channels, but we take a light touch with the content itself so that an authentic picture of our culture emerges. 

Second, evaluate talent on more than just technical or analytical competence. Technical and analytical competence is a “must-have”, but should also be looked at as the “price of entry.”  In a professional services firm the ability to build relationships and work collaboratively within a team is integral to meeting client needs.  In contrast, a team experiencing open and sustained conflict will at best detract from its ability to serve clients—and at worst cost the firm money in the form of lost revenue. 

Thus, firms must discuss with candidates the other attributes that will be crucial for success; some—like a client mindset or communication skills—will be common to most, if not all, professional services firms. Other attributes—such as the level of initiative expected, the proportion of teamwork vs independent work, and the ability to operate in a formal vs informal hierarchy—are more specific to each company.   The firm must be honest about what is required for success and then rigorously evaluate candidates against those requirements.  There are different schools of thought as to what types of questions to ask—case studies, competency-based questions, behavioral questions, etc; regardless, there are two criteria.  The first requirement is to “go deep”—ask probing questions such as “How did you make that choice?”  “What would you do differently knowing what you know now?”  “What would challenge you the most about this situation?”  The goal in these questions is not to make the candidate uncomfortable but rather to keep pushing until you feel you deeply understand their capabilities and can determine if they have the skills to meet performance expectations.  The second requirement is to determine the areas you want to evaluate and assign them to members of the interview team prior to the interview.  There may be value in having multiple people ask similar questions, but you want to ensure that you do so as a deliberate strategy; otherwise you risk getting an uneven picture of the candidate’s skills with too much information in one area and not enough in another.

Third, treat recruiting as a two-way street. Good candidates have choices.  Gone are the days when established brands could assume they are the employer of choice.  With social media and the abundance of information, even small employers can create brand awareness and reach top candidates.  Many candidates (and particularly millennials) are looking for more than money–according to one study, 88% of millennials were looking for employers with values that matched their own, and 86% would consider leaving an employer whose values no longer met their expectations.[2]  Thus, candidates should feel that interviews are an opportunity for mutual assessment, not just a one-way evaluation.  Some ways to do this include asking candidates about what motivates them in their job search; why they are interested in your particular company; and encouraging questions and discussion throughout the interview (not just at the end).

Fourth, let your people shine.   Whenever I talk with new hires at Charles River Associates, I ask what ultimately led them to choose our firm.  Nearly all of them say some variation on, “I just really enjoyed the people I met and could picture myself working here.”  At first I was puzzled by what to do with this feedback – how could we possibly institutionalize something as idiosyncratic as a personal connection?  After reflecting, I realized how insightful those comments were—candidates were telling me that they are evaluating our most important asset, our people.  We don’t have any tangible products they can see or use, but they can understand how our people interact with each other and with clients, what we value, and what their day-to-day experience will feel like. 

We now go to great lengths to ensure that there are opportunities throughout our interview process to build that personal connection—for example, most of our interview days involve a meal or a coffee chat with the candidate. Once a candidate receives an offer, we provide personal follow-up and answer any questions the candidate might have.  When we recruit at university and college campuses, we don’t give a long formal slideshow presentation—we say a few words of introduction, and then let the conversation be driven by audience questions and what they care most deeply about.  We also host smaller events through our campus recruiting efforts, including intimate breakfasts with our senior leadership and office-based workshops so that people get to see us in a more natural and conversational setting. 

In short, the talent market is as competitive now as it has ever been, and the only asset—and point of differentiation—a professional services firm has is its people. To be effective at recruiting top talent, you must create a holistic view of the candidate while providing them one as well. Not only should you be evaluating for technical and soft skills but ensuring the culture of the company, and personality of the people they will be working with, shine through.

The views expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of Charles River Associates or any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.

[1] LinkedIn, “Why & How People Change Jobs”, available at https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/talent-solutions/global/en_us/job-switchers/PDF/job-switchers-global-report-english.pdf

[2] PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Millennials at work reshaping the workplace,” available at https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/managing-tomorrows-people/future-of-work/assets/reshaping-the-workplace.pdf

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