November 7, 2015

How To Identify Innovators Amongst Accountants

How To Identify Innovators Amongst Accountants

If you're an accountant, don't be offended by the title of this article. I spent almost three years working at an accounting firm myself and it was anything but unsexy!

But if you’re not recruiting for the likes of Google, a high growth technology company or a promising startup, attracting innovative thinkers, sexy or otherwise, can be challenging, especially if the industry you’re recruiting for is not synonymous with innovation.

So how do you go about finding and hiring such applicants when your company insists on candidates meeting criteria such as being a certified accountant which tends not to lend itself to right-brained, creative thinking. 

One should not make the dangerous assumption that one’s choice of study or occupation is any indication of their ability to think laterally and see things differently. While accountants, real estate agents, insurance brokers and bankers might normally excel in process-oriented, linear thinking roles, it doesn’t mean that they can’t also apply the kind of thinking that supports the development of both sustaining and disruptive innovations.

Large professional services firms, such as accountancy firms, have significant human capital. The big four accounting firms each has over 150,000 employees worldwide and over a thousand employees in most of their city offices so it is highly unlikely and almost impossible that an organization of this size would be completely devoid of right-brained thinkers. 

People are usually born with the innovator’s DNA but for a myriad of reasons, whether it be social status, family expectations or economic factors, they often find themselves in less than progressive roles. This does not preclude them from being able to innovate, it just means they haven’t seen or been given the opportunity to do so.

So what is the innovator’s DNA all about? 

The theory, popularized by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregerson in their book of the same name, suggests that innovators normally exhibit the following attributes:

The Courage to innovateBehavioral skills that support ideation and innovation; and an ability to connect the dots 

The Courage To Innovate

First, entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs within large companies) are by nature troublemakers. They tend to question authority and it’s par for the course for a self-aware but neglected intrapreneur to either resign from or get fired from a high paid corporate gig.

So perhaps word of caution is necessary.

It’s not just enough to hire innovative thinkers, but you must ensure that the right environment is created to recognize, support and nurture their abilities. Otherwise your investment in finding and training the right people, may go unrewarded and you may have just been better off hiring run of the mill process-oriented thinker, for if nothing else, their payback on the initial hiring cost.

Behavioral Skills To Support Innovation

Dyer and Gregerson identified four key skills to support innovation, as follows:

QuestionObserveNetwork; andInnovate

Innovators are curious beasts, often with broad and diverse interests, experiences and insights. This is what gives them the unique ability to connect the dots and find novel ways to identify and solve problems.

Connecting The Dots

Diverse experiences and an ability to connect the dots is what made people like Steve Jobs so great. Jobs was fortunate enough to grow up in San Francisco in a time when various countercultures were brewing and he was exposed to and embraced the burgeoning tech revolution, its hacker subculture, LSD (the drug, not the music group!), the hippie movement, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and spirituality which for a while caused him to eat nothing but apples…essentially a 100% sugar diet. (Note: The writer does not advocate a 100% sugar diet!)

“A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences,” he once said. “So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” 

These broad experiences are the essence of design thinking, a process popularized by creative consultancy IDEO which stresses the following:

Ignore constraints;Consider anything possible; andAssemble cross-functional teams with broad experiences

This helps teams think like innovators collectively because it helps them paint broad problems and narrow in on solutions one simply can’t paint on a narrow canvas.

So How Do You Find These People For A Gig At An Accounting Firm?

Sure, most, if not all of the candidates applying, will be certified accountants (as it is probably company policy), but you can always look for cues that tell you things about somebody’s personality.

Fortunately, in the age of social media, this isn’t all that hard. 

People who exhibit some of the key behaviors outlined in The Innovator’s DNA such as questioning and networking are likely to demonstrate this on social media as well, which is simply an extension of their personality. 

On LinkedIn, look for people who:

Follow influential bloggers across a range of areas;Have joined a number of diverse groups;Have published blog posts, or at least shared and commented on other blog posts; orIdeally but not essentially, have at one time or another worked for a startup or been otherwise involved in the startup ecosystem

On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, privacy settings permitting, look for people who:

Have diverse interests when it comes to the books they read, the music they listen to, the sports they partake in and play and the artists they admire;Demonstrate an appreciation for countercultures that go beyond the mainstream – innovators often reject the status quo and by extension, the mainstream; orOn the flipside, be wary of people who have reached level 150 on Candy Crush Saga and repeatedly post about reality TV shows – people who are genuinely curious do not spend all of their spare time scaling the heights of mobile video games

On Meetup and Eventbrite:

See if potential candidates have joined any groups or attended any events and if so, what kinds of groups and events do they associate with? What does this say about them?

Signals such as these all point to an applicant that is at least curious, asks questions. The more questions one asks, the more answers, perspectives and dots they have to ultimately connect.

What if their online identity doesn’t offer enough clues? 

You can always ask questions to this effect in initial phone interviews and the like, however be wary of applicants who haven’t taken the time to at least keep their LinkedIn profile up to date, upload a photo and follow a number of influencers. Entrepreneurs and innovators are shameless self-promoters and this skill is a necessary evil in the corporate world, where the ability to convince decision makers into making funds available to pursue seemingly risky, but potentially disruptive and value adding innovations, is essential to success.

So while applicants may be certified in a normally process-oriented, linear thinking profession, and may be looking for a job that aligns with this, they may still have the capability to innovate and add more value to an organization than the majority of their peers, simply if given a genuine opportunity to do so. 

There’s no doubt that they would relish this opportunity and become a much much greater asset to the company, particularly in an era where Gen-Y and high performer retention is low and the ability to innovate has become essential to survival.

Innovate or die.

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Steve Glaveski

Steve Glaveski is the CEO and Co-Founder of Collective Campus which he established to help companies and their employees to create more meaningful impact in the world in an age of rapid change and increasing uncertainty. Steve also founded Lemonade Stand - a children's entrepreneurship program, wrote the Innovation Manager's Handbook vol 1 and 2, hosts Future², an iTunes chart topping podcast on corporate innovation and entrepreneurship and is a keynote speaker. He previously founded HOTDESK, an office sharing platform and has worked for the likes of Westpac, Dun & Bradstreet, the Victorian Auditor General's Office, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Macquarie Bank. Follow him at @steveglaveski and Book a free 15-minute call with Steve to talk through your innovation objectives.

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