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The invisible man

A TRUSTED friend and colleague, my chief accountant, on whom I depend completely, recently decided to retire early. He has always been the invisible man, noticed only when he imposes a technical decision on someone in the organisation, but never noticed for all the error-free work he does so well. He is, after decades in his chosen niche, at the absolute top of his game and is virtually irreplaceable.

So good is he, even the auditors consult him. He is the master of the year-end accounts, the annual report and all statutory accounting matters for the subsidiary companies across the world.

None of us in the finance team can do what he has become a leading expert on – none of us would ever have wanted to – and we are all relieved that he does it with such alacrity.

The question of how to replace him is a worrying prospect, as it is unlikely that we could ever find anyone else with his level of accumulated technical knowledge across so many areas in so many countries.

Inevitably I have ventured into the world of outside recruiters to help on this, and have been dazzled and disappointed by their lazy, robotic and know-it-all attitude.

In my brief, I made it clear that we have a rare opportunity to inject new blood, new ideas, fresh culture and wider experience into our organisation through this key recruitment. I want the recruiters to use their networks and to be creative (to suggest an eclectic variety of interesting candidates each of whom could bring something new to our business). I wanted them to open my mind to the wider possibilities.

Instead, they sent me an initial long list of candidates that I could have asked one of our junior accountants to generate in less than one hour (accountant clones from our competitors, audit managers and the like).

Is this laziness, tropism or simply a matter of playing safe? Recognising that advertising is no longer a reliable form of sourcing candidates, I know that the recruiter’s skill lies in the research, search and managing the selection process. But who performs the research? I suspect this is delegated too much, and the client brief is diluted and modified to focus on the targeting of clone-like candidates. I question therefore why their fees are so high.

Pigeon-holing applies not only to finance professionals. As an example, where would a recruiter search for a new CEO of an airline? Hint: the Alumni list of Trinity College Dublin includes Willie Walsh (IAG), Michael O’Leary (Ryanair) and Alan Joyce (Qantas).

This got me thinking about the plight of those job-seeking finance professionals who are using recruiters as a source of leads for job opportunities. Are candidates being pigeon-holed to such an extent that they are not being exposed to the variety of opportunities that they would be capable of fulfilling? I am told that 70% of job moves result from personal networking, rather than headhunting or advertising, and I am becoming suspicious that the job market for finance professionals has become flawed, fragmented and inefficient.

I rejected the initial list outright, of course, and insisted that the search should be extended to include the variety that I wanted in the first place. I was bemused at how surprised the recruiter claimed to be, allegedly never having had to deal with this sort of challenge. Faced with this resistance, I persisted all the more.

We did reach a successful outcome eventually, and appointed a candidate who is very different from the soon-to-be retired chief accountant, and one who has several good years ahead not only growing into this complex job, but with the background, personality and wide experience that the team will learn a great deal from. We are eagerly anticipating her arrival. ?

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