In an interview, be prepared to talk about your former experiences using detailed examples that relate to the job description (Getty Images/Pixelfit)
If you are just starting out as a CPA or if you are making a switch to a new role or industry, it’s important to know what to expect in an interview—and how to prepare. While there are certain perennial basics that any job applicant should observe, such as showing up on time and demonstrating interest in the organization, you’ll also need to deal with the specifics of the role you are seeking. And, since interviewing practices tend to evolve over time, you’ll also need to be up to speed on current techniques.
Here are some pointers on how to get ready for—and shine in—your next interview.
KNOW WHAT TODAY’S EMPLOYERS WANT
Long before you reach the interview stage, you need to be fully aware of the profile employers are seeking in a CPA today. “It’s very different now,” says Irene Wiecek, FCPA, FCA, professor of accounting, teaching stream at the University of Toronto and member of the task force that developed the new CPA Competency Map (CM2.0). “In the past, CPAs were more about bringing order to things. Now everything has changed, and they are having to learn to adapt. They should be thinking about developing skills and competencies that are transferable to other things; not just about being trained to do one thing.”
When talking to potential hires, Wiecek looks for candidates who are comfortable dealing with change. “I look for someone who is adaptable and flexible, is able to cope with ambiguity, and has a broadened perspective around issues such as work-life balance, the environment, and equity, diversity and inclusion, rather than just thinking about profits.”
Analytical skills and a familiarity with technology are equally critical, says Massimo Marinelli, EY Canada managing partner, talent. “CPAs are not simply accountants—in the age of information they need to use their analytical skills to understand and interpret complex data, while cultivating strong interpersonal skills. We actively seek candidates who bring diverse mindsets, embrace technology, work collaboratively and lead with curiosity to deliver positive impact.”
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before the interview, find out what format it will take and how many steps will be involved. And, generally speaking, the higher the position the more extensive the process tends to be. “If it’s a very senior role you will be meeting multiple people within different departments in various in-person and online formats,” says Michael French, national director, client solutions for Robert Half.
Naturally, you will also want to do some basic research on the organization and prepare some questions, says Jennifer Mazzarolo, CPA, president of Maverick Consulting Group. “If you are interviewing with a private company, that may require a lot of Google searches. If it’s a public company, look at their SEDAR [System for Electronic Data Analysis and Retrieval], which includes financial statements and MD&A notes. Regardless of the industry/ownership structure, look for any press releases from the past 12 to 18 months.”
Familiarize yourself with topics such as emerging technologies, Indigenous views and sustainability issues, advises Wiecek. “You have to be more aware of those things and how they affect you as an individual. There is so much information available on these topics. I’m always listening to podcasts, watching videos and tuning into other resources that come across LinkedIn to understand different perspectives.”
CONTROL THE NARRATIVE
As part of your preparation, dissect the job description to understand where you might have skills gaps (for example, you might lack experience in people leadership or exposure to U.S. GAAP). “If you do find a gap, you can say ‘I haven’t done that, but here is what I would do,’” says Mazzarolo.
Make sure the answers are suited to the interviewer as well. As Mazzarolo points out, finance and technical accounting questions are very different from human resource-type questions, which tend to revolve around management style, team dynamics and career progression.
You should be able to back your experiences with detailed examples that relate to a job description. “Share stories about challenges you faced—such as dealing with a difficult colleague--so you can talk about how you responded,” says French. “Employers are often interested in how fast you can bounce back.”
Also, as Wiecek points out, it may not be that important for you to talk about where tax rules are going. “Much of that is or will be automated,” she says. “Talk more about stakeholders, where you see uncertainty moving forward and how you would deal with it. You need to have stories you can share around trust and ethics, about information systems, your perspectives on diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability—topics that will show how agile, curious and ethical you are.”
PREPARE FOR THE “GOTCHAs”
There will always be a moment when you are asked something out of left field (the intent, of course, being to throw you off guard). For example, Marc Belaiche, CPA, president of TorontoJobs.ca, has heard of people being asked how many gas stations there are in Toronto, or if they were in a zoo, how many animals they would see.
According to Mazzarolo, you are never going to be prepared for those kinds of questions so you shouldn’t stress ahead of time about how to respond.
Belaiche agrees. “If you do get caught off guard, don’t panic—take a breath and ask for clarification. Consider presenting multiple options to show you can think outside the box. Just remember that with any interview, you have to expect the unexpected.”
In the end, with a solid combination of technical and human skills, an open mind, good preparation along with the ability to adapt and think on your feet when needed, you should be well placed to shine in your next interview.
As Mazzarolo puts it, “The interview is the price of entry to your next job. You may not be the ideal candidate on paper but, if you ace the interview, the job could be yours.”