Niloufar Molavi is now facing a challenge that she hadn’t seen in her years with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP — acquiring and retaining talent for the accounting firm in the light of fierce competition. The complicating factor is that thanks to a heavy presence of energy companies, young talent in the Houston area is in high demand and supplies are low.
Molavi, Houston market managing partner for PwC, is realizing that you have to pull out all the stops to have an edge over the competition.
It’s no secret that PricewaterhouseCoopers over the years has developed comprehensive internship and management development programs that attract desirable young talent. Molavi is betting on those programs to make a difference.
“The average age of our workforce is 27 — so that will give you a sense of how much we rely on and focus on young talent such as college interns,” Molavi says.
“The students like to have an experience while they are in college, and they really don’t know what to expect ultimately when they come out of school, so we just give them that glimpse,” she says.
But more importantly, the interns will get to know PwC, which hopefully will lead to their choice of PwC for employment.
“It has been a great tool for us to not only recruit but they will see what it is like before they have to make a decision that will have an impact on their long-term careers,” Molavi says.
Here is how Molavi uses internship and management programs at the Houston location of PricewaterhouseCoopers to help fill the 1,069 seats at the table and keep those seats occupied.
Look and listen
The practice of finding and hiring qualified job candidates has grown more sophisticated for most companies in recent years. Such was the case of PwC some years ago when it started its internship program, now a well-entrenched fixture.
With the competition to secure talented individuals, it is essential to look for the skills that clients are demanding.
“It’s important to sit back and make sure that you have identified not only the technical skills in people you hire but, more importantly, the soft skills or the intangible skills that you are looking for in people,” Molavi says. “Identify what those are, and recognize over time those change — just because we know today what we are looking for may change over time. We live in an ever-changing environment, and you need to revisit that as often as you can to ensure that those intangibles haven’t changed.”
Once you sound out your clients, you’ll have a better opportunity to know what will best match their needs.
“The most important thing is listening,” Molavi says. “Spend a lot of time with your clients to make sure that you are listening to their issues, issues that are important to them, issues that they are dealing with, challenges and opportunities that are at the forefront of their minds.”
There are several key qualities that should be “must haves” on the intangible resume of an internship seeker.
“Adaptability — someone who’s willing to come in and adapt to new opportunities and a new environment,” Molavi says. “It’s someone who comes with flexibility of different ways of doing things.”
Equally as important is the attitude that learning is a dynamic procedure that lasts an entire career.
“Another important element is the ability and the desire to continue to relearn; when you are in an environment that’s changing all the time, you need to be comfortable that you are always learning, and it doesn’t really matter what level in the organization you’re at,” Molavi says.
If the desire to learn is kept burning, it can help establish a long-term interest in a particular field. The possibilities of advancement are many.
“Even as a leader, you can continue to have opportunities to learn new things every day,” she says. “For me, that’s exciting. That’s really what’s kept me in the industry and at PwC.”
Find the right fit
It’s been said that in the military as well as other sectors, the age group of 18 to the mid-20s make the best soldiers or workers if properly trained. And those who are even more well-trained do even better.
While the business world can’t really compare its stresses to those of the military, the advantages of young recruits are unmistakable — and similar in both fields.
“Our clients are always interested in our talent because we bring in the young; we help develop them,” Molavi says. “Our talent gets to see a lot of different opportunities and things and they learn pretty quickly on the job because of the exposure they get to our clients. So they are in high demand in the market. And we know that; that has been something we’ve been dealing with for years.”
With a focus on young talent, new entry-level candidates coming right off the college campus, it’s critical to look at their abilities and what they’ve learned on campus and their technical skills.
“First of all, try to find the right fit for the organization,” Molavi says. “At that entry level, spend quite a bit of time not only in the interview process on campus but spend time with those individuals over a two- or three-week period to get to know them and build that relationship — and then offer the best ones an internship.”
A typical internship lasts 10 to 12 weeks. It’s an opportunity to get to know the interns and see how they can work in the environment — and is a great opportunity for them as well to see what opportunities they may have.
“Look at a lot of those intangible qualities in individuals,” Molavi says. “Teamwork is huge for us. We work in teams. We do not do anything alone. So watching the interns work in teams and how they perform is important. Relationships are very important, both within our organization as well as with our clients, and watching how they develop those relationships and their abilities to learn in that area is essential.”
An internship is also a type of probationary period. It’s time to spot any red flags.
“I have had at least one person who interned with us, and at the end of the internship, she and I sat down together — she realized that accounting wasn’t for her and had never really been her passion,” Molavi says. “She had made certain decisions to go into the accounting field, and although she did a great job, she decided that her passion was somewhere else.”
Remember that interns are still students. Most will still have another year of college to finish.
“Internships happen generally right after their junior year for most individuals, so we don’t expect them to come in and know everything,” Molavi says. “We are not testing them on the technical knowledge that they are bringing to the table on day one, but you want to really look for those qualities for a good fit. Then put them on jobs that you would as brand-new associates so they get to experience what it’s like when they join as a full-time hire.”
One of the more important steps any organization needs to consider when you bring in interns is if you will have the opportunities for them to learn and develop in that short period of time.
“If they come in and they are not getting those opportunities, then it is going to be difficult,” Molavi says. “I think any business needs to look at how it is structured and what opportunities it can offer to an intern.
“I know that many of my clients even use internships to give students a sneak peek of an industry by bringing them in over a summer period and rotating them through various parts of their organization.”
Focus on the basics
It’s a serious undertaking for an organization to operate an effective internship program. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ program, while a significant commitment for the company, looks at it more as on-the-job training.
“On-the-job learning and development is really important,” Molavi says. “We do that quite a bit, and it’s easy too. I mean it doesn’t cost you a lot of money; you’ve just got to make sure that you are paying attention to it.
“You take the opportunity as you would a project — you stop and make sure that your team understands what you’re doing, why you are doing it, why it is important to your client, what they are going to learn from it so that it doesn’t just become a task; rather, it becomes a learning opportunity.”
As you develop your training programs over the months and years, design as much on-the-job training into it as possible, and it will help pay dividends.
“When we look at our training programs, about 70 percent of it is actually on-the-job training — every day on projects, at clients, real-time feedback and learning,” Molavi says.
PwC’s program has evolved over time to its current configuration: Each intern is mentored by three colleagues.
“One, they will have a buddy,” Molavi says. “They will have an associate who is closer to age and in experience to them, someone they can go to from day one with any questions they may have. They could be administrative, technical or industry questions. The buddy is someone with whom they can engage on a day-to-day basis.”
In addition to a buddy, each intern has a mentor who is a manager/coach.
“The manager ensures that they are getting the experiences, the exposure, the developmental opportunities,” she says. “The managers are responsible for their assignments during that period and help the interns through that.”
The last is a mentor who will nurture what are often called soft skills.
“The interns also get a relationship partner so they will actually have a mentor who will be engaging with them and spending the time to talk about opportunities in the profession, and more importantly for our interns, the opportunities at PwC that they will have in the long term,” Molavi says.
“The program involves quite a bit of investment but again it has become a very important source for our full-time hiring, and we believe the investment ultimately pays off both for us and the recruits.”
Another aspect of an internship program is shadowing. Interns are given the opportunity to shadow a partner for one day to get a glimpse into a day of a partner’s life.
“Because they see us in bits and pieces, the interns probably don’t really realize everything in which a partner may be involved,” she says.
“One of my interns a couple of years ago had the opportunity to shadow me,” Molavi says. “She had a fantastic experience. It just happened to be one of those days where I was doing a lot of different things. We started off the day when I was actually in a coaching session with one of my ‘coachees,’ and moved on to an interview that I was doing that day with a publication. She got to sit in on that.
“We went to lunch with a client. We had a client meeting that she attended with me. Then we came back and dealt with some of my internal roles.
“She was just amazed at what I touch in one day and saw things that she would be very interested in down the road. So hopefully those kinds of looks give the interns a little bit more in terms of what a day could be as they go through a shadowing process.”
Develop new leaders
If your organization has made it a practice to have an internship program, it needs an employee advancement plan to get the most advantage of the intern program.
Tapping outside talent for management posts is not an easy process today, and it is beneficial to promote from within, not only to recognize that individual but to prepare in case a manager should leave. Talent that started as interns is an excellent source for management positions because of the familiarity with the company and work records that show advancement through the ranks.
For example, PwC uses a global leadership development program called Genesis Park for employees who are approaching some nine years of experience — a senior manager or director. This is a 10-week residential program for about 50 people, three times a year, which moves around the globe.
“You bring in individuals from around the world so every one of these 10-week residential programs is very global and very diverse,” Molavi says. “You are bringing people together who have never worked with each other — to work with each other.
“It takes individuals through what I call real-life experiences. This is not a situation where they’re going to role-play. It gives them the opportunities to work on real projects for either a particular territory, PwC territory or a global issue that our global leadership is dealing with.
“They’ll have the opportunity to work on that project and come back with solutions and thoughts. So they are really learning and having that experience of working with individuals they didn’t know before, bringing different talents together, putting their minds together and driving innovation to come up with solutions.”
Programs such as Genesis Park allow employees to not only continue to develop professionally but personally, as well, with leadership skills.
“My coachee who went through came back out in some ways a different person,” Molavi says. “The most important change that I noticed was the self-confidence that she gained from being part of that team and part of that opportunity, and knowing that, she exhibited an attitude, ‘Wow, I did this, and I was able to have a very different experience, and it felt good, and I learned a lot.’”
How to reach: PricewaterhouseCoopers, www.pwc.com or (713) 356-4000
The Molavi File
Houston market managing partner
Born: Tehran, Iran
Education: University of Texas at Austin, with both my bachelor’s in business administration and master’s in accounting
What was your first job?
My very first job that I got paid for was working during summer school at Houston Memorial High School, and I helped the staff in the office, running a lot of different errands.
What has been the best business advice you ever received?
To be willing to take risks. In terms of my career development, this has been the best advice that anyone could give me — the fact that someone took the time to sit me down and talk about the fact that unless you take risks, you’re not going to learn, you’re not going to develop, you’re not going to see new opportunities. You need to step out of your comfort zone and do it often.
When you become complacent and you’re getting comfortable with something, it’s time to do something different. So that is something that has certainly stuck with me. My sponsors early on pushed me and gave me those opportunities, opened those doors for me to step out of my comfort zone and do different things. It certainly has been very important to me, and I have seen it help me in my career and in the advice that I give others.
Who do you admire in the business world?
There are a lot of individuals who have accomplished great things, so maybe the way I would put it is not so much the individuals but those people who going back to what I was taught who had been authentic. They are not trying to be someone who they’re not. They are authentic leaders. They have at times put their necks out there and done something different that was not conventional, taking the risk, and then been successful at it.
Those are the people that I look to, those individuals who aren’t always going to be sitting at the top of organizations. They’re not necessarily going to be the CEOs but individuals who have had significant impact on success with an organization, for-profit or nonprofit as well.
What is your definition of business success?
For me, I think it is really simple: if you think about the success and the legacy that is behind, to be able to have clients who would say, ‘Well, she was our business partner and she was able to help us achieve our business goals.’ Being a tax practitioner, it is important to make sure that we are helping our clients achieve their goals. I think that would be to me a great legacy to leave behind if I could look back at the number of partners I have personally made so that they could be successful.