5 things leaders should never say

To avoid alienating your employees, especially your best young talent, try these alternative approaches for better communication.
By Jennifer Wilson

5 things leaders should never say
Image by bgblue/iStock

Today's up-and-coming leaders have many career options, and their phones, email inboxes, and LinkedIn accounts are being "hit up" every day by recruiters and others interested in potentially employing them. That's why established leaders committed to retaining their best and brightest need to pay more attention to the things they say that frustrate and disappoint future leaders.

This article explores five phrases established leaders should never say again and suggests an alternative approach that their young or new talent might better appreciate. And while the advice in this article is geared toward conversations with young CPAs, leaders would be well-advised to apply it when communicating with all team members.

Never say this again: Be patient ...

Why? Because ... Up-and-coming leaders have many options. When you tell them to be patient about something they want changed, they hear, "This isn't going to happen for a long time (if ever)," and they don't want to—or have to—wait.

Try this instead: When your people want something to change, ask them to develop a plan to make it happen. Then, help them refine their ideas and do your best to support them in implementing the change unless the change is a monumental deal breaker. Be willing to pilot new ideas, take small steps, and implement things imperfectly to ensure that your team feels perpetual forward progress.

Never say this again: You're not ready ...

Why? Because ... Emerging leaders want experiences. Most have confidence in their abilities, and they want to progress faster than traditional timelines. Your best and brightest don't want to be held to "old" timing standards of what a "two-year person" or a "new manager" does. Instead, they want to do what they believe they are ready and able to do. When you say they're not ready, they hear you saying, "I don't believe in you yet," which contradicts their own beliefs. This leaves them thinking, "You don't get it" or "You don't get me."

Try this instead: Figure out how to get them a portion of the experience they're requesting or allow them to take on the whole effort. For instance, if they feel they are ready to meet with tax clients, allow them to do so. Ensure that a member of your team acts as a silent shadow for the first few meetings. In my experience, today's emerging leaders are often more ready than we expect—which is great news! When they try and don't succeed, most are quick to admit they need to step back and invest to round out their skills. While they're regrouping, they'll appreciate that you took the risk and believed in them.

Never say this again: When I was coming up ... or That's not how it was when I came up ...

Why? Because ... They hear you saying, "Four score and seven years ago ..." or "I am old." I realize that's harsh, but if you hark back to your days as an emerging leader, you rolled your eyes when your boss said this, too! Back in the day, people churned butter and used outhouses. But they don't have to anymore. Today's emerging leaders don't want to talk about yesterday's hardships—they want to talk about tomorrow's possibilities!

Try this instead: Ask yourself what you're trying to convey in a story about the past or your career progression. Instead of using the offending phrases, try something like, "What I have learned that works well is ..." or "A best practice we employ is ..."

Never say this again: He must not be working because he isn't here ... or She isn't putting in the same effort as others because she leaves at 4:30 p.m. or isn't here on Saturdays ...

Why? Because ... It is a fallacy that people are productive contributors just because they're in the office. It is possible that your people are working from home, clients' offices, or other locations at odd hours and producing a lot of great work when they are not in the office. In fact, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, remote workers logged more hours than their office counterparts and were slightly more engaged. Emerging leaders value flexibility in where and when they work. The offending phrases make them think, "You really don't get it."

Try this instead: Look for ways to further your workplace flex programs. Ask your emerging leaders to devise strategies to maximize both production and flexibility. Encourage all employees to stop equating presence at the office with productivity because the correlation is false. And, if you want to learn more about the argument emerging leaders have for virtual work, read my blog post at convergencecoaching.com.

Never say this again: You can change this when I'm gone ... (sometimes said jokingly, but not heard that way!)

Why? Because ... This is similar to "be patient" but has the extra kick of reminding your emerging leaders that you are on your way out, biding your time, bailing, or any other number of "short timer" ideas. And this can cross their minds, "So, we won't change this important thing because you don't want to, and the firm will suffer until you leave. Then, we'll have to scramble to be competitive." This leads them to want you gone sooner—and you wonder why you feel pushed? When your resistance persists, it can lead to this thought you never want to enter your future leader's mind, "Why don't I leave before you and save us both the trouble?"

Try this instead: Our profession is facing immense change in almost every area. For firms, those changes include shifting work styles such as dress and flexibility, the fight for relevance in compliance services, changes in billing practices, the emergence of advisory services, and leaps in technology. Evolution isn't optional. Your emerging leaders want to capitalize on these changes and position your business for success. Step outside of your discomfort, reignite your passion, and put your immense experience to work to support your team in making the big changes needed—now.


As a Baby Boomer, I understand the feelings that established leaders might have as they read this article. You want to enjoy the fruits of your labor as you appreciate the view from your career pinnacle. You want things to be familiar and perhaps the way they've always been. But that's like wishing you could do business in a market that doesn't exist instead of actually doing business in the market you're in. If you're committed to having succession in place to ensure that your business succeeds well into the future, give up the notions—and phrases—that send signals of resistance to your emerging leaders. Reignite your inner revolutionary. Embrace their ideas. Engage with them in change.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.

Editor's note

This article is adapted from "5 Phrases Established Leaders Should Never Say Again," CPA Insider, Aug. 1, 2016.

About the author

Jennifer Wilson (jen@convergencecoaching.com) is a partner and co-founder of Convergence-Coaching LLC in Bellevue, Neb.

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