CPA INSIDER

9 requests from your future leaders

Want to keep your brightest rising stars? Here are some ideas.
By Jennifer Wilson

In my work, I have the privilege of coaching, teaching, and speaking every day with bright future leaders in our profession. These people tend to be passionate, smart, efficient, and ready to learn. Most, though, aren't completely sold on a long-term career in public accounting. Instead, I'd characterize them as on the fence. Lately, I've been asking them:

"What one change would you request of partners in your firm that would make staying in public accounting more attractive?"

In this article, we'll explore nine common requests I hear, with the hope that you'll take them to heart and drive change in your behavior first, and then in your firm. Next Gen leaders want partners to:

Quit using the term "Millennial," and avoid stereotyping your people by generation (or any other attribute). Many of the things we've learned by studying generational differences do apply, but most people hate labels and it seems that Millennials truly hate being called Millennials. So, I'm working to use the phrase "future leaders" or "Next Gen leaders" and to look at that population as including Gen X, Gen Y (Millennials), and the newly emergent Gen Z. One future leader's advice was, "If you want to motivate me, don't take a class or read an article. Get to know me. Ask me what motivates me. It's probably different than what motivates my peers." While you can, and should, sponsor programs (like flex) that appeal to your future leader group as whole, you still must tailor your employee engagement programs to each person. Motivation and engagement have always been — and always will be — one-size-fits-one.

Don't act as if your work is the only work your future leaders are doing. There are many other projects, jobs, and partners in the mix. Future leaders know how important your client is and they truly want to please you, but they also have an enormous workload, tight deadlines, and often limited resources. They want your help to fit your timelines into their existing picture. They also want to see that you can be "pro firm" and not just "me, me, me." When you act as if the work you give them is the only work they are assigned, they think you care only about the work — not about them.

Don't glorify utilization, charge hours, or total hours worked. Future leaders don't want to wear the red badge of courage for most hours worked. If they feel that is required to be a winner at your firm, most won't stay. And because they value efficiency, putting in the hours doesn't feel like the right yardstick to measure success. Instead, when partners overemphasize hours, it encourages several bad behaviors, including:

  • Slowing down work to maximize charge hours, impacting job profitability.
  • Padding time sheets.
  • Focusing team members on activities or inputs instead of results or outputs.

This is one request future leaders can get very riled up about. For more on this topic, see my April 2016 CPA Insider article, "Want to Make More Money? Focus on Revenue-Producing Behaviors."

Don't overfocus on realization. If you do focus on realization, make sure you price the jobs correctly, or be practical about realization expectations if you price low due to market conditions. Asking the team to deliver projects with unrealistic realization goals is truly demoralizing. Encourage your people to enter all of their time, so jobs can be priced correctly. They won't do so if they perceive there are punitive consequences. Being efficient matters, and most of your people value efficiency more than you know. Work with them to identify ways each job can be maximally efficient.

Progress flex in your firm. When asked what they most like about their careers in public accounting so far, several young up-and-comers shared that their firm's move to flexible hours and more remote work was a definite positive. Ask your people how you can offer more work flexibility and continue to innovate and progress in this area.

Comply with firm processes and procedures. There are many examples, but two we hear a lot are:

  • Stop assigning work directly, and please use the scheduler. For firms with centralized scheduling, many partners skirt the scheduling system to assign work directly. This disrupts workflow and tends to overload the best and brightest, while those who need to improve have a lighter workload. To your future leaders, this does not feel fair.
  • Make the use of the client portal mandatory for all tax returns. To quote a future leader, "Just say, 'this is how we do it,' instead of asking individual clients how they want to receive their return. My doctor doesn't ask me — use of the portal is mandatory." Allowing exceptions can feel inefficient.

Give them variety. Engaged future leaders share that they value the variety of experiences they've had so far. Make sure your people get to experience different managers, partners, industries, and services whenever possible. Allow them to explore different aspects of your firm and find the things they like — and those they don't like, too. Huddle with them regularly to find out what they most and least like about their work and direct their pathway to more of the things that bring them joy.

Provide more informal feedback. Most firms have annual feedback processes, but Next Gen leaders want informal feedback, delivered more often. They would like to know what they are doing well and what they can improve in real time whenever possible. They don't want to wait for the annual or semiannual feedback meeting to make adjustments. Take 15 minutes a week to deliver informal feedback to one person on your team and ask for his or her feedback, too.

Tell them what you envision for them — early and often. One future leader said, "If you want me to stay, tell me where you see me going with the firm." Help guide their pathway at each stage of their careers with ideas like, "It seems like you have a knack for auditing; what do you think?" or "I can see you managing other people at our firm. How does that appeal to you?" Up-and-comers want to understand their options and see what might be next, because they are eager to progress.

I'm betting that some of these nine Next Gen requests apply to you and your firm. To know which, share this article with your future leaders and partners. Ask your up-and-comers to share their top requests — from this list or their own. Identify common themes and encourage your partners (and others) to make change happen. When you do, you'll illustrate your commitment to your Next Gen talent, open the door for more feedback, drive increased engagement, and create sustainability for your firm.

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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