In today’s competitive CPA marketplace, you must make sure that your best and brightest CPAs remain invested and engaged. To explore ways to achieve this goal, we spoke to Jennifer Wilson, partner and cofounder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, in a wide-ranging discussion on some of the most pressing topics in the accounting workplace.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
In a competitive marketplace, attracting and retaining future leaders for your firm is a must. Therefore, it's key for your firm to understand what makes young CPAs tick and how you can keep them engaged and invested. To get some insight into this topic, today we are talking to Jennifer Wilson, partner and cofounder of Convergence Coaching LLC.
How do, and I have this in quotes here, "millennials" think about being referred to as millennials? Is there a danger in grouping people into one subgroup and thinking they're all alike?
[Wilson] Well, yes. There is a danger to grouping anybody into a subgroup and thinking they're all alike. One of the most important axioms of talent that I have learned over the years is talent, management, and motivation and inspiration and engagement is one size fits one. You can't try for one-size-fits-all categories.
For sure, we risk putting millennials or Gen Z or Baby Boomers or Gen X men or women or auditors or tax people, consultants, in any bucket and try to act like they're all the same. There is a risk to that. Also, just a thought about millennials and I've been doing a fair amount of reading about marketing to the Next Gen client or customer and doing some writing on the subject as well, there's this concept in marketing called millennial-minded and that's the idea that people could be millennial-minded or Next-Gen-minded, future-focused, and have millennial characteristics regardless of age or birth year.
It's interesting here because we're going to be jumping around to some interesting topics as they relate to millennials and one of them is adherence to the billable hours format going to cost firms some of their best people in the long run? Whether they be millennials or others? What are some of the best alternatives?
[Wilson] I wouldn't call it a linchpin but it is a problem. Why it is a problem is because it's a weird key performance indicator. It's an input, not an output. It's “How much time did I put in” versus “What results did I produce?”
Most millennial-minded people realize that I could enter a lot of hours, billable hours, into the time billing system and I look good but I didn't do good and that feels kind of silly and unfair and a little bit like the wrong yardstick to be using to measure success.
Yes, I do think that it is costing us. We still hear of firms ... you know you're an outdated firm when you're giving awards for the most hours worked or the most billable hours in a year. We still hear of it and we hear of it through young people who sort of tell us about it scoffing and saying, "Wow. Our leaders don't get it."
One of these seems sort of large when you're talking about it, one seems somewhat small, I guess. How important are flexible schedules, first of all, then I guess for the smaller one, dress for your day policies.
[Wilson] Well, how important are flexible schedules and dress for your day? I think very important. First of all, let's say dress for your day, just quickly. I think that the ship sailed; that's a done deal. It's kind of like business casual from four or five years ago. Everybody was doing it; professional dress left. Now everyone is headed to dress for your day or they're already doing it.
It costs nothing, it respects and trusts the people, and folks want to be able to dress for the audience that they're going to be with on a given day. There are lots of objections to it, most of which are not trusting the person's judgment. I heard that GM has a dress code of two words: dress appropriately.
That's what people want. I do think that's important. Flex schedules, I know this is a podcast and people don't want it to go long, but I could go on and on on flex. It's crucial. That's because the next generation want to fit work into their life and fit life into their work and they want blended work/life and not necessarily balanced work/life. They want blended work/life.
In order to blend my work/life, I have to have the flexibility to choose the times that I work and choose the place that I'm conducting my work. I really believe that the next generation workplace will be almost an “all bets are off” for time and place.
Effective future leaders, these aren't people that want their work to just be like an assembly line, right? They want to have a variety of tasks. How important is it for developing CPA leaders to be granted that variety and be able to explore not the same thing everyday but different responsibilities?
[Wilson] What you're hitting here in my opinion is the concept of context and meaning. "I want my work to have meaning." My business partner Tamara's son Lucas is in fifth grade. He's 11 years old now. Lucas was exposed to and learned the seven habits of highly effective people in fifth grade.
Young people today are getting a business management strategy, soft skills education, in their elementary and middle school and high school years before they even get to college that is infinitely better than the prior generations. They come out of school really competent, really smart, for the most part very strategic.
They come into our workplace and then we say, "Hey, go sit in a cube. We've got this repetitive series of prep tasks" or binder setup tasks or whatever it may be, and we want you to do those for like two, three years until we think you're good enough to move to the next level.
They look at that and they say, "Wait a minute. We learn things quickly in school and we move on fast and I'm going to be very bored, very quickly" and they start to think that public accounting is dull. I think variety of task ... young people want experiences. They want to be able to say, "These are the things I've experienced."
Firms have to figure out what are first-year staff experiences? It better be more than time with scanners, shredders, prep, data entry. It's got to be more than that. We have to expose them to referral source meetings and prospect meetings and client meetings and delivery of client deliverables so they can understand the context of their work. We have to give it meaning and we have to give them experiences.
Now where do you think the future generation of CPA leaders stands on feedback? Is it something that they want more of or something they want less? Would they rather it be formal or more of an informal, "come into my office" sort of deal?
[Wilson] Certainly they want more feedback, they want more quality and specific feedback, they want it more frequently. They're not as worried about the formal feedback. They just want to know, "How did I do? How can I get better? What's next?" That's what they want to know. "How did I do? How can I get better? What's next?"
They would also like to be able to turn around to their superiors and their peers and say, "Here's how you did. Here's how you could get better. Here's what I think should be next." They want to not only get feedback but give it.
It's really important to them because they feel ... they were raised by parents that said, "Hey, you're special and you can do anything," so they feel important. They come into the workplace and they think, "I'm important." They want to be treated that way, which means both giving them feedback and spending time with them and giving them those experiences we talked about but also accepting their feedback. They think, "Man, I'm pretty smart and I have insights and I want to give them to you."
When firms are open to that feedback, it really creates an environment that's engaging to these people.
That's an interesting point. It's not just about giving them the feedback but if they have something to say making sure that you're listening to it and making them feel engaged. That's something that you don't really think about.
[Wilson] What's interesting about that is that for years I have been mastering both my own skills and developing skills in giving feedback to people: how to give awkward feedback, how to give difficult feedback, how to give appropriate praise.
I've been teaching that, writing about it, and it wasn't until I read the book, Thank You For Your Feedback, that I realized that you could teach people all day long how to give feedback but if you don't create an environment where everyone is taught how to openly accept feedback and what to do with it then you're in a situation where a great delivery of feedback doesn't matter because it's going to bounce off the people it's hitting. They're not going to accept it and they're not going to do anything for it or with it. I think it's pretty important that we pay attention to both.
When it comes to this generation, how important is it to not only have a vision for their future but, as we talk about here, actively inform them of it and keep them involved in that vision so they can work toward it?
[Wilson] Well, first of all, a lot of organizations haven't yet developed their vision. We like to say that the vision is like we're on a road trip together and we're all in a car and we're getting ready to take off and somebody stops and says, "Well, where are we going?" And no one can answer.
That usually causes the door to open and at least one person to get out. "I'm not interested in that. I don't want to wander and meander." Your vision is that end destination that you're seeking to take the group in three to five years and ideally ... we do a lot of vision planning with firms. Ideally, that vision is developed by a cross-functional, cross-gender, cross-generational group, but mostly heavily weighted by Next Gen people and mostly heavily weighted by those who will be here in five years time.
If you create that vision and it's felt to be a collaborative creation with lots of input from Next Gen and then you message that vision internally, you roll it out, and then you create all your strategic plans for each 12-month period moving a little bit closer to that end destination on this road trip, young people love it. We all love it.
Frankly, it's not a Next Gen thing. All of us want to know where we are headed. It makes us more effective in our daily work because we are trying to figure out what am I doing today that will help us get closer to where we've agreed we're going? Without it we're all just getting up sort of like hamsters on the wheel and we're running from busy season to busy season without clarity of what's the meaning of this and where are we going.
Young people have been raised on technology. Is it possible for a firm to hold onto young up-and-coming CPAs without investing in the best technology for the workplace? As you say, this can go for both young CPAs and just CPAs that are interested in technology. Is it possible to keep them if you're not fully invested in the technology angle?
[Wilson] I don't think you can keep the best and brightest young people out there if you aren't investing in the best technology.
I would tell you that there's a Pew Research white paper out there on millennials that said that their number one motivator was technology and that they gauged the value or quality of their life on whether they had the right gadgets, the right bandwidth, the right access to wireless.
Organizations that aren't paperless, and we run into them now and then still, organizations that aren't investing in the right kind of devices, mobile devices, multiple screens and monitors, allowing for mobile anytime, anywhere access to all the technology assets of the business from wherever I am at whatever hour with the appropriate security and privacy measures in place.
Organizations that aren't figuring out how to make the throughput of the systems as fast and efficient as possible, integration, focusing on quality of data in those databases, and that includes hiring a data steward inside firms. Even mid-sized firms should be having a data steward these days to make sure we're paying attention to the quality of data and not just for young, Next Gen talent, they expect the firm’s data to be good, but more importantly because Next Gen clients are going to expect a personalized client experience that's high tech, that's digital, and that knows them. It will only know them if our data is quality.
Is there anything big or small that we didn't cover here that just drives future CPA leaders nuts and should be addressed by firms to prevent that leaving of the best and brightest? What would be either a minor or major thing?
[Wilson] I have a few and I'll try to be brief, acknowledging my listeners want me to be. First, transparency. People want a more transparent work environment and a lot of times leaders will push back and say, "I can't tell people why somebody left the firm. It's not professional and it might not be legal." That's not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about transparency of the five-year vision, transparency of who is retiring when, and transparency of who's an equity partner versus an income partner, transparency of what are our revenues and what is our net income per partner or what margins are we making, or how does this mousetrap work? Teach me to practice economics.
Transparency of what are the core strategies of my department or what is the timeline for the technology investments? Making these things clear to people so that they have their expectations managed, so that they can provide feedback about whether they think we're on the right track, and so that they can have some confidence that we are managing the business well. I think sometimes they wonder if we're managing it at all.
Transparency is critical. Communication is a sister to that. Obviously I can't be more transparent if I'm not communicating. Looking at the firm's communication mechanisms and making sure we're having the right meetings and we're having the right people in meetings and we are communicating. That's really critical.
Another super important thing is we can't have bad bosses in the business. We can't have punishing, demeaning, diminishing, grouchy, negative, non-compliant, off-message, "I don't buy what management is doing" leaders in the organization. Those are cancerous, they are demoralizing, and it diminishes our young people's views of us as leaders when we let someone like that persist.
I don't care how big their book of business is. I don't care how great a rainmaker they are. I don't care how awesome their competencies are. If their character is eroding the fabric of our culture and morale, they have to go. Our young people will respect us when they're no longer there and they will not respect us when they stay. That's another thing I see when you talk about an exodus of best and brightest. Boy, nothing will make people leave faster.
Then the other thing that might be appropriate to talk about is career pathways. Young people today want to know what are my options? They don't just want to know the single-ladder option, "I start here as a tax associate and work my way up to tax partner through these eight levels" or whatever.
They want to know, "Could I go into consulting? Could I go into client accounting? Is it possible to learn some audit? Could I be the tax technology liaison? Could I learn recruiting?" They want options, experiences that I talked about earlier, and they want to know what the pathways are. They want to know what the best pathway is for them and they want to know “How will I get ahead and win? What does it take to be promoted? What does it take to get the best bonus?”
That's a combination of firms defining pathways, being willing to be flexible with them, but also being transparent about what winning is, where I am now, and what winning in the next level will be. A lot of firms lack that transparency and they say things like, "Keep doing what you're doing" and "Give it time, be patient" when young people say, "Could you explain to me my options and timing?" That's a mistake.
Usually when young people say, "What are my options and timing," they're weighing them because they have recruiters calling, three to five to seven times a week, who are luring them with options on the outside. They need to know what their options are on the inside. Those are just a few more things that I know are important to Next Gen talent.