Peter Sheahan Demystifies Gen Y

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When Peter Sheahan took the stage at CCH's user conference this fall, he knew many of the Boomer accountants in the audience were going to flat-out hate him. Fresh out of high school in 1998, Sheehan started working for what was then Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in his home country of Australia.

That job literally lasted eight days, and he left to work at a bar instead of working his way up to partner for decades. By age 20, he had started his own business.

Now, the 28-year-old travels the world teaching partners at firms including KPMG and Ernst & Young and other companies how to manage the next generation of employees who will ultimately succeed them.

Partner Insights

Sheahan acknowledges that most conference attendees couldn't even fathom someone as young as him being their keynote speaker (at one event he was mistaken for a bus boy), but pointed out some major issues that they likely will need to address if they are going to profit in an inter-generational workplace.

These include providing flexibility, career advancement opportunities and inspiration-immediately, if not sooner-which requires a huge change in the way veteran partners think and act.

You attend some of the larger firms' leader conferences. What are you doing for them?

Mostly helping partners understand what the [Gen Y] mindset looks like and what their behavior means. The best young graduates get offers from all firms. What makes them say "Yes" is how it feels to go to the interview. Will I be inspired by my work? What can I tell my friends? It used to be "Give me your loyalty and I'll give you a job for life." Now loyalty doesn't mean tenure, it means I'll be in engaged and work hard, but in two years I want my marketability to be better than it was when I came.

Many Boomers have complained about having to adapt to Gen Y's ways of working - not wanting to work long hours, even during tax season. Do they have to adopt or is there room for compromise?

The bill-per-hour business models conflicts with their perception that they're in control. It has nothing to do with I can work anywhere, any time. It's I feel I can work anywhere, anytime. My boss figures I'm going to leave after two years and he wants to get as many hours out of me as he can so he drives up my hours, minimizes my flexibility and makes me leave after two years. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a 25-year-old says, "I want this," and you slap him in the face, who wins? They do because you just gave them two years of training. They leave, and you're stuck with extra work. Managers get caught in the emotion of the moment. Stop playing child games and grow up a bit. Don't be resentful.

How can firms appease young staff?

Seek to understand, not to judge. Don't judge this mindset as good or bad, just judge it as different. Look for what you can learn. After every session I do with accounting managers, they say what every Gen Yer wants, that's what they also want [especially flexibility]. You'll be amazed how much the dreams of Gen Y are the dreams of everyone. Create a Gen Y-friendly firm and you create a people-friendly organization. This is the next wave of change. Suck it up. The species that adapts survives.

Is there any way to retain them?

Gen Y changes jobs an average of 29 times and the average time in one job is 1.1 years. Protect their knowledge when it leaves. Let them make moves internally even if it's with firm affiliates in other parts of the world. Try to give them sideways ladders. Love them when they're gone because they'll say nice things about you. Give them smaller rewards more often rather than bigger rewards less often-the best is a combination of both. They'll take a marshmallow today over a package of marshmallows tomorrow, likely because they believe they'll get the package of marshmallows anyway.

Some Boomers believe the recession will benefit them since the demand for Gen Y staff will not be as strong, so they won't feel they have options lined up. What's your take?

I had [someone] shake his finger at me saying a recession would straighten [our generation] out and if he were lucky, it would last a few years. He was actually hoping for a recession. The economy eventually will [survive]. The way you treat them now will come back and bite you. Short-sightedness will affect you in the long term because come bounce-back time, people will remember what you did during the lean years.

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