This month the Illinois CPA Society is launching a new program, "Generating Results from Your Generation Y Staff ," that is geared to help young accountants understand how to deliver a better return on investment for their firm through bridging the expectation gap and better communication between themselves and their senior partners - especially during busy season.

In a tough economy where most partners are focused on keeping their firms afloat, it can be challenging to deal with a new generation that is casual in attire, casual in communication and casual in their approach to the workplace, according to Elaine Weiss, president and chief executive of the Illinois CPA Society. What's important to point out, she said, is that this new generation is every bit as dedicated to doing a good job.

"It is not accurate to say the younger generation is not committed professionals wanting to do the very best and serve the client," she said. "I truly think it is communication and different values."

For Weiss, partners who roll their eyes at this issue or, worse yet, sweep it under the rug, are doing themselves a grave disservice. "For those who think this isn't a priority, I think that's short-sighted, because the economy is going to remain challenging for a very long time and you need to keep the best and brightest staff in order to keep your business and clients happy. It's very much a bottom-line issue."

Accounting Today talked with Weiss about her thoughts on the generations - Baby Boomers and Gen Y specifically - and while it's the partners who she often hears sharing concerns about their younger staff, she is quick to explain that the relationship goes both ways, with work needing to be done on each end.

 

You have called generational issues one of the top concerns facing the accounting profession, along with the economy, globalization, technology, regulations and legislation. Why?

Weiss: There are several themes that are dominating, and certainly the economy is No. 1, but one of the surprising themes that keeps coming up over and over with our members is the challenges of working with different generations in the same workplace. Generational issues have been there since as long as there have been generations, but they seem to be even more of a challenge these days, I think, first of all, because there are people working longer. A couple of years ago, as I like to say, everybody was concerned that all the Baby Boomers were going to retire and nobody would be left to take over. Thanks to the economy, everybody is now worried that the Baby Boomers will never retire and that the next generation doesn't want to work and play by the same rules.

 

How do Boomers and Millennials differ?

Weiss: Work/life balance is just a very major difference for the generations. The Baby Boomers grew up in an era where you defined yourself by your job. Working long hours was a badge of honor, getting the corner office was the ultimate reward, being well-compensated was something you got with great pride. Those values, while not unimportant to younger people, are not the defining values of the next generation. They would easily sacrifice a corner office and money for more flexibility and time with their family and friends.

If you ask somebody 50 years old to define themselves, they'll say, 'I'm a CPA;' if you ask a 35-year-old to define themselves, they'll say, 'I'm a soccer coach, I'm a leader in my church and community.' They will not necessarily start by defining themselves through that profession. Work/life balance is just the lack of interest in putting in a 60-hour week for the rest of their life. To the younger generation, it does not mean they do not have a commitment to work - they absolutely do, [but] they see it as being done differently.

 

What makes this a big issue?

Weiss: The reason I think it's a big issue and that it hits the smaller-firm environment even more than the big firm is because in tough times, you have fewer people in your workplace to turn to. During busy season, these partners of these small firms need every single person for many hours, for many weeks in a row, and they are having a hard time instilling in the younger generation the need to be there, to be productive. And that a return on investment for the firm takes precedence over other things, and they are mystified and frustrated, these partners, when it doesn't seem to resonate with their younger staff. Younger staff say, 'What's the big deal if I work from home, and if I get it done, why do you care how and where I get it done?' There is a huge gap between the partner expectation and the Gen Y expectation of how you work together in a workplace. A small firm has fewer resources, [so] if someone isn't there, they can't give it to the second, third, fourth or fifth person on the team. So these issues are even tougher for a smaller firm where there's less resources and less capacity to have people flex-timing when you need people in the office. A large firm has more resources and flexibility to work within these changing parameters.

 

Have firms come to you and said that these are the issues they are dealing with?

Weiss: Yes. We are hearing increasingly from our small-firm partners, from the quintessential Baby Boomers, that they are not able to instill in the next generation the expectations of what it takes to be a successful CPA in a firm environment, particularly during busy season. We're being asked by our small-firm partners to help their younger staff to connect the dots to better meet the partner expectations. But I will tell you, in that plea, what we are trying to also say to the senior partner is that you also need to do a better job of connecting the dots in understanding your younger staff.

 

How are they responding?

Weiss: There is hesitancy in wanting to connect the dots in both directions. The key is to be able to work with both generations effectively, and getting an older generation to better understand and embrace what a work/life balance looks and feels and sounds like.

The other thing that is key for older partners to understand is that money is not the only way to reward people, to give them a feeling of success and team in the firm. [There are other ways] - greater communication, ongoing feedback, rewarding through a little more time off versus just the billable hour criteria for a bonus. What they are using to justify a bonus for the younger generation might need to be expanded [beyond] just how many billable hours you are putting in, which doesn't mean the partners don't have the absolute right to get those billable hours. They need them - you can't serve your client without them - but they need to better understand how to embrace the new world of social networks and how to communicate more frequently and more effectively with the younger staff in their office.

 

How does communication differ?

Weiss: Communication still involves talking and being able to communicate with a client effectively in the very old-fashioned way. You can use Facebook, you can Tweet, you can effectively e-mail all sorts of stuff, but the ultimate ability to win a client's confidence to get the business for the firm and keep the business still boils down to some old-fashioned communication. That is something the older folks can instill in the younger generation. We all sit in our offices and e-mail the people next door. But if you are really trying to build a relationship with a client over time or win that relationship, there has to be some old-fashioned interaction going on.

 

What sort of successful strategies have you seen firms use for recruiting and retaining young people?

Weiss: The firms who take the time to spend a little planning on strategy on this issue see some results, whether it's the firm retreat where you choose to highlight this, or send some staff for training on these issues. The key, however, is that the senior managers also have to embrace this. Any change in the workplace culture starts at the top.

 

What does that success look like?

Weiss: A younger staff who is more willing to understand what it means to put forth the effort during busy season for the firm, who understand why you are doing it, the importance of it and has a sense that they are going to be rewarded in a way that is meaningful for them. Money is one criteria, but rewarding through great communication, time off, and flexibility is the recognition they seek.

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