The summer conference calendar is always busy, but over the past several years it has grown even more crowded with the addition of a host of events aimed specifically at young professionals and the “next generation.”
Jennifer Wilson, co-founder and partner at ConvergenceCoaching, and a regular speaker on the conference circuit, noted that the content and focus of these “next gen” conferences can vary widely. “Some are immersive, about personal skills, and some are state of the industry,” she said. If it doesn’t say ‘next gen,’ you might not be talking to ‘next gen.’”
So it’s worth asking: What are young professionals looking for at these gatherings — and what are they getting out of them? Do they feel their best interests are being considered and, if not, what changes can be made to make sure they are?
While there may be an informative session or two for young professionals at many general events, some conferences are geared just toward them.
The American Institute of CPAs’ Edge Experience Conference, held this August in New Orleans, primarily included sessions focused on rising professionals and how to ultimately better their careers in the early going.
Sessions focused on self-improvement and future-forward concepts, ranging from smarter networking, CPA education inside and out of the classroom, personal career planning, and how to more effectively lead others, just to name a few. Key figures, like AICPA president Barry Melancon and Maryland Association of CPAs president Tom Hood, were also present to give keynotes on anticipating and embracing change to keep succeeding in the profession.
But before the event began, conference-goers arrived with certain expectations on what they were looking to get out of the event. Chris Hervochon, a finance director at eviCore Healthcare, entered Edge with a specific motivation of making the most out of meeting his peers.
“My expectations were that I would have the opportunity to associate with like-minded young professionals, and to gain a broader perspective of the soft skills and situational leadership needed to rise to the top of the accounting profession,” he said. “I was hoping to learn from industry thought leaders who have ‘been there and done that’ and to then be able to gain insight regarding those same concepts from successful individuals who currently occupy a similar stage of their career as myself. That being said, my expectations were exceeded by a wide margin.”
Joseph Chan, an audit manager at Gelman LLP, was similarly focused on making the most out of his second trip to the conference. “My first Edge was a very valuable experience to my career since I connected with colleagues from all over the country, learned some very practical tools in management, and gained vision for the profession as a whole,” he said. “Therefore, my expectation going into this year’s Edge was to further my learning on those topics. Additionally, I learned tangible ways to developing my leadership skills within the profession and how to pass on this knowledge and encourage the next generation of leaders.”
There was also the pull of the sessions themselves. Caron Schmidt, a tax associate at Peterson Sullivan, believed that her time in the conference halls would give her some newfound knowledge that would make her a stronger professional when she returned home.
“I expected to be inspired and to leave a more confident and capable person with an expanded professional network,” she said. “I was hoping to learn how to increase my communication skills and my confidence to increase my value within my firm. I also hoped to gain a knowledge of tools that would help increase my firm’s capabilities.”
TAKE IT WITH YOU
For all the information being presented at conferences, it’s worth noting what material sticks and what doesn’t. Certain sessions will always speak to certain audience members, but a number of themes have been mainstays in recent years and have followed young professionals back into their professional lives.
Some sessions encourage group discussion and self-reflection, which can give attendees a better idea of what they’re bringing to their jobs and their clients.
“I feel that I am bringing back to my professional life a sense of understanding of myself,” said Schmidt. “I learned … that I am an introvert and I have a passion for others who are introverts and for helping them understand that they’re not lesser than extroverts, though extroverts might disagree. I am already planning to co-teach a Networking 101 class and incorporate what I learned.”
Others appreciated hearing updates on what the future will hold for them.
“One of the best takeaways is to hear directly from our profession’s leaders, such as Barry Melancon and Tom Hood, on their vision on where the future of the CPA profession is heading and how we can take initiative leading others to embrace the idea of change,” Chan said. “On a practical level, I really appreciate the ‘soft-skills’ training and learning about taking ownership over our leadership. I’m able to bring insights from these topics back to my professional and personal life.”
Given the range of topics covered, the different types of information presented can also help attendees decide on what’s most important to them and inspire individual study.
“These types of conferences provide me with a broader perspective, and I am always able to bring back a list of topics for further learning,” said Hervochon. “It is helpful to learn about industry best practices and to gain insight regarding the future of our industry and profession. Further, I feel these conferences, particularly Edge, are high-energy events that help to re-energize my feelings about my career and chosen profession.”
TWEAKING THE FORMULA
While conferences have always sought to keep modern issues at the forefront, there is always room for improvement for better covering said topics. With industry leaders increasingly seeking the input of Millennials entering the profession to help better their firms and cultures, there were a slew of opinions on what topics can be covered moving forward to better attune their ideas to the young professionals they hope will attend.
“A session on ‘managing up’ would be helpful in the future,” Hervochon suggested. “A lot of times young accountants have trouble learning how to effectively manage a difficult manager, or a manager who is providing insufficient resources.”
“Because there was a wide range of topics covered, some of the classes were short and I would have loved to learn more about some of them in a second part,” said Schmidt. “For example, ‘Tips and Tricks to Impress Your Boss and Colleagues’ and ‘Habits Make the Leader.’ I felt that I left Edge with a lot of research to do and books to read.”
“Some topics that I would like to see added are how to discuss what matters most, especially during difficult conversations, and cross-cultural communication and workplace diversity,” Chan added. “They are important to me because the CPA profession services not only within our individual cities or states but globally. Our company promotes diversity and includes people from all sorts of backgrounds who are learning how to communicate and collaborate with each other and our clients.”
As the lifeblood of any conference is the attendees, organizers must realize the importance of catering to young professionals’ interests to keep drawing them in. But that begs the question of whether younger professionals should be separated at all.
“If I look at the audience [of a general conference] and they’re all at the edge of retirement, I have to ask, ‘Am I speaking at this conference in five years?’” asked ConvergenceCoaching’s Wilson. “I think it’d be good if we have something in the future that folds everyone in together.”
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