[IMGCAP(1)]Accountants may be thought of as numbers people, but we can never forget that people aren’t numbers. As an industry it’s time for all of us to direct our focus to our young talented professionals.

It’s time to educate them on the true career opportunities that exist if they stay in public accounting. It’s time for us to show them that we care about them beyond the numbers that drop to companies’ bottom lines—that we want them to have fulfilling and challenging work experiences.

Most importantly it’s time for us, as an industry, to change our mindsets and to create a widespread culture of career advocacy, where we push for the best and most fulfilling opportunities for our young talent, whether that’s in public accounting or whether their career takes them beyond it.

We know the change won’t happen overnight, but inertia is our enemy. The industry will keep losing top talent if we maintain the status quo. A recent report by the financial services recruiting firm Coenen Bros. says that the best time to leave public accounting is between the three- to six-year marks (see Leave Public Accounting after 3 to 6 Years, Says Research).

Many of the underlying themes of the study point to larger perception issues related to the public accounting field. Perhaps more importantly it shines a light on the glaring need for a much greater focus on educating young and mid-level accounting professionals about the career tracks and growth opportunities that actually exist in the public accounting space.

We must make them aware of the long-term growth opportunities that exist. They have to know that we have their best interests in mind, that we are their advocates. It’s no surprise that we find ourselves leading our industry and looking to compel them to make this shift and move towards a new mindset. At Rothstein Kass we have developed the following set of beliefs that can help every firm create a culture of career advocacy while putting an end to the “public accounting brain drain.”

1. Advocacy Begins with Transparency – It’s important for someone to know from day one that they can and should have candid conversations about their career—no matter where it takes them. Talk openly about career paths from the initial interview and acknowledge the possibility that their career may take them away from your firm. The honesty will be appreciated and it will demonstrate that you care about them as much as their work product. Transparency truly is the first step in career advocacy.

2. Encourage Natural Mentoring – Many firms have formal mentoring programs where younger employees are assigned a partner as a mentor. The problem is these relationships are random. Don’t force mentoring. Create and nurture an environment where mentoring is able to happen naturally. The relationship will be conflict free and therefore stronger if it comes about naturally. The advice will be more genuine and the results will be better—for the firm and your people. If you do go with a formal program, make sure mentees can opt out or switch to another mentor freely.

3. Make Learning Cultural and Practical – Creating ongoing learning opportunities is critical to keeping young employees engaged and excited. Don’t create check the box education programs. Develop application of knowledge-based learning programs that have a direct impact on what employees are working on in their daily lives and then give them the tools and the opportunities to implement what they’ve learned. Whether it’s technical skills or skills for how to be a better manager, young professionals will appreciate access to practical learning programs they can implement to achieve career growth.

4. Take Control of the Process – It’s natural for young professionals to explore new employment and earning opportunities at some point during their careers. And if they’re going to do it anyway, don’t let someone else guide their experience—especially a recruiter who has a built-in ulterior motive. Take control of the process by talking to them about the kinds of opportunities that exist outside of your firm. Have them talk to partners or other team members who have been on the corporate side about the pros and cons of their experiences. You can even recommend that they go interview to get a real understanding of what’s out there. Undertaking this process shows team members that the career talk is not taboo and more importantly it shows that you care about their happiness and their long-term success—and that goes a long way.

5. Create a Symbiotic Relationship – Caring about the careers of your professionals is not simply an altruistic gesture; it benefits the firm and the person. True career advocacy is mutually beneficial. Team members who are in the right position, with the right firm with a clear career path, will be happier and more engaged. And all the research shows that more engaged team members are more productive team members. By taking an active interest in the careers of your professionals you are really creating a symbiotic professional relationship—and that’s good for everyone involved.

6. Set the Tone at the Top – Career advocacy has to start at the stop. Executives have to set the tone and the culture. They have to foster a people-first, not firm-first attitude. They have to demonstrate through their actions, their policies and their programs that the firm cares about its people and not simply the work product they produce.

7. Walk the Career Advocacy Walk – Caring about team members’ career growth can’t be rhetoric. People can sniff out insincerity a mile away and it only creates animosity. Organizations must do more than simply talk about career opportunities and advocacy, they must walk the walk. They must make a commitment and infuse it into the fabric of the firm with formalized programs and widely known practices that show career development is a priority. Team members will recognize that commitment and pay it back with loyalty and effort.

These steps may seem basic, even intuitive, but the reality is most firms clearly aren’t following them. If they were, we wouldn’t be reading about top talent leaving the profession for supposed greener pastures after three years, six years or any years for that matter. Public accounting may not be the career for everyone who enters the field, but it’s our obligation to make every effort to keep the ones for who it is the best fit.

Here are two simple truths regarding the best times to leave: (1) If public accounting is not for you, then at the two-year mark you should start game planning with a mentor what your departure should look like; and (2) as for the upper limit in years—that’s even easier—start planning your departure with your mentor the day you stop learning and being challenged!

It’s our responsibility to change the industry’s mindset from one of squeezed worker robots to career advocacy. When that happens, the public accounting brain drain will transform into a flood of talent for you as well.

Vincent J. Calcagno is a principal at the accounting firm Rothstein Kass.

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