Still feeling shaky about the economy? Not sure whether to pull the trigger on that massive technology investment or acquire that Chicago office? Your instincts are good: America is in a period of economic winter, and we haven't bottomed out yet.

And all of this was predicted.

America goes through four distinct seasons, or "turnings." Like climatic seasons, America's turnings are knowable and predictable. William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote about them in their 1997 book, "The Fourth Turning."

Here's how the four seasons have shaped America. Perhaps you'll see some of your firm's history here:

* Spring (the first turning) started after World War II. Everyone felt terrific, GIs were getting a college education, the economy was booming and the middle class was expanding. Hope was in the air. Traditionalists (b. 1925-1944) were newlyweds and young adults, and Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964) were just being born. It was a time of euphoria.

* Summer (the second turning) was in full swing by the "Summer of Love." An air of anti-authoritarianism set in, and Boomers - America's next generation of youth - played this role well: They marched. They sat in. They radicalized. Traditionalists felt a huge "generation gap" between themselves and Boomers. During that summer, Gen Xers (b. 1961-1981) were just kids.

* Autumn (the third turning), American institutions and ideals started to show signs of decay: widening inequality, gas lines, Watergate, the Iran-Contra Scandal, the farm crisis, spiking divorce rates. Traditionalists were starting to retire. Boomers were taking over, Gen Xers were joining the workforce, and Millennials (b. 1982-2001) were just being born.

* Winter (the fourth turning) blew in with the 2008 financial crisis and is expected to follow a historical pattern: an initial spark (Wall Street's collapse) will set off a chain reaction of further emergencies related to debt, civic decay and global disorder. Winter is expected to hit its apex in 2020, making way for spring around 2025. In winter, Boomers will enter elderhood, Gen Xers will assume leadership, and Millennials will become America's next-generation workforce.

What will smart CPA firms do during winter?

* Return to the core values your firm was founded on.

When people face winter's uncertainty, they get uneasy. With C-Span playing in your lobbies, everyone walking through reception is reminded of the world's lack of predictability. To keep people grounded and focused, remind and reinforce your firm's core values - and stick to them. Strong values give people comfort and a shared direction.

 

* Work to earn a good reputation with clients as well as your community.

In winter, people turn to those they can trust. Firms with strong values employ professionals with high integrity, people who keep their word, professionals with good manners and cultural decency. In winter, make sure your employees are meeting more with clients and in the community.

 

* Build stronger, more efficient teams.

Strauss and Howe advise, "In the Fourth Turning, the rewards will grow for people with a reputation for accepting authority and working well in teams. Stress less about what sets you apart as an individual [which was the norm during summer and autumn], and more about what you have in common with others." The time for big egos and narcissistic self-promotion has passed. Winter requires strong teams that can work together without friction to achieve remarkable results.

 

* Get lean.

Winter is going to last a while, and to survive, smart teams will root out waste wherever it exists. Duplication or rework that might have been standard during fatter times are heavy burdens in winter. Use lean processes, effective dashboards and best-in-class practices to track and eliminate waste.

 

* Trade in visions of market domination for consistent, year-after-year performance.

Jim Collins' new book, "Great By Choice," reinforces this point: Firms that consistently achieve goals (even modest goals) season-after-season outperform those who wager big bets. Winter is no time to sell off all your clothes in exchange for a turn at the roulette wheel. Winter rewards the patient, persistent plodders who achieve consistent, measurable gains.

To the untrained eye, winter looks bleak. Actually, winter is a time of great potency, when living systems hibernate to re-gather their energy for the next cycle of birth and growth, which comes in the spring.

Firms that accept winter and the four turnings as natural cycles of America's history will be better prepared to adjust their behaviors and get in flow with their natural, predictable order.

 

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Next Generation Consulting (http://nextgenerationconsulting.com/), which studies the work preferences of younger employees. She is a member of The Advisory Board.

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