"The Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged -- with potentially seismic consequences for America."

-- Neil Howe and William Strauss ("Millennials Rising")

In some CPA firms, mature partners can be overheard describing their youngest generation of employees as less engaged, less loyal and less hard-working than they were when they "came up." They share concerns about the future of public accounting and whether their firms will sustain themselves under this new generation of leadership. In fact, in the 2012 PCPS Succession Survey, a whopping 64 percent of "senior partners" said that they feel that the younger members of their firms are not ready to step into leadership positions.

At this point I should confess that I am a Baby Boomer, but I see great hope and possibility in the challenging questions asked and the bright observations made by the Millennials I meet. To see this potential, though, we have to look past our differences and focus on the many similarities that exist between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers. All too often, Boomers focus on the Millennial obsession with technology and social media, their blatant transparency, their desire for a work-from-anywhere lifestyle, and sometimes their ink and body art. Then, they make this whole generation -- the future of our nation -- wrong because they are different.

It's possible that some Baby Boomers listen to their younger team members through a "You're just like my kid" filter, causing them to miss the raw potential contained in these bright young professionals. When I engage with groups who voice their litany of concerns about "those young people," I feel like I've entered a room filled with my generation's old bosses who used to say these same things about us when we were young.

The entrepreneurial, creative, risk-taking, technology-implementing Boomers should recognize the kindred spirit in their Millennial team members. These young people are enterprising, as evidenced in a blog post from MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School's online MBA program, titled Maximizing Millennials: The Who, How, and Why of Managing Gen Y. The cited survey found that a third of the Millennial respondents had started a business in college (30 percent) or had a side business (35 percent).

There is so much potential within this generation that it pays to rethink our "old story" about them, and instead create a new possibility.

So what will it take to realize the potential of your firm's Millennials? Here are my top recommendations:

  • Get educated about them. Read the array of resources and research on this emerging group of leaders. Make generational learning a required activity for the firm's partners and current leaders.
  • Really know -- and listen to -- your own Millennials. Find out what they value. Ask about their work experiences so far -- what's worked and what hasn't. Listen to their ideas. Consider forming a panel or committee of Millennials to regularly supply feedback to your firm's leadership team about employee engagement and success.
  • Clarify your firm's purpose and the purpose of each engagement, project or goal you assign them. The MBA@UNC post mentioned above indicated that "Millennials prioritized 'meaningful work' over high pay." Identify the difference your firm makes for the community, clients and employees and repeat it often. Call your Millennials and all team members to a higher purpose.
  • Give them opportunities to grow and learn new things. Millennials like to understand the path that they are on and see possibilities to expand their potential. They want to be involved in the bigger picture, so create relationships to mentor them and allow each individual the space to pursue areas of interest and grow in their work.
  • Teach them your firm's business model. Millennials are smart! Teach them practice economics early, and be as transparent as possible about the leverage model, the net economic contribution of each person (which they often misunderstand as being their gross billable revenue), and the levers that drive success. When you do, they'll be far more likely to contribute in the way, and at the levels, needed to ensure success.
  • Be flexible and willing to change. Firm leaders must embrace the differences of these bright and shining new leaders and create nimble, change-ready organizations that challenge and engage our future hope.

Millennials are young professionals engaged in what young people do: questioning the status quo, pushing boundaries, finding different (sometimes better) ways of doing things, and blazing their path to the future. Baby Boomers used to be engaged in these same things. Find a way to get back to that young entrepreneurial spirit within you and within your firm, and you'll engage your young leaders indefinitely.

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