Ever since women and Gen Y-era CPAs began swelling the ranks of public accounting firms, senior partners have been getting an earful about the importance of accommodating their new cohort's varying career goals, motivations and lifestyle preferences.

Initially, most firms run by Baby Boomers responded only with lip service - if at all. Firms would proclaim themselves "family-friendly," yet senior partners maintained their workaholic patterns, conveying the clear message that the only career track to partner (or even to remain employed at all) was to work relentlessly.

And the sharp economic downturn that began in 2008, resulting in reduced manpower needs at many firms, has diverted some "old school" managing partners' focus away from the structural reforms and creative human resource strategies required for attracting and retaining new talent.

But that reprieve will not endure, experts warn. Moreover, the fact that some CPAs are working harder today due to slimmed-down staffs can create greater urgency for the kinds of alternative job structures and career paths that younger accountants have been clamoring for. In other words, the future is knocking ever more loudly at the front door.

Observations about post-Boomer generations' work ethic are familiar, but bear repeating for their implications for the future. "They want more freedom to work when and where they want," said Boomer Consulting chief operating officer Sandra Wiley. Heretofore, that desire has been a hard sell for Baby Boomer-generation partners, she added, "because they want to have them right there, where they can watch them."

And in some cases, they should be watching them, she conceded. "Some people can work productively from home or the library, but for others, it's a terrible thing."

Thus, granting younger accountants' desire for work flexibility will require either that firms beef up their HR departments, or, better still, provide appropriate training to supervisors so that they can ensure that younger CPAs' productivity is enhanced, not diminished, by their flexibility demands.

Wiley believes that strong training and HR functions will be hallmarks of the firms of the future.

 

NOT YOUR FATHER'S MOTIVATORS

One common obstacle to firms' evolution to a management model that will allow them to flourish in the future is an assumption by senior partners that the "high-potentials" on their staffs are spurred on by the same things that motivate them. "Partners believe they want more money, but when you ask the high-potentials, what they say they want is learning development opportunities and getting on 'cool' assignments," says Next Generation Consulting founder Rebecca Ryan.

The fact that compensation for senior partners skyrocketed in the post-Enron period leading up to the 2008 recession has had a downside, Ryan explained. "It's taking more brain-share among the leaders figuring out how to award it, when they instead should be more focused on understanding the motivations and aspirations of younger CPAs - both those on their staffs and prospective recruits."

Noted CPA consultant Marc Rosenberg said that he cautions his senior clients always to bite their tongues before uttering any sentence that begins with, "When I was their age ... ."

Ryan pointed out that younger accountants scouting new opportunities are spending more time on Vault.com than Monster.com. The former incorporates unvarnished assessments of an organization from current or past employees, not simply alluring pitches from the employers themselves. That means that the reality of the work environment as perceived by those who live in it matters more than the firm's claims about it.

 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRM

One CPA shop with strong aspirations as a firm of the future tries to be everything that a traditional practice is not: Knoxville, Tenn.-based Lawhorn & Associates. The firm, founded in 1979 by Jeff Lawhorn, is now managed by his son Jason. The junior Lawhorn's freedom from workaholism will be demonstrated if he follows through on a planned six-week "sabbatical" this summer.

The firm's employees can bank up to five vacation days a year towards an extended vacation, he explained.

"We take our work very seriously, but we don't take ourselves very seriously," he said. "We joke around a lot. It's not a stuffy place." That spirit is suggested by the firm's Web site (lawhorncpa.com), featuring a backdrop of dense, dark green foliage. "It's a jungle out there ... and in here, too," a sign cheekily proclaims. Whimsical staff biographies include statements like this one about Jason: "His exquisite blackberry-toe jam makes him a community jelly role model."

Prominent on the Web site is a philosophical statement intended to set the tone both for clients and prospective hires: "In the end, life is about more than just business - it's about the people you love, the time you spend, the things you give, and the legacy you leave."

The message is that Lawhorn & Associates can act as a "guide" to "improve your quality of life."

Sounds good, but does it sell?

"We've had new clients who have said, 'Your Web site is the whole reason I'm here,'" Lawhorn revealed.

The firm's client base is primarily small-business owners. "Our vision," Lawhorn said, "is to become a national firm for small business."

Lawhorn & Associates is converting from a partnership to a corporation, in part so that all employees can own equity in the business. Also, Lawhorn said, "That corporate governance structure makes sure everybody is on the same page; it's a model of shared vision."

Lawhorn & Associates may be somewhat over the top even for a hipper crowd of Gen Y CPAs, but its apparent success in snagging clients and talent cannot be ignored. Sometimes, however, firms simply evolve in a progressive direction due to circumstances that crop up. For example, regional Ohio accounting firm SS&G has a few part-time partners.

"We didn't plot this out," said Rebecca Osborn, the firm's HR director. She explained that it arose from a need by some senior members of the team - typically women - to accommodate their work-life balance needs, and they were too valuable to lose.

"It has been part of the culture for a long time," she said. "If people are well-qualified, the number of hours they work doesn't matter."

But within reason: "A CPA who works part-time gives up the fast track to upper management, but at least won't be forced out," she said.

That flexibility, said Osborn, "is a great thing for recruiting. We can say, 'We have work-life balance,' and people can really see it."

Consultant Rosenberg reminds his clients about the glaring disparity between the percentage of women graduating with accounting degrees - half of the total - and the percentage of women in the partner ranks of public firms - about 15 percent.

"We have not done a good job of retaining women," he said. Doing better will require not only adopting policies like part-time positions, but actively promoting them, and training senior managers how to get the best productivity out of part-time CPAs.

Beyond that, senior partners need to take an active interest in the work schedule needs of their staffs. He recalls being appalled when hearing a managing partner of a firm sing the praises of a female staffer who was about to have a baby. Rosenberg asked if the woman was planning to return. "He didn't even know. I said, 'Time out. You need to offer her anything she wants if she's that good.'"

Still, Wiley said there are two words that typically define the limits of work schedule flexibility: tax season.

 

THE VIRTUAL FIRM

Job-sharing arrangements might enable CPAs who cannot give up nights and weekends and live at the office to continue to find their jobs manageable.

But is it necessary to have an official office - whether you work 80 hours a week, or 30?

The concept of the "virtual office" as the work model of the future has some adherents. Sometimes firms land in that situation for reasons beyond their control - like 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

That's what happened to Eric Rigby, CPA, of The Rigby Group in New Orleans. When it became apparent that the hurricane had the potential to create catastrophic damage, "I told my people to get out of Dodge," he recalled. While his office on the 22nd floor of a downtown office tower was unscathed, he could not resume working there for months, and his staff was scattered. In the process of rebuilding, he hired a CPA who works from her home in Charlotte, N.C. "I haven't actually met her in person yet," Rigby conceded. "And to our clients, it doesn't matter where she is."

Rigby has re-established a new physical office, but said that the only person who really needs to be there on a regular basis is his executive assistant.

A model for the CPA firm of the future?

Perhaps for some - but not all, maintains industry consultant Rita Keller.

"I don't see bricks and mortar going away completely," she said. But if a valued accountant is forced to leave town due to a spouse's relocation, keeping that CPA on the job, working from their home at another location, is generally a smart move, she advised.

One of the ways that firms may be driven to modernize their personnel and other policies, Keller said, is through the adoption of "corporate" organizational structures. Doing so does not require abandoning a partnership legal organization format, however.

While many Top 100 Firms have already embraced the concept, smaller firms with revenues in the $8-million-to-$10-million range are also ripe for the structure, she said. This essentially involves limiting the managing partner's duties to high-level leadership, strategy development, being the public face and "rainmaker" for the firm, and delegating matters like technology, internal finance and human resource administration to a non-CPA chief operating officer. An executive committee consisting of the managing partner, four other partners elected to fixed terms with expertise in key areas of the firm's business, and the chief operating officer on a non-voting basis, offers a good governance model for CPA firms that have at least a dozen partners, Keller explained.

While some partners may grumble at being removed from the governance structure, they may be consoled by the knowledge that the firm isn't giving up so many top-dollar billable hours, Keller said.

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