As Millennials enter the workforce and steadily gain more and more leadership roles, current managers might want to know a bit more about their younger counterparts to ensure the ongoing success of their practices.

The profession, in many ways, has been preparing for this transition. One such initiative is the American Institute of CPAs’ Leadership Academy, held this year Oct. 2–6 in Durham, N.C. Gathering a class of 37 professionals from across the country between the ages of 25 and 35, the academy looks to provide what the institute describes as “a self-examination of leadership, what that means, and how that impacts personal life, career path and the CPA profession.”

This gathering of young leaders not only gives them the chance to learn about leading the profession into the future, but also offered a glimpse into their hopes and desires as they move closer to being the de facto leaders of tomorrow, which Accounting Today gathered in a series of interviews with attendees and academy organizers.

 

THE MODERN MILLENNIAL

Donna Salter, senior manager of young member initiatives at the AICPA, has been in charge of planning and implementing the Leadership Academy since 2011, and knows firsthand the importance of what the academy offers both young leaders and the future of the profession. “We are really in a position, like most organizations, of needing to invest in young leaders; it really is part of the stewardship and legacy of the CPA profession,” she said. “We bring in a wide variety of individuals so [that] we have a rich, diverse conversation in the room.”

Salter went on to say that a defining characteristic of some of the most recent Leadership Academy graduates is knowing themselves, both professionally and personally, and hoping to translate that into their careers.

“I see their sense of really wanting to discover more about themselves, what strengths [they] have, and how to create that perfect sweet spot of skill-set, experience [and] life progression,” Salter said. “The fascinating thing for me … is the common traits that they hold. They absolutely love the accounting profession, have a strong desire to improve themselves, and create a commonality of this shared experience that they gain from attending the program. It really creates this strong bond that unites all of them.”

One of these commonalities that attendees hold is the sense of work/life balance in their careers. James Matthis, a partner at Waters & Matthis CPAs in Wallace, N.C., and a 2016 Leadership Academy attendee, feels that it is a top priority in an already-changing work environment. “For the younger generation, what we are wanting more than anything is to create a greater sense of work/life balance,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we work any less, but we find different ways to achieve that balance. We’re saying that we’re willing to do the same amount of work, just that we want to do it in a different way.”

“So as we get older, I start saying, ‘What about my family life?’” he added. “You know, we can start working at home now, so we can say, ‘OK, let’s create a different work/life balance based on that.’”

Fellow attendee Erin Roche, a team leader at Elliot CPA Group in Santa Rosa, Calif., believes that communication is a much-needed factor in dealing with young professionals. “They’re very open to new information and learning from one another,” she said. “Something that I’ve noticed is that Millennials have this expectation that you’re going to communicate with them more openly because they’ve had this availability of information their whole lives. So when they come in and have this great idea and you do nothing about it, they didn’t necessarily expect that you were going to scrap everything you built for the last 25 years, but they did expect some type of feedback on it, positive or negative. So I think that’s an adaptation we have to have.”

Steven Kurinsky, a senior accountant at DeLeon & Stang in Leesburg, Va., and a first-time academy participant, added that he considers a group approach to leadership to be more desirable in today’s work environment. “It’s very interesting to understand that a leader isn’t the person who provides the answers, but is able to compile a group together who can work towards a solution [collectively],” he said. “No one has one answer — it’s just that they work together and come up with different ideas, choose an idea that can be worked towards, and then work for it.”

 

DO YOU HEAR ME NOW?

Knowing what traits they’d like to incorporate into their future management style, young leaders would still like to make sure that current leadership knows enough about them and what they’re trying to achieve.

Andrew Beyeler, a manager at Lenhart-Mason & Associates in Casper, Wyo., and a 2015 academy alumnus, said that striking a balance between the new and old is key to driving real change.

“In my experience, I think there’s a lot of intimidation felt by Millennials and there [are] some stereotypes about the older generation being resistant to change,” he said. “But once you know how to put yourself out there and facilitate that change, they’re much more responsive to it, more open-minded. They’re much more open to ideas when it’s presented to them in a coherent, well-thought-out approach, as opposed to, ‘I think we should completely change our billing structure.’ To me, that’s the one thing I’m trying to do with [my] firm — to have them consider and be open to changes in the profession. It’s not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would have been.”

Lori Liddell, a 2016 academy attendee and senior manager at Top 100 Firm Horne CPAs in Ridgeland, Miss., said that while she’s heard “a lot of forward-thinking, innovative ideas” among her peers at this year’s academy, young leaders still need to communicate to current leaders so they understand that “we have a voice [and] opinions.”

“A lot of the things I see or use [in tech], they’re going to be a little slower to react to, so just them being able to hear from a young leader’s perspective in a profession that is typically very old, to hear a diverse group of mindsets” is important, she said.

“If you give us the opportunity to empower and lead and come up with our own ideas, we’ll be able to own that idea and then execute upon it,” added DeLeon & Stang’s Kurinsky. “It’s listening to these younger people and having trust that their idea will work, and even if it doesn’t work, you can then pivot and try something else. So don’t just try one idea and if it fails, everything else is shot down, but give them the authority to try something out; if it doesn’t work out, keep trying until something does stick.”

Another concept gaining steam among young leaders is using the best person for the job — be that a 30-year professional or a graduate fresh out of university.

“If nothing else, I’d like the more experienced generation to realize that those coming in behind them aren’t lazy, they’re not looking for the easy way out — they’ve just been raised differently,” added Roche. “They’ve come to put value on a different set of criteria than the norm was before. Going to work for the same company for 20 years is how you proved yourself for a certain position; that’s not the value system [we’ve] been brought up with. [We have] been brought up to value whoever has the skill-set most applicable to the job at hand. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve had five minutes or 50 years of experience: If your unique talent set is what’s going to set you up to be the most successful for a particular task, they’re expected to be the person put forward first, regardless of their tenure.”

Salter added that current managers may be undervaluing young leaders in today’s firms, and should be acting more as mentors to better integrate them into firms and prepare them for the future.

“What I see happening is [current leaders] having [young people] do work they’ve always done,” she said. “These [young] individuals are ready to step up and drive the company’s success and are truly worth investing in themselves and their time. When a mentor truly sponsors an employee, they really do form a professional bond that should leave a lasting impression on both parties. It’s not just, ‘I’m your boss — sit down and do this.’ It’s, ‘How can I involve you in conversation and strategy to collectively be successful?’”

 

WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER

It’s clear that more collaboration is the cornerstone of further strengthening the profession as Millennials take on bigger roles. Management will have to do their part to ensure that a smart, balanced transition can take place, and that all starts with more communication with young professionals and leaders.

“My strong recommendation [for current leaders] is to be a mentor; an authentic mentor to young professionals and not just a boss,” urged Salter. “Don’t direct their work; direct their career, and that means taking an active role in their development. In my experience, young professionals are incredibly bright and have a strong desire to give back. So in that vein, senior leaders should really focus on developing their leadership capabilities and the leadership mindset in young professionals early in their careers, so that way when the time comes, they can step up sooner into the more senior roles.”

“We do a great job of asking, ‘Why does the company do this?’ but we also need to do a better job of going to our elders in the firm and going, ‘Here’s what we need to do, and here’s why we need to do it,’” added Waters & Matthis’ Matthis. “We don’t change just for the sake of change. The mentality is that people are inherently averse to change, so you’ve got to do a good job of leading with ‘Here’s why.’”

“Not everybody’s going to be inspired and will have to be tempered with being in the profession for a long time, but I think that we need to come up with a way to honor that difference in value, and in the same point in time, integrate it into what we have existing, because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Roche. “We want to make sure we’re keeping the things that are working really well, but integrating it with some of these new outlooks on how the world works.”

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