Rebecca Ryan debunks some generational myths

Just who is Rebecca Ryan?

At Next Generation Consulting, a market research firm in Madison, Wis. - which is dedicated to, you guessed it, the next generation - she's known as "evangelist-in-residence." We caught up with the most recent member of The Advisory Board to pick her brain for intergenerational insights, including how to deal with those partners (young and old) who are reluctant to change.

What would you say is the No. 1 myth attached to each generation?

For the traditionalists: They can't/won't learn technology. For the Boomers: They're self-absorbed. For the Gen Xers: They don't care. For the Millennials: They're spoiled.

What's your advice to those younger people who feel frustrated and paralyzed by those in higher ranks who just won't budge?

It's not just older partners who are reluctant to change. I've met a couple of younger partners (especially in tax!) who have sticks so firmly planted up their behinds that they can't bend over to tie their shoes. My advice to anyone who's struggling with a stick-in-the-mud is that you have three options: Accept that they won't change; change your own response to their inflexibility; or do something to change the situation.

Many younger employees feel that they need to confront their stick-in-the-mud partners head-on, but this rarely works. A smarter strategy is an indirect one: Identify a person whom the stick-in-the-mud partner listens to and respects and who's sympathetic to your point of view. Lobby that person, and see if they'll talk to the stick-in-the-mud.

On the flip side, what do you say to those old-time partners who like the way things have been done for years?

I can empathize with them. By the time you've been "CPAing" for 30 or 40 years, you're tired. So I understand the partners who want to ride it out. But I don't respect them. I think the respectable thing for partners to do is to ensure that the firm will be stronger after they're gone. And that requires partners to build a really strong bench of talent, and to surround yourself with people who don't think the same way you do. That's real leadership.

In your work with firms, has there been a particular initiative or policy that has blown your mind -- in a good or bad way?

I love the study team model at Reznick, where they ask groups of employees to design solutions to their most pressing people issues. It's a way to get a lot of people and ideas involved in firm improvement, and it's a great professional development opportunity for those who serve on study teams.

On the other end of the spectrum, I cannot believe the number of partners who are raping their firms each year -- distributing all of the firm's profits as bonuses - and leaving no value in the firm for future generations.

Do you find most intergenerational conflict in accounting firms is out in the open? If so, how is it being addressed? Or is it?

Five years ago, the perceived intergenerational issue was, "How can we attract and keep new hires?" Now it's, "How can we offload partners who are clogging up the hierarchy and preventing us from getting younger partners brought in?" Of the two, the latter is the trickiest, because the partnership model rewards consensus in the short term, and often prevents partners from stepping aside from their own self-interest, and doing what's right for the longer-term success of the firm.

Where do you see accounting in five years?

There will be growth in two directions: Midsized and large firms will get larger. On the other end of the spectrum, there's a ton of room for start-ups. I hope we'll see a new generation of younger CPAs break off from the traditional firms and start what I think a "Next Gen Firm" could be: highly niched, flat, virtual, paperless and value-based. It will be run like a high-performance team, not a hierarchical partnership.

Have an intergenerational issue in your firm? Ask Rebecca! E-mail her at rr nextgenerationconsulting.com. If your question is chosen, you'll receive a free copy of her book, Live First, Work Second: Getting Inside the Mind of the Next Generation. We'll post the answers on www.accountingtomorrow.com.

What do you see as the profession's biggest challenge in terms of people and culture?

Engaging women throughout their careers. Women account for half of all CPAs ... . If CPA firms are going to mature, they must take a more grown-up look at how the women in this profession contribute, are engaged, develop and lead.

Have an intergenerational issue in your firm? Ask Rebecca! E-mail her at rr nextgenerationconsulting.com. If your question is chosen, you'll receive a free copy of her book, Live First, Work Second: Getting Inside the Mind of the Next Generation. We'll post the answers on www.accountingtomorrow.com.

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