Stop fighting the war on talent

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Over the course of the several years that the accounting profession has been struggling with staffing issues, I’ve noticed something of a Freudian slip in the way people describe the situation: More and more, I hear people refer to the war on talent, as opposed to the war for talent.

That’s a pretty telling prepositional switch, and I don’t think it’s just a mental typo. It’s not uncommon to hear managers and partners complaining with surprising bitterness about Millennials, or to hear Millennials do the reverse, or to hear conference speakers rile up an audience by playing on inter-generational differences.

It is a reflection of the frustration that today’s cadre of managers and partners feel, both at the sheer difficulty of finding and keeping good employees, and at the expectations those employees bring on board with them. They want and expect levels of managerial involvement, feedback, mentoring, flexibility and empowerment that the profession has simply never provided to young accountants.

That fact alone explains much of the unhappiness of managers and partners — they never got this kind of attention from their bosses, and it’s easy to see why it would be galling for them to have to provide it. It isn’t fair, really — when it comes to real leadership and management, the accounting profession has gotten away with short-changing its members for decades. The same Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who were told to keep their heads down and pay their dues for a once-a-year review with a manager and the distant hope of a shot at the possibility of maybe being considered for partner are suddenly expected to spend vast amounts of time delivering the kind of intensive management they would have loved to receive.

But just because it isn’t fair doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.

At a very basic level, the profession needs to draw in these younger employees to staff the engagements that will pay for the current wave of Boomer retirements, and ensure the viability of firms going forward — and the cost of that is higher investment in management.

Beyond that, though, it’s important for firm leaders to realize that this investment will pay off in employees who are motivated, talented and devoted. Recently, I saw workforce consultant Bruce Tulgan congratulate Millennials on these two facts: “You’ll be the most high-maintenance workforce in history — but you’ll also be the most high-performing.” Tulgan is the founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a consultancy focused on intergenerational workplace issues, and he’s one of those speakers who likes to play the generations off against each other during his presentations — but he then uses that as a powerful, teachable moment to explain why what the Millennials want is, first, perfectly reasonable, and second, worth spending time on because it will generate more valuable employees.

Make no mistake — no one is suggesting that this investment will be easy. “Leaders, managers and supervisors don’t do enough leading, managing and supervising,” Tulgan explained, and they need to be prepared to spend much more of their time in all three of those areas — time that their predecessors would have devoted to client work and billable hours.

They’ll more than make up for those billable hours, though, through rising employees who can do the work more efficiently with new technology, and who are prepared to expand their firm’s capabilities far beyond their current scope. By spending the time to properly lead, develop and invest in the next generation (and the one after that, and the one after that), today’s managers and leaders can build much stronger firms and a stronger profession for the future.

Remember, the war is for, not on.

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