If you are interested in how the accounting profession is evolving, you might want to keep Mark Koziel on speed dial.
As senior technical manager of the American Institute of CPAs’ Private Companies Practice Section, otherwise known as PCPS, Koziel – who just turned 40 in September - travels around the country, talking with firms to find out, well, what makes them tick – collecting best practice strategies on cultural firm issues along the way. The PCPS, which is a specialized member section of the AICPA, offers a variety of different resources to help firms navigate the sometimes choppy waters of practice management issues such as generation and diversity integration and work/life balance and retention.

You were a founding member of the Young CPAs committee of the Buffalo, New York chapter. What prompted you to become involved in that project and were there any obstacles to getting it started? Like many CPA initiatives, we figured it out by starting with a happy hour to get people out and involved. It just sounded interesting, it would be fun to get all of these young CPAs together and talk about what we could do. We started the first ever Young CPAs conference. We had a two-day conference in Buffalo. Since then it’s been carried on to other states and it has been fairly successful. The concept was soft skills training and offer that to young CPAs.
There were plenty of obstacles along the way, a lot of that being concerns that the firms and the partners had in sending their people to a young CPA conference in fear that someone else would steal them away. I would hear it from my own firm at the time. I consider us to be a great firm, our turnover was low, we were a happy place to be, yet I still would have a partner who would say, ‘well, shouldn’t we be concerned about sending our people.’ And I’d say ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’ If there’s a problem or concern that we’re going to lose our young CPAs, fix the problem. And if we have to be so concerned about our young CPAs going out and interacting with other young CPAs, which they are doing anyway because they are getting together with college friends for happy hour, if we are so concerned about them leaving the office and being stolen away, I said I have the solution. If we don’t want our people to leave, I know how we can get rid of our No. 1 source of taking our people: we need to stop sending our people to clients because they are our No. 1 source.

What do you think is the No. 1 issue facing the younger generation coming into the profession and the seasoned veterans already there?
I think it is the whole career path thing. The newer generation thinks differently and they do want to know that there’s a career path for them but they want it well-defined. They’ve had a plan in front of them each and every day, they’ve had a routine and in years past there was a lot of just basically a wink and a nod, to say, ‘don’t worry you have a career here.’ Those days are gone.
The newer generation isn’t just going to buy the wink and the nod. They want to see the plan and because of that, they have a certain uncertainty of what the profession can provide them going down the road. Having that plan in place, looking at what the opportunities will be internationally for all size firms, there’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity for this generation coming in.
For the seasoned veteran, I see succession as the biggest issue. They are worried - ‘is the firm going to be able to survive without me?’ Many of the seasoned veterans that are out there, when you look at these small and midsized firms, many of them are the first generation partners-- meaning they are the partners that started the firm. They have greater concerns about who is going to replace them within the firm. That entrepreneurial spirit they had when they started the firm, as they’ve built that practice, they weren’t necessarily going out and searching for other entrepreneurial minds to do what the firm does. They have concerns that these people aren’t ready to step up. Well, they’re not ready to step up because No. 1, they weren’t trained to be and that’s not what their job description entails for a good number of years, so they need additional training and learning. Getting those seasoned veterans to overcome that ‘they are not like me’ mentality to be able to try and offer more, to provide the training and have the trust that these people will eventually be able to take over. They will make mistakes, but a lot of the seasoned veterans made mistakes along the way, too.

Is there reluctance on the veterans’ parts to share information?
I don’t know if it’s reluctance. I think it’s – again  where the intergenerational issue comes into play. For them, they were brought up differently. They were brought up in the ‘do as I say’ mode, where you went into work every day, you did a good job, you didn’t question upper management, you succeeded through additional promotions and you bide your time. The dangling carrot is what people used to talk about within the profession. The newer generation isn’t going to put up with that and they are going to leave far sooner than many others in the past. Their priorities are different – they are not better – they are different. When we talk about work/life balance or we talk about work versus family priorities, they are prioritizing differently. When I talk to firms about this particular issue, we go back to the understanding that they are going to work differently. Today there are far more choices as far as professional careers than there have ever been. We can’t work on a 20-year model in today’s society and that’s what we are trying to do. There is too much competition to firms and there is too much competition to the profession as a whole, when you look at all these other types of white collar opportunities that weren’t there 20 years ago.

In terms of the intergenerational dynamic facing workplaces across the country, how are people communicating across generations in firms and how can they be communicating better and sharing knowledge in a way that is respectable?
First and foremost, is identifying the need to communicate. Whether it’s a firm that does Lunch and Learns to bring people together or what I like to consider internal focus groups constantly marketing to your existing team members to say, you know what, your opinion counts. We want you to help shape the future of this firm, but we need to talk about it and we need your open honest opinion. Get those people together to discuss these things and talk about ways to better communicate within the firm. When we talk about intergenerational and how firms operate today, they operate very differently than the newer generation is accustomed to working. Again, we’re going on this 20-year model where accountabilities are based on people and seats, not production. Yet the younger generation fully knows and embraces technology and firms don’t always take advantage of that technology. I have said I probably get more work done at home than at the office because there’s less interruption. The new generation doesn’t see [technology] as a benefit. They just see it as a general ability that everyone should take advantage of.

Why aren’t firms taking advantage of working remotely? Are firms becoming more open to these types of situations?
I don’t want to use the word trust, but I think it’s trying to figure out a way to hold people accountable under a newer model - not sure what that newer model should look like. We’ve been so focused on the hours for so long to say ‘well, I only know if they are working those hours if I can see them.'

We all know staffing is a big issue among firms. In your travels, what firm strategies have you seen that have struck you as innovative and different?
There is a lot of interesting strategies that are out there to make the firm more successful. From a staffing perspective, we’ve talked about the high school visits for recruiting. Not everyone’s doing it, but the ones that get it and say ‘yeah, that is something we want to be involved with’ use it as a training ground so their young CPAs go out to the high schools learning business development skills. In a market that may not be as attractive as others, it’s a great way to find some of those home-grown folks that are out there and be able to attract them into the firm.

Any advice for people coming into the profession now?
You set your own destiny, so when you get into a situation make the most of it. If something is happening on your career path that you are unsure about, ask about it, give your employer, that person who is giving you your first opportunity into the profession, every opportunity to help you with your career path. Don’t be afraid to ask.