Confessions of a Millennial CPA: The most productive generation
I have had the distinct pleasure of working in the CPA world for the past 10 glorious years. My tax career has spanned three countries, three CPA firms, two wealth management organizations, and one consulting company. Do I sound like your typical version of a Millennial yet?
Millennials are commonly defined as people born beginning in the early 1980s through the end of the last millennium. For better or for worse, that makes me a Millennial. The older Millennials, those born in the 1980s, sometimes feel trapped between an old school, analog age and the younger Millennials who represent the digital world. I have often chafed at the Millennial description because I usually hear it spoken by members of an older generation and used in a derogatory context. Some of my contemporaries also view this as a “dirty word.” But hey, this is just my experience in the CPA profession.
I want to share my perspectives on a profession that dragged me along and opened my eyes not only to reality, but also to a world of opportunity. I started my career in Bermuda (where I wore a shirt, tie, shorts, and socks to the knee in a classic Bermudian fashion), followed by Switzerland, and then home to New York City. Companies gave me offers in San Francisco, Grand Cayman, Bermuda again, and even Philadelphia. My experiences have included ethical conflicts, moral disagreements, and numerous management disputes. And through it all I maintained a steadily increasing career trajectory that took me to senior manager in a public accounting firm, to the great chagrin of those who felt I was unworthy.
And then I walked away (sort of). The next step for me would be to become a tax partner and I wanted nothing to do with that. The day I realized this was Jan. 14, 2016; the day of my performance review. The rating (4.25 out of 5) was pretty good, I thought, for my first year as a senior manager. But then they asked me what I wanted to talk about. And it was right then and there, with that question, that I knew they had nothing left to teach me. Sure, they could expand my tax knowledge, but I could also read a book for that. You might say that they could teach me about business development and management, but I could see that our views were very different. And like the fool I sometimes am, I stayed in that job for six more agonizing months.
A common misconception about the Millennial generation, in my humble opinion, is that we quit our jobs every six months to three years. This decreases productivity because of the increased time needed to train new people. However, the frequently overlooked benefit is that when a person has experienced several different organizations, their experience includes the unique knowledge of what does and does not work, including how it might be implemented to the company’s benefit.
While the misconception that I noted might be technically correct in my case, what’s generally more accurate is that Millennials quit their bosses. Exit interviews might comment on advancement opportunities, pay and benefits, or the nature of the work. However, once you get the liquid courage flowing at the end of their last day, the real story comes out. The boss wasn’t up to the task of developing their staff. The boss made bad, uninformed, or inappropriate decisions. Despite all of the time, money, and effort that the company spent to train their people, a failure of leadership and the inability to recognize the depth and breadth of their problems will cost far more in the long run. No one ever quit because of something I said or did, except one – and I encouraged her to do so.
I once had a team member, Kim, who had a serious conflict with someone else in the office, Chloe (these are not their real names). Chloe was well-established and well-liked by a decent number of people, despite her relatively junior rank and inability to advance. Kim had no prospect of overcoming this particular conflict (the company politics were that bad). After considering the possibilities, I encouraged my former boss to hire Kim. He tried, but Kim refused because she felt it would be disloyal to me (I hadn’t made my involvement known at the time). And as the situation in the office continued to deteriorate, I finally directly suggested that Kim consider other options while she still had the opportunity to do so. And she did. And she quit. I took this risk knowing that I would face significant consequences if my involvement were known and Kim was grateful for the opportunity to control the course of her next chapter.
One of the sad axioms of life is that you frequently have to go through the exercise of demonstrating why something won’t work before people will believe you. This is a major drag on productivity. When I graduated college I had grand ideas about technology and simplification. Then I went to work and crashed headlong into antiquated files and stereotypes. Learning how to organize and reference a file wasn’t part of the curriculum for my Bachelor of Science in Accounting or Master of Science in Taxation and it felt like an incredible waste of time. When I received the review notes for the second tax return I ever prepared, my manager slammed the file down on my desk, handed me five pages of review notes, said “Have fun”, and walked away. I was speechless, but that didn’t matter since, if I did have any words to speak, she wouldn’t have been there to hear them anyway. Almost three years later, I was her go-to person for the most complicated tax returns. And then I quit.
For nearly three years I tried to improve those work papers, but no one wanted to hear it. Even several years and several jobs later, as a senior manager, I tried to improve our productivity and processes, and was repeatedly told by staff, “That’s not how we do things.” Their behavior was encouraged by the partners so that I would “learn to let it go”. Let go of what, you may ask? I don’t know either. In the end I settled for improving my own circumstances. I had the largest (or second largest depending on how you calculate it) workload in the office and the lowest billable hours (a death knell in most CPA firms). I didn’t need to spend as much time on tax returns as everyone else because my process was simpler, more productive, and more consistent. I was cruising into our filing deadlines while they ran around like headless chickens. The moral here is to pick your battles. While your education might give you the technical skills you need to impress your supervisors, it probably didn’t teach you how to communicate new ideas and new concepts to people.
Millennials are the most productive generation. We have all of the modern tools and resources to do a job more efficiently and effectively. The issue is that the real world doesn’t usually work this way, which can have a demoralizing and overwhelming effect. My graduate internship at the Big Four made me realize this. I truly must confess that, prior to graduation, I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore. It was a realization and a decision that I struggled with even then. And now, I don’t regret my choices. Because of my career, I now have friends all over the world. My school loans are paid off. I’ve had experiences and opportunities that are pipe dreams for some and years in the making for others.
The essence of opportunity is that it’s there if you want it. It’s not a gift or a grant. You have to take it and create the next opportunity, which you will need to seize as well. I was never the smartest person in the room nor even the most well-liked, but I do know how to recognize an opportunity. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to explore how to identify and seize those moments in future articles.