Confessions of a Millennial CPA: Your boss is asleep

Register now

April is firing season and your boss is asleep. The reality of this situation is that this statement can be viewed both literally and figuratively. If people are sleeping on the job in your firm, then you have to make a decision. It’s one thing when people doze off after a big lunch, but it’s something else when they don’t know how to lead. It’s time to wake up.

Sleeping on the job can be dangerous in some professions and acceptable in others. How society views this has evolved over the years and varies by profession. Perhaps you’ve seen the popular TV show Mad Men and watched Don Draper nap after a long, boozy lunch, or you’ve read the recent news about rail accidents and the engineers who couldn’t stay awake. In some ways, I wish the topic of this piece was a joke, but it isn’t. I have actually had bosses fall asleep on the job. Millennials might think this is relic of a forgotten age, but it still happens.

Hopefully, your future boss can at least stay awake for important moments. There was one case a few years back of a prospective client meeting with two partners and one of them fell asleep in the meeting. The other partner was not only embarrassed, but didn’t know what to do. So he nudged the other person, who woke up with an audible snort. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: We didn’t win the business. It also set the tone for how everyone interacted with that partner; he never lived it down.

There was another time when I arranged a meeting with six of our partners and one of the top wealth management teams at a major firm. The scheduled start was 3 p.m.; the dreaded hour of the afternoon slump. The meeting was notable not only for running over its allotted one-hour time slot, but also because all six of the tax partners involved stayed awake and engaged for the entire meeting. Despite this relatively admirable performance (which would probably just be expected in most organizations), our department head actually complimented our visitors on keeping everyone awake. Their reactions to this compliment ranged from baffled to offended, and we never heard from them again.

I’ve also seen people asleep in their office. There was one partner who insisted on stacking file boxes in front of his office glass and placed plants on top of them to prevent people from watching him sleep. There was once a manager who put on the headset for her desk phone, called her cell phone, and turned her back to the door so it would look like she was on a call. I even worked with a director who commuted cross-country and would occasionally sleep on the couch in reception to save on hotel costs.
There are, however, some occasions when you can let people have a pass. One of my previous colleagues was undergoing a second, experimental round of chemotherapy that was particularly aggressive. He would wake up at 4 a.m., drive from Long Island to New Jersey for treatment, and then come into work in New York City. No one expected him to come in, but it’s what he wanted to do. Anyway, one day (among many days) he fell asleep in his office. As I walked by, I noticed one of our secretaries taking a picture of him to Snapchat it to her friends, also in the department. I suggested that her actions might be less than optimal behavior and then went over to wake him up. It’s bad enough that he had to endure his treatments and a grueling schedule but he certainly didn’t deserve ridicule too.

Now let’s consider figurative versions of sleeping on the job. This generally amounts to people being out of touch with events, activities, company politics, a general failure to lead, or a failure to recognize bad leadership. You don’t have to be a good leader to recognize a bad one. I’ve worked for partners who locked themselves in their offices during tax season, detached themselves from their coworkers, wasted time preparing tax returns, and then sent out uninformed e-mails insisting that the department work more hours. I’ve also worked for people who sat, day after day, in the breakroom eating lunch. There were always four to seven partners, who thought they were role models, doing this regardless of the season. They should have been out there developing business or, if they had no actual leads, taking some of the managers or staff out to increase morale. When I presented this to them, their response was the roaring sound of silence. When I suggested this to the CEO of the firm, he smiled, said he needed more people like me, and then said there was nothing he could do. Regardless of the situation, at the core of this issue is a question of leadership.

What does being a partner in an accounting firm mean to you? Is that the pinnacle of your definition of success? On average, people achieve partner status in large firms after anywhere from 11-17 years with a firm. At the earliest, they’re in their 30s. They still have more than half of their careers left! What people do with the title is more significant to me than the fact that they achieved it. In my view, a partner should be defining a vision for the firm, developing new business, cultivating professional relationships, and rallying the troops during the darkest times of the year (i.e., busy seasons). Anything short of that, to me, is sleeping on the job.

I was once in a department meeting where a lead partner stated that she felt “out of touch” with the department. The response from her “team” was: crickets. And nothing changed either. In another example, there was a partner who was told by Human Resources during a departmental meeting that they intended to address the issue of cliques in the office. He responded, “We have cliques in our office?” He was blissfully ignorant due to the fact that one of those cliques controlled all of the information he received.

All of those people were sleeping on the job. Not because they weren’t accomplishing anything, but because, in my view, they failed to live up to their mandate as partners. The long-term viability of a firm is determined by evolution; a natural selection. Those tired, old war dogs will be phased out in 10-15 years, but who will replace them? The people brought up in their shadows are learning bad habits. They don’t understand that this isn’t how to behave in a successful environment. And what’s worse, the Millennials and Gen Xers who work for those people don’t understand the long-term damage being done to their careers because they don’t understand any other way to do business. And so they’re asleep, too. Ultimately, those underperforming firms will get merged into larger organizations that want their clients and who will nudge out the people with antiquated ideas.

I want my fellow Millennials to wake up. There’s still a chance for you. Take charge of your career and the direction of your education. If your firm isn’t providing you with the educational opportunities you want and following up on that education to see that it’s implemented, then leave. I want to emphasize this point because it is significant.

If your leaders aren’t growing your firm and encouraging a pyramid of education, then leave. And what I mean by “pyramid of education” is that the partners teach the senior managers, the senior managers teach the managers, and so on down the line. If a senior manager is tasked with training and managing your intern class, then something is wrong in your organization. The accounting firm hierarchy was designed to maximize leverage. If that’s not happening in your organization, then leave. Be thoughtful about how and when you leave, as well as where you go, but the best solution is to leave. You don’t have to leave the profession; there are good firms out there. Talk to friends, go to networking events, and ask people about leadership, management, and how they’re educated. You will quickly learn the patterns of bad firms and potentially even find a decent mentor or future boss.

Once you’ve identified the sleeping beauties in your firm, whether figurative or literal, what you choose to do next will define your career. We want to think the best of our leaders, but they’re just humans like you and me. Some people are natural leaders and some have to learn the necessary skills. Either way, you have to decide for yourself if your leaders are right for you. You can choose to work with a championship-level team or the people asleep at their desk. And so I say now to all of you, “Wake up! Who’s in charge of your career?” Consider this the gauntlet being thrown down to Millennials and firms alike. The burden is on you!

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.