Jennifer Wilson, Partner & Co-Founder of ConvergenceCoaching, a leadership and management consulting firm working with certified public accounting (CPA) firms, sat down with us to discuss the future of talent and client expectations in the accounting industry.
Indeed, the number one driver of the future, says Wilson, is the workforce shift that happening because of the retirement of the Baby Boomers and the influx of Millennials, who now make up the biggest generation in the workplace. Further, technology is another big driver because it is changing how CPA firms conduct business, how they serve their clients, and what those clients are expecting. As a former partner at a Global 7 accounting firm who has worked with CPA firms all over the country, Wilson says she understands the challenges her clients are facing.
Essential maneuvers to manage talent
Wilson spends much of her time helping firms navigate what their multi-generational workforce needs or wants at the moment. For example, Wilson works with young leaders at CPA firms helping them to see the value of coaching and leadership development programs. At the same time, however, Wilson sees that work very much tied to how quickly senior firm leaders will change their mindsets and behaviors because the next generation of talent won’t stick around to wait for the traditionalists to evolve on their own time.
Wilson also partners with “change-ready” individuals, who tend to be in the minority, at the senior leadership level to help them bring about needed change. “We help the change-ready senior leaders figure out strategies to bring their other partners and leaders along,” Wilson explains, adding getting this buy-in is crucial.
Too often, she says, resistant equity partners may not want to invest their profits in technology they won’t use or don’t want to participate in soft skills development that they didn’t receive. As a work-around, these reluctant partners typically advocate for postponing the changes until “later”, often after they retire. However, most firms don’t have that much time to wait because of the impatience of early-career talent and the many options for employment from which they can choose.
A road map to the future
The tactics that Wilson and her colleagues use to drive change are multifaceted and mutually reinforcing. One of the most important success factors to drive change in a firm and to get the senior leadership team unified is to “have the leaders understand the variety of marketplace changes that are upon us,” according to Wilson, which include the expectations of the CPA profession’s young talent and those of next-gen clients. Again, this is especially crucial today as many Millennials with 10 to 15 years of experience now are advancing to the level of decision-makers.
Recommendations for next-gen talent retention — After investing some time and effort in the education of next-gen talent, Wilson recommends firms take some key actions to create positive outcomes within relatively short time frames:
- Develop a shared vision — Future leaders want to know where the firm is headed, and they want to participate in the development of that vision and roadmap. Wilson explains this approach to leaders using a “road-trip” analogy. “I tell firms it is like inviting your next-gen leaders to go on a road trip with you,” she says. “They need to know where they’re going on the trip, provide ideas and input on the destination and on the roadmap to get there, and understand what it will be like when the destination is reached.” If the firm’s leadership cannot tell its people where they are headed, the next-gen talent are not going to be very engaged in the trip and are likely to “get out at the next stop that offers more money or a more compelling vision,” she adds.
- Adopt flexible work paradigms — Millennial and Gen Z staff want flexibility in their chosen workplace, and in how they work and when they work. A common preference that Wilson says she hears from this group is “I want you to stop clock-watching and caring if I was five minutes late or if I left at 4:00. I left at 4:00pm to spend time with my kids, and then, I got back on the systems after they went to bed to complete another three hours of work, then I am choosing to work at the time and the place of my choosing instead of staying through dinner at your workplace and you thinking that, somehow, staying makes me more productive.”
- Move away from the language of hours — The successful future CPA firm will no longer use time as a measurement. Time is an entrenched measurement of performance in traditional firms in terms of total hours worked, total amount of charge hours, realization and utilization, Wilson says. “The traditional CPA’s sacred cow of hours and the language of hours erodes respect and trust with young talent,” she adds. Most young people see hours as an input and instead want firm leadership to evaluate them on their results produced or output. Some examples of results-based measures include personal revenue billed; revenue managed, which includes billings of other team members; number of returns reviewed; new business revenue sourced and sold; number of staff managed who were promoted or retained in a given year; and more.
The desires of next-gen clients — Part of the value proposition of influencing partners and leaders who are resistant to change is defining value in terms of positive client experiences and meeting client expectations. For many next-gen professionals, that means a focus on doing business efficiently and making maximal use of technology. Wilson offers two easy wins to modernize your client experience:
- Use electronic documents and e-signatures for sign-off — One of the easiest way to modernize your client experience is to adopt electronic documents and e-signature, which are both low-cost solutions that will produce a high amount of efficiency. Wilson frequently finds herself telling firm leaders, “If you have a client under 35 and you ever tell them to fax you something, or even sign, scan, and email it, they will think of you as a dinosaur.”
- Invest in virtual platforms your clients use — Wilson strongly advises we stop asking clients to come to our offices or asking to go to theirs. Instead, leverage the video and audio platforms that your clients use. “A lot of next-gen clients think that coming to their office and taking up a conference room for a week when auditing electronic transactions is not necessary and seems inefficient.”
Wilson observes the move to empower future leaders also has benefits for the traditionalists, many of whom crave these same ideas of a common vision, flexibility of place and time in their work, results-based measurements, and more. “Many of the things that next-gen talent and clients want, traditional clients and talent also desire,” she says. “But because of the market they grew up in, they never thought they had the permission to ask.”
Even though some traditionalists who refuse to change may end up leaving the firm, Wilson cautions not to ignore them. “Don’t leave them out and don’t forget them,” she says, adding that the key is to not allow the “selfish or change-resistant leaders to drop anchor and hold you back.”
Instead, embrace the change that’s needed at the firm, she urges. “Don’t be afraid to make changes on your leadership team, if you need to, in order to free the firm up to make the leap forward.”