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Fixing the Generational Divide in Accounting


Firm owners who hope to have a smooth succession plan must cultivate their firm's next generation of leaders, while younger staff who hope to take over one day must be willing to learn from and compromise with older leaders. In this article, Will Baker of Once Accounting explains why colleagues of all ages must put aside generational stereotypes in order to grow and better serve clients.

May 4th 2022
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Two years ago, I met with a local CPA who had come recommended through some friends as a potential early adopter of our product, as they had just bought in as a partner at a firm. During a product demo, they saw the value in our product and loved the idea of what we were doing, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t move forward with us. I’ll never forget this moment – when we began to talk about the obstacles they would face within their firm, they their office door, sat back down and said, “My senior partner will never let me implement these changes, though we desperately need to.”

The senior partner, to this day, refuses to adapt. Cloud technology, more modernized practice management and simpler billing practices were rejected, and the young partner is unable to move these things forward. We’ve gotten together several times since then, and every time, they run into the same problem. The young partner is resolved to wait until the partner retires to start modernizing this firm. The young CPA is a millennial, while the senior partner is in his late 70s.

This same situation plays out in firms across the country, as young professionals are put into positions of leadership in name only, stripped of the opportunity to actually lead. I’ve witnessed it several times over and have even watched as my father, a CPA and firm owner who is also my boss, struggles with this dynamic. Through trial-and-error, he is learning how to empower young professionals to lead while helping them understand the expertise he has after more than 30 years in public accounting.

What’s equally true is young leadership is leaving firms without communicating their frustrations or what they truly want to accomplish in their position. These young CPAs believe that their partners and leaders will never change, without considering the best way to sell those leaders on change. After all, those older partners have built successful companies, served clients for decades and gained coveted expertise. This “generational divide” is not caused by one generation or the other; all parties shoulder the blame.

We must address this issue if we hope to build a healthy industry for the future.

Understanding Generations

I believe “generational labels” are, by and large, useless. It sounds cynical, but the reality is that the initial “millennial” label developed out of a theory about how historical events affect populations of people and create societal shifts for decades. The Strauss-Howe generational theory is helpful for understanding how global environments shape people.

We are exiting a global pandemic that will affect younger generations and shape who they are as adults as well as how they raise kids, how they pursue careers and what they value. But this isn’t happening only with younger generations – people young and old are reevaluating, reprioritizing and changing in the wake of the pandemic.

That’s why I think we miss the mark with these labels that stereotype entire generations of people. Boomers do A, millennials do B, GenZ does C and GenX is the forgotten middle child. This approach neglects the most important thing – the individual. These theories are interesting for understanding history, but ineffective in how we approach individuals. Even in the world of marketing, where generational labels are used as a key marketing strategy, the generational approach is dying,

If we are going to start mending generational fences, we need to tear them down.

Changing Our Approach

Instead of thinking, “The old partner is a Boomer who likes things done this way,” we should think, “My colleague is resistant toward this idea, so how can I better understand their hesitation and help them feel confident in this change?” On the other hand, older partners should not resent young employees who desire change; rather, they should seek to understand the issue and try to compromise, perhaps by giving their younger team members a chance to implement change in a small way to start.

If you are an older partner and firm owner, you must start thinking this way to have healthy succession within your firm. If you want a younger partner to step into your shoes one day, it’s unwise to throw them the keys to your car if you never let them drive. If you never let them lead new initiatives, they will struggle to lead any type of change at a larger scale.

At the same time, younger people, like myself, have to recognize that change takes time, and sometimes divine intervention. When I first started my job, I wanted to work from home, or at least a hybrid schedule, but neither was an option. My boss had always worked in an office and had a “punch in and punch out” philosophy. Over the last two years, however, we have developed a schedule that works for our team, brought about through conversations focused on how individuals feel about working from home versus working from the office. We learned how we can be more effective regardless of where we work, but it took a pandemic and a lot of discussions for our leadership to be convinced. I also realized that there are some tasks I do more effectively in person. While there are other changes I hope to see at our company, I understand that those changes will take time, along with a compromise that works for all.

Why This Matters

Tearing down these dividers is important beyond the accounting industry, but within our industry, it’s especially important if we hope to continue to grow. I love to learn, especially from people who have more experience. When I try new things, go new places and take on new challenges, I seek out guidance from someone who’s been there before. To me, developing relationships with, and learning how to better understand older colleagues, has been vital to the development of my career and to my goals for the future.

Remember that a degree and CPA licensure are not replacements for years of experience. Working with my dad has given me a new appreciation for what a brilliant accountant he is and how his knowledge and experience can help other grow their careers. But this wouldn’t be possible if the younger people around him, myself included, were not willing to learn from him.

Being teachable is equally important for older generations as well. Never be too old to learn, and never be too proud to learn from youth. I have seen young professionals influence the way older professionals approach clients and provide valuable insight into problems that couldn’t have been solved without this approach.

The reality of our industry is not that we are looking at the “old guard” versus “the new way” – we are looking at a group of people, young and old, who have the same goal: serving our clients and taking care of their needs. The more quickly we can collaborate together, the better off we will be.

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