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Jennifer Wilson

Reconciling the differing views of the distinct generations

Seven tips to better integrate baby boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y into your workforce.

June 18, 2012
By Jennifer Wilson

As I meet with CPA firm leaders around the country this spring, I simply cannot stress it enough: To be successful, firms must develop a culture designed to attract and retain the young. To achieve this, firm leaders must reconcile the differing views of the distinct generations present in their firms. Because those in leadership positions are often of a different generation from the individuals they supervise or lead, those leaders need to better understand the generational differences in their practice.

Each generation has different characteristics, behavioral traits, and value systems. We have to be careful not to categorize someone based solely on the year he or she was born, but it is helpful to understand typical behaviors and values of each generation in the workplace as illustrated in the table below:

Baby Boomer
Born 1946-1964

Generation X
Born 1965-1981

Generation Y
Born 1982-2000

Primary firm leaders, looking toward retirement, but are likely to want to work later in life and stay working after retirement age.

Mostly middle management, but also “newer” partners and are looking forward to being the firm leaders.

Mostly staff and seniors; our leaders of the future.

Baby Boomer—the most studied generation.

MTV Generation—although they aren’t fond of labels. Should be called Generation “Why?”

 Millennium Generation or
Echo Boomer.

Shaped by the culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Most educated generation.

Most techno-literate and
ethnically diverse.

Are willing to work long hours and were more willing to sacrifice family obligations for work.

Raised by “wolves” or absentee parents. Committed to avoid this, so balancing the demands of their jobs and personal lives is non-negotiable.

Believe they know how to work “smarter” and expect anytime, anywhere work environments, but may not be ready to work alone yet.

Like the hierarchy and levels of the firm and want to work with managers or higher.

Want younger people to honor the chain of command.

Want direct access to firm leaders and to work directly with partners on projects.

Believe information should be supplied on a need-to-know basis; financial information is held tight to the vest.

Want access to information to better understand; may withhold that information from others for “control.”

Value transparency and may “overshare” personal details

Work assignment thought process: “Do it because I said so or because I promised we would.”

Work assignment thought process: “Why are we doing this?”

Work assignment thought process: “How will this be used? Is there a smarter way to do this?”

Believe in lifetime employment, tout partnership, and may scare Gen Ys with talk of “forever.”

More loyal than Gen Y, but those with strong business and/or people development skills are in demand by other firms.

Expect to change jobs frequently, view their employment as based on personal ROI—“what will I get from you vs. what I give to you?”

Feedback thoughts: “I won’t call you on yours, if you don’t call me on mine.”

Feedback thoughts: “I want feedback delivered once per year, on time.”

Feedback thoughts: “I want feedback delivered continuously.”

About IT: “I’ll use it when it benefits me directly.”

About IT: “Everyone should use it consistently.”

About IT: “I cannot live without it and use it continuously.”

Value creativity, entrepreneurialism, love adventure, are risk takers, independent.

Eschew politics, may be cynical, sensitive to insincerity, connect via music, independent, self-reliant, value teamwork, close to friends, flexibility is important, not intimidated by authority, enjoy problem-solving.

Easily bored, multi-taskers, respect must be earned vs. title-based, goal oriented, team players, strong sense of fairness and ethics, respond to humor and the straight truth.

Here are some ways you use this information as a firm leader:

  • Create cultural empathy by making sure that your firm’s leaders and managers understand the differences in philosophies and approach. Share this article with them and consider undertaking some generational education as a group this summer or fall to deepen your understanding of the differences.
  • Form a cross-generational advisory board to meet and discuss the firm’s culture in light of generational differences. Develop a list of two or three top cultural changes the firm should consider to reconcile differences in philosophy or approach.
  • Conduct CPA firm practice economics education so all generations understand how the firm makes money. Engage younger generations in dialogue about how to work with more flexibility and technology, while preserving (or increasing) the firm’s profitability.
  • Stop managing your people based on time and instead use revenue contribution as a measure of success. When you speak in terms of hours and time, both Gen X and Y tend to feel you (or public accounting in general) are impinging upon their commitment to work-life balance.
  • Share more information so that younger generations are more likely to feel more a part of the firm and exhibit more ownership as a result. Give them context for their work and assign meaningful, challenging projects to minimize boredom.
  • Evaluate the ROI of working at your firm from a millennial viewpoint. Make sure that they are getting more than they’re giving, so their “work transaction” with your firm makes sense to them.
  • Don’t talk in terms of lifetime employment to your youngest people (it feels unrealistic or even creepy to them). Tell them how much value they add to the business and that you’d like them to grow with the firm. Ask them what they’d like to see in their future to understand where they see themselves headed.

Don’t forget that, regardless of their generation, each person in your firm is motivated in ways that are unique to them. Ask each employee to share their key priorities and motivators and then collaborate with them to develop their performance and career development goals based on their needs and the needs of the firm.

Address the generational differences in your firm person-by-person and through firm-wide programs. Work to make small shifts in your firm’s culture to better integrate your younger team members and appeal to their generational motivators—beginning today!

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success.