insight magazine

Partner Perspectives | Spring 2018

Lessons to Learn From Young CPAs

My morning with 23 young professionals revealed plenty of insight CPA firm partners can benefit from.
Marc Rosenberg, CPA President, The Rosenberg Associates

As a long-time eyewitness to CPA partner behavior, I have marveled at how they’ve described their staff over the years. Most notably, that their comments are often more negative than positive, that their observations frequently start with “when I was their age,” and that they feel there is something so distinctive about young people today that makes it way more difficult for firms to develop staff than ever before.

Paralleling my study of partner behavior, I am always seeking to understand what makes young professionals tick: how they think; what they want; what they like and dislike; and what they think of their firms and the partners.

Rather than simply thinking about this, I’ve acted, convening Staff Forums for 10 years where Chicagoland firms send one young staff person to a three-hour forum to discuss these questions and more. Twenty-three young staff with an average tenure of two-and-a-half years attended my forum at the end of 2017. Here’s what I found:

Why did you choose accounting as a career?

In the past, a common response was, “I’m good at math.” This year’s group hardly mentioned it. Given the state of technology today, it’s no longer critical that someone be good at math. This has even been corroborated by dozens of managing partners. My caveat is you can’t suck at math, though!

So, what’s drawing young talent to the profession? Clearly, the high salaries and the abundant supply of jobs are appealing, but it seems word of mouth is a big motivator. Many participants cited having parents or family members that are CPAs, or friends and educators that turned them on to the diversity of work, great training, and focused mentoring CPA firms offer.

What do you like most about your job?

Nothing groundbreaking here. They enjoy the same things every generation before them has: the opportunity to learn and advance, the variety of work, gaining expertise in specific areas, and, believe it or not, the gaining of trust of partners and managers.

What do you like the least about your job?

The common culture problems among firms we often discuss are, unsurprisingly, the downsides voiced by today’s young professionals: differing standards of work among partners; unwritten, vague expectations for hours and busy-season schedules; office politics; and the inability for partners to come together and make decisions.

What I did find quite interesting is that tax season itself was not a problem for the clear majority of the attendees. Many even said that it’s nice being busy. What seemed to buoy their resolve and make the stressful tax season tolerable is that fact that “everyone is in it together,” plus they all know a healthy bonus is on the way for high performance and the hours put in.

Why did you choose the firm you did? What stood out?

It seems that an effective internship program within firms is possibly the best recruitment tool today — two-thirds of the attendees interned with their current firms. What did stand out among these young professionals is their desire to start out in smaller firms. They perceived the small firm environment would yield better long-term career opportunities, whereas the larger firms would simply treat them like a number, meticulously dictating a career path that pigeon-holes them. Other deterrents were heavy turnover and terrible work hours.

What I found most interesting is that no one cited a special feature or attribute of the firm they chose that stood out from other firms. This tells me either firms are doing everything right (doubtful), or they need to find better ways of differentiating themselves from the competition.

What kind of feedback do you get on the performance of your work?

Two-thirds of participants awarded their firms a grade of “B” or better for the delivery of feedback, but one-third was frustrated by the annual review process and how long it takes to receive meaningful feedback on their work. Overall, young professionals are looking for far more “This is how you’re doing” discussions to ensure they’re on the right track.

Do you know what it takes to be a partner? Do you want to be a partner at your firm?

When two-thirds of participants don’t know what it takes to be a partner in their firm, and less than half say they want to be partners, there’s a definite succession and retention problem to be addressed. Most young professionals see the work of partners as repetitive and boring, witnessing partners that are overwhelmed by paperwork and client management. The responsibility of “bringing in business” also raised anxious and uncomfortable feelings among this group. Of course, the politics of being a partner are also a turn-off.

These are all issues that are very addressable within firms, especially small firms. It’s been my belief that the main reason why staff say they don’t want to be a partner is because they really haven’t a clue what it means to be a partner or how one becomes a partner. Overall, it’s my personal experience that partners do a lousy job of educating staff on how great it is to be a partner in a CPA firm.

Supporting this view are the facts that two-thirds of the participants had no clue how many hours on average a partner works (the average response was 2,609 hours, 150 higher than actual). Also, when asked what they think their partners earn, the average response was 29 percent below the actual amount of $464,000.

What are the biggest misconceptions about your generation in the work force?

Misconception number one: Millennials are lazy. Their argument is that if expectations aren’t clear, which is often the case, it may seem like they’re lazy, but they’re not.

Misconception number two: Millennials are all the same. The consensus among attendees was that partners should stop reading all the literature on millennials and stereotyping them. The fact of the matter is, not all millennials are the same. They don’t all want to work as little as possible or only from home. In fact, more than anything, millennials are looking for partners to recognize them as individuals and treat them as such.

What amount of flexibility do you have at your firms?

A couple of interesting items came out of this discussion. To start, 18 of the 23 participants rated their firms high on flexibility while the remaining five rated it average or low. Despite this flexibility, however, many in the group felt that partners frown upon working remotely: “Many partners think if you’re not in the office, you’re not working. We need to change the mindset of the partners on this.”

What’s more, although flexible and remote work options are desired among young professionals, they still feel that having face time with partners and managers is really important.

What can your firm do to make sure you stay with them for at least five more years (short of unreasonable things like doubling your salary)?

Overall, young professionals are looking for continued development, variety of work, and advancement potential, in addition to greater work-from-home policies, and the settling of the “older-person” stigma that flexible and remote work arrangements are negative things.

Armed with this insight, it seems millennials aren’t so hard to please, retain, or develop after all. In fact, maybe it’s the partners that need to develop new views on the future of the profession and our firms.

Perennially cited by Inside Public Accounting as one of the 10 most recommended consultants in the country, Marc Rosenberg, CPA is a nationally renowned consultant, author, and speaker on CPA firm management, strategy, and partner issues. His 14 practice management books are available at, and Marc can be reached at 847.251.7100 or [email protected].

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