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Generation who cares?

What I learned from facilitating a panel of younger CPAs

Jon Lokhorst, CSP, CPA, PCC | February/March 2020 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated January 31, 2020

Though the idea of a generation (a group of people defined by age) dates to 1860s France, the demonstrative discussion around generations, at least stateside, has really picked up in the past 40 years.

And, if you spend even a modicum of time online, you know there is no end in sight for this discussion.

But there is merit to the conversation, even if much of it is contrived and used to drive a wedge between people rather than use it as a tool to bring us together for a common purpose.

This is why I was pleased to facilitate a recent panel discussion at the MNCPA’s 65th Annual Tax Conference titled, “What Younger Staff Can Teach Seasoned Practitioners.” Apparently, I have enough gray hair to fit the “seasoned practitioner” demographic; and my date of birth firmly plants me among baby boomers. I was joined on the panel by CPAs representing generations X and Y:

  • Donny Shimamoto, CPA, CITP, CGMA, founder and managing director of Intraprise TechKnowlogies LLC.
  • Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, VP of finance and tax of First Financial Bank USA.
  • Luke Selvig, CPA, senior accountant II of Boyum Barenscheer.

In our pre-session planning meeting, we agreed on the importance of helping the audience move past the usual generational stereotypes to facilitate learning across all ages in the workplace. I quickly learned how easily these stereotypes creep into my thinking without being aware of them. I imagine many of you reading this can think of how you also fall into the same traps.

One such moment occurred during the presentation when Luke, the youngest member of the panel, shared a communication preference when working with colleagues on a client engagement. I was surprised when Luke said he prefers to receive an email rather than a text or instant message. The natural assumption was to think the opposite, given his generation’s penchant for texting. So much for my ability to avoid the trap of stereotypical thinking!

For purposes of this article, I’m following Pew Research’s classification of the four generations currently in the workplace (with all due respect to those silent generation members (born before 1946) still in the workforce): Baby boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1980), Generation Y (more commonly known as millennials, 1981–1999) and, the most recent to join the office, Generation Z (1996–20??). All these ranges can vary by a few years depending on the source you turn to, but most are dictated by major cultural events (World War II, 9/11) or other advances, like the internet.

Two primary themes about generational differences emerged from my work with the panel, both onstage and offstage. There are significant implications for leaders to understand these themes.

First, it’s crucial to focus on what generations in the workplace have in common, even if that common ground looks different from one generation to another. Second, consistent and open communication is essential to navigating the differences successfully. Let’s take a look at each of these themes.

Focus on common ground: Impact

The desire for impact is common across generations. For many CPAs, the impact is expressed by providing excellent client or customer service. For some, it comes from translating their deep technical expertise into insights on complex business and financial challenges. For others, it’s more important to see the positive impact on society or the world around them.

Here’s an example of how this truth plays out in the workplace. A three-person team is serving a nonprofit organization that serves the homeless — it could be an internal finance team or an outside audit firm. One team member prides herself on delivering timely reports that are clear and easy to understand by management and the board of directors. Another team member is most fulfilled when he’s able to determine the correct accounting treatment for a significant noncash contribution the organization received. The third team member gains her satisfaction from knowing her work is helping the organization increase the number of homeless people served. All three team members, regardless of their generational cohort, are motivated by impact and see that fulfilled in their work.

Susan Fowler, author of two recent books on motivation, links this desire for impact to a basic human psychological need for connection. In a interview, Fowler suggests that optimal motivation occurs when your workplace goals are consistent with a sense of purpose, and you know you have an opportunity to “contribute to something greater than [yourself].” The best leaders learn how each of their team members experience this connection to purpose and help them see how their work fulfills it.

Fowler also applies the principle of connection to relationships within the workplace. She describes this as “a sense of belonging and genuine connection to others without concerns about ulterior motives.”

Regardless of what generation you come from, you’re happier when you have healthy relationships with co-workers than when you gird yourself for battle before heading to work. You’re more likely to enjoy going to work when you feel like a valued member of your team or organization. Even within one generation, people can grow up with entirely different experiences (someone born in 1946 had a vastly different life than someone born in 1964, though both are considered boomers).

During our panel preparations, Lindsay stressed the importance for leaders to create an environment where every worker hears the message, “You matter to our team.” Although the accounting profession is making strides, there’s more work to be done to embrace the challenges of diversity in promoting this sense of belonging across all demographic factors. There are still bastions, especially at a leadership level, where the profession needs to get past perceptions of being “stale, pale and male.”

Communication is key

Consistent, open communication is essential to prevent generational stereotypes from causing division or breakdowns in the workplace. It’s not a one-and-done proposition. Many leaders fall into the trap of thinking, “We had a meeting about generational differences.” Or, “We brought in a consultant to help us understand millennials.”

Instead, leaders need to promote regular dialogue within their teams. The larger your organization, the more you will need a formal or structured approach to communication. Consider holding roundtable meetings or panel discussions where values, priorities and preferences are shared. Invite representatives across all age groups to engage in conversations about how to navigate these differences while accomplishing critical organizational goals.

These conversations are most productive and meaningful when leaders foster a spirit of curiosity, encouraging openness to learn new insights. Donny challenged seasoned practitioners and younger staff alike to be more open, rather than thinking they have these dynamics nailed down. The most significant barrier to working through generational differences is when a person believes there’s only one way to do things — an easy trap.

Encourage informal dialogue as well. Normalize conversations about generational differences, so they don’t become the elephant in the room. Be candid and respectful as you approach these discussions to bring seasoned practitioners and younger workers together as powerful partners in the workplace.

Cast aside those labels

It’s easy for us to classify people by the broadest terms, and age fits right into that. It does us no good to live by these archaic standards. I challenge you to look beyond wrinkles (or lack thereof) and try to connect with someone to foster better relationships in your office and in your life. It has been done, and it can continue to be done. 

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC, is an executive leadership coach and consultant. An MNCPA member, he works with organizations to develop leaders everyone wants to follow and build teams no one wants to leave. Before launching Lokhorst Consulting LLC, Jon enjoyed a 30-plus year career as a CPA, CFO, and organizational leader. He has a masters of Organizational Leadership and serves as adjunct faculty in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and regularly speaks for conferences and organizations. He facilitates the MNCPA Leadership Academy, designed for future CPA leaders.

Dismiss these stereotypes today

Baby boomers are resistant to change.
Generation X is skeptical, negative and cynical.
Millennials are lazy and unwilling to work hard.
Generation Z can’t handle face-to-face interactions.