Transparency, Feedback and Mentoring: Improved Communication Goes a Long Way With Young Professionals

By Christina Camara
INSIDE Public Accounting

As the economy has improved over the last few years, the search for the best accounting professionals has heated up with it. Now, it’s safe to say, the profession is immersed in a full-fledged talent shortage, which is worsened by waves of partner retirements and staff departures.

Chris Camara

Chris Camara

Year after year, accounting firm leaders say staffing is a huge concern. According to the most recent AICPA Top Issues survey, the No. 1 issue was retaining qualified staff and No. 2 was finding qualified staff for firms with 21 or more professionals.

Demographic shifts, revealed through more than 540 responses to IPA’s annual Survey and Analysis of Firms this year, show that while the percentage of young people entering the accounting workforce is growing, those with several years of experience is shrinking.

Additional research, conducted by IPA and ConvergenceCoaching, shows that firms can take advantage of easy-to-implement, no-cost (or low-cost) solutions that young people say would greatly improve their work experience. A key theme? Communication.

RTR imageGiven the critical importance of the under-40 age group to the future of the CPA profession, IPA surveyed 723 accounting professionals aged 21 to 40. The full results can be found in “The Road to Retention: Motivators and Drivers for Young Public Accounting Professionals.”

Here are some suggestions gleaned from their comments.

Share Information

When the “Road to Retention” survey respondents were asked to name the most important pieces of information they would like the partner group to share, the top five responses were:

  • More defined career expectations – This was the highest-ranking factor, mentioned by 38% of respondents. Young professionals said they wanted a clear, written explanation of the competencies expected at each level of advancement at the firm, as well as honest feedback on their performance and appreciation for their contribution.
  • An understanding of the firm’s vision and strategy – This response suggests firm leaders may not be clearly communicating their firm’s vision. Young professionals want to know if they’re part of an enterprise that matches their own values.
  • A clear understanding of the path to partnership – Similar to the top response, this answer suggests 21- to 40-year-old professionals don’t want to simply keep their heads down and work until someone notices them. They want to know, up front, what it takes to climb the ladder to firm ownership.
  • Knowledge about the firm’s finances – How does the firm measure success? Is the firm financially healthy? What metrics are used to measure this? Young professionals would greatly appreciate more transparency around firmwide performance numbers. IPA surveyed 134 firms this year on issues specific to firm administration and found that they differ widely on the types of financial information that are shared with staff. IPA’s 2016 Firm Administration Report says that 55% share top-line numbers firmwide, while 36% share utilization figures and just 14% share data on profitability with all staff.
  • Improved communication – Under-40 CPA professionals are looking for clear, consistent and more frequent communication.

Other Communications Issues cover_2016

IPA also recently surveyed 136 firms for its 2016 Human Resources Report and found additional results that back up the concerns of the young professionals surveyed in Road to Retention.

For example, nearly a third of under-40 CPA respondents listed their firm’s mentoring program as an area of weakness. Of all firms that participated in the IPA Human Resources survey, mentoring programs are offered by 80% but only one in 10 rate effectiveness as excellent. In fact, 11% rate it as “fair” or “poor.”

Furthermore, results from both surveys show that firms can be doing a better job at communicating with their staff about their performance.

According to the IPA HR survey, professional staff are reviewed semi-annually in 37% of firms, and annually in 46% of firms. Young professionals told IPA/ConvergenceCoaching that they want feedback much more frequently than what 83% of firms in the HR survey are currently offering. The 20- to 33-year olds most often reported that they want performance feedback monthly; the 34- to 40-year-olds want quarterly feedback.

Last, firm leaders should consider yet another communication issue raised by young professionals: They say firm leaders and managers are not doing a good job of involving them in decisions, with clients or internally, that affect them. It was the No. 1 overall firm weakness cited.

Improving communication will certainly be time-consuming and will take a concerted effort, but the data shows the payoff should be well worth the investment. “The Road to Retention” offers a recommendation: Form an advisory board made up of under-40 professionals. Give the group the task of studying changes they’d like to see in the firm and recommending how to implement them. The next part is critical: Listen to their ideas and put them into practice if they make sense. The future of your firm depends upon it.

Christina Camara is managing editor of the monthly INSIDE Public Accounting newsletter.