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Motivating & Engaging the Next Generation of Firm Leaders

Ask any partner in an accounting firm what’s keeping them up at night, and many will answer it’s retaining their staff—especially the superstar employees they hope will lead the firm into the next decade and beyond.

Unfortunately, many young professionals in your firm aren’t interested in “making partner.” The problem isn’t a lack of motivation or ambition. It’s that they can’t picture their future in a firm that isn’t transforming to remain successful. When you create a vision of an evolving and relevant firm, you’ll find the next generation of firm leaders have a strong desire to be a part of its long-term success.

I regularly ask young talent in our profession what excites them about the future of their firms. Here are five recommendations based on those conversations.

Welcome new and innovative ideas

We hear a lot of talk about fear in the face of automation, but the automation of compliance work doesn’t scare young professionals. On the contrary—they see it as an opportunity to focus on higher-value services and become a strategic advisor to their clients. They desire to discover and implement new ideas and initiatives to support that transformation.

But does your culture support such innovation? Ask your up-and-coming leaders to research and propose changes they’d like to make and be open to making their recommendations work.

Have tough conversations

The next generation of leaders wants to know what is expected of them, and they’re not afraid of being held accountable. So be very clear about expectations. If you’re not clear about your expectations, your team will get discouraged and have a difficult time succeeding.

Try the Start, Stop, Continue exercise:

  • Start. What is one thing you should START doing? This highlights where talents aren’t being used to their fullest potential.

  • Stop. What is one thing you should STOP doing? This highlights behaviors or activities that may get in the way of success.

  • Continue. What is one thing you should CONTINUE doing? This highlights where talents are being utilized and can be expanded.

But remember, accountability needs to happen at all levels. You must also hold yourself accountable for pushing appropriate work down, spending more time as a mentor and passing on knowledge and wisdom.

Conduct stay interviews to get a reality check on where you are. You might also engage an outside facilitator to help uncover what your team values and their concerns about the firm’s future. Then, armed with that information, determine what needs to change to engage the NextGen leader.

Get them involved

The future leaders in our profession won’t be the most technically adept or log the highest billable hours. They’re the ones with core skills such as the ability to:

  • Share their vision

  • Think big

  • Build a team of the best people

  • Read and grow consistently

  • Make tough decisions

  • Focus on the big picture

  • Take risks

  • Delegate effectively

  • Give and receive trust

  • Motivate others

  • Develop business

  • Hold self and others accountable

These skills don’t always come naturally, so current leaders need to help foster them in the next generation of leaders by getting them involved in committees, client relationships and a forward-thinking group of next-generation peers. The valuable knowledge they’ll gain while engaging with peers, clients and the community will be worth every minute away from the office, and they’ll become equipped with the skills to continue to push your firm forward.

Trust them

Once they’ve received the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, get out of the way and let them do it. It’s up to current leaders to make the first move, so assume a little risk and extend trust to the next generation. Doing so sends a powerful message to these emerging leaders and creates a safer environment for them to reciprocate that trust.

Create transparency

The next generation of leaders wants to work for firms with a culture of honesty and transparency. Transparency ultimately means clarity and conversations that lead to the exchange of information, better decisions, more education and a better understanding across all levels of the firm.

To be the firm of choice for emerging leaders, share details about the firm’s growth, finances, hiring structure, priorities and plans. Have systems in place that allow people to ask questions openly and honestly. That transparency nurtures a mutual understanding and encourages more people to share and collaborate.

There has never been more demand for bright, talented professionals. To be the firm that ignites earns their engagement and loyalty, create a firm that inspires and excites them—one they can see themselves owning someday. Your efforts will be rewarded with increased retention and motivation among your superstar employees.


Sandra Wiley, Shareholder, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is a leader in the accounting profession with a passion for helping firms grow, adapt and thrive. She is regularly recognized by Accounting Today as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Accounting as a result of her expertise in leadership, management, collaboration, culture building, talent and training.

Sandra’s role at Boomer Consulting, Inc. includes serving as co-director of the Boomer Leadership Academy as well as the Boomer Managing Partner Circle, the Boomer Talent Circle and the Boomer Learning & Development Circle. Her years of experience and influence as a management and strategic planning consultant make her a sought-after resource among the best and brightest firms in the country.

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