Talent Management: The Next Generation of Accountants

It is not uncommon these days to meet finance executives in their 20s and 30s, particularly in rapidly growing economies like China and India. This new generation of professionals belong to the so-called Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation or the Net Generation – born in the 1980s, they grew to maturity along with the Internet, mobile phones, social media networks and other instant communication technologies.   

Many members of Generation Y are regarded as fundamentally different from the preceding Generation X in their mind-set and expectations. In the workplace, they are said to be driving a flexible culture of high engagement, increased staff attrition and changing work ethic.
Angie Mak sat down with Aubrey Joachim, immediate past president of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), to discuss how the potential of Generation Y can be harnessed and how this new generation of professionals may be changing the nature of accounting and finance.
What are the new trends CIMA is finding in the accounting profession?
An interesting trend that accounting bodies have identified over the last few years is that the number [of new accountants] is dwindling. From the UK to Australia, it has been plateauing off. The crises of about 10 years ago, the WorldComs and Enrons, all that did not help, because the whole [accounting] profession has gotten a bad name. CIMA then began to consider: what are the next generation of finance professionals going to look like?
You’re not going to see the next generation of finance professionals essentially engrossed or embedded in auditing, reporting, preparing financial statements, the compliance aspect of it, forensic accounts and all of that. They will be more focused on working within businesses in order to drive performance. It’s almost like moving to the bridge of a ship, where you’re doing the driving, rather than being reactionary and performing routine tasks.
How do you cultivate Generation Y? Their key characteristic seems to be to think for themselves.
I love having younger people around, because you learn from them. A big drawback in Asian countries is that the previous generation does not think it is appropriate to learn from the younger generation. Therefore, the next generation does not proactively push themselves; it’s not in their culture to do that.
In the [Asian] business front, you would never dare to tell the CFO or the CEO [their mistakes]. We have to change that mindset of the finance professional, to challenge the CFO, to challenge the CEO. That’s the only way change can happen.
What do you think motivates this next generation?
The next generation is not essentially motivated by extrinsic factors, but more self-actualisation, achievement, driving things and making an impact, rather than anything else.
Some organisations, especially after this whole crisis about remuneration [where bailed-out companies distributed hefty bonuses], are rethinking their motivational strategy. Would financial motivators merely suffice, or are there other factors that can be introduced? That is where I think the young people will get motivated in some other ways. Of course, if you perform well, financial reward will follow. But I don’t think the founders of Google or Facebook expected a US$3 billion sale fee when they started out. They were just chasing a dream and following a vision.
How do you go about mentoring Gen Y?
When I first joined organisations, I had superiors saying, “This is the way you do this, and here is what I want you to do.” I don’t think you can do that today. Instead, you can tell them, “These are the outcomes I’m looking for. Could you go and do it?”
Especially because of technology, the older generation must recognise that there are areas they are not familiar with. If you do not allow freedom, you’re stifling innovation.
Even something as mundane as reporting can be done in a very innovative way. We shouldn’t merely report on what has been done in the past. Today, every receiver of information requires different types of information in a different way. That is where we need to go.
Working late hours and the monthly consolidation require dedication, but Gen Y’s fantasies about work seem to revolve around big money and short hours.
The whole aspect of the late hours was unnecessary. I think the [older] accountants love to stay late nights. Today’s generation works smarter, not harder.
When it comes to automated tools and techniques, that is where the next generation will feel challenged – in using those tools. As long as you stifle the new generation’s thinking — stifle the junior finance people — by having traditional, senior finance people who tell you, “You must work late because this is the way we do it“, you’ll never progress.
Many Asian employers assume that if you work long hours, you’re a good employee.
In Australia, public sector finance departments have significant turnover for budget accountants. Why? Because they were getting into so much detail [in their reporting]. But that has to change now. Some of the best-practice organisations are getting more lean and mean, more efficient and effective.
To give the right answers you don’t need to work until midnight. You just need to have a good understanding of the business. This is where finance transformation comes in, where people can understand the business better and are able to give valued commentary and insight rather than mere number-crunching.
Generation Y’s value is that they’re innovative, but how much freedom should you give them?
I don’t think you can set a target for innovation, nor a set of criteria for innovation. Innovation is something that leaps out at you, that’s thinking outside the box. I don’t think you could’ve put three people in a room and said, “Come up with [the idea for] Google.”
Similarly, you can’t put some people in a room and come up with the best method of managing an organisation. A lot of what we call the basics and what must be done has already been put into technology. Don’t bother wasting your time. Instead of doing that, go understand the business, go learn the business.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the self and personal achievement for this generation. If everybody wants to stand out, how do you get Generation Y to enjoy teamwork?
There are some professions and jobs that take teamwork, but there are certain components of a job that only lend themselves to being done by one person. Finance professionals need to develop more teamwork outside their own teams, across the whole business.
But largely, it’s a skill or a competence that you develop yourself — of learning the business, how to influence people — all those are different skill levels within each person. That is why some people make very good auditors, because that’s all they can do; that’s all they’re interested in, and they’re skewed towards that. It’s all psychometric.
I can look at someone and say that he or she’s an auditor, because that persona comes out. My son loves tax accounting. He likes a structured way of doing things; following the rules. I’m sure there are areas where you can be creative in tax and audit.
How do you encourage Gen Y workers to stay longer in a job, or do you just accept the fact that one foot is always out the door?
It’s something that all organisations will have to recognise in Generation Y. The days of loyalty are not there, and not in a bad sort of way. It’s just that that the inquisitive nature of that generation means they get bored very quickly. They want new challenges. As a manager, you should make the best use of what they can give during that period.
In some organisations, [management] would encourage that turnover. I think the biggest challenge for not only the financial field but for anybody is to maintain a mix of talent across wide age gaps. That’s why it’s interesting to have some people who are in a company for 30 years, who are now saying, “You can’t keep hold of someone for two or three years.”
Now, there are some organisations which are known for their average age being about 26. And that will always be the case, because they want people moving out. In that type of environment, you may be too old after a certain point in time.
Should CFOs invest money in the sort of management training where you offer various roles on rotation?
I had some Australian CPAs working with me, and one of the things that I had in their performance agreement was that every month, they should get a CPA magazine, take an article that’s of interest to the business, do a synopsis of it, and send it around.
That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. And that’s why organisations like CIMA are there – to provide that support structure. What I need from someone is the skill and competence to be able to stand up and tell the rest of the business what’s happening.
Most of Gen Y don’t take well to being told they’ve done something incorrectly. In accounting, things need to be done in certain ways, and you just can’t get around it. How do you handle that?
I think the proportion of tasks that need to be done in a certain way is getting very much less. All that needs to be done in a particular way is now embedded in software. If you’re in accounts payable, you process accounts or process payables in a standard way that gets it done.
This is where the whole aspect of the creative accountant comes in. In fact, the motto of another accounting body [in Australia] is “T �2=���E&�[email protected]ʱ͢�U�P6��hF]�aVP��`lt;div> 
Frankly, I don’t want an accountant who will do things in a standard way; I’d get a robot. Instead, I want someone who will add value. The tasks that have to be done in a standard way have been automated. Even an airplane flies 90% of the time automatically. You need a pilot who can deal with something that is out of the ordinary. So we want the accountant who can think in a non-standard way.
If a CEO or someone in the organisation asks for a piece of information, the organisations that do not foster free thinking [would have someone that] would say, “No, I have not done that before, so I cannot provide you with that information”, or “I don’t have a standard report”. That’s why we’ll be asking you a question when we don’t have a standard report.
How can Gen Y change the mindset of an employer who says: “No innovation please, we just want the same old thing”?
I would say, “Okay, that is your challenge — to find new ways to influence.” Organisations [that don’t allow this] will realise that they can’t retain people. Why is there an index of best employers? I’m sure that’s one of the things that organisations have to resolve to be a preferred employer. The bigger and better organisations are moving towards that and setting it as a performance criterion for their senior management, to make the company a better employer.
Would you encourage Gen Y to just keep trying to bring about change?
I think there’d be no choice there. They will leave the company. Today, the opportunities are there to do that. Today, people don’t have to leave the company [on their own accord] – they are searched, hunted down by other companies.
In some situations today, employees are encouraged to ask their superiors what jobs to look for, how to apply for other jobs and all that. In the old days, you wouldn’t dare.
You don’t need to hide [that you’re looking elsewhere] — today, it’ll be on your LinkedIn profile. I used to tell some of my people, “I think you guys should apply for jobs once in awhile, to see what else is there.” They would also perhaps recognise that there is no better place than where they’re working now.