For quite a while now, nervous managing partners and harried HR directors struggling to solve the riddle of how to attract and retain Millennial staff could comfort themselves with the knowledge that no one else in the profession had a clue how to do it either.
Well, not any more.
While they would be the first to say they haven’t completely solved the riddle, Tennessee-based Top 50 Firm LBMC is one of a handful of pioneering firms that are starting to unravel it, and it has concrete proof that it’s on the right track, not least in its recent inclusion on Symplicity’s Best Places to Work for Recent Grads list, ranking as one of the 25 top companies in the entire country for young employees based on work-life balance, culture, mentoring, benefits, training and employee rankings.
How the firm got there — and how it built the strategies and programs that have moved it further along toward solving the riddle of the Millennials — started with the same stark reality that every firm in the country is facing.
“You start to look at your current employee population, and you start to look at the percentage of graduates that are coming out, both male and female, and the ages at which they’re graduating, and it’s very easy to make the business case that we need to focus on two things: Millennials, and also on developing females,” explained the firm’s director of human resources, Jessica Utley. “It can’t solely be our current leadership group that helps us to meet all our goals, so it is imperative that we begin developing future leaders now. We need to identify the talent at an earlier stage in their career and develop and retain them. They’re going to be the key to us growing.”
Not only will Millennials be key — they’ll also be hard to find. “It’s an extremely competitive market these days, and getting quality people to join our organization — a group of high performers that believes in our core purpose and our core values — that was honestly a bigger challenge for us than getting new clients,” said Jeff Drummonds, who took the helm at the firm in June of 2015. “We made a conscious decision 18 months ago, as we were going through a rebranding process, ... that everything we did was going to tie back to ‘LBMC is the right place for high-performing CPAs and consultants.’”
Part of that new focus, naturally, was on Millennials — and it helped that the firm has a fundamentally different view of them from that of most of the leadership of the accounting profession. In short, they respect them.
“When I go to national conferences or sit in on partner meetings, a recurring theme is the Millennials — what a challenge that is, they don’t want to do this, or they don’t want to do that. I’m not sure I see that, or necessarily buy into it,” Drummonds said. “In a lot of ways, from a philosophical standpoint and how they approach work, I think they have it more right than my generation did.”
And whether firms like it or not, they are going to have to address it anyway: “Because of their willingness, if they’re not getting what they want in an organization, to pick up and go to another, frankly that holds us accountable,” he explained. “We can approach that as, ‘Is it us, or is it them?’ Well, it’s both.”
And because LBMC approaches the riddle from that perspective, it’s able to make the most of a simple tool: asking its staff what they want, and really listening to the answers.
Like many large organizations, LBMC conducts employee surveys, but what happens after that is what matters most: Once they get feedback from staff, the firm figures out how to actually address their requests, complaints and suggestions.
“I equate that to when you walk down the hall and ask someone, ‘How’s your day?’ And if they say, ‘Well, it’s not going very well,’ you’d better stop and listen and find a way to help, versus just walking on past,” Drummonds explained. “If you just walk on past, asking ‘How was your day?’ didn’t accomplish what you wanted it to accomplish.”
According to Utley, this is particularly important to Millennials: “As long as their voices are heard and they’re able to contribute and have influence — not as final decision-makers, but understanding that they have influence on the decisions that are made — they fully support any initiative or change that might be happening in the firm.”
It’s definitely noticed, according to Bradley Jones, a senior accountant on the audit side of the firm, who has been with LBMC for two-and-a-half years and is one of the co-leaders of the firm’s Young Professionals Group: “Here, if I make a suggestion, I feel like they really take it in. They may not do every single suggestion, but they’ve implemented quite a few that I was genuinely shocked that they implemented.” He noted the firm’s recent offering of two weeks of paternity leave (it also offers paid maternity leave as well as adoptive leave), and the upcoming introduction of standing desks as just two examples of ideas that started with staff that generated management action.
Among other concrete examples, the Millennials’ frequently avowed interest in technology and flexibility have led the firm to beef up its technology so employees can work from wherever they have an Internet connection, whenever they need to, empowering them to work schedules that fit their lives. LBMC also makes sure that young managers know exactly what it takes to become a partner, and what the position looks like — in fact, Drummonds recently shared with them a detailed description of the process and what different types of partners there are.
Perhaps more important than responding to specific requests or needs, though, is the firm’s ability to understand its Millennials’ broader mindset.
THEY REALLY ARE DIFFERENT
Make no mistake — Millennials are very different from the older generations in the workplace, and they’ll tell you so.
To start, they bring different attitudes about firm structure and accountability. “Some organizations I worked in were very hierarchical and based on seniority, and that’s very frustrating for Millennials,” said Katie Tarr, a manager in the health care valuations department who has been with the firm for two-and-a-half years. “If I’m working smart and hard, why am I not at the same level as someone who’s less productive than me, just because they’ve been here longer? And the entrepreneurial mindset of Millennials is very different from prior generations, in that I have to care about what I’m doing and I have to feel like I’m on a mission and involved in something — as opposed to just doing a job for a paycheck. No Millennials I know will take a job just for a paycheck — they want something they can get behind and get excited about and feel a part of.”
Jones noted that their approach to time and work are also starkly at odds with those of earlier cohorts: “The older generation’s attitude was, ‘All right, let’s go there and work our hours and then let’s be done,’ and it’s based on time, whereas Millennials see it as, ‘What do we need to accomplish?’ and then figure out how long it’s going to take, instead of thinking about the time first.”
He speaks for many Millennials when he asks, “Why not empower us a little bit, and give us a little control over our own schedules? If you do that, then you’re going to attract and retain us. Promoting that sense of empowerment so we feel like we can have a significant impact, and don’t just feel like little peons who don’t contribute anything. We want to come in and say, ‘Where can we help? Where can we make a difference?’”
And he’d be one of the first to say that LBMC is empowering its younger employees. In fact, it’s been doing it for some time: The firm launched its Young Professionals Group (for those in the first seven years of their career) and its women’s initiative, the WIN Group, around five years ago, spurred by both some workshops held by the American Institute of CPAs, and a YP program that the Leading Edge Alliance developed. LBMC is a founding member of the LEA network — and in 2013 it won an award for outstanding YP program among its fellow LEA members.
The LBMC YP Group and the WIN Group are given a great deal of autonomy to set their own budgets, determine their own educational curricula, and to plan both fun outings and charitable and community service activities, and that gives employees a chance to make a mark on the firm and their fellow staffers at an early stage in their careers, and to demonstrate leadership.
GETTING THEM IN THE DOOR
To have young professionals who can be groomed into leaders, the firm has invested significantly in its recruiting efforts, according to Utley.
“Campus recruiting is very competitive,” she said, and in order to ensure that the firm is talking to the best students, LBMC hired a talent acquisition specialist in the last 12 months who owns the entire process, relying heavily on staff and alumni to maximize their relationships across different universities.
They have also created a new “campus ambassador” position, where LBMC stays in touch with students who have interned there, compensating them for their time in talking to other students about the firm. The goal is not just to spread the word, but also to keep the ambassadors themselves engaged with LBMC. The firm expects to have four ambassadors on different campuses this fall.
Utley noted that they have also revamped their Web site, and are looking at more mobile applicant tracking systems to strengthen the hiring system.
The importance of the firm’s Web presence can’t be overestimated: “Roughly 40 percent of the people that we hired last year found us online and submitted an application online,” said Drummonds, who recalled asking a recent new hire how she found the firm. “She chuckled and said, ‘I just typed in ‘Best Places to Work in Nashville CPA firm.’ Literally, LBMC came up top of the list, and it mentioned a couple of recent awards we had won, and she said, ‘That’s how I made my decision that I was going to apply to LBMC first.’”
New programs and new technology aside, when it comes to hiring, the firm is also able to move with a speed and nimbleness that Millennials (and others!) appreciate.
That was important for Tarr when she moved to Nashville two-and-a-half years ago, and was looking for work: “I ended up choosing LBMC because they were quick and easy to deal with from a recruiting standpoint. I met with them and they made me an offer within a matter of days,” she recalled. “It was really hard to turn down.”
IN FOR THE LONG TERM
With recruiting well in hand, the next goal is to create a cadre of potential partners who can lead the firm into the future.
A major part of that is achieved through mentoring. “Every employee has a mentor and you meet with them regularly,” explained Tarr, who mentors two employees herself. “We meet at least quarterly or more, often to talk about what’s going on, what’s going well, what’s not, to get feedback on my job as a manager, what can we do to make their jobs better, what can we do for them?”
Beyond mentoring, though, the firm is looking to create a comprehensive development program for its staff, and to that end, earlier this year it hired John Dunavan as director of learning and development.
Part of his goal is to create curricula and a platform that resonates with Millennials. “When you’re bringing in folks fresh out of school, particularly the Millennial generation, they’re used to on-demand learning and tools and communication,” he said. That means using more rich media and multimedia elements, but it also means building an online university model so staff can browse classes at will.
It also means combining technical education with “soft skills” training. “If you can immerse learning activities in that reality-based world ... then it makes it a more visibly engaging experience,” Dunavan explained. “If you can have a new associate who understands the connection of the soft skills with the technical knowledge, that’s someone you can bring into a meeting earlier, and thinks more expansively about the needs of the customer.”
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
Solving the Millennial riddle, for LBMC, isn’t about one big solution, but a host of smaller ones, and it’s still a work in progress.
“I don’t want to give the appearance that we have everything figured out. We have to embrace many of the things that Millennials and others are asking for,” said Drummonds, but that doesn’t mean capitulation. As long as you’re willing to be open and honest with them, “I think that this generation is willing to meet you halfway.”
That respect, and that willingness to listen and act, has already started to pay off. “The way that we’re really going to identify [success] is through long-term retention, career progression within the firm, and ultimately hitting that partner rank, and I’m really excited to say that we’ve got those — we’ve got Millennial partners,” Utley reported. “It shows a lot of opportunity to those Millennials who are even earlier in their career. When you see those promotions, you see that they are owning their careers, and they’re seeing the fruits of their hard work.”
As proof of that, both Jones and Tarr already envision themselves as partners. And while the firm may have a range of metrics and measurements and goals to determine if it’s succeeding in attracting young talent, Tarr has a simpler method: “When I hear of people moving firms, they’re coming from other firms to LBMC, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone leaving LBMC to go to another firm in Nashville,” she said. “That’s always been my gauge of, ‘Are we doing something right?’”
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