Dan Griffiths
How to get the most out of Millennials

Old motivation methods won't cut it anymore. Here's how to engage the next generation of workers.

September 3, 2013
By Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA

Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, once related a telling anecdote about employee engagement. After creating a program in the 1990s to solicit feedback from employees, Welch recalled that one of the factory workers said, “For 25 years, you’ve paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well—for nothing.”

As CPAs, we lend our hands and head to our employers every day. Firm managers are used to tapping intellectual capital. But they often overlook the power of “emotional capital”—especially in regard to younger employees. Tapping that emotional capital means figuring out how to motivate young CPAs by consistently engaging their hearts in pursuit of firm goals.

Research shows that organizations with engaged employees outperform the competition by a wide margin. But how do we get our younger team members to voluntarily offer up their best efforts? Most of the tried and true hierarchical tools available to us—such as fear, incentives, intimidation, or positional power—simply don’t work with this generation. By definition, discretionary effort must be offered up voluntarily, not through coercive means. And passion simply cannot be conjured up with just the right mixture of carrots and sticks.

I recently returned from the AICPA EDGE Conference in Austin, Texas, where I spent four days with some of the brightest young CPAs in our profession. Based on my observations from the conference, here are a few suggestions on how to engage the hearts of Millennials.

Share meaning

Few things are more engaging than the feeling that we are “making a difference.” Try using staff meetings to share stories of client successes and highlight how the firm’s work contributed to those successes. Be sure to talk about the people impacted, not just the business entities. Help employees see how their work affects other members of their team and fits into the overall process and work of others at the firm.


A recent Deloitte survey found that creativity and innovation are highly regarded by young professionals. What are you doing at your firm to show that you are willing to innovate? Do you use new technologies? Have you embraced social media? Are you on the leading edge of innovation in client service offerings? Do people at your firm feel like they’re a part of shaping the profession’s future?


Millennials are the “open source” generation. Young CPAs are willing to work together. They understand that collaboration and sharing create far more value than erecting barriers to cooperation. As such, managers need to consider changing older hierarchical models designed to control and restrict the flow of information. At the EDGE Conference, young CPAs openly shared what is working and what isn’t in our profession. They collaborated to come up with ways to make things better. One young CPA I talked with observed that, “We should be doing this kind of brainstorming and collaboration in our own firms, but we need support from the top to do it.” Are you providing your staff with that support?

Embrace diversity & inclusion

During his presentation at EDGE, AICPA Chairman Richard Caturano emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusion. He asked attendees to think about how much better their team could be if they include people who are different than they are. This message really resonated with the young CPAs in attendance, as evidenced by a subsequent explosion of comments on Twitter. Firms that embrace it will instill a sense of pride in their young staff.

Walk the talk

As a profession, we believe in integrity. What a differentiator that is in a world where what leaders say is often not reflected in what they do. As a profession, we aspire to a higher standard, but as individuals, we can fall short. For example, does your firm management really buy in to that flex work schedule that it touts? Or do employees sense that it is best not to take the “option” of leaving early on Fridays and making it up by working later other nights of the week? Make sure that management actions reflect the statements that leaders make.

Share your knowledge & perspective

Young CPAs are hungry to learn from you. During a discussion on succession planning, I heard the comment, “We’re not trying to kick you out. We just want to be sure we’re ready when you decide to leave.” To be fully engaged, young CPAs need to feel that you have an interest in their career development and are open to sharing your wisdom. What is your firm doing to transfer knowledge and perspective from experienced partners to younger generations?

Seize the opportunity

Let’s contrast two approaches.

Problem Focus—Our firm has a problem with engaging our younger team members. What should be done to address this?

Now compare that to the following approach.

Opportunity Focus—We have an opportunity to tap into the passion of young CPAs at our firm. What’s the one change that would make the biggest impact in engaging those young accountants?

It’s in our natures to focus on problems. But does that really get us to where we want to be? Problems weigh us down. Opportunities engage our hearts. What are you doing at your firm to stay focused on opportunities?

It’s time to tap into the latent emotional capital in our firms. All these years, we’ve been paying workers for their head and hands when we could also have had their hearts for free. Think of the legacy of opportunities that you can offer to the rising generation. What will you do to engage the young CPAs you work with? The future success of your firm depends on it.

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Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA, is the director of strategic planning at Tanner LLC. Griffiths, a graduate of the 2010 AICPA Leadership Academy, was recently selected to serve as Utah’s elected member of the AICPA Governing Council.