Jennifer Wilson

Is Your Firm Old School or Cool?

Six ways to decipher in which category your firm falls and how you to convert from being ‘old school’ to ‘cool’.

November 28, 2011
by Jennifer Wilson

I believe the impending retirement of the 76 million baby boomers over the next 12 years to 15 years will drive a labor shortage unlike anything we’ve seen in the U.S. to date. With the accounting unemployment rate well below the national average, young and talented CPAs will be in high demand in the coming years.

For your firm to attract and retain the best and the brightest young talent, you’ll have to ensure that you’re nurturing a culture of cool. And, from what I hear from the young CPAs I interact with, firms and firm leaders who are considered “old school” are also considered definitively “uncool.” This article divulges six cultural attributes and the old-school approaches and new-school alternatives that will help you increase your cool quotient.

Cultural Attributes

Old School or ‘Uncool’

New School or ‘Cool’

Clarity of firm mission, vision, values, objectives and overall strategy

Firm may or may not have these strategic elements. If they do, these elements are not discussed with team members regularly or used to guide firm discussions.

Firm encourages input from
up-and-comers in the formation of these strategic elements and shares strategies and status regularly with the team as a whole. These strategic elements are clearly used to drive team performance.

Engagement of firm leaders with team members

Firm is run in the traditional hierarchy, in which firm leaders interact with directors and managers but have little interaction with seniors and staff. Firm leaders work on client projects with their assigned managers, but don’t spend much time on people development.

Firm leaders realize how important it is that they connect with people at all levels and they work to know the names of all team members at a minimum. Leaders invest development time in their people and include up-and-comers in leadership team meetings. They take staff along to shadow work and encourage them to ask questions and provide feedback.

Openness of leadership to input and change

Staff members are seen as “not ready” to input ideas or provide feedback and you may hear leaders say, “they don’t get it yet.” Leaders do not encourage open feedback on things the staff feel should improve and appear to implement change only when external forces drive it.

Firm regularly encourages employee feedback on improvements needed via small group meetings or surveys. Firm leaders understand that change is inevitable and strive to be proactive and accepting of change — choosing to lead change vs. react to it.

Firm’s development of team members

Firm management responsibilities including ownership of clients, projects, and initiatives are only entrusted to those at a certain level in the organization. Soft skills are not actively cultivated until team members reach manager, if they are taught at all. Firm leaders seem to have “arrived” and don’t appear to be adding new skills or striving to improve.

Firm leaders assign ownership of clients, projects and initiatives to staff members at many levels, working to develop leadership skills in staff and seniors wherever possible. Firm invests in soft skills education at all levels and includes administrative team members, too. Firm leaders are striving to grow and improve, taking courses and encouraging feedback on how they can improve.

Approach to work hours and schedules

Firm places a heavy emphasis on “face time” where the firm’s leaders gauge a person’s commitment based on how often they see them in the office. Firm enforces mandatory work periods.

Firm is driving toward a work anywhere, anytime approach, where firm leaders gauge a person’s commitment by their ability to meet stated objectives, including specific financial contributions. Firm emphasizes being responsive but does not feel that all responses or interactions must be in person.

Technology orientation

Technology is seen as a necessary evil, where the firm invests as needed, but many firm leaders resist the use of new technologies and are not seeking out technologic advancements. Firm may be blocking social media sites.

Technology is seen as a strategy enabler and a critical element of the firm’s annual plan. The firm strives to be an early adopter and includes young up-and-comers on an IT committee to ensure their
IT-savvy input is heard. Firm embraces social media and encourages its use for communication, marketing and recruiting.


So, how does your firm stack up? For most, you probably have some attributes in which you’re still using an old school approach and other areas where you’re moving toward cool. But it’s hard for firm leaders to gauge their own cool quotient! Instead, use this article to open a dialogue with your young up-and-comers and encourage their honest feedback on how you’re doing. Then, work with them to identify one or two specific actions that you can take to make your firm an even more engaging, inspiring and, yes — cool — place to work in the New Year ahead!

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success.