Millennials In The Finance Function

Does the finance function live up to changing workforce expectations?


In new Ben Affleck film, The Accountant, in which the actor plays an autistic maths prodigy with a talent for killing bad guys, he notes that he chose his own role of financial consultant because it is one of the fastest growing professions. Then he fights a load of gangsters and takes down an evil corporate conspiracy. As a film, it’s entertaining if a little muddled. As a pitch to get more millennials into the finance function, it’s inspired.

Millennials do not have a fantastic reputation when it comes to dealing with their own finances. They have consistently been portrayed as poor savers, unprepared for adult financial responsibilities. This is unfair, with many having entered the workforce in the shadow of the financial crisis. They have been poorly served by economic circumstance and are, perhaps understandably, skeptical of finance. This is reflected in numerous surveys which claim a skills gap in the finance function among graduates. For example, a 2015 report by Competency Crisis, a coalition of finance professionals, employers, students and professors organized by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), revealed ‘large gaps between the competencies that organizations need to succeed and those that entry-level management accounting and finance professionals possess.’

However, they are increasingly being recognized by finance leaders for the skills that they do bring to the table. In a recent survey by Robert Half, 85% of CFOs said they are confident their millennial employees are prepared to assume leadership positions, and companies are adjusting their corporate culture to ensure that they are utilized to their full potential.

Millennials bring a variety of qualities to the finance function often lacking in baby boomers and even Gen Xers, including the tech savviness that comes from being the first generation raised in a digital world. This same background has also led to Millennials being more open-minded and placing a greater emphasis on communication, with the internet having created an expectation around speed of information and driven intellectual curiosity. They are also analytical by nature and less respectful of authority, being more likely to question why things are being done and finding new ways of doing them. The has been noted by Bill Juram, VP-Finance for the healthcare services provider Kaiser Permanente, who told our sister magazine, CFO, that ‘Millennials have a less hierarchical, more trial-and-error style of work’ - qualities well suited to the finance function of today, operating as it is in the more complex, faster-moving, and far less structured world of digital, where flexibility and agility are valued above all other qualities.

While being raised in digital provides many benefits, there are also downsides. Millennials no longer feel the same sense of loyalty to their companies that they once did, having seen through the massive job losses during the financial crisis that such loyalty is often a one way street. Many will spend only one to two years in a company and then move on in search of career progression. In order to try and retain the best Millennial staff, organizations need to cater to understand what the generation is looking for and adjust their working practices. Millennials want the flexibility expected of them for themselves. They value output as a measure of the quality of their work rather than simply hours spent at a location, and many look to work the hours they want, where they want. Equally, not only does ‘asking why’ improve their analytical abilities, it also means that they expect greater transparency from their employers, who must get used to not only telling their young employees what they want, but the reasoning.

Perhaps the most important motivation for Millennials cited in surveys is career growth. They want training, as Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, notes: ‘To retain these professionals and develop them into next-generation leaders, companies must show them how they can advance in the organization and provide training and stretch assignments.’

One organization particularly adept at catering to Millennials is Gen Y-bible, Vice Media. Sarah Broderick, the media giant’s CFO, spoke recently at the CFO Rising West summit in San Francisco. She described how, in her experience, Millennials were less concerned with financial compensation and more with career and personal development, and maintaining a strong work/life balance. At Vice, they have worked hard to build a culture of trust, with an open bar in the office that she noted had been used responsibly as long as she had been at the company. Broderick also pointed to how the company embraced the best technology in line with Millennial’s expectations, ensuring that everything was mobile, while also providing a number of other benefits to help advance flexibility in the workplace.

With Millennials set to make up almost 75% of the work force by 2030, it is vital that they are respected and catered for. Finance leaders need to encourage the next generation, and adapt both their management styles and alter their workplace culture accordingly.

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