Today’s Accounting Crop: The Kids Are Alright

At a variety of companies, a creative meeting of the minds aimed at bridging finance's generation gap seems at hand.

The generation gap between many CFOs and new accounting and finance pros often seems unbridgeable. On one side are executives in their late 30s to their 50s raised on notions of company loyalty. Many also have a deeply rooted sense of hierarchy dictating that underlings must keep a respectful distance from their bosses.

Across the divide are younger folks who seem sometimes to assume that a mutual disloyalty pact exists between them and their bosses. Operating under that set of assumptions, many feel that employers’ ability to lay off employees at the drop of a hat entitles them to leave at will regardless of the time and money the company has doled out in training them. Paradoxically, the same interviews with CFOs and comments posted on CFO.com that suggest such attitudes are the norm also suggest that these younger workers crave strong, immediate interaction with their bosses.

Such urges, coupled with a tendency to question authority, can lead to stiff interpersonal challenges for some senior finance officers. John Brausch, the 47-year-old property controller of Edens and Avant, recalls that rigid chain-of-command structures were much more prevalent when he was starting out. “Twenty-five years ago, would I go talk to the CFO right out of college? Probably not. But that happens every day today,” he says.

Regardless of how much those attitudes go against the grain for many CFOs, however, they’re finding that they must come to grips with them. The reason? The labor market can be brutally competitive for companies in the market for young accounting and finance hires with even a modicum of talent. Many corporate finance departments, faced with the necessity of putting “butts in the seats,” are hiring grads who have taken a minimum number of accounting courses, according to Rich Houston, a University of Alabama finance professor.

Few finance chiefs, in short, are in any position to enforce a my-way-or-the-highway attitude on their staffs. Indeed, at a variety of companies, a creative meeting of the minds seems at hand. The new paradigm, however, requires an increased commitment by CFOs to the development of talent.

Faced with a 20 percent annual turnover rate in his finance department, William Kurtz, the 50-year-old CFO of Novellus Systems, a semiconductor maker based in San Jose, Calif., says he’s had to focus a great deal more attention on developing the careers of new recruits.

Such involvement is his way of competing with the fast-growing IPOs he must vie with for talent in Silicon Valley. Kurtz’s efforts have included one-on-one talks with new finance hires about their career objectives and educational needs and shepherding them to an understanding of the company beyond finance. “By providing a clear path of development, we’ve seen we can have a better rate of retention,” he says. “And then there was the time that I contributed to that as CFO. That meant a lot to them.”

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