What’s Wrong with the Kids?

Coping with the newest generation in finance requires tact, patience — and restraint.

Such reflection can have unexpected benefits. Brausch of Edens & Avant recalls that rigid chain-of-command structures were much more prevalent when he was starting his career. But the millennium group’s preference for a more casual workplace has led, in some instances, to a more relaxed style of communications between employer and employee. “Twenty-five years ago, would I go talk to the CFO right out of college?” asks Brausch. “Probably not. But that happens every day today.”

Kurtz, too, says he now has one-on-one talks with new finance hires about their career objectives and educational needs. “By providing a clear path of development,” he says, “we’ve seen we can have a better rate of retention.” To mark that path, Novellus has installed a two-year training program for the eight or so new finance and accounting graduates it hires each year. Each participant is assigned a mentor for two years. In their second year, the employees spend two six-month periods working in different disciplines, such as financial-planning analysis or treasury.

After completing the training program, employees are again promoted. Sporting three promotions in two years, employees can see a definite progression in their career. “It becomes clear to people that they’ll be developed,” says Kurtz.

Other CFOs have gone so far as to restructure their departments to appeal to the
new breed of employee. At The MC Cos., Morales has split her 15-person finance
staff into two levels. At the entry level: accounting associates, who are responsible for basic tasks such as handling accounts payable and receivable and reconciling accounts. More-senior general accountants, who perform higher-level tasks, report to the controller and director of finance. The new structure, Morales says, “gives people the ability to work toward promotion.”

Morales has also made changes aimed at stressing a team approach. For instance, she has blurred the lines between the company’s three activities — property development, construction, and management. Previously an employee was slotted into one of those areas. “Now,” she says, “everyone does a little bit of everything.”

Finance executives say that kind of rotation appeals to millennials. “In the past, people were more content to dig deep and get those 10-plus years of experience and become an expert in a field,” says Mary D. Hall, a divisional CFO for the chemicals and fibers group of Eastman Chemical. “But younger workers seem to really want variety. They want to be generalists.”

Apparently they want a lot of attention, too. “Younger employees want feedback at the touch of a button today,” Jamrog says. “If you don’t answer their E-mails and give them some positive reinforcement, you just dissed them.”

And if they feel dissed, they may walk. In fact, some observers say millennials are less willing than previous generations of workers to endure prickly situations. The University of Alabama’s Houston says that he often hears from former students, toiling away during the first weeks of their first audit jobs in small hotels in remote outposts in the Southeast. Based on the experience of a single grim week, they might well decide to change jobs. “People nowadays are just more likely to focus on ‘I hate this. If I go across the street, things will be better.’”

Still, some CFOs have come to appreciate the talents that most millennials bring to their jobs. Many are more technologically adroit than their bosses. At Edens & Avant, for example, Brausch says he was looking for a way to shorten the budgeting process. One of the biggest challenges, however, was streamlining the company’s budgeting for cost reimbursements for such things as snow removal and insurance costs. Those payments are set forth in the various leases of the company’s 2,300 tenants, which range from Stop & Shop and Target outlets to smaller retail stores.

Would the company have to create 2,300 different invoices to be loaded by a hired administrator? Brausch figured such an enormous job could take 10 weeks to complete. Then one of his finance managers, a millennial who is a whiz at Excel, created a macro in two hours that could handle the entire job. Says the veteran finance chief, “It was miraculous to watch.”

David M. Katz is deputy editor of CFO.com.

What millennials most value on the job, on a scale of 1 to 10; January 2008
How long millennials expect to pay their dues, and to stay in their current jobs; January 2008

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