We’ve started work on a new client this week, and so I’ve been busy, hence the dearth of posts. More on that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out the August 20 & 27 issue of BusinessWeek, which focuses on “The Future of Work.”
As I discussed previously, there is a lot of down time in my job, attributable to both my clients and my novice in the industry. This down time requires me to find ways to occupy myself. I spend a significant amount of time reading business publications, but a great deal of time is also spent chatting with my coworkers. While clearly non-billable, I am weary of labeling this time non-productive. Conversation topics range widely, but we generally gripe about bosses, coworkers, and clients. I have learned a great deal about the people in my office from these regular “water-cooler moments.” The quirks and frustrations of the partners are well known to my coworkers, and passing on that knowledge is critical to workplace success. Much frustration in my early days could have been avoided with this knowledge. I’ve learned, for instance, that our elder partner has a penchant for scrambling Excel spreadsheets. Knowing that, I now retain printed copies of documents I send to him. On multiple occasions now, the partner has assigned me a project, I’ve completed it, and he’s then scrambled the spreadsheet; having a copy of my work has saved me from looking completely incompetent. These water-cooler moments have also provided insight into the strengths and weaknesses of different partners. This knowledge allows me to target my questions more effectively to the appropriate partner. In both instances, the down time is clearly productive, even if I can’t charge a client for it.
Clearly, this situation depends on the employees involved. There are individuals in my office who don’t use their down time effectively, preferring instead to waste time checking email and booking vacations. It takes a conscious effort to focus and utilize the free time that is inherent in many offices. Stay focused on the workplace in such instances and you’d be surprised what you might learn about the people around you.
A few months back, my employer went through the annual rite of performance evaluations. At this point, I had been employed here for five months, four as an intern and one as a staff associate. Needless to say, much of the evaluation was irrelevant. How have I fostered the client relationship? How could I? I’m not a party to client visits and my employer certainly doesn’t have me calling them up to check in. Who are you again?
Needless to say, I had few expectations for my evaluation. Lacking any substantive performance items to review, we discussed my career plans, such as studying for the CPA exam. Then they gave me a raise. (I’ll give you a minute to process that; it made my brain stick when it happened).
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the extra money. But a little explanation would be nice. Even if for no other reason than, “We like you.” Was there something particular to my performance? If so, I’d like to know so I can continue that action. Did they recognize some hidden or underdeveloped potential? Then tell me so I can keep that skill and continue developing it.
This is one of the biggest problems with performance evaluations: they can be very one-sided. An evaluation should be a mutual undertaking for the benefit of employer and employee. When done, both sides should feel like something was accomplished, like some benefit was derived from the whole process. Instead of focusing solely on the employee’s areas for improvement, success should highlighted as well.
One defining characteristic of the self-esteem generation is our near-constant evaluation. We’ve been raised in an age that measures and tracks everything, and that culture has permeated our being. Entering the workforce from the fairy-tale world of education is a great enough challenge on its own, without having to cope with our upbringing. We suddenly enter a world without feedback, and this can be a difficult change for many millenials and managers alike.
For millenials, the lack of feedback is devastating. We are used to being graded, and our self-worth is built on this fact. There has always been some “standard” to live up to, and it is difficult to operate without it. We are perfectly capable of accomplishing the tasks assigned, but we struggle with not knowing what our managers think of our performance. I find this to be especially true as an accountant. Being inexperienced, I am rarely involved in a project from start to finish. Instead, I may complete a schedule or checklist that is incorporated into a larger project. After completing my portion, the project progresses, and I am left wondering if the senior associate or partner is satisfied with the work. When a similar task is put to me on a future project, I will complete it as I had previously, hoping that my approach is still relevant. I have no way of knowing whether my approach was appropriate the first time around, let alone the second. It could be several months, and many projects later before I am aware of a problem with my work. It is only when I seriously foul up an assignment that I receive feedback, and it is generally not of the positive kind.
So what is a millenial to do? Observe. Find other ways of measuring performance. If I pass part of a project up to the next person and I don’t hear about it again, I can assume it was done right. If the partner or senior assigns me another task on the same project, I can assume that the first task was completed to a satisfactory degree. But this leads into a dangerous area if a project is backlogged. It might be that a project is complicated enough that a new task is assigned to me before the previous task is reviewed. Or that project could be on hold as we wait for information from the client, and the partner has opted to review the project as a whole, rather than as it is completed. Clearly this approach is complicated by the workflow particular to one’s work environment.
My advice is this: find your own metrics. There is evidence in any workplace of the success and progress of projects undertaken, and an observant millenial will pick up on these clues. Have you found yourself lacking feedback? How did you cope? I welcome anyone’s comments, as I expect this to be a popular topic in the weeks and months ahead.
A few months ago, BusinessWeek ran an article about the challenges of managing Gen Y. The “self-esteem generation,” as we’ve been dubbed, poses unique challenges to managers, as I’ve already experienced. The BusinessWeek article focused on how management will need to change its approach to this generation, and I plan to explore that over the coming months. I’m also interested in how the generation will have to change as it enters the “real world.”
College is supposed to prepare you for life, but I don’t know what life my professors had in mind. Given all the classes I’ve taken, should I always feel like I’m grasping at straws?
Whenever someone learns I’m an accountant, his or her assumption is that I must be a tax expert. I hate taxes. I only took two tax classes. While I can hold my own on basic issues of personal income tax, corporate tax makes my head spin. We have a partner who only handles taxes, and I admire his ability to retain so much of the tax code. I can’t. All of those sections, those special elections, exclusions, and phaseouts just make me sleepy. I went to school for financial accounting. When you receive your federally-mandated annual reports for the holdings in your 401(k), you’ve entered my domain. Give me an annual report with consolidated statements and I have hours of interesting reading. Just don’t come to me with questions about deferred taxes, unless it’s a deferred tax asset.
This is one thing I’ve discovered in the few months since starting: much of my job is waiting. Yesterday, I spent one hour working and eight hours waiting. Try as we might, our clients aren’t that organized. That’s probably why they’ve hired us. Then there’s the waiting for other accounting firms. One, which was fired by a client we’ve just taken on, is in no hurry to get us necessary documents related to the work that firm used to perform for our client. So, I have a stack of paperwork on my desk that I can’t fill out.
Basically, scattered around my desk are various piles of client material, each one waiting for something. At tax season, there are two piles of returns on my desk: those I haven’t started and those for which something is missing. So I spend my time reading the Wall Street Journal, checking CNN, and listening to NPR. And this is why the partners want me to get ready to take the CPA exam.
I know that when my peers find out about this, that will be their first response. Why would I waste my time? Yes, I’m a millennial, a Gen Y, or whatever other label you’d like to apply. But what none of them will ever understand is what it’s like to abruptly change career paths at such a late point in the game. Sure, college students change majors all the time. Most, however, do so before graduating. What can I hope to gain by this? An outlet. A better understanding of myself by ranting and reflecting in the most public of ways. But more than that, I want to help others. Other accountants just starting out. Other students whose career paths are as convoluted as mine. Over the coming months, and hopefully years, I will post about every aspect of the life of a new accountant. Stick around, it should get interesting when I begin the process of becoming a CPA.