Hope Springs Eternal

It’s snowing here in Chicago, but I’d like to think of Spring. I’d like to think of warmer, better times and I’d like to be hopeful for the future.

Monday’s post has elicited a lot of comments and they are still coming in.  Please keep commenting.  The more the merrier and I encourage readers to consider writing their own version. I may post it as a standalone versus a comment.  I am also glad to consider stories about great mentors, honorable partners, honest clients, friends forever, interesting service projects.  Really.  I am.  Just don’t be too warm and fuzzy and be willing to have me verify your name and position.
I had a very long conversation yesterday with an old friend from my JP Morgan Latin America days.  My friend is a very interesting guy and is hopefully coming to visit me soon here in Chicago.  He’s a capital markets specialist, and has particular expertise in controls over derivatives trading and controls and monitoring of an organization’s exposure to derivatives, both on and off exchange traded.  He has been reading my blog since returning to New York after a few years in a Buddhist retreat.  Interestingly enough, he told me, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  I’m encouraging him to write a guest post.
While we were talking, he asked me, “Francine, do you have any hope for the Big 4?”  I get this question all the time in the comments: “Francine, Enough of the problems.  What is your solution?”  And while I have only hinted at my views on the ultimate solution, I will say this:  I do find many reasons for hope when talking with professionals at the beginning of their careers.
I receive mail every day from professionals at all levels, some agreeing with my views, some looking for advice and some with their own stories to tell.  Those professionals who are still in school or right at the beginning of their careers are a very savvy bunch.  To be recruited by the Big 4, you have to be a top student.  That’s a given. They have the highest grades, are well rounded, and involved in leadership and extracurricular activities.  But this generation, who I won’t label with any letter of the alphabet, is much sharper and much less willing to accept the status quo than any other generation, in my opinion.
They found my blog and read me because they are hungry for information about their chosen profession and they spend 24/7 looking for it.  The internet makes that so easy.  They seek information in order to make the best choices of firms, of offices or specialties, of assignments, of virtually every aspect of their future careers.  They are ambitious but realistic. They are realistic but still hopeful.  They do not readily kowtow to authority figures.
However, they are still accounting students at heart.  That means they are detail oriented and a  little more conservative in that they are risk averse to making mistakes.   They want to know if they are being paid fairly.  They plan on asking questions.  They are not afraid to send a partner an email.  Why not?  They have an enthusiasm for being excellent that it is a shame to see stifled by the need to conform or to be accepted into a more rigid, standardized environment.  But they are willing to play along, for a time, in order to achieve their goals. And, boy oh boy, are they goal oriented.  They have worked hard, sacrificed a social life, spent a lot of their own or their parents money, often on graduate degrees, and they want the return on their investment.
Can this savvy, smart, worldly, more “aware of their options” generation stick it out, last long enough to change the audit firms for the better?  Or will the ones who understand their options, have done their time, gotten what they need from the process continue to opt out before taking on management responsibility ? It’s a given that attrition is high in the audit firms because it is still an “up or out” process and that choice is sometimes made for you. Many in prior generations always expected to leave after a few years anyway in order to fulfill their broader ambitions and work in an environment that continues to encourage and utilize their enthusiasm.
It would be nice to think that the sheer numbers of new recruits with this different attitude will force change to occur.  More of the type of young professional I am describing here are now in the talent pool being recruited.  Can they stick it out,  charge through, and succeed without compromising too much of their idealism, in spite of the indoctrination that pounds the high expectations, “non-conformist” attitude out of them every step of the way?
Maybe not.  Maybe, as in the past, those that raise their hand, wave it, and expect to be heard rather than waiting to be called on will leave the profession before taking on management responsibility.  The management of the audit firms will continue to be left to those that go along and get along, who become as Tenacious Truman has described, “…quiet, non-boat-rocking types who would agree with (and support) current leadership: quiet managers and solid citizens with noses firmly to the grindstone (as opposed to criticizing leadership’s decision-making).”
I see and hear from so many young professionals who dearly want to be accountants and auditors, want to work for the firms, but also want them to change.  Will they instead start to make other choices? Will we see them reject the premise that has been driven into them by accounting professors in their universities since they started their studies – the premise that the  Big 4 is the only worthwhile employer for the best and brightest accounting graduates?
The reductions in force, as a commenter said recently, are causing many to pause and reconsider the Big 4 as a career choice, even for the first few years.  They see the firms cutting professionals who have only a year or two under their belt yet continuing to hire more graduates.  The guts of the leverage model are hanging out in the open and it’s not a very appetizing sight.
Will competition for recruits be a driver for change?
Is it possible for those that continue to choose the Big 4 to change the firms from within?
What do you think?