The Challenge of Millennial Leader Development in Accounting Firms

Millennial Leaders are not reaching their potential, they aren’t speaking up in big meetings, feeling confident, or thinking strategically.

One of my past clients, Jim, was a Senior Associate at a major accounting firm, with 5 direct reports. He was a successful leader by many respects and was identified as a high potential. However, his manager and mentor were getting frustrated. They were starting to bring Jim into bigger meetings inside the firm and with their clients. During those meetings, they saw Jim remaining silent. Jim explained that he found himself second guessing whether to speak-up or not, even when he knew he had something valuable to say. Jim felt the need to be this perfect person at work. He was afraid of saying something wrong or looking stupid, possibly ruining his reputation. After most meetings, he would go back to his desk frustrated that he didn’t speak up. Negative thoughts would run through his mind, questioning if he was capable of adding to the conversation. Not only would Jim’s manager and mentor’s frustration grow, but Jim wanted desperately to develop into this new role. Jim, his manager, and mentor are not alone. I have heard from many HR leaders who tell me that millennial leaders aren’t leading. They want these leaders to step up in big meetings, but they’re simply not maturing fast enough for these bigger roles.

At Growing at Work, we have had conversations with thousands of millennial leaders. They want to be bigger change-makers inside their firms and with clients. They want to be more authentic, to be more confident in that authenticity, and be strategic in their approach to making lasting change on wicked and complex challenges.

Challenges and the Potential of Millennial Leader Development.

We have combed through decades of research guided by our experience leading and developing civilian and military leaders and have arrived at three difficult challenges, millennial leaders are facing in their leadership development.

Social Myths of Leading: Millennial leaders have grown-up in a culture that promotes many inaccurate and incomplete presumptions about leading. In Jim’s case, he held several beliefs that helped keep him quiet in those big meetings. 1. Jim held the belief that leadership is a position. He was confusing the act of leading (verb) with positional authority (noun). 2. He also believed that leaders need to have the right answer, a common one among those in their twenties and thirties. Through our work, Jim realized, while sometimes there is a known solution, often in complex situations, there is no right answer. He also learned that there are benefits to exercising leadership when not in a position of authority. This broader perspective gave Jim a greater allowance to act and speak-up with his firm’s leaders and with their big clients.

Internal Limiting Beliefs: Throughout their lives millennial leaders have been conditioned to avoid certain “dangerous” behaviors. In Jim’s case, he avoids speaking up in meetings. In a coaching session with Jim, he explained, he does not want to look stupid. If he does, he fears he will lose his chance for a potential upcoming promotion. This was a powerful revelation for Jim, and after he said it, he realized how silly it sounded. Despite, Jim’s revelation, he still found himself hesitating. The strongest limiting beliefs are often tied to deeply held assumptions that are often unconscious. In further conversation with Jim, we found that part of him assumed himself to be a fraud and was afraid someone might discover him as such. This realization was even more profound than the last, for Jim. Working with Jim, he saw that there was little evidence that he was a fraud, and overwhelming evidence that he was a developing and growing leader. Overtime this helped him gain a stronger conviction and confidence to experiment and expand his ability to lead.

Internal Limiting Beliefs and Social Myths of Leading May Intersect

In Jim’s case, his deep Internal Limiting belief of being a fraud had connections to the social myth that capable leaders do not question their ability to lead. Our joint work of addressing the social myths of leading, coupled with the deep work to relieve internal limiting beliefs allowed Jim to see a bigger more expansive and complex world. That greater understanding removed inhibitions, and increased self-awareness, authenticity, and vulnerability. In Jim’s words, “I felt better able to be more myself at work and at home.”

Tactical Rather than Strategic Mindset: Millennial leaders in transition from front-line leaders to managing managers have to make the shift from handling small tactical problems to understanding and overcoming ambiguous, complex, strategic-challenges. Jim’s mentor and manager were willing to help, but only had enough time to explain small portions at a time. Not only was Jim missing out on the big picture, he didn’t have structures or frameworks to help him understand the differences. In our work with Jim, he was introduced to a number of frameworks that gave him a broader understanding of how to work through strategic challenges with multiple stakeholders. Jim was able to provide more insightful perspectives, and most importantly to ask questions that supported the entire team’s understanding of the strategic challenges they were facing.

Overview: Challenged with social myths of leading, internal limiting beliefs, and a tactical rather than a strategic mindset, it is understandable that Jim was triggered by his assumption that he was a fraud. We know Jim, another Senior Associate, who was on his developmental journey to take a bigger role in the firm. No matter how easy that statement is to say, and for Jim to openly agree, it is another story for Jim to change is behavior. He, like his peers, are facing off against 30+ years of entrenched beliefs and assumptions. It is certainly possible to wake-up Jim’s potential and help him make bigger strides along his developmental journey.

Growing at Work combines U.S. Army dedication and grit with Harvard-backed research and methodology. Our online leader development platform and live coaching shifts your millennials’ mindsets and levels up their performance so they become confident, authentic, and strategic leaders at your company. We use the same techniques leveraged at Google, Facebook, and other Fortune 100s. Visit Defining Your Leadership, the online leader development program that  have helped our clients grow tremendously.

We would love to discuss piloting this program with your accounting firm, if you would like to learn more reach out to Adam Malaty-Uhr at