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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Expanding the definition of competence for the multigenerational workforce

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

· 5 minute read

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

· 5 minute read

Given organizational rethinking about what truly matters amid a reshuffling of work priorities, it may be a good time to reassess what constitutes "competence" in law and accounting firms as well.

The dominance of Millennials in the workforce, the addition of Gen-Zers in the professional world, and the accelerated, technology-driven, and cross-regional competition across industries have expanded the competence requirements as defined by employers and employees alike.

Historically, professionals assumed they were expected to know everything; yet today, demands for more empathetic and fair treatment have been changing mindsets about what actually is required. Leaders in accounting firms and law firms are having to rely on the collective knowledge of peers such as allied professionals in project management and technology who may have expertise different from theirs. A focus on human performance (sometimes called soft or power) skills is now more valued and desired in order for workers to be effective as well as for firms to be more competitive for talent attraction and retention. Indeed, these empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication skills are critical because of the talent retention challenges of the legal and accounting labor markets as well as other industries.

Evolving requirements around what keeps people at their current employers and the accelerating shift in expectations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and well-being since the start of the pandemic generally have put organizations, executives, and leaders in catch-up mode, especially when managing the differing expectations of a four- or five-generation workforce.

Organizations are demanding, recognizing, and rewarding those managers who prioritize the concerns and challenges of their teams and approach team members with empathy and listening — and this is long overdue. Thanks largely to the Millennials and Gen-Zers, these new skills for managers have become mainstream requirements.

Defining competence

Expanding and varying definitions of competence have also shown up across generations in unique ways:

      • Boomers and Gen-Xers are struggling to let go of the expectations that they have to know everything themselves, and instead have had to learn to adapt, ask for input, and listen.
      • Millennials growing up with the internet early got used to the idea of looking for answers or resources to help guide them to the solution quickly. In addition, they were naturally well positioned to collaborate because texting, mobile phone use, and social networks made it easier to stay connected with college peers, childhood friends, and acquaintances.
      • Millennials also were educated in teams and popularized the concept of group-based problem-solving via crowd-sourcing, and now continue to use this approach for idea formation and innovation.

Another evolution in competence differing across generations is learning through observation. Boomers and Gen-Xers came into a professional world where they were challenged to figure things out on their own around implicit cultural norms, such as determining what a good work product looks like on their own. They were not specifically compensated or recognized for how they treated, trained, or coached firm colleagues. Toxic individuals and cultures were often tolerated, especially as time pressures and workloads increased.

Today, empathy and compassion is a competency area that is required because of differing generational experiences:

      • Gen-Zers have grown up with the perception of an unsafe world with the threat of school shootings and terrorism lurking in the background, ever since they were in elementary school. Visual images of these incidents on TV and social media combined with the experiences of regular lock-down drills at their schools created a mental health toll that is often under-recognized by other generations, except by parents and teachers.
      • Millennials entered the workforce during the 2000s in which two major financial crises and recessions occurring 12 years apart, with the one starting in 2007 being the worst in about 70 years followed by the COVID-19 pandemic-generated crisis in 2020. It was the height of the everyone-should-go-to-college mentality, combined with steeply rising education costs that forced a greater percentage of Millennial workers to take on higher amounts of student loans. This financial burden combined with fewer job opportunities had a significant impact on mental health and economic outcomes for this generation. All of these experiences require empathy.

To meet the needs of a four- or five-generation workforce, adaption for all and employer-led training and learning opportunities are key. Boomers and Gen-Xers need to demonstrate emotional intelligence and humanity more often than they experienced earlier in their careers. Likewise, Gen-Zers and Millennials need to step up to take initiative in owning their careers and professional development.

Employers are stepping up

Fortunately, employers are increasingly responding to meet these evolving expectations and learning gaps in a multi-generational workforce. It is becoming somewhat common for organizations to offer training to individual employees on leading with empathy, how to run a meeting effectively, and how to develop excellent time-management skills.

Areas of improvement for organizations and firms, or course, especially around recruiting and retaining employees as well as increasing the quality of the overall employee experience. For example, the area of organizational listening is particularly critical for firms, especially as it relates to gathering new policy ideas from all generations and learning how to change existing ones.

Demonstrating individual empathy and at the organizational level is another way to increase collective performance, a behavior modification needed especially for lawyers and accountants because of the logical, fact-based, and left-brained orientations of those professions. Accounting and law firms should make investments in better employee experiences with increased career and leadership development opportunities for next-generation leaders and mid-career employees.

These are proven ways to meet the competency desires of the next generation employees and leaders and must be made priorities.

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