The career path at Ernst & Young LLP had been pretty consistent for years. Typically, the firm would hire students out of business schools and other places as young professionals and grow them through their careers by providing them with great opportunities, and they would, ultimately, succeed and be leaders in the firm.
“That was a model that was pretty tried and true,” says Lisa Portnoy, the San Jose office managing partner and West subarea technology leader.
In fact, that model has attracted more than 144,000 top professionals to the firm, who have collectively generated more than $21 billion in revenue.
But with a new generation of employees entering the work force, the firm’s leaders paused for a moment. They conducted a study and found that, by 2012, more than 60 percent of their client-serving personnel would be from Generation Y.
“That was a huge shift from the baby boomer generation, which was really the prevalent generation of our work force for a long time,” Portnoy says. “With that Gen Y and the ones that would follow, we needed to rethink what kinds of priorities that generation would see as important, what culture did they want to create in the work force and how do we get ahead of that. That really became a top priority for the firm around the world. We peeled it back a layer and thought about what are some of those issues.”
Gender and cultural differences had always been important to the firm, especially in this region, but it was now more than that Portnoy and other managers now had to factor in perspective as a difference.
Portnoy recognized that her firm’s ability to continue attracting and retaining the top talent would hinge on her ability to recognize differences between generations, embrace those differences and then find ways to connect her 700 people by bridging those generational differences.
“We recognize that in our profession particularly, there’s a lot of changing demographics, and so, while the leadership may be the baby boomers, the folks that we are interacting with and ultimately are hiring are of a different generation,” Portnoy says. “We have put another priority on making sure we can be flexible to that we can connect to different generations.”Recognize differences
Ernst & Young recognized that there were differences creeping up in the firm, and Portnoy says you have to recognize first what those are in your work force, so start with some diagnostic questions of people.
The most basic starting point is simply, “What generation do you fall in?” Then from there, you can dig deeper.
“How do you prioritize things?” she says. “For example, which way of working would be your preference? Do you check your messages by e-mail, do you check them by voice mail? What kinds of technology might you use? How do you interact with others?
“Different generations might view seniority in one way versus another generation might view it in a different way. They were interested in different ways of how do you like to work in teams, and some generations, perhaps, work more hierarchical and others work more collaboratively.”
By putting together multiple data points on how employees work and interact, Ernst & Young discovered what the workplace of the future would look like, and it was different and somewhat unexpected.
“It was clear that one size doesn’t fit all by generations, and that’s what makes it such an interesting time seeing how much diversity there is, and it’s not easy to put people into buckets and plan the future based on that,” Portnoy says. “The surprise here was that you can’t define a whole generation one way, and if anything is really true about today’s generation, [it] is that there are traits of all sorts of generations that preceded them, and they have the freedom to choose how they want to work. They are empowered to really say, ‘I have lots of different needs and priorities.’ They may work differently to satisfy whatever their personal professional lives dictate.”
In addition to recognizing the differences herself, she also works to have her employees and potential employees see them, as well. For example, you may be tempted to take all of your young employees to a campus recruiting event, but she takes a different approach.
“We bring a range of professionals to those campuses so they can see, at different points in time, what it looks like,” she says.
Doing this helps demonstrate the firm’s commitment to and recognition of generational diversity.
“By introducing prospective candidates to a wide variety, it really embodies our core values we can talk about it and demonstrate it at the same time,” Portnoy says. “I think that’s what’s key. As companies use that perspective to really be showing the real examples that work and live within the company, that’s the most effective way to do that.”Embrace the differences
Portnoy says Ernst & Young was one of the first businesses to use Facebook as a way to connect with students. It may not be something that a lot of the people in the firm understood or wanted, but she embraced it because she recognized that most college students were using the tool, so it’d be a valuable way to connect with them for recruiting purposes. Technology and communication is just one way to embrace generational differences.
“It’s being open and willing to learn something new,” she says. “There’s a lot of people we talk to and we say, ‘What mode of communication do you use?’ and they get too rooted into saying, ‘I only want my e-mail this way and communicate that,’ and then you interact with someone else who only texts, and that’s really their fastest way of communicating. If you’re not open to that just because you’re not a texter, you may be missing out on an opportunity to connect the most efficient way possible with that colleague or professional or client, so being open to different things, being willing to try different things and open to new ideas is critical.”
She says to communicate with your employees to learn ways you could do things differently.
“Ask them the questions,” Portnoy says. “I actually will routinely sit down with some of our younger professionals and members of my own team and ask them the question about, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve; how can I better communicate with your peers?’ And I look to the younger colleagues as really great sources of information. They’ll be really honest with you, and you have to be willing to talk and listen and take some of those ideas.
“It’s critical to be flexible about different approaches and not be rooted in the old ways of doing things. Technology really has taught us that we can be effective in working in lots of different ways and by being open to those that, in particular, we more senior professionals may not be aware of. I think that provides us with great new opportunities.”Connect people
It’s one thing to recognize the generational differences and embrace them, but then Portnoy also has to find ways to bridge the gaps. One such way is through mentoring.
“Mentorship is so critical,” she says. “I’ve had many mentors in my career, and they’ve been different throughout my career, but they’ve always provided me with the vehicle to have a discussion, ask advice and help me make a decision I may have had.”
Despite having many mentors, most haven’t been matched up for her.
“For me, those mentors have been either individuals that I’ve either sought out for a relationship or worked with in a team setting,” Portnoy says.
But she also recognizes that not everyone is able to seek out people for that kind of relationship, so sometimes they’ll match up people or point them in the right direction toward someone in the firm.
“That’s a starting point to get someone connected with someone else they can develop a relationship with, but I think the best mentors are the ones that happen naturally and evolve,” she says. “In the absence of that, I think mentorship is so critical that I encourage everyone to seek out a mentor or we’ll find one for you to get you started, but it’s so very important.”
You need to know how a mentor relationship should ideally work.
“Mentorship is a two-way street and … some of the very best mentor relationships are ones where the mentor and the mentee both have shared values and get something out of that relationship,” she says. “If you are in a relationship and you feel like you are imposing upon the mentor or the mentee, then it’s probably not a good relationship. If it’s one where it’s collaborative and you’ve got this great opportunity and this excitement about getting together with your mentor and you have things to share with him or her, then I think you kind of know that it’s working.”
She says you also need to throw out the stereotypical view you may have of mentorship.
“When some people think of mentor programs, it’s one-way,” Portnoy says. “You envision a young professional seeking out a more seasoned senior person to provide them with advice, and that may be true at some level, but if it’s working well, that seasoned professional is reaching the other way and asking, ‘How can I do things better? What’s happening with your peers and colleagues that I may not know about? How am I doing as a leader?’ and be willing and vulnerable to seek that kind of input from your mentee. Then when you get into those relationships, it’s equally rewarding for both.”
To be able to get honest feedback from your mentee, though, he or she has to trust you.
“You have to have the relationship already established to be able to put yourself out there,” she says.
Portnoy does this by having conversations with people about more than just the task at hand. She gets to know them as people as opposed to employees by inviting them over to her home for dinner to engage them in a more relaxed social atmosphere.
“That sets the tone and says, ‘I’m going to share something of myself with you,’” she says. “Then when it becomes more challenging, and I really want to ask for feedback, I can then trust that those open relationships are already there and somebody is willing to share something back with me.
“If you don’t establish that up front, there is a tendency for that younger professional to not know how that [honest feedback] will be received and they might be less likely to be honest or not fully disclose or be politically correct, and those kinds of things, because they haven’t established a relationship at anything other than a purely professional level.”
But recognize that there are lines, and she’s not encouraging you to be unprofessional in an effort to establish personal rapport with someone.
“There’s obviously a line of appropriateness, and you want to be a professional, but by peeling back those layers and getting to know each other as people and know what interests there are, what outside interests, what priorities that person has, then you break down some of those barriers, and it’s easier to have a more natural rapport where people can be honest with each other.”
How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (408) 947-5500 or http://www.ey.com/