Old School vs. New – CPA Generation Gap?

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / Jan 25, 2016

Gen GapMP’s and other leadership partners are charged with being visionary in their thinking. This includes keeping the firm current and changing with the times. Firms today want to project a ‘cutting edge’ look and feel to Millennials.

In pursuit of this image firms are sometimes forced to choose between “old school” practices from an earlier era that appear to some as old-fashioned, and “new school” methods that can be described as contemporary, current, in vogue, modern, new, and up-to-date.

Jim Metzler, former VP of the AICPA says: “It’s not that old school is defective or in error, it’s just that newer alternatives have come along.”

A few examples of old school vs. new school practices:
• Paperless vs. paper files.
• Rigid work hours vs. flexible scheduling.
• Partners doing routine admin work vs. hiring a firm administrator.

New school practices are often seen as “better” or more popular than old school practices, but are they more effective?

We did some extensive polling of managing partners and nationally known CPA industry consultants, asking them to name old school practices that are better than new school. Here are some choice morsels.

The personal touch. The hands-down winner is meeting face-to-face or calling clients instead of email or texting. Nothing beats the personal touch, which often results in additional information and opportunities that would not arise electronically. It eliminates the back and forth. People tend to be curt and cryptic in electronic communication, compounded by the fact that most people are terrible writers. Clarity is often lacking in electronic communications.

Training. Live training of staff in a classroom and on the job training/shadowing vs. webinars and internet learning. The latter doesn’t engage people in discussions that make concepts understandable. Electronic learning can also be boring, which directly impacts learning.

Timesheets. Posting timesheets vs. so-called trash the timesheet/value-billing. Timesheets provide firms with invaluable cost-accounting data; trashing timesheets causes a loss of this management tool. My recommendation: keep the timesheets AND value bill!

Goals. MBO (management by objectives, developed by Peter Drucker in 1954) vs. bonus plans that have no link to the firm’s vision. Some people are enamored with the so-called “Balanced Scorecard” system, which is nothing more than MBO with shades of a compensation formula. MBO philosophy suggests that executive performance measurement and compensation should be aligned with the firm’s goals. Bonus plans that pay based on production, hours worked, non-performance factors and other activities that are immeasurable fail to achieve the purpose of MBO – to help the firm achieve its vision.

Mandatory retirement vs. working indefinitely. 80% of first generation firms never make it to the second. Why? Firms are deficient in succession planning.Barry Melancon, CEO of the AICPA, wrote the EEOC recently: “Accounting firms have adopted mandatory retirement policies for sound business reasons. This concept has prospered for decades while also serving the public interest. In particular, retirement provisions allow for the predictable progression of lesser tenured, and often more diverse individuals into the firm, and facilitate the orderly transition of clients from senior partners to those who will succeed them.”

Today, partners at local firms are increasingly working well past 65-66 at the expense of the firm’s succession plan. Staff need to see a future at the firm, which includes becoming a partner and taking over retiring partners’ clients. Older partners staying on  board indefinitely does not bode well for leadership development and staff retention.

Where we work: working in the office vs. remotely. There is a place for both. Working in the office enables employees to strengthen relationships, work as a team and feel part of an organization. Picking up things ad hoc in the hallway or the lunchroom and chatting with mentors and peers at the office can be invaluable to personal growth.

The 1040 interview: sitting down in person with a 1040 client vs. doing it all remotely. 1040s should never be looked at as a stand-alone product. They’re a great opportunity to identify tax and personal financial planning opportunities that would elude the firm if everything were done remotely.

What do you think? Respond to this post.


The Rosenberg Monographs drill down on tried-and-true management practices and up-and-coming concepts alike, so that firms can come to their own conclusions about which approach best fits their culture and objectives.

1 Comment

  1. Harvey Redfern on January 28, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Dear Marc:
    I am old school, certain things don’t change over time. I still take a few tax interviews in peoples homes. Yes, they really appreciate it and I have never lost an individual client where I have done the tax interview in their home in 47 years. And they always pay their bill.
    We try and take as many face to face 1040 engagements as possible.
    Some people really do prefer to send the tax information into the office.



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