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Young Professionals: Don't Scare the Old People

Young CPAs and lawyers are finding opportunities as never before. Salaries are high, work is flowing in, and the old people who run your firm are desperately trying to figure out how to make you happy. If they don’t, there’s another firm just down the block that’s aching to hire you. Life’s pretty darn good, right?

If you want to keep life pretty darn good, and if you want to be successful financially over the long haul, you might want to look at your career as one giant marketing plan. Marketing is nothing more (or less) than relationship building. Relationships are what will sustain you and help you succeed professionally. You will need them all your life. Here are a few suggestions for building relationships with your partners, colleagues, and clients.

  1. Don’t scare the old people. Whether we’re your partners, co-workers, or clients, those of us who are older than you may not look like it, but we scare easily. We’re scared of your tattoos, your iPods, and your technological savvy. We’re afraid you’re better couples, parents and friends than we are, because you’re putting more time into it than we have. And we’re scared to death that none of you will want our firms when we’re ready to retire. Understanding these fears (and trust me, there are countless others) may help you to understand us. And when you want to rebel against the old people, remember that we probably still control your financial well-being to some extent, and it is counter-productive to scare us. It’s better to try to figure us out, just as we’re trying to figure you out.
  2. View flex-time from multiple perspectives. One of the things partners have done to try to make you happy and keep you working with them is to allow flexible work hours, because you said it was important to you. In thinking long-term, it’s a good idea to know when your market niches (partners, clients and co-workers are all market niches) will want your services. You need to be available to your niches in those periods of time. Flex-time is useful when you want to do research or reconcile a bank statement at two in the morning. It’s not so useful when a partner is searching for someone to help him or her on an interesting matter, when a business client is calling you at 8:00 a.m., and if someone on your team needs help and you’re still getting your beauty sleep. Successful people everywhere respond to their markets’ needs, and those needs are not always built into our flex-time schedule.
  3. Dress for your marketplace, not your own personal preference. Yes, it’s stodgy advice, but it’s good advice. Perhaps it is contrary to your fashion sense to iron, to tuck in your shirt, to spiff up in general. But it is worth it if you consider that you are trying to build relationships with people (clients, partners, colleagues) who are often older than you (see suggestion #1). I can tell you that I wouldn’t give my hard-earned money — or a promotion — to a lawyer or CPA who greeted me in ripped jeans or spaghetti straps. The impression I get when I see such attire is that you don’t care about your own appearance, so why would you care about me or my problems? Yes, you’re still smart in your barbecue wear, but as your client or partner, I really don’t care about that. I want to be comfortable with you, and if I’m not comfortable, I’m likely to take my business and opportunity elsewhere. When the day comes that you run a firm, you can set the standard wherever you like or wherever you think is prudent. In the meantime, all studies show that the trend is moving back to more conservative professional dress. Heed the data.
  4. Etiquette and civility are great differentiators. The world is more competitive every day, so it’s hard to set yourself apart. One of the ways to do that is to be your best self when dealing with partners, clients, and co-workers. Civility helps you to be your best. Good manners are not mystical. They just involve thinking about others before you think about yourself. If your parents didn’t teach you (which is apparently quite possible), there are plenty of books out there. Read one.

Those of you who are 35-ish and younger are changing the workplace in ways I would not have thought possible, and many of those changes are for the better. I hope you will keep pushing the envelope on creating a happier working life for everyone, but I hope you will do it with kindness, with strategic thought, and with your own long term interests in mind.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009