Can a ‘traditional’ professional services firm’s culture be compatible with the attitudes of Millennials?

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Professional services firms should be under no illusion – the Millennials are coming. In the next few years, Millennials will make up the largest proportion of the workforce and will become the leaders of your firm.

Over the last few months Openside have extensively researched the role of Millennials in professional services with regards to their attitudes and existing skills set and it has become clear that some firms have already started to adapt their policies and procedures to satisfy the unique attitudes, desires and expectations of their Millennial employees.

However, when specifically focusing on professional services an overarching question still remains: Can a traditional professional services firm’s culture ever be compatible with the attitudes and expectations of Millennials?

How could a traditional professional services culture be defined?

Professional services firms have traditionally had a hierarchical structure. David Maister in his seminal book “Managing the Professional Service Firm” compares the traditional professional services structure to a mediaeval craftsman’s shop where there are apprentices (Junior Managers / Graduates), journeymen (mid-level managers) and master craftsmen (Partners and Directors).

These roles have also been described as “finders, minders and grinders.” Finders (usually the most senior level) are responsible for bringing in the business, scoping and designing the projects, and engaging in the high-level client relations necessary during the work. The main responsibility of minders is to manage the projects and the team of people working on it. Grinders (the lowest level) perform the analytical tasks.[i]

As a result, professional services firms traditionally expect younger recruits to work very long hours and metrics still reward quantity (chargeable time/utilisation) over quality. In the past, junior employees were willing to work these long hours, put up with rigid working practices and accept lower pay in return for the opportunity to learn from a Senior Partner and also in the hope that one day they too would ‘make Partner’ with the substantial compensation that usually brings.

The traditional leverage structure in professional services (many juniors and fewer seniors) means that the working environment is often very competitive as junior employees strive to gain promotion to a scarce number of more senior roles. As Maister points out, the ‘risk of not making it’ also serves the firm in that it puts a degree of pressure on junior personnel to work hard and succeed.[ii]

What are the unique attitudes of Millennials?

The unique attitudes of Millennials – formed as a result of the socio-economic and technological environment within which they have been raised – have been well documented in recent studies.

Work-life balance, flexibility and opportunity for professional (career) development are at the top of Millennials’ desires at work and the level to which they can attain these ambitions drives both their engagement and loyalty to the firm. Many Millennials are not willing to subscribe to the same work regime as their parents or make the sacrifices they witnessed them make while growing up.

Within the workplace, Millennials want to feel they have an opportunity to influence decisions and to be listened to. They want managers to treat them as ‘friends’ and value transparency and frequent feedback and recognition. Millennials want to feel part of a team and value a sense of community and yet want to retain a level of autonomy and self-determination.

Millennials often have a more altruistic view of the role that they and their firm should play in the wider world. They want ‘meaning at work’ and to know that their work really makes a difference to their firms, clients and society as a whole. Social purpose and ‘reason for being’ is critical to them and they want to see these principled commitments carried out in practice by their firm, both internally in the way they treat their employees and externally, with clients and society.

It is perhaps as a result of these altruistic expectations that some professional services firms have recently redefined their mission statements and tag lines. For example, EY’s tagline is “Building a Better Working World” and similarly PwC’s vision statement: “”One firm – a powerhouse of a commercial enterprise that does the right thing for our clients, our people and our communities.”

An impending problem for professional services firms?

Is it possible for professional services firms to align the expectations of their Millennial workforce with their own expectations as an employer, which are, in turn, based on the expectations of clients?

The problem for professional services firms is that a large proportion of Millennials have made it clear that the old goals (such as working long hours, for relatively low pay, in a rigid working environment in the hope of making ‘Partner’) are simply not worth the sacrifice to their personal lives. Millennials don’t want to be treated as ‘grinders’ but instead want flexibility and work-life balance.

Perhaps the ‘risk of not making it’ (as described by David Maister) no longer carries the weight or threat it once did for Millennials? Or perhaps, as previously illustrated, ‘making it’ has taken on an entirely new definition for Millennials?

Making it might now mean achieving a satisfactory work-life balance or being able to work for a firm that makes a positive difference to society?

On a similar note, if career progression is such a key driver of engagement for the Millennial generation, those who evaluate their chances of eventually ‘making it’ to Partner as low (when there are very few senior positions available in a competitive firm) are unlikely to continue to have the motivation to work long hours with little chance of progression or promotion.

In summary, strict rules, long hours, a process driven approach and a lack of career progression often associated with professional services is likely to kill off the adventurous and ambitious Millennial.

In defence of Millennials, it would be unfair to suggest that those entering and working in the world of professional services are not realistic about the world within which they have chosen to work. Recent studies suggest the majority of Millennials understand well the expectations of the business world they are entering.

Millennials understand the key aim of business (to make profit and have satisfied clients) and the precarious nature of working – they have been raised and entered the world of work in the midst of a global downturn.  What’s more, recent research shows that Millennials are equally loyal and committed to work as other generations (unless their financial security or work-life balance is threatened).[iii]

Millennials are also willing to work their way up the corporate ladder and recognise that it takes time to gain expertise in a job.[iv] Importantly however, they are not willing to be ‘exploited’.

Should professional services firms be expected to change their culture?

When discussing the issue of Millennials with professional services firms recently, some firms have legitimately asked:

“Why should we even have to change at all? We have a successful business model that has served us well, so far.”

This is an understandable position when one considers that each new generation over the years has often questioned the actions taken by those in authority and yet, professional services cultures have predominantly remained unchanged.

It should be noted that it is arguments such as these that have been used by firms who reject the notion of ‘disruption’ in professional services. Firms ask, why try something new, when what we’ve been doing has worked so well for so long? A word of caution then from Clayton M. Christensen (a disruption expert):

“There may be nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success”[v]

Similarly, there are a large proportion of Millennials who are willing to subscribe to the dominant work expectations and cultures of professional services firms. It is a fair argument that not all Millennials should be banded together.

The majority of professional services firms have noted, however, that the attitudes of the Millennial generation are unique and perhaps, unlike previous generations, Millennials are more willing to leave the firm if their employer cannot match their views and expectations.

Firms generally recognise that their existing culture should be adapted and their internal processes reformed if they are to maintain an engaged and motivated workforce. Firms acknowledge that they simply cannot ignore the fact that in five years time half of the global workforce will be Millennials.

Can a traditional professional services firm’s culture ever be compatible with the attitudes of Millennials?

From our experience and recent discussions with professional services firms, the answer appears to be ‘not entirely’ but there are ways a traditional services firm’s culture can become more compatible with the attitudes of Millennials.

Importantly, both Millennials and their firms have roles to play if this compatibility is to be realised.

Millennials will need to adjust their expectations and be more realistic about the professional services working environment they have joined and similarly professional services firms will have to revisit their overriding corporate culture and its associated policies, procedures, behaviours and prevailing mindsets (particularly the mindsets of senior managers and directors) which may have remained fixed (or conditioned?) over many years.

What does changing culture actually mean for professional services firms?

Edgar Schein (Culture expert and Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management) defines culture as a set of beliefs or assumptions that have worked and give meaning to the present way of working. Culture covers how firms think strategically, what their brand or identity is, how they are structured and the daily business processes by which the firm operates. At the deepest level, culture encompasses the beliefs, values and the assumptions that make the firm successful – its core identity. At the surface, culture is demonstrated by the norms and rules of behavior that are embedded in your incentive and reward systems.[vi]

Professional services firms will have to revisit each aspect of their culture if they wish to make it more compatible with the attitudes, desires and ambitions of their Millennial workforce, and to ensure there is an emotional connection which drives retention and keeps them committed and engaged for the long term.

A recent study by PWC[vii] found that the key drivers of emotional connection in professional services, are:

1. Balance and workload – Flexibility / Work-life balance

2. Engaging work, development and opportunities – Meaningful work / Support for professional development / Knowledge and influence

3. People and teams  – Teamwork / Mentors / Friendship at work

4. Competitive pay and job opportunities

Ultimately, Millennials want their professional services firm to create a work environment that allows them to thrive both personally and professionally. Increasingly it will mean that long-standing policies and procedures will need to be adapted.

Adapting for Millennials in practice – professional services firms observations from AMCF ‘Talent Equation’ event in New York, October 2015

At an event for the Association of Management Consulting Firms in New York, Openside presented and then led a discussion between the Directors and HR/Talent Managers of some of the world’s top professional services firms.

The discussions provided thought-provoking examples and observations of how certain firms have begun to adapt their culture, in the form of new procedures, processes and behaviours, to meet the attitudes and expectations of their Millennial workforce:

i. When a Big 4 firm decided to give their employees a bonus, the HR Director received no ‘thank you’ emails at all. Instead, when the firm increased the number of benefits, such as a grant for fertility treatment, the Director’s mailbox was filled with ‘thank you’ responses.

ii. Many firms are aware that work-life balance is a key driver for Millennials but they still question whether client needs and expectations can be met under these circumstances.

iii. Large firms who have stated that they are removing performance management have yet to settle upon alternative metrics.

iv. A fast-track manager (from the Millennial generation) argued that a large amount of compensation doesn’t really motivate her. However, “getting thanked” for her work really does provide a motivation for her.

v. New hires have expectations when entering their professional services firm and if these expectations are not met, they are happy to move on to look for other opportunities. As a result, one Big 4 firm is offering new hires the chance to work in different areas of the firm so they can experience different atmospheres, challenges and stay ‘fresh’.

vi. Professional services firms acknowledge that softer skills are often missing among their Millennial recruits e.g. they are prone to communicating in short sentences and their writing skills are generally below par.

Graduate recruits are increasingly being trained in both hard skills and soft skills as firms realise that soft skills are critical to long term success in services.


Millennials are committed and they want to work hard. They just want to work differently to previous generations. A ‘traditional’ professional services culture is rarely compatible with these attitudes.

If professional services firms are serious about recruiting and retaining the best talent, they should begin to explore ways in which they could adapt their culture. Practical changes to long-standing work policies, procedures, mindsets and behaviours, in particular those related to work-life balance, recognition, flexibility and learning and development opportunities, are a good place to start.

Whether professional services firms will ever be able to adapt their ‘traditional’ culture to be fully compatible with the attitudes of Millennials, in reality remains to be seen. It is hard to change the existing mindsets of senior members of the workforce and the nature of professional services work requires a more process driven approach. Equally, Millennials have to be realistic about the working environment within which they have chosen to work.

Leaders of professional services firms should make no mistake – the Millennials are coming. Those firms who continue to maintain a ‘traditional’ culture could well be perceived as out-dated and old-fashioned and will not be where Millennials decide to pursue a fulfilling and engaging career.

The only way to change a ‘traditional’ culture is to change its associated traditions. Stop eulogising about the past but instead establish new traditions that are compatible with the attitudes of Millennials.

Firms should seize the opportunity to redefine their version of ‘traditional’ – otherwise, be under no illusion, the Millennials and market will redefine it for them.

Millennials in Professional Services Special Report Series:

Millennials in Professional Services Portrait

Part 1: Who are Millennials and why should professional services firms care?

Part 2: The Millennials’ Skills Gap – so what, why and what to do about it?

Part 3: Defining a professional services career skillset for Millennials

Part 4: Developing ‘Human Skills’ among the Millennial professional services workforce

Part 5: Can a ‘traditional’ professional services firm’s culture ever be compatible with the attitudes and expectations of Millennials?


[i] [ii]The Anatomy of a Consulting Firm – David Maister 2004 (
[iii]Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson, “Millennials play the long game” – strategy+business, 5th October 2015
[iv]Jeffrey Arnett “What really motivates workers in their 20s” Harvard Business Review, 25th August 2015
[v]Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption – Clayton M. Christensen, Dina Wang, Derek van Bever Harvard Business Review, October 2013
[vi]Schein, Edgar H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
[vii]PwC – NextGen: A global generational study 2013 – Evolving talent strategy to match the new workforce reality

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