The Challenge of Millennial Leader Development in Accounting Firms

Millennial Leaders are not reaching their potential, they aren’t speaking up in big meetings, feeling confident, or thinking strategically.

One of my past clients, Jim, was a Senior Associate at a major accounting firm, with 5 direct reports. He was a successful leader by many respects and was identified as a high potential. However, his manager and mentor were getting frustrated. They were starting to bring Jim into bigger meetings inside the firm and with their clients. During those meetings, they saw Jim remaining silent. Jim explained that he found himself second guessing whether to speak-up or not, even when he knew he had something valuable to say. Jim felt the need to be this perfect person at work. He was afraid of saying something wrong or looking stupid, possibly ruining his reputation. After most meetings, he would go back to his desk frustrated that he didn’t speak up. Negative thoughts would run through his mind, questioning if he was capable of adding to the conversation. Not only would Jim’s manager and mentor’s frustration grow, but Jim wanted desperately to develop into this new role. Jim, his manager, and mentor are not alone. I have heard from many HR leaders who tell me that millennial leaders aren’t leading. They want these leaders to step up in big meetings, but they’re simply not maturing fast enough for these bigger roles.

At Growing at Work, we have had conversations with thousands of millennial leaders. They want to be bigger change-makers inside their firms and with clients. They want to be more authentic, to be more confident in that authenticity, and be strategic in their approach to making lasting change on wicked and complex challenges.

Challenges and the Potential of Millennial Leader Development.

We have combed through decades of research guided by our experience leading and developing civilian and military leaders and have arrived at three difficult challenges, millennial leaders are facing in their leadership development.

Social Myths of Leading: Millennial leaders have grown-up in a culture that promotes many inaccurate and incomplete presumptions about leading. In Jim’s case, he held several beliefs that helped keep him quiet in those big meetings. 1. Jim held the belief that leadership is a position. He was confusing the act of leading (verb) with positional authority (noun). 2. He also believed that leaders need to have the right answer, a common one among those in their twenties and thirties. Through our work, Jim realized, while sometimes there is a known solution, often in complex situations, there is no right answer. He also learned that there are benefits to exercising leadership when not in a position of authority. This broader perspective gave Jim a greater allowance to act and speak-up with his firm’s leaders and with their big clients.

Internal Limiting Beliefs: Throughout their lives millennial leaders have been conditioned to avoid certain “dangerous” behaviors. In Jim’s case, he avoids speaking up in meetings. In a coaching session with Jim, he explained, he does not want to look stupid. If he does, he fears he will lose his chance for a potential upcoming promotion. This was a powerful revelation for Jim, and after he said it, he realized how silly it sounded. Despite, Jim’s revelation, he still found himself hesitating. The strongest limiting beliefs are often tied to deeply held assumptions that are often unconscious. In further conversation with Jim, we found that part of him assumed himself to be a fraud and was afraid someone might discover him as such. This realization was even more profound than the last, for Jim. Working with Jim, he saw that there was little evidence that he was a fraud, and overwhelming evidence that he was a developing and growing leader. Overtime this helped him gain a stronger conviction and confidence to experiment and expand his ability to lead.

“If every time a manager asks you a question, you feel she is questioning your competence and you become defensive, that reflex is likely to get you burned instead of protecting you. And yet changing it is as hard as holding on to a hot pot—and feels, to some part of you, just as stupid.” ~ Garvey Berger, Jennifer. Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World.

Tactical Rather than Strategic Mindset: Millennial leaders in transition from front-line leaders to managing managers have to make the shift from handling small tactical problems to understanding and overcoming ambiguous, complex, strategic-challenges. Jim’s mentor and manager were willing to help, but only had enough time to explain small portions at a time. Not only was Jim missing out on the big picture, he didn’t have structures or frameworks to help him understand the differences. In our work with Jim, he was introduced to a number of frameworks that gave him a broader understanding of how to work through strategic challenges with multiple stakeholders. Jim was able to provide more insightful perspectives, and most importantly to ask questions that supported the entire team’s understanding of the strategic challenges they were facing.

“As the scope and scale of work increase, leaders have to connect with—and understand the perspectives of—a widening group of stakeholders [Strategic Level]. With a relatively small scale [Tactical Level], leaders connect with those immediately engaged with them and often don’t need to bridge enormous divides. As the leader’s reach expands, the number of perspectives and priorities of an increasingly diverse set of stakeholders also increases, building complexity into every interaction.” ~ Garvey Berger, Jennifer. Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World.

Internal Limiting Beliefs and Social Myths of Leading May Intersect

In Jim’s case, his deep Internal Limiting belief of being a fraud had connections to the social myth that capable leaders do not question their ability to lead. Our joint work of addressing the social myths of leading, coupled with the deep work to relieve internal limiting beliefs allowed Jim to see a bigger more expansive and complex world. That greater understanding removed inhibitions, and increased self-awareness, authenticity, and vulnerability. In Jim’s words, “I felt better able to be more myself at work and at home.”

Vertical Developmental Model

Overview: Challenged with social myths of leading, internal limiting beliefs, and a tactical rather than a strategic mindset, it is understandable that Jim was triggered by his assumption that he was a fraud. We know Jim is on a developmental journey to take a bigger role in the firm. No matter how easy that statement is for Jim to say, changing behavior is hard. He, like his peers, are facing off against 30+ years of entrenched beliefs and assumptions. It is certainly possible to wake-up Jim’s potential and help him make bigger strides along his developmental journey.

Making Meaningful Change: Below is a time tested model that is built off of several developmental models taught at Harvard. We utilize this model to help leaders understand the need to change, awaken the potential of meaningful change, begin to do the work to shift into new possibilities, and support them through the hard work to advance their ability to develop themselves.


Realize limitations to how one currently makes sense of the world.


Glimpse new ways to see the world, and that doing things in a new way is possible.


Challenge old assumptions, and test new possibilities for everyday work life.


With effort new ideas get stronger and a new logic makes more sense than the old.

Horizontal Development: The traditional forms of leadership development focuses on skills, abilities, and behaviors. These are technical solutions. Technical solutions are fantastic when you have a clearly defined problem. If you are trying to manipulate a spreadsheet or refine projections for upcoming quarterly cash flows, technical learning is great. When there is a question for how to solve the problem, you may go into books or take a course to learn the steps needed to overcome the problem. You may even bring in a consultant who knows how to solve the problem you are facing and get a jump start.

Vertical Development: On the other hand, vertical development challenges attitudes, beliefs, and how we make meaning of the world. This form of development refers to “stages” of adult development. Much like how children grow in their complexity of how they understand the world, adults too may continue to grow. A common challenge that is unique to the stage of development most Millennials are in is the pressure to be perceived as a success. We saw this in Jim’s desire to protect his image with the partners of his firm. As he worked through these deeply held fears and assumptions, he began to gain greater perspective on those assumptions and fears. For example, he left his fears on a plateau of a mountain and continued to climb. After a short while, he was able to look back and see those pressures from a new angle, they now seemed smaller and less powerful. In fact, he is now able to ask deeper questions, take stronger stands in developing his subordinates, and step-up in bigger meetings. His change was so profound that he was recently promoted. Jim is now the lead with three big corporate clients.

Horizontal development is like pouring water into a bowl, there is only so much room. Vertical development is literally changing the shape of the bowl. There are limits as a leader to just acquiring new skills and behaviors. You may take a course on how to delegate. You may know all the steps and techniques, however, if you have a myth or limiting belief that prevents you from delegating, you will not be as effective.

In terms of a smart phone, horizontal development is like saving an image or installing a new application. Your phone may be capable of doing new and interesting things, but it is still limited by the structure of the operating system. Vertical development is upgrading the operating system, allowing your phone to change the fundamentals of what it can do. According to research on vertical development, there are still large populations running off of Windows 95 and Windows XP, but they have hardware capable of running Windows 10 (or MacOS Sierra).

Graph of Vertical Development

Complementary to Any Leader Development Program

Growing at Work combines the agility of U.S. Army combat leader development with Harvard-backed research and methodology. Our online leader development works on three levels, 1. Our online platform, 2. Developmental coaching, and 3. Engaging workshops, works to shift your millennials’ mindsets and levels up their performance so they become confident, authentic, and strategic leaders at your company. We use the same techniques leveraged at Google, Facebook, and other Fortune 100s. Checkout our Defining Your Leadership Course, this is the same online leader development program that Jim participated in and completed.

We would love to discuss piloting this program with your accounting firm, if you would like to learn more reach out to Adam Malaty-Uhr at