By Jim Wong, CPA | December 2, 2015

When I first met Mike Cahill (NIU Executive Club & YPN Merit Scholarship), I was a board member on the Northern Illinois University (NIU) Executive Club (currently known as NIU Executive Leadership Forum) and he was a NIU accountancy major. I knew right away that he was destined to have an exceptional career both as a student and as an accounting and finance professional after graduation. He exuded potential and determination that stood out to me right away.

Fast forward to 2015 where I’ve witnessed Mike not only live up to the potential I saw in him years prior, but surpass the success I knew so well he would achieve.

While studying at NIU, Mike became an intern at Ernst & Young (EY) in Transaction Advisory Services. Following graduation (summa cum laude) from NIU in 2013, Mike went on to become a staff member of the practice. He left the firm in 2014 to be a postgraduate technical assistant for the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). His time at FASB gave him the tools and experience to set his sights on any firm in the country. He chose to return to EY as a Senior in Financial Accounting Advisory Services, advising his clients across multiple industries on the accounting and financial statement impact of capital market transactions involving complex financial instruments in today’s workplace.

EY, the third-largest professional services firm in the world and one of the Big 4 audit firms, provides professional services in assurance, financial audit, tax, consulting and advisory services. It operates as a globally integrated firm with one methodology of building a better working world.

As a part of EY, Mike is quickly emerging as a leader in the accounting/finance profession – one of an ever-changing corporate culture of generational mashups, regulatory rules and economic challenges facing many companies across the globe.

So many of us in the Gen-X and Baby Boomer generations are challenged with how to manage, lead and/or work with professionals in Mike’s generation – the millennials. That’s why I wanted to interview him to get his take on his generation in the workplace so that others could better understand how millennials view the corporate world. I sat down with Mike to discuss the choices he made up to this point in his career, his views on today’s corporate culture and the impact he’s making on the profession. Below is our discussion.

JW: In your career have you had to either report into or work alongside people who were not in your generation both in a client capacity and a colleague capacity. From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges you faced with the different generations?

MC: Millennials are motivated by what they see current executives and other people who are higher up in organizations have, and they want to have that, too. I have heard from people in other generations say that my generation loses focus on the experience that they need to acquire early on in their career to move up the ladder. With that, there seems to be a conflict. My generation, the millennials, want a lot of autonomy. They want to take on responsibility, but they do not want to be micromanaged and want to have the freedom to work on their own schedule. I think that in order to get to that point, millennials – like anyone else – need to earn the respect and build a reputation first so that they can achieve that autonomy that they’re looking for. In order to motivate millennials and other generations to work together, we have to keep giving millennials increased responsibility. If they’re able to take on new work, learn new things, and feel like they’re gaining more responsibility, they can really be motivated. If the other generations that are managing and running the organization can understand that and find millennials who they trust to do the work and give them the responsibilities, it could work both ways.

JW: Can you describe a time, either a client engagement or working with colleagues or a boss, where you felt like the difference among generations and explain what you did to overcome those challenges?

MC: One observation is that companies have long standing or traditional processes and procedures. Because my generation is keen on technology, sometimes we can identify ways to make the standardized process run more efficiently. For example, I have seen where my generation has worked alongside other generations and was able to create tools (using standard Microsoft Office products) that cut the work needed to complete certain processes by more than half. However, the Gen Xers who would be using the tools were not as quick to accept them because it would mean they would have to take time to learn something new. In most cases, once the Gen Xers were trained and understood the functionality, they were able to benefit from the efficiencies. I think sometimes it comes back to, ‘Why are we doing it this way? Oh, because we’ve always done it that way,’ and that’s not always the best answer. My generation is using technology every day, and we see how it can make things more efficient. Maybe my generation gets frustrated with others who might be slowing us down.

JW: What if anything have these companies done to address these challenges?

MC: Some companies take the time to hear the concerns of the millennials’ views on their processes and started to make some changes. I think that providing formal channels to encourage employees at all levels to communicate their thoughts on potential improvements is a good thing, and where millennials can really add value to an organization. However, employees can’t expect everything to change overnight or over a couple of weeks, but by management taking action and little steps towards achieving some recommendations, that can earn the respect of people from my generation. It’ll make them think, ‘Wow my opinion matters, and they’re doing something to act on the advice that I’ve given.’

JW: There are assumptions about millennials that they’re lazy, unwilling to work hard and only care about working remotely etc. How are you successful in managing how your generation is perceived?

MC: It can be a tough thing to manage – the way Gen Xers and other generations view my generation. I think that my generation might ask, ‘What is the point of taking time to commute to the office if no face-to-face meetings are scheduled and the work needed to be done doesn’t require interaction with others?’ The argument is that employees could do the same work at home and maybe get to spend the extra time saved by not having to commute at the gym working out or with friends and family. From the work I’ve done and what I’ve seen, my generation, the millennials, we want to be given responsibility. If you give us responsibility and we’re able to prove that we can get the job done, then it shouldn’t matter as much what we do to meet the deadline and to do a good job. I think in order to make sure somebody is working, you need to give them responsibility and deadlines. If they’re continuously meeting that responsibility and those deadlines, then they probably are doing their job. Whether you can physically see them doing their job or not, evidence of a good work product should be enough to say, ‘This person is adding value for our organization.’

JW: What advice do you have for your generation in managing their careers and working with Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers?

MC: I think in order to have a successful career you need to build and maintain a good reputation. Once you have that reputation and people know that you’re a go-to person, people won’t mind that you work from home once in a while. However, if you haven’t built that reputation and you’re still in the process of doing so, taking advantage of these work-life balance benefits that are offered might give people a reason to doubt that you’re working hard. So, I would say it’s most important to sacrifice some of that work-life balance and flexibility at first so that later on down the road, you can take advantage of it without anyone questioning you.

JW: So, earn the right, so to speak.

MC: Earn the right – exactly. I think that’s the only thing I can really think of that can help bridge the expectations gap between generations. In my experience, if you’ve proved that you’re adding value to an organization and you’re good at your job, people aren’t going to worry about where you’re working or that you’re slacking off. For managers that are managing millennials, if you think that people are slacking off and not carrying their weight, maybe give them more to do. That comes back to the first point: Millennials want responsibility. We’re eager to learn and to work and move up the corporate ladder. Sometimes giving us more and empowering us to do more is a good way to motivate us to do more for the organization.

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