Defining a professional services career skill set for Millennials

Digital Proficiency, Technical Knowledge & ‘Human’ skills and behaviours

Millennials Career SkillsetMillennials may be entering the professional services workforce lacking critical skills and competencies, as suggested by employers in recent studies and also by Millennials themselves.

The 2015 Deloitte Millennials survey[i] found Millennials believe the skills gained in higher education only contribute a third of those required to achieve organisational goals with clear implications for firms and their future growth.

Our research and experience suggests a 21st Century professional services career skill set for Millennials consists of:

  • 1. Digital Proficiency

  • 2. Technical Knowledge

Which is most successfully applied when combined with:

  • 3. ‘Human’ Skills and Behaviours

The role of the organisation in developing a 21st Century professional services skill set for Millennials
Current Situation?How has skill been developed before joining the firm?How could skill be developed in the firm?
1. Digital ProficiencyHighly developed as ‘Digital Natives’Everyday activities from a very early ageEveryday activities, reading, learning events
2. Technical KnowledgeLearned through educationClassroom, textbooks and onlineTextbooks, classroom and on-the-job learning
3. ‘Human’ Skills and BehavioursMay lack critical skills and competenciesThrough previous social interactions at home and place of educationContent-specific training, feedback, coaching, modelling and mentoring
  • 1. Digital Proficiency

Millennials are digital ‘natives’ and the majority are highly proficient when it comes to technology. In contrast to older colleagues, the millennial generation have never known anything but digital.

Being digitally proficient, Millennials are ideally placed to help businesses take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology and digital that will continue to arise.

Millennials are used to instant communication and collaboration, mainly online. They are accustomed to accessing huge amounts of information at the touch of a button and they are comfortable embracing new ideas and technology and adapting these advances into their lives.

On the other hand, being a digital native may lead to shortcomings in other areas of skills and behavioural development required in professional services, particularly with regards to ‘human’ skills that cannot be replaced by a machine, such as critical thinking and communication.

The rise of ‘digital’ has led to a proliferation of data, with instant access to more amounts of information than has ever previously been possible.

The overflowing availability of data means that potential answers are easy to find without too much effort (‘just Google it’) and individuals may become lazy, prejudge (confirmation-bias), expect instant gratification and be satisfied to go for the obvious, instant, easy solutions. The prevalence of information also means it is much easier to get ‘lost in the data’ and waste time, money and effort looking in the wrong place if firms do not have a structured analytical thinking process in place.

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Critical thinking is a diminishing art and digital natives may become reliant on computers becoming a substitute for thinking – worrying for professional services, where it is critical thinking that provides real value to clients and the firm.

While technology makes employees more productive some ways, being forever connected to smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices has caused many corporate cultures to speed up and become ‘always on’, leading to a never-ending cycle of unreasonable expectations (both internally and with clients) and a reduction in creativity, innovation, insight and true productivity.[ii]

Recent neuroscience and psychology research show that constantly turning to electronic devices at work inhibits an important business behaviour – day-dreaming. While managers might argue this is no bad thing, it has been found that ‘mind-wandering’ actually facilitates creativity, planning, and putting off immediate desires in favour of future rewards – important behaviours for working effectively.[iii]

Similarly, recent research describes how too much screen time induces stress reactions, disrupts sleep, desensitizes the brain’s reward system, overloads the sensory system, depletes mental reserves and fractures attention.[iv]

Finally, growing up in a world with endless connection to electronic devices means social media and online collaboration may have superseded ‘human’ interaction with a subsequent reduction in the quality of communication, networking and listening skills attained – fundamental requirements sought by business leaders within professional services.

  • 2. Technical Knowledge

Excellent technical knowledge (professional, vocational, occupational) is essential to succeed in today’s world of professional services. Mastering theory and staying on top of industry changes (Legal / accounting / marketing / finance / consulting) is a pre-requisite.

Attaining technical knowledge forms the basis of many further education programmes and entry-level positions within organisations.

Technical excellence however, should not come at the expense of other key business behaviours. Organisations perhaps need to develop ‘Bilinguals’ (as coined by David Meer of Strategy&) – technical experts who can speak both ‘technical language’ but also understand the wider language of business.[v]

As well as being technically proficient, “Bilinguals” need to learn, develop and practice other key behaviours required to succeed in business, with particular attention given to: mastering communication and presentation skills; understanding how business decisions are made; and developing soft skills and nurturing emotional intelligence.

Similarly, career development within professional services firms often leads to young professionals becoming technical experts by being encouraged to specialise in a specific service line and sector and promoted according to this specific ability. Inevitably, employees become too specialised and too narrow to be effective ambassadors or leaders of the firm. They become ‘super-managers’ rather than partners-in-waiting. They have become ‘I-shaped’.

The personal identity of ‘I-shaped’ experts is rooted to their technical expertise, so they can struggle to learn and exercise broader commercial and consultative skills, particularly business development, listening and communication skills. Technical experts can lack the imagination to create context as they are disposed to focusing on solving existing problems and finding solutions, rather than using a more entrepreneurial focus to create future opportunities.

Instead, professional services firms should aim to develop ‘T-shaped’ experts, who have mastered technical skills and key human skills. T-shaped experts have the emotional intelligence to listen and understand the other people in the room and their decision making style, with curiosity to find the emotional and political causes of a business problem, not simply focussing on the rational reasons, and with the ability and faith to develop original and captivating original points of view.

Fundamentally, as illustrated above, Millennials working in professional services will most successfully apply technical expertise and digital proficiency when it is combined with…

  • 3. ‘Human’ Skills and Behaviours

Core business operations, whether business development, consulting, negotiation, presenting, leadership, relationship building, marketing, networking, change management, proposal writing, meeting management, brand development, R&D, innovation and engagement management (to name a few!) are all founded on learning, developing, refining and practising core ‘human’ skills and behaviours.

We call these ‘human’ skills and behaviours because they are acquired through human experiences, interaction, explanation, modelling, collaboration, coaching, feedback and mentoring. It is very difficult for ‘human’ behaviours to be codified, learnt from a textbook or Internet search.

Moving beyond the concepts of ‘soft skills’ and ‘emotional intelligence’, a recent study by the World Economic Forum and BCG[vi] categorises the ‘human skills and behaviours’ required to succeed in business into two groups: competencies and character qualities. We have taken these two groups and slightly adapted them below:

  • Competencies

    Needed to approach complex challenges at work

    • Critical/Analytical thinking
    • Problem Solving
    • Diplomacy
    • Time Management
    • Communication
    • Creativity
    • Collaboration
    • Writing skills
  • Character Qualities

    Needed in the new work environment

    • Leadership
    • Integrity
    • Curiosity
    • Adaptability / Flexibility
    • Team player
    • Initiative
    • Patience
    • Persistence / Grit /Determination
    • Self-awareness
    • Motivation / Positive Attitude
    • Empathy
    • Social skills
    • Cultural awareness

Evidence suggests that a focus on human skills development will not only improve the quality of the new generation workforce and give firms a competitive advantage, it will also drive loyalty, productivity and engagement. Recent studies show the ability to learn regularly emerges as a key engagement driver for the Millennial generation however, only 15% of firms have put in place a specialised development programme for their millennial employees.[vii]

Our next Point of View article examines how we believe organisations might develop human skills and behaviours in their workplace and suggests a framework for implementation…

Millennials in Professional Services

Millennials in Professional Services Portrait

Discover our entire Points of View Series on Millennials

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

Who are the Millennials‘Millennials’ – also known as Generation Y – are individuals who were born in the early 1980s to late 1990s and will come of age in the early noughties (2000s).

For some, Millennials are lazy, narcissistic, job-hopping, praise seeking, entitled, skill-lacking, under-prepared digital addicts. Others see them as digitally proficient, adaptable, confident, creative, knowledge-seeking catalysts for accelerated business change.

From recent client conversations and speaking to many professional services firms we know that one of the key questions currently being asked by senior managers and directors of professional services firms is how to face the challenges and embrace the opportunities offered by the Millennial generation…

2. The Millennials’ Skills Gap - so what, why and what to do about it?

Millennials Skills GapRecent research of both employers and Millennials has found both groups agreeing that current education systems do not help students attain the required skills and behaviours to succeed in business.

This Point of View article outlines potential reasons why education is not giving students the required skills to survive in a real business environment and discusses why the perceived skills gap should be of concern to business leaders in professional services.

The article finds only a small percentage of business professionals believe that hard skills are more important than soft skills and argues that the fundamental skills required to succeed in professional services are ‘human’ skills, which can only be acquired through human experiences, interaction, coaching, explanation, modelling, collaboration, coaching, feedback and mentoring.

Fortunately, it is found that Millennials are keen to learn and develop skills and behaviours that will help them progress throughout their careers.

The next step for professional services firms is therefore to determine of what skills and behaviours a rounded business career skillset should comprise and then to establish how these skills and behaviours can be learned, developed, practiced and refined within the firm.

3. Defining a professional services career skill set for Millennials

Millennials Career SkillsetIn order to formulate a learning and development strategy to overcome the perceived skills gap among Millennials, firms must first define the rounded skillset required to succeed in a 21st Century professional services environment.

Based on research and experience, the 21st Century professional services rounded skillset for Millennials is defined as

  1. Digital proficiency
  2. Technical knowledge

Which is most successfully applied when combined with:

  1. Human’ skills and behaviours

Fundamentally, Millennials working in professional services will most successfully apply technical expertise and digital proficiency when it is combined with ‘human’ skills and behaviours. Core business operations are all founded on learning and developing core ‘human’ skills and behaviours.

Moving beyond the concepts of ‘soft skills’ and ‘emotional intelligence’, the article defines human skills required by Millennials as either:

  1. Competencies – needed to approach complex challenges at work, and
  2. Character Qualities – needed in the new work environment

4. Developing human skills among the Millennial professional services workforce

Developing Millennials Human SkillsMillennials are different, with their own unique attitudes and values. They want to learn and they want to work hard, they just want to learn and work differently to previous generations. Firms who show commitment to the learning and development of their Millennial workforce will gain loyal, committed and engaged employees.

This article provides a potential framework that professional services might follow to develop ‘human’ skills among their Millennial workforce. The proposed framework is based on the McKinsey Quarterly article of June 2003 entitled “The Psychology of Change Management”.

Capability Building: Professional services firms should ensure that the necessary infrastructure and mechanisms are in place for Millennial employees to learn, practice, develop and then refine the human skills required to succeed in business based on an analysis of individual skills and capabilities gaps.

A Compelling Story: Employees will only change their mindsets if they can see the point of change and agree with it, which has interesting implications when considering the learning and development needs of the Millennial generation.

Research suggests that Millennials want ‘meaning’ at work, self-determination and to know their work is making a difference. Professional services firms need to give their Millennials a story they can believe in by helping them to understand how developing ‘human’ skills and behaviours will not only aid their future career ambitions but also their clients and society as a whole.

Consistent Role Modelling: In order for Millennials to learn the required ‘human’ skills, they must be exposed to “significant other” role models (those in a position of influence) in their professional services firm who “walk the talk” and are able to coach them in and also demonstrate the right behaviours.

Reinforcement Systems: The final building block is to ensure that firms put in place ‘reinforcement systems’ such as feedback; appraisals; coaching and opportunities for Millennials to practice newly acquired human skills on an on-going basis, in a live business environment.

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

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.Frustrated Millennial in Professional Services

Over the last few months PSfPS 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?

Using real examples, this Point of View article examines how firms should start to adapt their cultures (behaviours, processes and mindsets) to make them more compatible with their Millennial employees.

Ultimately, firms need to redefine ‘traditional’ before Millennials and the market do it for them…

[i] “Mind the gaps” – The 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey p.8
[ii] “Your late night emails are hurting your team” Maura Thomas, Harvard Business Review, 16th March 2015:
[iii] “Zoning Out Can Make You More Productive”, Josh Davis, Harvard Business Review, 5th June 2015:
[iv] “Screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy” – Victoria L. Dunckley –
[v] “Overcoming Big Data’s Challenges”, David Meer, strategy+business, 3rd August 2015 –
[vi] “New Vision for Education – Unlocking the Potential of Technology” World Economic Forum & Boston Consulting Group 2015 p. 3
[vii] Lorrie Lykins & Ann Pace, “Mastering Millennial Leadership Development,” T+D – American Society for Training & Development, May 2013 p.42-45

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