Leading an Accounting Firm: The Pyramid of Success

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The secret ingredient to any successful firm is great leadership. Fortunately, this new book demonstrates that great leadership skills can be nurtured and learned.

Using the model of the pyramid to illustrate his concept, author Troy Waugh builds a case for ongoing leadership development, guiding you through the essential ideas and practices that are at the core of great leadership and great firms. Using this powerful framework, you can improve your personal leadership and build great leaders around you.

Developed specifically for CPA firm leaders, it covers the full spectrum of leadership development, including:

  • Leading Self
  • Leading Staff
  • Leading Strategy
  • Leading Systems
  • Leading Synergy

Plus, you’ll hear from more than 40 of the profession’s top leaders. Recognizing the multitude of approaches to leadership, Waugh reached out to colleagues in some of the most well-led firms in the profession and asked them to share their leadership experience and philosophies.

About the Author:
Troy Waugh is the author of 3 books and has been selected as one of the 100 most influential people in the accounting profession for 7 years in a row by Accounting Today magazine. He is one of the leading leadership and business development consultants to the accounting industry. Troy and his experienced consultants have helped firms add more than $800 million in new business through their consulting, training, and alliance services.

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Great leadership is an essential ingredient to the success of any CPA firm. The best leaders know that embracing change and taking calculated risks are what move a firm forward. Moreover, although the course for the firm is set at the top, it takes a talented staff to take the firm on that path. I truly believe that these are the essential ingredients for progress. Throughout my tenure as president and CEO of the AICPA, the AICPA has focused on building leaders in our profession. We launched several programs that develop young CPAs, current AICPA committee members and seasoned professionals, and our staff. No thriving business just lets change happen to it; you have to shape your future, and you need strong leaders to do that.

This book is part of our ongoing effort to support your leadership development. It is intended to provide you with an intelligent framework for developing your own leadership style, as well as the leadership skills of those around you. After all, many clients look to you—their most trusted business adviser—for direction and expertise.

Author Troy Waugh has made the secret to strong leadership understandable and achievable. Using the model of the pyramid to illustrate his concept, he builds a case for ongoing leadership development, guiding you through the essential ideas and practices that are at the core of great leadership and great firms—each idea building upon the next. Using this powerful framework, you can improve your personal leadership and build solid leaders around you.

I encourage you to explore Troy’s own leadership experiences acquired throughout an impressive career as a CPA in public practice and at several companies. You’ll learn about his specific development, as well as other approaches to leadership discovered by some of the profession’s top leaders in public accounting. Not surprisingly, most well-led firms share the same crucial leadership tenants.

For readers who are starting their accounting careers, my advice is for you to apply the elements of this book throughout your professional life. Readers who are advancing in the ranks of a public accounting firm will find that this book will guide you beyond the mastery of technical skills to become a leader in your firm and community.

Our profession has been on the leading edge of American business for 125 years. Today and the decades that follow will challenge all organizations and professions. The quality of America's CPAs, their professional commitment, their ethics, their passion, and their dedication to leadership at all levels will ensure our profession’s success for decades to come.

Barry C. Melancon, CPA
President and CEO
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

Chapter 1: Why Leadership Matters
Leading the Brightest of the Bright

CPAs and chartered accountants are some of the brightest professionals in the world. Accountants regularly rank in the top 10 percent on college entrance exams, and most people would argue that their intelligence quotients rank at the very top, as well.

This book is about leading a small (or large) group of very bright, somewhat introverted, and skeptical accountants toward a common goal. It’s about

  • leading a small team of auditors, tax accountants, or consultants.
  • the new manager leading a group of accountants on an engagement.
  • leading niches, divisions, and service lines.
  • leading large organizations with many offices and hundreds of partners, owners, or shareholders.

When I became an audit senior and later a manager at Price Waterhouse, I mistakenly thought that the title on my business card gave me the right to tell people what to do. Looking back in horror, I know now that people didn’t want to follow my leadership because they felt dominated and manipulated. It was a painful lesson for me to learn that I could manage projects and processes but not people. It took me many years and experiences to grasp the lesson embodied in Drucker’s opening quote, and I am still working hard on it today. To be effective, you can’t manage people; you must lead them.

This chapter makes the case for leadership. I have found that if people first understand the why of something, then the how, what, when, and where come easier. In the following pages, I will describe why leadership matters in CPA firms and what aspects of leadership matter most to those who are running those firms—often in their own words. The payoff (benefits) of great leadership will be discussed, along with some of the challenges of leading a highly skilled and intelligent workforce. We will also cover the leader’s role in growing the firm and leadership compared with management. An interesting topic that we’ll cover in this chapter is how leading an accounting firm has some similarities and differences to other business types. My hope is that you grasp the why of leadership and that it will encourage you to devour the other chapters that will take you through the how, what, when, and where of leadership.

Tony Morgan, founder and managing partner of the local firm Gollob Morgan Peddy & Co., P.C., in Tyler, TX, says, “Whenever we meet with college students, we see the gregarious ones in other fields of study and the more introverted in accounting, … but for a person to advance, he or she must be willing to take some risk and be willing to lead other people.”

To bring these leadership lessons to you, I’ve interviewed nearly 100 leaders from accounting firms all over North America, like Tony Argiz, founder, CEO, and managing partner of the megaregional firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, LLP, in Miami, FL, in the following section. Many of the interviewees’ firms have been named best-of-the-best or all-star firms by various publications. A large number of my interviewees are leaders of firms that have progressed from start-up to becoming a member of the top 100 accounting firms in the United States. At the end of 2010, there were approximately 25 accounting firms in the top 100 that are still in the first generation of their leadership. A few, like Reznick Group, are in transition from the first generation of leadership to the second generation. That is an amazing statistic when we realize that the United States has nearly 50,000 firms. So, I wanted to know what it was about the leadership of these firms that powered them into the best-of-the-best category or the top 100 in the first generation. What did their partners say about them? And what can we all learn from their insights, wisdom, and experiences?


Table of Contents

About the Authors

Troy Waugh, CPA, MBA

About the Publisher


About the AICPA The American Institute of CPAs is the world’s largest member association representing the accounting profession, with more than 412,000 members in 144 countries, and a history of serving the public interest since 1887. AICPA members represent many areas of practice, including business and industry, public practice, government, education and consulting. The AICPA sets ethical standards for the profession and U.S. auditing standards for private companies, nonprofit organizations, federal, state and local governments. It develops and grades the Uniform CPA Examination, and offers specialty credentials for CPAs who concentrate on personal financial planning; forensic accounting; business valuation; and information management and technology assurance. Through a joint venture with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, it has established the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation, which sets a new standard for global recognition of management accounting.

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