Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

CPA Leadership Lessons for Turbulent Times

And three new rules for surviving today’s management challenge. Next question: What's your best leadership advice?

September 17, 2009
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

In these times that test the mettle of accounting and finance leaders and mangers, it may be worth pausing for a moment to ask if the rules are changing.

Economic downturn and global restructuring are causing many organizations — large and small — to wonder if it has the right people, with the right skills, in the right places. But has the very meaning of leadership changed for managers and professionals in light of today’s tectonic shifts in business and technology?

Some things have not changed, according to Howard Cox, director of business consulting at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis, one of a number of accountants and advisers I’ve been asking lately.

What's your best leadership advice?

Join the survey; get the results.

(Free. Confidential.)

“I don't think the success factors in this economy are any different than they have ever been,” Cox says. “The fundamental factors of success in business have remained relatively constant over time.”

That may be true. But, he adds, “The differences in this economy are the ramifications if we fail. There just isn't any margin for error.” Errors can be fatal.

It’s more important than ever, according to Ken Kaufman, CEO of CFOwise financial consultants, to “offer more value to your customers, and figure out how to spend less doing it.”

“Your competitors are working on the same issues, and you need to beat them to the punch so you can move towards the next innovations while they are still figuring out the last one,” says Kaufman.

Kevin Mead, president of the North American region of IGAF, the global network of accounting firms, is focusing on two things: Speed and adaptability. “Move quicker, trust your people, question your own preconceptions (but do it quickly) and always assume your competition is working harder and smarter than you,” Mead says. So, a little paranoia is healthy these days.

Don’t duck the tough questions, says St. Louis CPA Joe Eckelkamp, president and owner at Eckelkamp & Associates CPAs. “Be realistic about the team's position given the current economic situation or you lose credibility with your team.”

Second, he says, “Be confident — not Pollyannaish — about what two or three things you will do — not just could do — to mitigate adverse impacts and then make sure you do them.”

Stephanie Curry, vice president and director of learning and development at PKF North American Network, a CPA firm association, sums it up with a handy checklist. “In my coaching conversations with managers and partners,” Curry says, “the following elements are consistent, particularly in professional services firms:

  1. Adaptability: It’s the No. 1 indicator of leadership potential. True enough in any situation — but in tough times, this competency is needed more than ever.
  2. Empathic Communication: “Our staff and our clients need to feel heard,” she says. Communication needs to increase both in frequency and in style. Good leaders and managers need to ask: How can you adjust your message to help set realistic expectations? And to make your clients and staff feel they’re being take care of? “Client service is our competitive advantage in the accounting industry — we’re selling relationships, not audits,” she says.
  3. Persistence and Optimism: Leaders and managers set the tone through their actions. “People will model what they see,” Curry notes. “So persistence and a sense of optimism are critical for creating an atmosphere that allows people to feel motivated and confident.”

Still, it’s a tough question, with no easy answers. Jeff De Cagna, a widely respected strategic adviser to associations (including a few in the CPA field), acknowledges, “It would be much easier if there were one, specific, here-and-now skill to which we could point. But the reality is that the world is in flux.”

That makes learning and adaptability paramount today. “In a time when you can't be certain what new, unforeseen and complex challenge will emerge next, the capacity to learn and adapt is absolutely crucial,” De Cagna says.

“Unfortunately, learning is also the capability that is least present in leaders who have become successful on the basis of what they already know,” he says. “This means that most of the learning that leaders are doing today is about getting caught up rather than getting ahead. This dynamic must change if our organizations are going to thrive in the 21st century.”

What’s your best leadership advice? Join the survey and add your comments.

Questions, ideas, rants or raves? Send an e-mail to Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2009 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.