Mark Koziel
Young CPAs: Ask for the ball!

Aspiring leaders must be prepared to take on responsibility for winning.

December 16, 2013
by Mark Koziel, CPA, CGMA

Watching the movie The Replacements, which is about backup players who are brought in during a pro football strike, reminded me of some of the challenges young team members and their leaders often face. In the replacement players’ first game, quarterback Shane Falco (played by Keanu Reeves) changed a play just before the ball was snapped. Coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) had called a play in which Falco would have kept the ball. Falco, however, thought that the other team would be blitzing (rushing the quarterback with more than the usual number of players), so he handed the ball to another team member, Cochran. Ultimately, the play failed and the team lost. When Falco came back to the sideline:

McGinty: Falco! If I had wanted Cochran to have the ball I would've called it that way!
Falco: I read blitz.
McGinty: Bull@#$@! I put the game in your hands. You got scared.
Falco: I read blitz!
McGinty: [walks over and looks at Falco with disgust] Winners always want the ball ... when the game is on the line.

Falco faltered when it came time to take responsibility for the game at a pivotal moment.
Stepping up, and having the opportunity to do so, are critical issues for ambitious players. I saw this firsthand with my son during his freshman year on the junior varsity football team at his high school. His dilemma took me back to my leadership development training and the issues I see in the profession.

Before I continue, let me apologize for the football analogy. As my team oversees the Women’s Initiatives Committee and works closely with the Diversity and Inclusion Commission at the AICPA, I understand that sports analogies are not always all-inclusive to the profession. But this story is as much about raising kids as it is a sports analogy, and the sport itself is irrelevant. It could be about dancing, singing competitions, or any number of activities.

In this case, my son plays football, and he complained to my wife and me because he had barely any playing time in his first few games. It made me think about firm partners who believe that the younger generation isn’t ready to take over. In some firms, I hear young CPAs saying they are ready, but they are frustrated because they aren’t getting the ball. How can they demonstrate that they won’t give it away if they get it?

With my son, I used two leadership lessons from my Advanced Leadership Course with John Engels of Leadership Coaching Inc. The first, which is used in the mentoring process, involves eliminating triangles (A has a problem with B and goes to C to solve it). My son had a problem with the coach who was not using him, and he complained to us. In response, my wife or I could’ve emailed the coach, telling him to let our son play more. I definitely have watched parents lobbying for their kid to have more time on the field.

To avoid a triangle, though, when my son complained, I asked him, “What do you want me to do about it?” He thought about it and didn’t have an answer. I told him I couldn’t play for him and asked what he was doing in practice to set himself apart. He thought about that and really didn’t have an answer.

I then relied on another leadership lesson about “leading self”—or working on yourself to ensure you’re positioned to achieve your goals. I worked with my son to identify what he could do to set himself apart and go after a starting position. So when the starting left tackle on offense was moved up to varsity during a practice, my son took that opportunity to ask for the spot and work in at tackle even though he was playing guard most of the year.

The line coach allowed it, and within a week my son was playing more. In two weeks, he became the starter when the original starter moved up to varsity for good. When my son first got the starting job, he began to question his ability and wondered about telling the coach he wasn’t ready. It took some conversations—and, yes, some mentoring on my part—to help him through that issue. But at no time did I take on this issue for him. I had to help him work through it himself.

This experience provided me with a number of insights into young professionals who are ready to take on an expanded role and haven’t yet been given the opportunity.

For the young CPA, I would advise:

  1. Ask for the ball. If you truly want to be a partner, let the current partner group know and ask what it will take to move up.
  2. Lead self. Be open to constructive criticism and create a plan with areas for improvement that will take you to that next level.
  3. Be your own cheerleader. No one is going to sell your abilities better than you. Be sure to document what you’ve done so you can articulate your skills and spot the competencies you need to go farther.
  4. Continually ask for feedback to set the stage for ongoing improvement.

For firm leaders, I recommend:

  1. Teach your young CPAs how to get the ball. Document the competencies necessary to become a partner and share them with your young CPAs. If you don’t have them down in writing, adapt the AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) Firm Competency Model to your needs.
  2. Create a controlled environment that offers young CPAs the chance to succeed—and sometimes even fail—in partner-level experiences. Some firms try to protect their young CPAs from failure, but learning from our mistakes helps us to be more successful. From failure (fumbling the ball) we can learn how some people get up and try again and that others may not have the characteristics necessary to carry the ball. Some of the most successful senior partners I’ve talked to tell me more about their life lessons from failures than from their successes. Provide your young people the valuable opportunity to learn from failure.
  3. Give the second- and third-string players some playing time before they become your starters. Remove your partners from certain functions as they near retirement age to allow the next generation of leaders to get the leadership experience they need.
  4. Visit the AICPA’s PCPS Human Capital Center and Succession Planning Resource Center for the tools to help young CPAs succeed and map a path to succession.

My son’s season is now over. After having success and solidifying his position on offense for the rest of the year, he then set a goal to get more time on defense. At the end of the last game, the coaches tapped him as a captain for next year’s team. That would not have happened if he didn’t work toward his goals and prove himself. In The Replacements, Falco had the ball, but he gave it away because of his doubts about the best play and about himself. Young CPAs should ask for the ball whenever possible and firms should prepare them to take it with confidence and skill and lead their teams to success.

At the end of The Replacements in their final game:

McGinty: What’s it gonna be, Falco?
Falco: I want the ball.
McGinty: Winners always do.
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Mark Koziel, CPA, CGMA, is Vice President–Firm Services & Global Alliances at the AICPA. He oversees the Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) as well as international relations with various CPA-related groups.