January 4, 2022

Each year, emerging leaders at Clark Nuber are encouraged to take part in the Leadership Development Institute, where upcoming professionals throughout the firm are partnered with shareholders and principals to learn more about what it takes to lead. They are also tasked with running the annual Day of Caring event, where Clark Nuber employees spend a day volunteering with a local charity.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with four LDI participants and discuss their experience with the program and the future of leadership. Our discussion ranged from their personal leadership journeys to what accounting firms can do to keep their employees on board in these tumultuous times. Read what they had to say below:

Interviewer: You’re all part of the LDI class of 2021. Could you share about your leadership journey so far? And what activities you’ve taken part in to grow your leadership abilities?

Grace Chu (GC): “I feel like my journey has been a long process. But it started with me taking baby steps to get out of my comfort zone. I did things like attend social events put on by the WSCPA and volunteer with their mentor program.

Once I was promoted to senior, I got a big self confidence boost and saw more opportunities around me. I started joining different boards. Making the leap and joining these boards got me to take part in decision-making processes and taught me how to think strategically and plan for the future of organizations.

Grant Shaver (GS): “I can dovetail off Grace’s comments, since one of the most important components of developing my leadership skills has been getting involved in a lot of different types of activities. I try to join organizations where I can follow other people and learn from their organizational styles. I don’t think leadership is all about having a long suit in one particular area, but rather developing your skills across a number of different areas at the same time.

What that means in terms of practical steps—I would say get involved in people development and mentoring, recruiting new hires to the firm, producing thought leadership, and participating in business development. I think all of those activities come together holistically to develop people into leaders. There’s not just one particular skill set to focus on.”

Lindsay Rose (LR): “I feel like I have a different experience with where I’m at now in my career. The marketing department is a group of four people, and we just added somebody as a coordinator. So, I feel like this is my first opportunity in the leadership role of really guiding somebody in their career and helping them get to where I am and beyond. So, in that sense, I feel I’m a bit of a junior leader.

But like Grace and Grant said, when it comes to my leadership journey, I’ve been joining different groups and taking part in things that I’m passionate about. And I use those opportunities to learn from the people leading the group and incorporate their approach into my own style.”

Casey Byers (CB): “I didn’t ‘grow up’ in public accounting, so it was a completely different scenario coming into Clark Nuber at the manager level.

I was with the government for about 10 years, and for about eight of those years I was the youngest person in that office. But along the way, I was taking opportunities to be the in-charge on audits, and I was managing people who could be my parents in terms of age and experience. That gave me some confidence to feel like I knew what I was doing when it came to leading a team. Eventually, I was chosen to lead the Seattle office when my boss stepped down.

I try to lead by having technical knowledge and being somebody that my team has confidence in and knows they can rely on. They might not think I’m the coolest person, but I hope they look up to me and respect the work ethic, the knowledge, and my commitment to them and the job.”

Interviewer: Thanks for sharing your journeys so far. It seems like a common thread between all of you was stepping outside your comfort zone to try new things. Can you tell us about an experience that really tested your leadership abilities?

GS: “I know I’ve been tested during difficult conversations around tough deadlines or billing disputes. It can be easy to react negatively in kind, even though you don’t think that’s the right way to communicate or react.

So, I think it’s important for leaders to be self-aware and realize when they’re being tempted to react in a negative way. Leaders should step back and respond in a professional manner based off the values they want to live out. You don’t want to wake up the next day and think ‘Wow, I really wish I would’ve handled that differently.’”

LR: “I’m having a hard time thinking of any specific example where my leadership was tested. Like Grant was saying, sometimes it’s a lot of small frustrations that you have to navigate. You have to keep in mind, ‘How do I want to come across in this situation?,’ and ‘How do I want my values to be presented?’

Usually, if I’m getting frustrated by something, I step back, separate myself from the situation, and take a moment to consider how I want to respond. When the conversation’s over, I want to know I still held true to my values.”

GC: “I feel like I was really tested when I became a manager at Clark Nuber. I had a lot to learn—how to motivate people on my team, especially when we’re dealing with difficult situations; how to improve communications internally and externally; or how I can set better, clearer expectations with my team. And I feel like I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I’m learning, and I’ve definitely improved with every experience.

And I rely heavily on my mentors. Any time I’m in a difficult situation or need to have a tough conversation, I run it by my mentors and practice having those conversations with them first. Or I draft an email and have them look at it to be sure it’s coming across the way I want.”

CB: “I also do that with emails. What I struggle with is the balance between taking on more responsibility and overreaching. How often should I speak for a shareholder? And am I going out too far on a limb for my position?

We’re emerging leaders, but we’re not quite there yet. So, we’re still answering to people, figuring out the space we occupy, what authority we have, and what levers we can pull.”

Interviewer: This is a good topic. How do you all typically navigate this as emerging leaders? Do you pass everything by those above you? Do you take risks and say, “We’re doing it this way?”

CB: “Communication is big. If you have open communication, you don’t feel like you have to be guessing as much.

I think regular meetings, where you’re sharing these issues with those above you, help a lot. Be cognizant of the fact that you’re not simply trying to punt on every decision. But go to those conversations with a plan of action— ‘Here’s what I’m going to do,’ ‘Here’s my response to this situation,’ and ‘What kind of feedback can you give me on this course of action, because I’m still learning as leader.’

That’s the approach I take. It shows those above you that you’ve put thought into it and that you’re trying.”

LR: “I agree, I think that’s the important part—showing you thought it through. I do something similar with it, ‘Here’s my plan and here’s why I’m doing it. And here’s the results I’m hoping for.’

That way, my boss, my leader, knows I’ve put effort into solving the problem. And it also presents an opportunity for them to contribute different ideas and make it better. It’s more collaborative that way.”

CB: “And we do that because we respect the leaders we’re going to, right?

I’m not asking the shareholder out of sense of strict hierarchy, but I’m asking because I genuinely believe they can bring something to the conversation that I wouldn’t have seen. That’s the kind of respect we’re trying to earn for ourselves as emerging leaders, where those we’re in charge of trust us.”

GC: “I really think this is a big part of the Clark Nuber culture. All the other places I worked at never encouraged the professionals to do that–to present solutions to managers.”

LR: “I’ve been in a similar situation before where I didn’t feel comfortable going to my boss because she’d shut down whatever I had to say. So, eventually, that lead to me quitting. And I think that’s a very important leadership attribute, the ability to listen and be available for bouncing ideas off of.”

Interviewer: I’m going to leapfrog off that answer and ask, what, in your opinion, separates a good leader from a bad leader?

LR: “Well, back to communication, it’s such a big thing when it comes to building relationships. You and your boss don’t need to be best friends. But you do need someone you can go to with ideas, issues, and problems. And top of that, a good leader is someone who inspires and mentors you. And pushes you to grow.”

GS: “I really like the servant leadership model—where my job as a leader is to support the staff and provide them with the resources they need to do their job as effectively as possible. Not the opposite, where they’re working for me to make me look better.

And I think you really get that idea of servant leadership from great leaders. Especially in light of the remote work environment and what’s happened with the pandemic and the labor market. Great leaders have shown an ability to empathize with the people that are working for them. And they’re really good at seeing a problem from another person’s perspective.”

CB: “I respect a leader who’s willing to roll up their sleeves with me. That willingness to get down into the trenches with you builds up a lot of goodwill. And that goodwill strengthens the relationship and makes me want to follow them. It’s a trait I try to live out with my own team.”

GC: “I want to echo what Lindsay said earlier. I feel like a good leader is someone who is open to new ideas, bringing people into the discussion, and moving everyone toward the goal. Whereas a bad leader would just focus on the results without taking the people factor into the equation.”

Interviewer: There’s a lot of churn in the labor market now that the pandemic is lifting. Speaking specifically about the accounting industry, what are things that CPA firm leaders can do to make their employees feel valued?

GS: “I’d say feedback is really important. Being someone who switched employers during the pandemic, one of the things I’ve seen lived out at Clark Nuber is good feedback.

What makes someone a strong leader is taking that extra time to sit down with you and discuss why they changed what they did and what their thought process was. So, you’re not just showing someone how something could be done better. But you’re talking with them about how they can develop a skill set that will allow them to eventually do the same level of work as the leader.”

GC: “I know that busy season is expected when working in public accounting, but I think it’s important for firm leaders to ask, ‘How can we make it more fun?’ Maybe we need to learn which engagements and clients our employees like to work on and encourage them in those directions.”

CB: “Keeping things fresh is important. If people are doing the same things day after day, year after year, that will get demoralizing and they won’t want to work as hard. I think it’s important that employees can return to an engagement each year with added responsibilities, so they know they’re growing in their roles.

As a leader, you shouldn’t think of engagements from a strictly project management perspective. You’re also growing people and building up tomorrow’s managers, principals, and shareholders.”

LR: “I agree with what everyone said, especially with fostering relationships. I would add that checking in with people is very important. Asking people if they’re where they want to be, if they’re happy, if they have too much on their plate, or not enough. Knowing where your employees’ heads are at is so important. Because if they’re unhappy, that’s when they’re going to leave.”

Interviewer: What advice do you have for those entering the workforce today who aspire to leadership?

LR: “For someone who’s starting out, try to learn as much as you can. That way, when it comes to decision time, you know what you’re talking about, and others will listen. Become a subject leader and people will start coming to you more for your thoughts.”

CB: “I’d say, ‘Say yes’ as much as you can, without overburdening yourself. It’s easy to sit out on things when volunteers are called for. But you should say yes, get involved, and be an active participant. That’ll get the higher ups attention, and it’ll get you some name recognition.”

GC: “My advice would be similar. Try out different things, step outside of your comfort zone, find out what you’re passionate about, and surround yourself with great mentors.”

Interviewer: On that note, when it comes to mentors, how do you find your mentors? Do you approach people? Do you wait for them?

GC: “Well, a lot of the mentors I have, it’s not an official mentorship or anything. I consider them to be my mentors because they each possess great qualities that I’m looking for. One of the people I serve with on the board is so charismatic, and I really admire that about her. It draws me to her and I’m trying to learn more from her. I’d say I have different mentors for different reasons.”

CB: “I agree, Grace. I have a few people I talk to monthly, and we don’t work together often or have an official mentorship. But they’re great people to talk stuff through with. They’ll give me different perspectives. And they’ll give it to me straight and I appreciate that.”

GS: “I have to pay all my mentors or otherwise they won’t tolerate me. (Laughter)

I heard an analogy that I think fits well with what the others said, and that’s ‘You don’t have a mentor, you have a board of directors.’

So, in the same way you build a board with people of various specialties–business development, thought leadership, etc. –you gain mentors over time for all these different specialty areas. If you’re struggling with work-life balance, you might have a mentor who you look up to in regard to that and seek to emulate. You learn to keep those people in your life.”

CB: “I agree. And, one last thought, be proactive about mentorships. Don’t just wait for people to reach out to you. Get on their calendars. As a new person, you might be afraid to reach out to people. But it’s worth it!”

This article is part of the Learning, Adapting, and Growing: Leadership Perspectives series, which explores the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article is written by a Clark Nuber leader who shares their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

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