More so than any time in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled company leaders to reflect on the notion of becoming compassionate leaders.

Sara Elizabeth Hyre, head of Clark Nuber’s Tax Department, and Tom Sulewski, head of our Audit Department, are two leaders who have overseen their service groups during a time of unprecedented change in the industry – walking a tightrope of meeting client expectations and ensuring their employees are cared for.

Here’s what these shareholders had to say about the enduring strength of compassionate leadership:

Thank you both for sitting down to talk with us today. To start us off, please share a little bit about your journey at Clark Nuber and how you became shareholders.

Sara Elizabeth Hyre (SEH): Well, I actually started my public accounting career at Deloitte. I spent about nine years there before coming to Clark Nuber as a senior manager. I primarily came to work with the not-for-profit team, because it was growing, and that was an area I wanted to spend more time in. And it was great! I got to spend 100% of my time doing that when I came to Clark Nuber.

And did you see yourself becoming a shareholder when you moved to Clark Nuber?

SEH: I did! I never personally saw myself as a partner at Deloitte, but the leadership opportunity was part of the selling point when moving to Clark Nuber.

Thank you, Sara Elizabeth. What was your start like, Tom?

Tom Sulewski (TS): Well I did start here. And it’s totally different for me than Sara Elizabeth’s story. I came straight out of school and, quite honestly, had no idea what I was doing. (Laughter)

But we’re talking about empathetic leadership. And I think sharing our own stories is part of that equation. I think you have to make yourself real.

So, I started at the [University of Washington], then came to Clark Nuber 30 years ago. I probably didn’t have any intention to even stay in public accounting for more than a few years. But a real turning point for me was around my one-year anniversary. It was this tiny condominium audit, and the manager and the shareholder came to me and said, “We’ve got this new account, and we think we can send you out there to run this thing.” It was such an empowering moment for me, that they would trust me to do that. It helped reaffirm where I was.

And as I went through my career, it felt like every three or four years I had an opportunity to go somewhere else or do something new. But I kept finding reasons to stay, and somewhere along the line, I’m suddenly being approached to lead the audit department!

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a compassionate leader?

SEH: Well, Tom referred to just trying to be as real as possible, and I think that’s a strong way to create trust. I try to be as honest and transparent as I can.

It’s also being able to put yourself in others’ shoes. Something Tom and I have talked about a lot is assuming the best. Most people have good intentions. And there’s always a story behind every problem. I try to assume that I just don’t know the full story yet, rather than assuming the worst.

TS: Yes, being empathetic, being real. I think part of that is demonstrating that you’re a real person with all the failings that come with it. The notion that, somehow, we shareholders know all the answers, and that we’re the end-all, that’s just not realistic. And it’s too much of a burden to put on any person.

The truth is the answers are out there somewhere. You have to create an environment where people can throw ideas out there, or bring up concerns, and know they’re not just going to be shot down. They need to know they can come to you and talk through whatever’s going on.

Why is compassion an important trait in a leader?

TS: I think nowadays, especially during the pandemic, there’s a very thin line between your personal world and your work world. We used to have this big wall between the two worlds. But the personal world is messy! (Laughter) You have sick family members, house repairs, maintenance people coming by. And if you’re trying to pretend like that’s not happening for everybody because you see them at work with their button-down shirts on, that’s just scratching the surface of what makes them, them.

So, I think having more empathy and understanding is very important. Because it is very hard to focus on a technical accounting or tax issue when I’ve got trouble at home and something’s going on personally. You can’t pretend that doesn’t happen to other people, and if they’re having a bad day at work, there’s probably a whole story there, as Sara Elizabeth said.

SEH: The thing that popped into my head is that people work for people, not companies. If you think management doesn’t care about you personally, then why would you stick around for that? So, I think some amount of compassion is required in any leader if they’re hoping to hold on to good people.

And to Tom’s point, everyone’s got something in life that periodically comes in and creates disruption. And the beauty is that we’re all a big team here and we try to cover for each other, and we try to make accommodations as best we can. We understand things happen.

Would you say compassionate leadership can be learned? Or is it something you’re born with?

TS: I buy into the emotional intelligence theories; that you can teach it and practice it and get better at it. Some people have it more naturally out of the gates, but I do believe it can be taught and demonstrated, so others can replicate it.

SEH: Yeah, I agree with that. It’s just like anything else that you may feel you’re not that good at. If it’s important, and you feel the need to improve, then you can cultivate it.

How have you tried to cultivate compassion in yourselves as leaders?

SEH: For me, it’s pausing before responding. Whether it’s an email, or someone comes to me with a problem. The time where I’m not feeling very compassionate about things, that is when I have to take a pause. And I try to step back and look at the bigger picture.

TS: I was thinking about that concept around building up trust and addressing something when it’s small. That whole manager skill of, “Let’s address little things now, so they don’t become big scary things that lead to ugly conversations later.” Or asking, “What’s getting in your way this week that’s stopping you from accomplishing what we talked about?”

And through those conversations, people get more comfortable telling you when there’s something outside work that’s affecting them. But if you’re blind to those things, it just seems like someone’s dropping the ball.

2020 was chaotic, to say the least, how has being a compassionate leader served your team during this time? And do you think compassionate leaders have a leg up in times of struggle?

TS: Well, 2020 sucked, that’s true. (Laughter)

SEH: It was so hard, because, before this, I could expect a certain percentage of our people to be going through some personal issues. But suddenly, it was like 90% of our people were going through personal issues. And all we could do was be as flexible as possible.

And Tom, I know we both heard of other private companies that were saying to their employees, “Yes, you still you have to be here at this time,” and “No, we’re not changing anything.” And that’s not our style at all. We were trying to be as flexible as possible. And you know, that’s still hard when you have business and client needs to balance as well. But I think our people were really pleased. And we’re not on the other side of this yet, but I think people feel like they were treated fair.

So, does compassion give people a leg up? I think so. Because, when this is over, even before it’s over, people can leave. And if they don’t feel like leadership has been accommodating, or understanding, or compassionate, they’re going to walk.

TS: One of the most frightening days I had to deal with last year was in the middle of March, right before the pandemic stay-at-home order. We had auditors out there working at clients’ offices, and I could just feel this thing starting to close in. And I realized that, out of best conscience, we need to pull everybody back. They were in too many environments where we didn’t know the situation. So, I put together a conference call, and I said, “Hey everybody, jump on this.”

So, I paced around in my office and walked the teams through that I wanted them back from other peoples’ offices and either working in our offices or from home. And that was scary, because I had no idea what the impact would be on our business. There was always the risk that I was overreacting. But I wanted it to be okay to express these fears and feelings and assure our employees that there was a plan in place.

Do you know, relative to other firms, how quick we were to go fully remote?

SEH: I feel like it all happened at the same time. And shortly after that, the deadline got extended. So suddenly we’re balancing all new schedules and people are wondering, “How on earth am I going to work busy season from my house?”

And so, to bring it back to compassion, this is all a balancing act. I didn’t set too many boundaries in place, but I told everyone to figure out what works best for them while still meeting our clients’ needs.

TS: I think that’s a perfect example. Trying to strike the balance and empower people.

And I’ll say on the compassion topic, and how we handled 2020, it feels really good to me, as someone who recruits, to be able to go out there with a straight face and tell those students what we did do and what we didn’t do. That’s an easy presentation. And I think it gets attention from people who are looking for the right firm for them.

Person-to-person interaction has become much harder in 2020-2021. How has your approach to compassionate leadership evolved in the remote work era?

SEH: I feel like I’m still trying to figure it out and find the balance. I started early off doing group meetings because I thought it might be a little intimidating doing one-on-ones. But what I found out was, the managers are totally comfortable. It doesn’t matter how many people are in there, like the shareholders, you put them in a room and everybody’s going to talk. The associates and seniors, not so much. I even divided them into smaller groups, and it was still crickets. I had a hard time getting them to open up.

TS: I’ve tried to do some group things, and it’s a thud. And I don’t know if it’s because people feel like they’re on a podium every time they talk, or if it’s because the boss is in the room. So, I’ve backed off from doing things like that. I remember trying some happy hour type things when this first started and that was just awful. (Laughter)

Lately I’ve tried to set up some small meetings, and I say, “You can come if you want to this, you just have to bring a glass a wine, and there’s no talking work.” And once everyone’s on the line, I’ve kicked it into breakout rooms and I’m only in one of them, so I’m not causing ‘scary feelings.’ I don’t know. This whole thing, there’s no good answer to it.

And in some respects, trying to host a happy hour get together on Zoom is just one more straw on the camel’s back. Like, “Oh great, after having business calls all day, lets hop on Zoom and have fun with the boss.” (Laughter)

Who do you look to as role models in compassionate leadership?

SEH: Well I can think of when I was at Deloitte, and I worked with Jolene Cox. She was someone I always looked to for how kind and understanding she was.

And I really appreciate how Rob [Wheeler, CEO] handled all of 2020 and how open he has been. I’m not really sure I would’ve done as well as him.

TS: Well, I’ve learned a lot over the years by observing different leaders at different companies. I’ve developed a healthy appreciation for the tone leaders can set. How you talk and how you communicate, it matters.

SEH: Absolutely, tone at the top makes a huge difference.

What advice do you have for the young professionals who want to become leaders some day? How can they start cultivating the necessary attributes now?

TS: I’d say, know what your strengths are and play to them. Don’t try to be like me. Don’t try to be like Sara Elizabeth. Be like who you’re going to be.

If you’re in an organization, and you look around at the leadership table and see there’s nobody there who’s quite like you, that’s a good thing! Because it means there’s a chair waiting there for you if you play your cards right. We don’t need 10 Toms and 10 Sara Elizabeths. We need 20 different people with different experiences and perspectives.

So, know what your strengths are and know where you want to go, and then you don’t need to be anyone but you.

SEH: That’s a really good comment! My thoughts were that it’s always about people and it’s always about communication. It’s about developing personal connections and communicating, so people aren’t in the dark about who you are and what you’re doing. Do what you can to maintain and cultivate good relationships, because if people know you and respect you, they’re going to go a thousand miles to help you succeed.

Thank you both for your time! We’ll end with a fun question: if you weren’t an audit or tax shareholder, what would you be?

TS: Well, my aspiration as a kid was to be the one changing the reader board at the Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store, so we’ll put it that way. (Laughter)

SEH: How am I suppose compete that? I like working with people, so I think I’d be a coach of some kind, maybe help them with their financials or something.

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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