Becoming Leaders in Times of Change

Posted on Feb 2, 2021

As 2019 came to a close, Clark Nuber promoted a record five principals into the ranks of shareholder. Little did these new shareholders know what was waiting for them on the other side of the new year. We recently met with them to discuss the challenges of 2020, the unexpected opportunities of working remote, and what it was like coming into a leadership role during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

Interviewer: You’ve been shareholders at Clark Nuber for over a year now. Did you see yourself here when you first began?

Jennifer Mace (JM): I would say it felt like a natural progression. I knew I wanted to be an accountant from the 7th grade. Sad, maybe. (Laughter) But I pretty much always knew I wanted to be an accountant.

My grandpa was a shareholder at KPMG, and he led by example. He was always client-first focused. And that resonated with me as well.

Dora Leung (DL): I wouldn’t say it was natural for me. I knew I always wanted to be at Clark Nuber. I just wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be part of the shareholder group for the longest time. Eventually, that idea evolved, and I decided, “I am ready for this.” And as it turns out, I don’t know why I’d been fussing over it for so long!

Matt Sutorius (MS): I studied accounting in college under the assumption that it’d help me get another job one day. (Laughter) I went into public accounting fully intending to do it for two years. Then it became five years, then “Maybe I’ll see what senior manager is like,” then maybe principal. There have been 20 different points where my career could’ve gone a different path. I didn’t really make a final decision to become a shareholder until Tom [Sulewski] and Rob [Wheeler, CEO] asked me about it about a year and two months ago.

Hillary Parker (HP): I’m going to switch it up. I was definitely hitting for the endgame since the day I started.

I didn’t have any accounting in my background. But I found myself as an accounting student at the University of Washington, where the Big 4 heavily recruits, deciding to go to Clark Nuber. And every one of my classmates wondered, “Why are you doing this? You should be going to a Big 4.” But I knew I was in a different place in my life than most of my classmates. And Clark Nuber seemed like a great firm where I wouldn’t be “turned and burned” within a few years.

Now that doesn’t mean I didn’t question that decision many times along the way, but at the end I always kept doubling down on my future at Clark Nuber.

Candi Avery (CA): Similar to Jennifer, I also knew in the sixth or seventh grade I wanted to be an accountant. I did a whole mentoring project, going to an accountant’s office and meeting with them. And there’s actually still a pamphlet in my office that says, “This is what it’s like to be an accountant!”

And similar to Matt, I thought this would only be for a couple years. I remember sitting in some meetings early on and making a few comments that I never wanted to be a manager, ‘‘I want to be out in the field,” “I don’t want to make presentations and sell work.” And now, here I am. (Laughter)

But I think a lot of those early feelings have to do with a lack of confidence at the start of your career. You’re not sure you have what it takes. And even today, it’s kind of cliché, but you still struggle a lot with imposter syndrome. Even as we do become leaders, you feel like you’re faking it until you make it.

Interviewer: What were your assumptions of being a leader? And how has the reality of it compared?

HP: I think a lot of the time associates and new people think shareholders are these encyclopedias of knowledge and they know the answers to everything. And that we’ve seen it all and we’ve dealt with it. That’s actually not the case. The shareholders are a lot more collaborative than I would’ve ever anticipated as a younger staffer. We support each other when working through technical issues.

MS: Yeah, I agree. I remember being a new associate and looking at shareholders and thinking “Wow, these people really have it together, they know everything!” And I still have to remind myself that the interns and associates that start these days are looking at us like that. And like Candi said, I do have serious imposter syndrome! I’m thinking “Those previous shareholders really had it together and I’m just faking it.” But hopefully, faking it well enough that the interns and associates don’t notice. (Laughter)

JM: I think that’s exactly right. When we’re younger we can’t imagine ourselves being in the shareholder position. But over time, you learn so much, and you’re in that same position, and you recognize you do know a lot! And, of course, we don’t know everything. But we know what we need to ask help for. And we know that’s a completely normal and good thing to do. You learn how to leverage the collective strength of our firm’s technical leaders. So, we can’t know everything, but we can know everything together.

CA: When I was starting out, I always felt like, “Oh, I don’t want to bother the shareholders and managers, they’re so busy and don’t have time for me.” But now I think, it’s such an honor if someone reaches out for answers or mentoring. Being at the top is kind of lonely sometimes, and you need some more collaboration.

Interviewer: What’s been the most rewarding part of being a leader to you? What has been the most challenging?

DL: I would say the most rewarding part is watching people coming up behind you. You see managers you helped train now running their own engagements.

The most challenging part is staying collaborative and learning. Just because you’re a shareholder doesn’t mean you can solve everything, and you still run into challenging jobs every day. But making sure you know you can reach out is important. And knowing there are 25 other shareholders who have your back. It’s all very challenging and rewarding at the same time.

JM: Becoming an expert in an area is a very rewarding part of this experience! Each of us has some sort of specialty we’re known for at the firm. And it’s great to be that person when people need assistance. It’s cool to see you can continue to pass on that knowledge and be a resource to people.

HP: For me, the most rewarding part is being in charge of your own destiny. As a shareholder, you’re free to pursue the things you’re passionate about. And the shareholder team is very supportive of each other and the areas we want to grow in.

Interviewer: No one could have imagined or prepared for the events that changed the world in 2020. What was stepping into your role during COVID-19 like? And how have you managed the new responsibilities with the new work models?

JM: Honestly, we really got to see what we’re made of this year. I know the shareholder group has made a lot of decisions for the long-term good of the firm. We’re all looking forward and asking, “How can we keep operating at this professional level and be around for the next 100 years?”

CA: Yeah, I think the leadership team has been more cohesive during COVID than any other year. We’re getting together more frequently and seeing each other more than we may have without the pandemic. The other shareholders have all been very supportive of us [newcomers] this year.

HP: The word that comes to my mind is “caring.” I think that’s a cornerstone of the leadership philosophy this year. Rob [Wheeler] has communicated with the shareholder group about making sure all the employees are doing well, that no one is worried about maintaining their employment, and understanding that everyone’s situation is different. A “we’re in this together” mindset is the theme of the year, if I had to pick one.

The other theme is definitely “prepare and adapt.” It’s really weird coming into a position where it’s like, “This is how we normally do it, but nothing is normal this year!” Our profession is always talking about adapting, whether it’s remote working or using new technologies to propel us into the future, but nothing promotes changes quicker than needing to adapt for the pandemic. Those two things were key themes for me this year.

MS: For me it’s been a real crash course on financial literacy and how the firm works. In previous years I might’ve said, “Well of course we’ll grow a little, we always do!” And there were a lot of challenges I anticipated in 2020, but a massive economic meltdown was not one of them.

But I guess the upside is that I’m much more aware now of how businesses make money, how we make money, and how the broader economics in the country impact our region and Clark Nuber. So that’s something. I just did not anticipate this challenge at all.

DL: I echo what everyone else said, and I’m proud of how leadership has handled this on behalf of the employees. And yeah, like Matt said, it’s been a crash course. There’s a lot that goes into making sure you understand all the financials in depth, and you have to really study the reports.

Interviewer: With the new remote work model, how have you adjusted your leadership style? And have there been benefits and challenges to working remotely?

JM: Oh yes, there have been challenges. We used to be able to have all these impromptu sit-down and teaching moments. Things just happened naturally in the office. Now it’s scheduled, and a little unnatural, I’d say.

These meetings have to be very purposeful now, and if you don’t take the time to have those conversations, they just don’t happen. It’s a learning curve. I’ve had to figure out how to add those meetings in without overwhelming my calendar and being in calls from 7AM to 7PM.

MS: I’m having a very difficult time connecting with new people, associates and seniors, and people in different departments that I don’t really work with. Beforehand, I’d walk around the office every day and talk with people I didn’t know, just to get to know them. And there’s no not-awkward way to do that now. If I sent a 30-minute “get to know you” meeting to a tax associate, they’d probably think they were in trouble.

So, navigating that has been difficult and I don’t have a good answer for it yet. But I think we’ll need to find one. Because even post-pandemic, I’m not sure our working-remotely lifestyles are going to go back to the way they were before. People have tasted this and there’s a lot of benefits to it, and this is probably what it’s going to be like for a while.

JM: The lack of spontaneity has been difficult. You don’t just “go to lunch” anymore. We haven’t “gone to lunch” with anyone in a very long time!

HP: And coffee! I miss my coffee walks.

Interviewer: Have there been any benefits to the remote work model? It seems the challenges are pretty well laid out.

HP: In ways, I think it’s actually given me more access to some people than before. Everyone’s at home and online all the time now, so you can ask them if they’re free for a quick call. It’s very easy to say, “Lets quick hop on a video chat.” And it’s easier for people to attend meetings, because they’re not traveling anywhere. Attendance is quite good!

DL: I think client meetings in particular are easier to schedule now that everyone’s actually home. Like Hillary said, they’re not traveling. And before, you may have had to schedule something out two-or-three weeks, but now you can easily throw something together in a week.

And, like Matt said, I do think we think we need to find a way to set up meetings with associates and seniors so that they know they’re not in trouble when we reach out. You don’t want to scare them before the meeting even begins. (Laughter)

HP: Yeah, it used to be that the shareholder would come out and meet everyone on the team. But how do you recreate that now? In a Zoom call, you can be forcing small chit-chat. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to join small meetings.

CA: I think one of the things I miss the most is just the variety in the day. You sit in the same home office day after day, which can become tiring because you’re not walking down the hall to see people, going to lunch, or visiting clients. The lack of variety is a real burnout factor in and of itself.

MS: I will say, and I’m not sure about you all, but I do get a lot more actual work done. There’s no more travel time. And there’s no one here to talk to except my wife and kids. The actual work part of my job, I do a lot more of. Which you think might be difficult with all the other challenges we’ve mentioned, but I’m getting more of that done. It’s just coming at the expense of real-life interaction with other human beings.

JM: I would say one benefit of all this, and I think Hillary mentioned this, but it’s easier to bring folks to meetings. Normally you wouldn’t invite associates and seniors to meetings just because of the travel time there and back, that was just a lot of expense and time for them to be involved. But now, we can involve them with clients and create learning experiences way earlier on in their careers. So that’s been great, to be able to include people where we might not have otherwise.

HP: That’s probably true on audit too. The associates are ‘in the room’ for a lot more conversations now than they would’ve been.

Interviewer: Pete [Miller] wrote about innovation and how leaders can set up their firms to become “idea incubators.” How do you encourage your own people to approach you with new ideas? How can leaders encourage their employees to innovate?

MS: Questioning everything is important. But beyond that, the way to encourage innovation is to be perfectly fine with failure. Because if you’re going to try new things, you’re going to fail more often than not. And that has to be acceptable, because if not, the person will learn to never try something new again.

But it’s difficult for CPAs to reconcile that with the way we think about our jobs, professionally. That you can’t fail. You have tax rules and you have audit rules and failure’s not really an option there. But the way our firm and our practice works is that you can try new things, and if they don’t work that’s okay.

And then on the backend, you need the ability to recognize when something has failed and then to move on quickly and try something else and not focus on “Oh, we spent so much time setting this up, we better stick with it for a few years.” That’s very difficult, it’s probably difficult for any firm, but I think it’s especially difficult for CPA firms. But to try and get past that is very important.

JM: Especially with associates and seniors, they come out of school and they have this grading mentality, “If I get review notes that say I did something wrong, then that means I failed and I’m terrible at this job.” But our job is an apprenticeship, so learning and failure is an absolute natural part of it. But obviously that’s difficult from a perfectionist standpoint.

And you have to learn to look at things, not as failures, but as learning opportunities. So, every “failure” Matt mentioned when we talk about innovation, it’s not a failure, it’s a learning opportunity. It’s, “What can we do different next time?” That enables growth and change.

DL: I think Jennifer can attest to this, but definitely this year with all the new tax laws coming into play, we’ve been asking our associates and seniors to speak up if they see anything unusual. We want to help them feel empowered to bring up anything they don’t see as being right. This includes any processes they feel burden them; it could be that we just haven’t thought about how to make [the process] faster, so we think the way we’ve been doing it is good.

We want to give them the power to challenge us and share what’s on their mind. We’ve all been there where we’re asking, “Why are we doing things this way?,” and we want our associates to help us improve.

CA: Last year, but pre-COVID, I went to an escape room with our associates, seniors, and managers, and I realized I work with people who are way smarter than me. (Laughter) And they can bring so much to the table for being innovative!

I have to challenge myself to not become one of those leaders that relies on everyone else to do things I really should’ve learnt how to do. And it’s important to “keep the pencil” sharpened, so to speak.

Interviewer: What qualities do you believe a good leader exhibits, and are there leaders you seek to emulate in your own role?

JM: I would say “compassion.” That would be one of the traits as a leader you have to have. We’re in the business of helping people. We help our clients, we help our employees, we help each other. And I think you have to have compassion for different circumstances. And that’s a big driver of why we do what we do. We care about people.

MS: Elasticity. The ability to change quickly and adapt to new circumstance quickly. And to not make the assumption that how we do things now is the correct way to do things. One of the things I’ve observed Rob [Wheeler] doing in the pandemic is not asking “Alright, when can we return to normal?,” but recognizing that things have changed in permanent ways and pivoting us to respond to those. And that takes a lot of elasticity. I admire that in any leader.

HP: Trust, honesty, and communication skills. People need to be able to trust you to lead them.

DL: Lead by example, walk the talk, make sure you do what you say you’ll do.

CA: I was listening to what everyone was saying, and I was like, “Gosh, they all have such great answers,” and, well, listening is also an essential part of being a leader! (Laughter)

Interviewer: 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?

MS: Honestly, don’t quit. (Laughter)

The job you’re doing your first year out of college and up to a certain point, is not what your career in public accounting is going to look like. But you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. And there is a learning curve. And there will be parts of it that no one likes. But you’re learning skills that are valuable for the rest of your career.

HP: Yeah, like Matt said, you get caught up in the hectic nature of your work when you’re younger in your career. And you just have to stop – and take the time to listen and learn from your clients, mentors, and peers within the firm, and you take that with you moving forward.

JM: I think that’s exactly right. It’s easy to say “This isn’t what I want to do” when you’re at that point in your career. But it’s important, in the midst of all of that, to have the patience to know it will become the career you hope it to be.

DL: Go seek out challenges. Go find something you’ve never done.

Thinking back, every time I took one of those opportunities, they helped me leap forward more than doing a simple tax return or running familiar calculations. Don’t be afraid of failure and seeking something out of the ordinary. Don’t be afraid just because you’ve never done something like that before.

MS: And be a person who values honesty and integrity. When we think about promotions at higher levels, that’s the thing we care about. Is this someone we trust to make the right decisions for the company? And ultimately that’s going to be more important than how good you are at analyzing revenue recognition or putting out tax returns. Those things, to some extent, are teachable. But being someone you can trust is a different thing. And establishing that as a young person is important.

Interviewer: Thank you all for your time and insights. We’re going to end with a fun question. If you weren’t an audit/tax shareholder, you’d be [______]:

HP: Working at Amazon and retired. (Laughter)

JM: I would’ve been a sports newscaster. I wanted to be on the sidelines like Erin Andrews.

MS: I can see you doing that, Jennifer! I’d be a journalist. I actually went to school to do that and wrote for some college newspapers before deciding against it.

CA: I guess I was always meant to be an accountant! I can’t imagine anything else.

DL: I’d probably be a pastry chef. That’s the one hobby I’ve developed being home the last 12 months. I don’t think my husband wants to eat them all. (Laughter)

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.

© Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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