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Every year, we see articles and surveys that indicate the need for CPA firms to attract and retain top talent—articles and surveys that express managing partners’ concern that there are not enough skilled potential employees in the labor pool. And one thing that firms say they are looking for is leadership skills. BS.

I will be the first to say that the accounting profession desperately needs leaders. My son, Grady, has BO. He’s seven. Twelve hours after a bath, he smells like a wrestling mat. He desperately needs something that’s strong enough for a [homeless] man, but made for a seven-year-old. But he’s afraid of my Speed Stick by Mennon. (You sang the “by Mennon” part in your head. I know. Me too.) He’s even more afraid of my Axe deodorant body spray. Arguably, my wife should be afraid of him using any Axe product because—according to commercials—it will turn Mrs. Taylor, his first grade teacher, into a skank. But Grady is afraid of where deodorant might take him. He’s afraid of change and afraid of the unknown.

CPA firms have a similar problem. CPA firms need leaders, but they don’t really want leaders. They say they want leaders, but they’re afraid of where real leaders might take them. And I’m going to say this is true for all CPA firms, not because it’s true but because it’s inflammatory.

What CPA firms really want is not leaders but exemplary followers. An exemplary follower is someone to whom partners can point and tell others, “Why can’t you be more like Holly?” And then Holly is hailed as a “leader” not because she has led anyone anywhere, but because she hes perfected following. Brilliant. An exemplary follower is someone who leads only by example. An exemplary follower tells other followers how to follow better. An exemplary follower internalizes the message and vision of the actual leaders and will cough it back up to those further down the organizational chart.

What is the big difference between a leader and an exemplary follower? Leaders take risks. Exemplary followers have a Skinnerian desire to make their leaders happy (Look it up, intern). They know how to get a Scooby Snack. Leaders have vision and passion. They want to change the world. They want to try new things and go new places. Fred A. Manske said, “The ultimate leader is one who is willing to develop people to the point that they surpass him or her in knowledge and ability.” No one knows who Fred A. Manske is. It’s not important. Wussies are afraid of hiring leaders because if they get a good one, they might get surpassed. Actually, they’re not afraid of hiring them; they’re afraid of leaders emerging once they are in the firm, and they will whack the moles of leadership until they forge the leader into an exemplary follower.

So what are you? Are you really a leader? If so, the profession desperately needs you. Or are you really just an exemplary follower? If so, employers really want you, but you will only help bring the profession to a better place if you align yourself with a visionary leader.

 

Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies.  After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam.  Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife and two kids. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.

Category:
Business, Guest Post
Comments:
10
  • On 03-05-2012 at 12:51 pm, Melinda Guillemette said:

    Greg -

    Great post. I’ve never articulated it this way, but have experienced it. When my former, relatively upstart CPA firm merged with an older, larger firm, I realized that what the older firm wanted was excellent followers — in spite of all the pap about wanting leaders. The upstart culture was entrepreneurial with a fairly flat hierarchy (fantastic place to learn and grow); the established culture was “we tell you what to do, we pay you well to do it, and you shut the hell up and do it. No thinking required.”

    Talk is cheap, huh?

    Melinda

    Reply
    • Jason

      On 03-05-2012 at 1:53 pm, thriveal said:

      Jody and Melinda, good responses.

      I have a few questions…

      Jody, will ‘wiser’ (instead of ‘old farts’) CPA firm partners be forced to give up POWER, or will they hold on to it until they merge or fade into oblivion? What will it take to pull that POWER away, or is that necessary?

      Melinda, sounds like merging your ‘creative upstart’ CPA firm with another firm is disastrous. Should firms stop merging all together?

      Reply
  • On 03-05-2012 at 1:09 pm, Jody Padar said:

    Greg,

    It’s all about Power Strugles… In order to have leaders step up and not be followers you need to give up POWER! People who have power don’t like to give it up. Outstanding Leaders share POWER. What does that say about our profession….That it currently has a lot of Bad Power hungry Leaders running firms. It’s not about Change, it’s not about technology or the cloud, its not about succession. It’s about POWER. Excellent Leaders know how to share power and not feel threaten by it. Excellent Leaders develop more Leaders because they realize it’s not about them it’s about us/we/the team. A excellent coach knows that when you win or lose a game it’s not the final point that won or lost the game. It’s a collection of the plays as whole. The sooner the “Partners’ get this, the better the profession will be. If they don’t ever get this, the firms that do will run right over them…And guess what, they already have.

    Reply
  • On 03-05-2012 at 2:30 pm, Greg Kyte said:

    Jody,

    I so totally agree with you that allowing people to lead requires a relinquishment of power. I also firmly believe that if it is done properly, the relinquishment of power can result in even more power–power of a different nature–to the relinquisher.

    What pisses me off about the “firms want leaders” BS is the complete mismanagement of expectations. The firm says to new recruits, “We want you to become a leader around here.” So eventually the new-ish employee gets excited about a new initiative that will help the firm. But the partners aren’t willing to give up any power. The emergent leader gets kicked in the teeth for doing EXACTLY what was communicated as the ultimate attribute of the ideal accountant, and told to get back to his cube and bill some damn hours. Then he goes back to his cubicle via the vending machine. Six pink cookies, a half gallon of Dr. Pepper, and two hours of Angry Birds later, he realizes that he was lied to at the firm’s fall recruiting open house when they said they weren’t hiring accountants, they were hiring LEADERS.

    It’s unethical for firms to say they want leaders and then punish employees who attempt to lead. It makes me so damn mad!

    Reply
  • On 03-05-2012 at 3:51 pm, Jody Padar said:

    I have really good experience with this and I have talked about it many times at “you got your dad’s firm, now what”…The reason I have been given the opportunity to lead my firm and sometimes fail but pick myself and keeping walking is because my partner is my father. It is much easier for him to give up power because parents by nature want to see their children be successful. Believe me when I say we struggle with power often but we have gotten to a much better place and that is why the succession has been successful. I wish I had a better answer but I struggle with the same power issues as I try and let my staff step up to lead. Being aware is the first step to change. It hard to be a leader, that’s why there are lots of followers and not a lot of leaders. However, there are some really Awesome Leaders in our profession and professionals need to find them and learn from them as much as they can. Also, these leadership issues are in every profession, every career, every job. Not that it makes it any better, just know that we are not alone.

    Reply
    • Jason

      On 03-05-2012 at 5:42 pm, thriveal said:

      I’m finding that implementing a ROWE in our firm has helped pass on the power to the team. The ROWE environment has opened up opportunities that I would not have seen had we not done it. This year will have some BIG changes in our firm related to passing on power, and implementing a ROWE was the catalyst to start that.

      Reply
  • On 03-06-2012 at 8:36 am, Bill Lincoln said:

    This is an interesting discussion. I agree with Greg’s assessment that it’s BS for firm partners to say that they want leaders. (I suspect that he’s talking mostly about the “old school” firm partners with well-established firms.) Most of these guys want someone that’s 25 years younger than they are to come in and do what they did, just like they did 25 years ago.

    I also agree with Jody’s assessment that it’s about power. These “old school” partners cut their teeth in a different environment than today’s marketplace is willing to accept (both customers and labor). They feel that it’s ok to push employees to unrealistic expectations and bill customers hourly for work that may be produced inefficiently or may be unnecessary.

    They want to have a workforce where a younger image of themself rises to the top and continues to do what they’ve done until a certain point in time so that they can offer that younger image of themself an “opportunity” to buy into the firm (at a cost that exceeds what an independent valuation would suggest). (The “certain point in time” may have some strange relationship to the retirement of an existing partner.) That’s been how it works for much of the profession for decades.

    There have always been certain people that have recognized that this “opportunity” isn’t what they really want. They realize that the “old school” concept of working your butt off for an unknown number of years – hoping that the dream of being promoted to partner comes true, is nearly dead. These certain people realize that continuing along that path would most likely only perpetuate a broken system. These certain people are leaders. THRIVEal+ gives them a means to network and communicate with each other. I believe that will change the profession for the better.

    Reply
    • Jason

      On 03-06-2012 at 1:56 pm, thriveal said:

      Great comments, Bill! Thanks.

      Reply
  • On 03-08-2012 at 10:48 pm, Kevin McCoy said:

    Jody says power, I see fear, jealousy and comfort.

    Fear that passing the torch will lead to less control, lost clients, maybe a damaged reputation (but isn’t trust shown by a partner to a younger person one of the best motivators there is?)

    Jealousy that the generation coming up doesn’t settle for “9-5 butt in the seat time”. We will work hard, if the work is engaging and challenging, but become dissatisfied when we’re forced to work a certain way because “that’s how its been done before”. (Maybe they wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner. Calling people slackers because they don’t follow your work style is a cop out.)

    Comfort in what is familiar and has gotten them this far. (But imagine what an occasional risk might lead to.)

    Reply
  • On 03-09-2012 at 8:04 am, Bill Lincoln said:

    I think that the power, fear and comfort are all fairly related. The partners in power have the ability/authority to promote & embrace or refuse change. Many (probably most) of these partners just aren’t comfortable with change. They wanted things to continue to be the way they’re used to, and for many years that worked out okay. The marketplace is changing and always will be.

    Five years ago, accountants wouldn’t embrace a new technology solution until it was crammed down our throats by CCH, Intuit, etc. Today, relatively small players like Xero, Freshbooks, Shoeboxed and others are changing the way that small businesses want to work. I have to admit, I haven’t used all of these yet – but they are changing the game – that’s real innovation!

    With most things in life, adapting to a changing environment increases the odds of long-term survival. Have a great day!

    Reply

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