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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.

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