Cultivating leadership

BY DAVID KUHLMAN
June 1, 2013

Most CPAs promoted to leadership positions get there because of their technical skills and professional prowess. In many cases, however, the same CPAs have not been prepared to act as leaders. The following steps show what employers can do to cultivate leadership skills.

  Emphasize business acumen, curiosity, and strategic sensibility early in CPAs’ careers and when making promotions. Ask promotion candidates about their clients’ business issues and strategy and the forces affecting their clients’ industries. Query young CPAs about business and economic issues beyond the confines of the SEC and FASB. Test their curiosity about the state of the firm or company. When given a choice between two promotion candidates of equal technical competence, choose the broader and more curious one. When an organization’s senior professionals possess even a little bit more business acumen and curiosity, the quality of leadership increases dramatically.

  Embrace the nuance of leadership decisions and resist the urge to oversimplify. When an organization’s leaders package arguments to senior professionals and “spin” the right answer, it insults those professionals’ intelligence and discourages them from asking questions. Over time, this dumbs them down. Decisions get messier and more uncertain the higher up in the organization you go. Expect senior professionals to understand and accept these complex trade-offs.

  Establish a culture that encourages debate in the decision-making process. It can be time-consuming and painful to talk through alternatives, but the process can produce at least two major positives. First, the quality of the solution improves because the alternatives are thoroughly tested. Second, support for the decision can grow even among some who backed another course of action, because virtually everyone will understand what’s being done and why.

  Include newer, emerging leaders on internal task forces and give them a substantial job to do. Most organizations go to the same sure and experienced hands to work on internal projects because leaders know this is the best way to get the job done efficiently. Leaders often fear that a wider range of experience will slow the process and result in the team going down blind alleys. The better long-term play, however, is to provide experience that develops the organization’s future leaders. Internal projects allow newer, emerging leaders to learn more about the business of the business, try out skills, and build relationships and credibility that will serve them—and the organization—well in the future.

  Make some leadership roles rotational. In addition to providing “more slots” into which emerging leaders can be placed, rotational leadership encourages institutional strength (because things carry on while the leadership changes) and the cultivation of successors. Most leaders who know they will be handing over the reins in a couple of years take the development of the people who will succeed them very seriously. After all, they will either own the result (because they moved up) or report to their successor (if they rotate back to the line).

  Lead from the front, but not too far out in front. Role models who challenge the status quo push the organization forward and encourage senior professionals to participate by leading themselves in the direction the organization wants them to go. The greater challenge, though, is calibrating how far the organization can step forward at any given time. Pull too hard and the ambivalent will lag behind, opening a gap between the leader’s ardent supporters and the rest of the organization. Professionals move best when they move together, but both words are important: move and together.

—By David Kuhlman ( dkuhlman@axiomcp.com ), a partner at Axiom Consulting Partners and author of Leading Firms: How Great Professional Service Firms Succeed & How Your Firm Can Too.

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