Teach Young CPAs Well

Partners, CFOs must instill leadership skills to find their successors.

On the day Barry Melancon passed the CPA exam, two partners in the small Louisiana firm where he worked did something that paved the path to his role as president and CEO of the AICPA.


First, the managing partner told him he needed to make a personal contribution to the state society’s political action committee because government actions can have a significant effect on the accounting profession. Then another partner approached him and said he was making a call to the state society so Melancon could replace him on a committee on which he served.


“They wanted me to be professionally involved,” Melancon said. “It was incredible leadership on their part, but it also invoked leadership in me.”


Melancon, who began his career with that firm in 1979, made partner in 1984 and became AICPA president and CEO in 1995, said he believes that more firm leaders need to mimic what those partners did for him if they want to find their successors down the road.


“Firms have ignored the need to develop their people. We put emphasis on our technical skills, but not necessarily nurturing or mentoring,” Melancon said. “There’s a need for partners or CFOs to invest some time in that one-on-one coaching. It’s not just about the project, it’s about discussing things that are important to their development and to reinforce certain attributes.”


To address these concerns, the AICPA held its first Leadership Academy in July. It was attended by 27 CPAs under the age of 35 with at least three years experience in firms of various sizes, government, academia or business and industry. They were nominated by others in the profession who recognized their existing leadership traits and wanted to help them grow. (Click here to watch a video about lessons learned at the Leadership Academy.)



While attendees discussed many nontechnical skills at the academy—such as having tough conversations with subordinates and superiors, managing an intergenerational work force and managing clients—they also were expected to use what they learned to better not only themselves, but also their employers as well as their younger colleagues, state societies and nonprofit organizations where they volunteer.


They and the industry leaders who spoke at the event, including Melancon, AICPA Chairman Ernie Almonte and Janice M. Maiman, AICPA vice president–Communications & Media Channels, among others, explained that senior executives and partners should constantly emphasize these skills and that the cost to the employer is really more in terms of time investment than dollars. That means time spent by seniors developing young CPAs and allowing them time outside the office to develop these skills on their own.


Ben Ellingson, a 32-year-old senior audit manager with Eide Bailly in Sioux Falls, S.D., talked about the importance of accessibility to more senior staff in his own personal development.


When Ellingson graduated from college, he started with a local CPA firm of about 20 people. He didn’t have any visions of becoming part of a large organization.


But in 2007, the firm was acquired by Eide Bailly, which employs more than 1,200 people, and Ellingson was concerned he would feel disconnected.


“My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to meet the owners of these companies and the people that are working in some of those significant roles. What I found out was you still have those opportunities,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be a big fancy meeting. It’s as simple as one person involving another person in different opportunities— be it a client presentation or a Chamber of Commerce mixer. Getting somebody that’s been there to help get us to the next level doesn’t have to be a financial constraint or a huge project that’s planned.”


Nichole Van Pelt, a 27-year-old manager for Caturano and Co.’s assurance practice based out of Boston, agrees that her leadership skills are developing as a result of other employees taking time to help her learn the ropes.


“A completely cost-free initiative is to support these employees internally and to set the tone that this is something we’re going to be personally invested in,” she said. “If you are going to encourage people to be the next leaders, provide them the resources for that. If it can’t be done internally, support them in time off to get external CPE. Nonchargeable time is just as important as chargeable time. (Many firms) don’t understand the balance between the two.”


Caturano and Co. encourages staff to be part of internal initiatives from the first day on the job. Van Pelt said this helped develop her leadership style.


“You can take on little projects and own them,” she said. “If that type of thinking hadn’t been instilled in me as I was growing professionally, as I was coming into the next tier, it would be challenging to be thrown in there without training.”


The firm provides training on coaching, supervising and motivating even to employees in their first or second year on the job. Each level receives training every 12 to 18 months about how to deal with situations they may not otherwise encounter until further on in their careers—for example, how to have difficult conversations with clients about fees.


Staff is evaluated on certain core competencies, one of which is business acumen, which Van Pelt said highlights the importance of leadership training within the firm.


Last year, when Van Pelt was promoted to manager, she immediately was taken out on proposals to involve her in the process.


“I may not be actively participating, but you’re watching the partners do this so you can pick it up as you go along,” she said.


Justin O’Horo has experienced similar on-the-job training at Red Bank, N.J.- based WithumSmith+Brown, where he works as a senior manager.


“Partners in the firm like to give us as many opportunities as possible. They’re always willing to let us step up and be the point people with clients,” said the 30- year-old Leadership Academy attendee, adding that he would like to make partner there someday.


“As we grow and mature, they encourage us to have some interaction necessary to run the business. They’ll put the burden on us to talk to a client if they aren’t paying the bills to get current on their balance. It takes a lot of people out of their comfort zone, but it’s critical to our development.” Where other firms go wrong is not providing this training at a young age, Van Pelt said.


“You go along in the trenches and do the work, and then all of a sudden one day you’re expected to just be this great leader, but you never really were provided the tools or the conditioning along the way as you were growing in your career to be able to step into that role gradually instead of just turning on some magic switch,” she said.



One of the best ways to get that experience outside the firm is by volunteering, said Clarke Price, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs and chairman of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Price gave a presentation at the academy outlining the role volunteering plays in leadership development.


“You can read all the leadership books you want, but it’s only when you actively engage in organizations and work with other volunteers—the practical side—that’s where leaders develop,” he said. “The opportunity to apply the leadership principles they learned about is a benefit to the employer. These skills are transportable inside your organization—presentation skills that can apply while they are working with clients or inside the company, all of which comes from gaining self-confidence.”


The first time a young CPA is in a meeting and he or she makes a statement that others verbally disagree with, it can create an awkward environment, Price said. Will that person back down or step back and figure out how to handle it?


“Not until you’re in that position do you understand how important it is and learn to say, ‘Interesting point. Now is there a compromise that represents a win for everyone?’” he explained.


It also gives them the ability to ask tough questions around why things are done certain ways—questions they may be too intimidated to ask at their own firm in a more junior role.


“It’s automatic deferral to the gray hairs around the table—[they think they] need to sit back and be quiet and observe,” Price said. “But all the time they’re thinking, ‘Why are we doing it this way’ or ‘Why are we doing this at all?’ ”


Technical skills development is a given, Ellingson said. The focus needs to be on the people skills, communication and management skills, being able to assess people’s readiness for certain projects and for leaders to modify their approach to motivate staff to want to go further with the project or their career.


“Looking at it from the balcony is how it’s been described” at the academy, Ellingson said. “Pull yourself out of the situation, evaluate everybody that’s in the situation and what they have at risk, what they stand to lose, and try to come forward with a game plan that’ll make everybody happy.”


Investing in performance skills such as those described by Ellingson is an essential part of leadership development, said Tom Hood, president and CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs.


The Maryland association formed a young professional leadership group in 2001. Two members of that group have since become the society’s chairperson, including the incoming chairwoman, Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, who is the national industry director for health and human services for Oracle’s Public Sector division and previously was a manager in KPMG’s Information Risk Management practice.


One of the best things that happened to Hood when he was working in industry for RTKL Associates in Baltimore in the mid-’80s was that his CFO paid his dues to belong to the AICPA and state society and gave him time to attend meetings and earn continuing education.


“Right out of college he said, ‘You’re going to get your CPA and time off to study and then join the association,’ ” Hood said. “I’d ask where those leaders are today because we need more of them. It’s time to refocus on the core.”


Volunteering in associations gives leadership skills for free. Not enough firms are actively supporting that, Hood said.


Price doesn’t support the idea of making volunteering a requirement, but he suggests incorporating it into performance reviews by asking staff what they’ve done, how it’s helped them and what they are able to do as a result.


“If they say, ‘I haven’t done anything,’ you’re learning a lot about them and their willingness to invest in themselves as leaders,” he said.


Donny Shimamoto has participated for three years on the AICPA Information Technology Executive Committee, an experience he says has been invaluable for connecting him with partners in other CPA firms.


The 33-year-old started his own CPA consulting firm, IntrapriseTechKnowlogies LLC, at age 25 when the firm he was working for wanted him to relocate from Hawaii to Virginia. So volunteering has helped provide him with access to more seasoned professionals.


“That was one of the biggest gains (of volunteering)—I had access to senior and global partners. I could pick up the phone or shoot them an e-mail and ask them a question that I think me, the little guy from Hawaii, wouldn’t normally have that kind of access to,” he said.


He also pointed to the ability for junior staffers to take on more challenging roles and make mistakes—something Melancon believes in as well.


“It starts with making sure from a firm perspective the potential leaders have a platform and environment in which they can be comfortable trying to address change and evolution that’s inevitable in everything we do,” Melancon said. “Empower young-generation leaders with the confidence to raise those points and understand the pushback they might get and not to be afraid to take those risks. Otherwise they might seek their knowledge elsewhere, and that’s certainly not what the industry wants.”



Advice for Partners/CFOs:


  Be available. Young CPAs don’t want to wait around for annual reviews. Provide constant feedback and open your door to questions.


  Offer mentors. Reach out to midlevel managers. Young employees often prefer to seek guidance from colleagues closer to their age.


  Encourage volunteerism, including providing time off from work to participate in those activities.


  Explore social networking. Many firms block access to sites such as Facebook, but they could serve as a useful tool for professionals to learn from others in their field and could result in more clients.


  Give everyone the opportunity to gain leadership skills. Selective encouragement is perceived as a negative.


  Take staff along on client meetings so they can develop business acumen they may not typically glean until later on in their careers.


  Let them take risks and allow them to engage in tough conversations with some clients.



Alexandra DeFelice is a JofA senior editor. If you want to comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, she can be reached at adefelice@aicpa.org or 212-596-6122.


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