What Does It Take to Lead?

CPAs share personal stories, tips with emerging professionals.

Confidence. Passion. Emotional Intelligence. These are all traits that successful accountants say are needed to be an effective leader in the profession.


Whether choosing to work as a CFO, serve in academia, or climb the ranks to partner of a local or national firm, certain skills undeniably top the list of those that emerging professionals must embrace if they want to get ahead.


The JofA interviewed CPAs about their leadership journeys and the challenges they overcame as well as what they look for in the next generation of employees to ultimately succeed them.



Brenda Morris, CFO of Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods and a JofA editorial adviser, stressed the importance of communication skills—especially the ability for employees to articulate their thoughts and respond to questions effectively and “on the fly.”


“Great leaders are energetic, dynamic and thoughtful. If I see these things when I am hiring, it is a great start,” she said.


Beth Gamel, co-founder of Massachusetts-based Pillar Financial Advisors, agrees. For Gamel, who received the AICPA’s 2009 Personal Financial Planning Distinguished Service Award and was recognized as the Boston Estate Planning Council’s 2010 Estate Planner of the Year, the people she considers model leaders—Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—were also people she views as model communicators.


“I am most drawn to articulate political leaders whose effective use of words has great impact during extraordinary times,” she said. “Whether giving support to a beleaguered nation during the Depression or the Second World War, both men spoke eloquently about hope, the future and standing together to fight a common enemy. Martin Luther King and President Kennedy embodied the same great leadership skills—extraordinary oratory gifts and the ability to influence, lift up and motivate individuals.”


During a panel discussion at the Institute’s Leadership Academy this past fall, AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon expressed similar beliefs.


“Those who I admire most from a leadership perspective all faced immensely complicated issues and were able to communicate about them in simple terms and have a thick skin to deal with it,” he said, naming Abraham Lincoln, King and Ronald Reagan as those he considers model leaders.


He elaborated further in a follow-up interview.


“Lincoln was dealing with a divided nation. King was advocating peaceful change when many around him were advocates of more radical approaches. Reagan was for a strong, forceful front to the Soviet Union while others wanted a different diplomatic approach,” he said. “All three were tremendous communicators and achieved outcomes due to the force of their convictions, and all three inspired followers.”



Emotions have a place in leadership and relationships, but they have to be part of what you can address, if not control, according to Gary Previts, the E. Mandell de Windt Professor and chair of the Accountancy Department in the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.


Previts also is a member of the PCAOB Advisory Council and 2007 recipient of the AICPA’s Gold Medal for service.


“Many advise that you should never apologize for a poor judgment, that it’s a sign of weakness. I’ve not found that to be something I can follow,” Previts said. “When I make a poor decision, I am inclined to call it such and, when the group affected is with me, make it known that I know it was a poor call. That’s not exactly apologizing, but it is acknowledging responsibility.”


Years ago, one of his professors reminded him that “mankind is a curious mixture of reason and emotion.”


“Keeping one’s emotions from being in the lead when a rational solution is needed presents a challenge,” Previts said.


No leadership position comes without challenges, of course.


One of the most memorable leadership challenges Melancon said he has faced since taking on his current role in 1995 was how to deal with criticism of the profession, particularly during the time when Enron and WorldCom collapsed. He felt some of the criticism was justified, and some was not.


“The issue was more complex than many of the simple answers that were offered, and I had to have confidence in our knowledge of that complexity and our related decisions. I learned I could have thick skin and not need to respond to every point,” Melancon said. “In the aftermath of the 2000s the profession was extremely successful, so the decisions proved mostly correct, which quietly was rewarding.”


Great leaders must be able to keep a handle on their emotions in the workplace, according to Stephanie Bryant, director of the School of Accountancy at the University of South Florida and 2006–2009 international president of Beta Alpha Psi, which comprises 275 chapters and more than 10,000 students in the United States, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. She said “emotional intelligence” has four main components:


  • Self-awareness. What are you good at, and what are you not good at? For example, do you have trouble meeting deadlines or being on time for meetings? That’s low emotional intelligence. Do you get frustrated easily at work? Do you lose sleep over your job? Do you have difficulty balancing work/life?
  • Self-management. When you identify what you need to work on, self-management is making a concerted effort to work on those things in which you have low emotional intelligence.
  • Social skills. It’s critical to know how to network and build productive relationships with your peers and other professionals. This includes the ability to communicate (including listening to others) effectively.
  • Empathy. A great leader has the ability to empathize with others. That means you understand where they are coming from and why they feel the way they do, and you acknowledge it to them.


Morris experienced immense success in her role as CFO of Zumiez Inc., a specialty teen retailer. During her four-year tenure there, which began in 2003, the company grew from 99 stores to approximately 250. The company completed an IPO, two secondary offerings, a distribution center and home office relocation, and an acquisition of a 20-store chain.


Her toughest experience came in 2008, when she had to wind down a business whose private equity group pulled out unexpectedly. The company had inadequate cash flow to support ongoing operations as a result.


“I felt I needed to stay on to transition as many employees as we could and to work with our vendor base to the best possible ending. It was a challenge in that you learn a lot about people in a time of crisis, and it is not always very pretty, but you have to power through,” Morris said. “I learned that I can lead and persevere even in the toughest of environments and believe that those that traveled the path with me felt taken care of even in a very negative situation. The competencies of goal setting, delegation, leading and mentoring allowed me to transition almost 100% of my team successfully and to take care of the operational needs during the wind-down.”



Putting others before yourself is also a characteristic of a good leader, according to Previts.


“There are no absolute formulas as to what makes someone successful as a leader … with one important exception, putting others’ interests above your own,” Previts said. “I have not ever met a truly respected or successful ‘selfish’ leader.”


Unfortunately, with this responsibility also come flaws in the ideal world of work/life balance.


“You can begin by recognizing as a leader that your time is not your own,” Previts said. “You have to allow that as a leader others need and expect you to be available.” While it’s important to impose some limits for personal time, that personal time can instantly switch to work time, he warned.


“It has always been amazing to me how much you can get done if you use your time well, and still have time to enjoy friends and dedicate important time to family,” Previts continued. “Successful time management makes it possible to do nearly everything you may want to do over a period of time.”


How does a leader balance work and life most effectively? Much of it comes down to keeping an updated calendar and the age-old “to-do” list.


Morris said she uses Outlook to keep track of almost everything and integrates it with a free family organization tool called Cozi that allows her family members to keep track of each others’ schedules and tasks. Every night, she reviews her calendar for the next day so she knows her obligations.


Melancon schedules personal time for friends and family and his own hobbies at the beginning of each year. He knows some will be given up as important work creates conflicts, but some will survive, producing some balance.


Scott Spiegel, the AICPA’s CFO, blocks out time on his calendar each week to catch up on work-related items he was not able to address because he was in meetings. He also tries to leave work at a reasonable hour so he can focus on his wife and two children. But this wasn’t always the case.


“I was never good at work/life balance,” he told attendees at the Leadership Academy. “It was always about work hard, work smart. It was about me.”


That philosophy changed the day he learned he was being promoted to CFO—Spiegel came home, and his wife told him she was pregnant.


“I prepared a work schedule that would allow me to have dinner with my wife three times per week. In the past, it was ad hoc. I would go to work early and stay late,” he said.


His sons are 4 and 3, and they have tons of energy. He leaves work between 5 and 6 to spend time with them, but he stays connected. The kids hold the BlackBerry and say, “Daddy, phone!” when it rings.


“My dad was a traveling salesman, and I don’t remember him much as a kid,” Spiegel said. “Leadership starts at home and balancing home life.”


Sometimes leaders need to manage their staff’s time as well as their own.


Spiegel and his staff share a rolling calendar of events highlighting key meetings, deliverables and projects. Many deadlines are known in advance, and his direct reports feel encouraged to use their vacation time.


When it’s not busy season for her small Minnesota firm, Lisa Baskfield locks her staff out of their computers by 6 p.m. so they go home and spend time with their family or friends.


“I do appreciate their commitment to the company, but I also realize there is another side of life besides working,” Baskfield said. “During busy season, I monitor the workflow and I monitor my team’s hours. I have realized that when a team member works 12-plus hours per day ongoing, they tend to wear or burn out, the quality of the work diminishes, they get sick, and their family life starts to strain.”


One year Baskfield, who is also past chairman of the Minnesota Society of CPAs, tried an experiment. When she noticed a team member getting too tired, she sent the team member home to get rest and communicated to her team that rest is important. She also set realistic deadlines for her clients during tax season and talked to them about the firm’s production ability.


“Much to my surprise that year, our office operated efficiently, met the deadlines, my team stayed in good spirits and, most importantly, clients were happy as well,” Baskfield said. “I have kept that philosophy to this day.”


Video: Developing Young Talent
What is your firm or organization doing to prepare the next generation of CPAs for the future? In this video, graduates of the AICPA’s Leadership Academy discuss the importance of succession planning, mentoring and career development.

Alexandra DeFelice is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at adefelice@aicpa.org or 212-596-6122.


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