Advice for building trust when everything’s changing

Examples from finance professionals show how they’ve found a way to lead amidst major change.
By Andrew Kenney

Joselin Martin, CPA, CGMA, joined a construction company where the founder was adjusting to his new role as a senior executive.

Jeff Livesay, CPA, CGMA, was hired to help transition a firm from first generation to second with its first new leadership team in nearly 40 years — at the same time the firm started to take on clients in new industries, including the cannabis industry.

Dennis Sherrin, CPA, CGMA, turned a firm of accountants into advisers and change managers.

And Jagveer Kang, ACMA, CGMA, is the face of change, for company after company, as a Deloitte consultant on technology-enabled finance transformations.

Each of the management accountants answered a series of open-ended interview questions about team leadership in times of crisis and change. And though their industries run from tech to agriculture, they converged on five simple themes.

“You can go through change in different ways,” Livesay said. “One is just focus on survival. Another is more of a strategic focus.”

It’s an essential topic: Even before the pandemic set in, a Gartner survey found that about half of finance and shared-services employees reported fatigue related to the pace of change.

Share a goal

On a typical assignment, Kang, who is based in London, might be tasked with helping a company redesign finance systems and processes that have been in place for 10 years or longer.

“People are used to doing things in a certain way, and generally there is change resistance,” Kang said.

He starts with listening sessions, with a goal of understanding the specific goals of leaders within the organization.

You need your project sponsor and your project leaders to set the vision,” he said. “What you really want to understand is, what’s your vision for the team as a result of this project? How do we work together? How do we collaborate to get there?”

Next, Kang’s team details the specific benefits of the project, such as time saving from process automation. This isn’t just a way to win people’s approval — it’s how he makes them part of the change.

“You’ve got to challenge the status quo, and it can be very difficult,” he said. “Adopt an open mind. Invite and share those problems with people to get joint responsibility for solutions and joint responsibility for problem-solving.”

With a shared goal, Kang added, “you really start to operate as a cohesive, single team.”

Trust others

Livesay came back to public accounting for a once-in-a-lifetime challenge: He was hired to help the firm Martin Hood prepare for its first major leadership transition since its founding nearly 40 years ago.

“They’ve built a great practice here in central Illinois,” he said. “They were looking at how to carry that forward — to retain the people, retain the culture — but also to focus on new technology, new service lines, talent acquisition, and geographic expansion.”

To prepare for that dramatic change, the firm had to trust and develop its staff. Martin Hood established a group of departments run by senior managers, not partners, to share responsibilities and decision-making.

“After the tone is set from the top, [the nonpartner group is] making the decisions on timing and talent acquisition. They’re part of the decision process,” he said. “It becomes their decisions and goals.”

Handing off authority has created buy-in and cultivated more leaders ahead of the generational change, Livesay said. The partners, he said, are “there to mentor along the way.” And he credits that trust for helping Martin Hood maintain turnover for many years at less than half the national average for CPA firms.

Kang embraces a similar strategy in his own projects, relying on subject-matter experts (SMEs) and people outside leadership to efficiently solve the problem at hand.

“You want your SMEs and your process experts to have that autonomy,” he said. “These people know it inside and out. Giving them the autonomy to solve problems, think outside the box, and work with people’s different teams — that’s really important.”

But there’s one key caveat: “There’s direction at the start and end of the project,” he said. “Where are we going, what’s the vision, what are the parameters?”

Set limits

This theme came up across interviews: Change without constraints is easily derailed. Leaders can keep teams focused during times of change by laying out limits on scope, resources, and time.

Sherrin is the CEO of Avizo Group in Fairhope, Ala. Under his watch, the firm has added a focus on consulting for strategic transformations. The shift to open-ended problem-solving can be intimidating for some staff — a problem that requires guidance from management.

For example, Avizo recently assigned a team to develop a potential new niche in medical, dental, and veterinary offices. The early results were promising, but after a few meetings, the team seemed hesitant to move beyond research.

“The team keeps wanting to research more, read more, gather information, do little test cases, maybe talk to some clients,” Sherrin said. “That was a little bit of fear coming up.”

Sherrin explained that the team’s leader did two things to address their fear of failure. First, the team leader underscored his belief in the group’s skills and in the potential benefits of the project. And then he set deadlines for the project, which aimed to develop new KPIs and other metrics.

“Once they knew they had a deadline, it gave them the privilege to stop feeding the desire to gather information,” Sherrin said. The team came up with initial recommendations and even started to assign itself deadlines.

Now, Sherrin said, the project is “off the ground” and could shape broader changes to come.

Create a safety net

In the long run, an overarching strategic goal can also create psychological safety during periods of change. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived just as Livesay’s firm, Martin Hood, was preparing for its leadership transition and other changes.

“We were already in a period of massive change. The worry was already there, I think,” he said. But he found that clear updates on the current situation in relation to the overall plan helped keep people focused.

“It puts them at ease. It’s a safety net. ‘I’m safe, my job’s safe,’” Livesay said. That attitude has helped the company move toward its partnership change and even introduce a new virtual CFO program during the pandemic.

But, of course, leaders also have to acknowledge that change and crisis are exhausting.

“You can get change fatigue,” Kang said. He suggested reassessing priorities, pausing unnecessary programs, and segmenting change into phases.

“Breaking up your transformation and your changes into manageable chunks can be a good way to manage that,” he said.

When possible, Kang added, form a multidisciplinary team to tackle a change project or crisis response. Besides creating more diverse thinking, spreading the responsibility can ensure a single department isn’t tapped out by the effort.

Trust yourself

Martin was hired onto a construction company that, at the time in 1999, worked on projects worth an average of $150,000. When she left, its average project was around $1 million, with some reaching $5 million. In the decades between, she had to help the company’s local leader through a fundamental change.

“When I came in, we had to immediately get some policies and procedures. There was no handbook,” she said. For example, the rules were lacking detail for personnel issues like pay and time off, which created conflict. Moreover, the executive himself was taking on more leadership responsibilities, which meant he was no longer just “one of the guys.”

“That’s a horrible change for a lot of entrepreneurs,” added Martin, who is now the owner of True North CFO, a consultancy that provides CFO services for small to midsize companies.

She often met skepticism as she tried to convince the executive to introduce a change, she said, whether it was electronic timekeeping or improving the finance function. It required a significant change in her own approach to implementing change.

“I learned to take a step back — as once people have dug in, they have no intention of giving in,” she said.

She would ask herself and her team a series of questions: “Why are we bringing it up? Why is it coming up now? What value does it have? What alternatives are there? Why did we choose the one that we did? What are the risks? What resources are we asking you to commit?”

She sees that kind of broader, contextual thinking as crucial to management accountants’ role in assessing and executing change. And the answers to those questions can build toward something that isn’t captured by any single metric: leadership.

“The status quo is where people want to be. There’s pain involved in moving the rock,” Martin said. “Making it seem like the other side of the mountain’s going to be better, and giving a legitimate reason why — and communicating to all the people who are going to be impacted — is just key.”

Becoming the face of change might feel frightening. Kang recalls the nerves he felt in his first transformation projects.

“I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, and I had those question marks myself,” he said. But as he witnessed more successful transformations, he felt his confidence growing. It wasn’t just his trust in his own ability — it was the realization that other people would grow to trust him as they saw the results.

“Part of bringing people on the journey is letting people figure that out themselves. It’s hard to convince people who have never done that before. There isn’t an answer you can roll out to every single person,” he said. “I think the best moments are really when the clients themselves realize what the answers are, and the solution, and you’ve helped guide them to the right outcome.”

For Livesay, effective leaders can redefine change itself — from something frightening to a new opportunity. As the COVID-19 crisis began, Martin Hood first established that its employees were safe, and then looked to the future to use this time as a catapult into new industries, skills, and talents.

“Instead of focusing on survival,” he asked, “Where’s our passion? What do we want to wake up in the morning and get excited to work on? Whatever that is, let’s focus on how to develop that and obtain the resources to achieve those goals.”

“When you provide those kinds of opportunities and goals with passion, you’ll find the people that are interested and excited about the direction of the firm, they will raise their hands and say, ‘I want to be part of this.’”

— Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

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