CPA INSIDER

A call for honest leadership

Transparency always tops subterfuge. Here’s why.
By Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA

We've all been in those meetings where you can tell management isn't giving you the whole story. When it happens, everyone in the room can sense that something's wrong. Answers to questions are vague and interspersed with empty platitudes.

Business after business tries to get away with this tactic, even though it almost never works. People in the accounting profession are inquisitive and critical by nature, so they're among the least likely to fall for false promises and misdirection. In this time of transformation and innovation, honesty and transparency in leadership are more important than ever to motivate staff and create an environment where people feel safe.

There are always going to be aspects of a business that function on a need-to-know basis. Not every team member should be looped in on every aspect of the business every day. That's not only impractical, but also counterproductive. The problem arises not when information is withheld, but when it's spun. If you are in a leadership position, you should consider ditching the evasive tactics and adopting a policy of radical candor.

An overview of radical candor

Radical candor is a management philosophy developed by Kim Scott and laid out in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. In the book, Scott details what she calls a "two-by-two framework" for dealing with life's trickiest problems, both inside and outside the workplace. The two components of any good leader, according to the radical candor model, are the abilities to care personally and challenge directly. This means that when giving feedback to one of your team members, you provide it in real time and constructively with discussion on how to improve. It does not mean harsh criticism. Rather, it's a way to give feedback that is supportive and helpful so that the recipient has time to improve and isn't taken by surprise at the annual review. When you show that you care about their personal performance and providing the resources they need to meet their goals, your employees know you are nurturing them. 

When you neither care personally nor challenge directly, you create a situation fraught with the potential for people feeling that you are insincere, or possibly that you don't care about their careers. In times of transformation, it's crucial to ask yourself if you have a radically candid relationship with everyone on your team, no matter their professional or personal nature. It's important to this type of leadership to create relationships with your team and open yourself up to the possibility of connecting with people who have viewpoints that you may not understand or that are different from yours. When we get more comfortable with the uncomfortable, that's when innovation can happen. We open ourselves up to people who may not think the same, or act the same, as we do.

When you step back and think about this approach to leadership and feedback, this concept shouldn't really be all that radical. According to a Gallup poll, 75% of voluntary turnover can be influenced by managerial behavior. Finding a better way to lead is no small issue. As Scott puts it, "Once you build radically candid relationships with the people who report to you, you will eliminate a terrible source of misery in the world: the bad boss."

Radical candor in action

Let's use a classic example of how radical candor works in practice: the underperforming employee. Many times in accounting practices, leaders wait until performance reviews to give feedback. Instead of helping the person in real time, you may choose to ignore their underperformance, or worse, do the work they are supposed to do or redo it for them. When you do this, not only do you allow your employee to keep doing a bad job at the expense of the firm, but you aren't showing that you personally care about their growth. Many leaders avoid this conversation because they fear hurting the employee's feelings, they do not want to have a hard conversation, or they don't want to take the time away from billable work to properly train and teach someone to truly understand the "why" behind the task assigned. Oftentimes we can feel we are "too busy" to stop and explain the work being assigned and can feel that it's easier to just do it ourselves. But, when we do this, we perpetuate the cycle of working too many hours because there is no one else who is ready to do the work.

We show we personally care as leaders when we can develop a relationship of openness with our staff. When we provide real-time feedback, rather than collecting our comments for a later review of their performance, we are showing we want our staff to succeed. This provides them the tools they need to self-correct and do better the next time. When you create an environment that is honest and open and allows for feedback to go both ways, when there are corrections to be made, your employees know you are trying to help and not being critical — that you have their best interests at heart.

In this time when innovative thinking is needed for accounting practices to stay ahead, leaders can commit few sins greater than creating an environment where team members are branded by their failures. To create new service lines, automate tasks, and learn new job roles, staff members must take a leap of faith to believe that they won't hurt their careers if they try something new and make mistakes. Too many times with accounting practices I have advised, I have seen leadership in annual review periods brand someone for a mistake, even when an employee works to correct it. I have seen leadership hold that error over someone's head for years, and often it comes up when it's time to promote a staff person to the next level. This attitude stifles innovation and prevents people from taking the chances needed to help the business transform. When you begin to combine radical candor with other practices like mindfulness, you can create an environment where workplace accountability doesn't undercut interpersonal harmony.

Why honesty matters more than ever

In today's accounting world, change is constant. The amount of flux at present and on the horizon creates no shortage of rumors and anxiety. Discussing transition openly with team members is the best method for building trust. If you're beginning to experiment with AI or other advanced technology, certain team members may get skittish about the possibility of their role being rendered obsolete. It's not hard to see how radical candor works wonders in this situation.

Are there going to be tough conversations in the workplace? Of course there are, but you knew that when you went into leadership in the first place. How you approach these conversations has a direct impact on their outcomes. Maybe it's time to ask yourself whether you're being radically candid with your team.

Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, host of the Breaking Beliefs podcast, and Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA's Information Management Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee. Learn more at amyvetter.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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