Leadership skills for the 21st century accountant
Blaire Palmer says accountants can’t rely on decades-old leadership training: they need to develop the soft skills and qualities that their junior staff and clients now expect.
A good leader puts time and energy into the development of their people. After all, your people are the DNA of your firm. They are the only thing that really differentiates your firm from any other.
But what about your development? How much time and energy do you give to that?
The firm can only be as developed as you
Making time for your growth needs to be high up on the agenda. And that’s because the firm can only be as developed as you.
Leaders create the environment, so if those at the top are relying on what they learned on a management course they took last decade the investment in those below is likely to be limited.
Junior staff look above them for clues about ‘how we lead around here’. If they learn one approach on a course and see another in their work environment, it’s the one they see at work that will inform their own behaviour. They cannot transcend the leadership they experience from others day to day.
What leadership qualities do you need to develop?
Leadership development is a lifelong journey. We are never really finished. And true leadership development is nothing to do with management skills or even so-called soft skills.
What you need will depend on your own unique blindspots, your leadership strengths and the context in which you operate.
And the four leadership development areas that most leaders in accountancy could benefit from focusing on may surprise you.
Knowing what you stand for
Today more than ever, senior leaders have to stand for something beyond just making money for themselves and keeping everyone in a job.
Investing in your personal growth, mindset development, mental wellbeing and self-awareness helps you understand your values and what drives you beyond creating a successful firm. This kind of development goes way beyond soft skills training and is much closer to personal development.
If you want your people to care about more than just their own career progression and their next salary increase, you need to tap into your greater sense of purpose and put that at the heart of the business. Not every employee cares about this, but enough do to make it a priority for your development as a leader.
Intimacy is the connection that is made when two people trust each other. When your people feel they can tell you what’s really on their mind, you have intimacy.
And intimacy starts with you. No one is going to open up to you if you aren’t willing to be open with them. In the dim and distant past, leaders were much more remote and aloof figures. We didn’t know about their personal struggles, their lives outside of work or their passions.
But times change. You need access to your employee’s ideas and they won’t tell you their ideas, or even tell you what the problems are on the ground, if they don’t trust you. Their willingness to trust you is based on how open they feel you are with them.
If you prefer to keep work and life separate, if you only show the most polished version of you, and if you never admit to struggles or talk about lessons learned from failure, you won’t be able to find out what’s really going on in your firm. And that could come back to bite you.
Leaders need to become more skilled at opening up and speaking from the heart. It doesn’t come naturally to us all but it’s a vital leadership attribute in today’s less hierarchical business culture.
You might think you’re a great listener. You know ‘active listening’, you know to let others speak and not interrupt, you know to ask open questions and even how to coach.
But really listening goes a lot further. You have to stop being the answers person. You don’t have the solutions. What worked yesterday may not work today and almost certainly won’t work tomorrow.
Listening means setting aside your opinion, your judgments and your ‘knowing’. It means listening so hard you might change your mind.
And that means getting your ego out of the way. How aware are you of your own limiting beliefs? Are you familiar with your operating model and do you know how to identify and unpick assumptions?
To access the wisdom of your people you need to bypass your inner dialogue and become curious. To create space for others to do their best work you need to get out of the way. Most of us have a lifetime’s work to get there, and that work should start today.
There’s a lot of talk in business about the need to embrace and learn from mistakes. The reality is somewhat different.
There are very few companies where it is actually acceptable for staff to fail or to produce flawed work. Not only that, but the consequences of making mistakes are often severe.
Some firms will have a process for reverse engineering a ‘learning opportunity’ (once the culprit has been suitably admonished) but the overwhelming intention is to prevent another such mistake occurring rather than, truly, to learn lessons that can enhance the skill and awareness of the organisation.
The blame culture begins at the top and is bound up with a misunderstanding about how learning really occurs and how creative thinking is sparked.
There’s a lot of fear about how clients will react should a mistake negatively impact them and their business. This is often accompanied by rather rose-tinted remembrances by senior staff and partners about how they never made such mistakes in their formative years or a tough-minded intolerance intended to motivate and reinforce high standards.
Perhaps this seems reasonable to you. But there are other ways to create high-quality, client-centered solutions. A more collaborative attitude – which starts at the top – can create a partnership between staff and client. Work is improved by iteration, constant adjustment and through feedback and refinement in response.
Mistakes and failures are not accompanied by blame but seen as opportunities to discover limiting beliefs and assumptions that benefit everyone, whether or not they were involved in this particular project.
To adopt that perspective requires hard, often self-reflective work. If like me, you grew up professionally in a more conventional, perfectionist environment, there’s a great deal to unpick if you are going to embrace errors, especially when those errors impact clients.
Leaders need to focus inward and re-think their own attitudes if they genuinely want to end the fear of failure (which always inhibits innovation) and grow the capability of the people they are investing so much in.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...