IPA MP Profile: Kelly Nelson, Bader Martin

Main Office: Seattle, Wash.

Staff Size: 92

The winding road that Kelly Nelson took to the MP role at Seattle-based IPA 300 firm Bader Martin wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. Having spent several years in the private client/high-net-worth practice of a Big 4 firm, several more as partner in a boutique tax firm catering to a similar clientele and owner of her own practice for a dozen years, she joined Bader Martin as a tax principal in 2014. After helping to significantly grow the $17.9-million firm’s high-net-worth practice for seven years, she was named MP in May of this year.

And that’s where her journey, like so many others in this current age, gets a little more unusual. Because if taking the helm of a firm can be a daunting proposition in even the best of times, doing so in the middle of an ongoing global pandemic certainly adds another wrinkle to the story. Nelson, who grew up in a Mexican-American family, recently sat down with IPA to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing both Bader Martin and the profession at large, her feelings on being the first woman and first person of color to lead the firm and her intense focus on people right now. Below are some key excerpts from that wide-ranging conversation.

Her initial priorities as MP: Taking over during the pandemic, my initial priority has been making sure our people are OK. Trying to preserve and protect the culture that Bader Martin has had is one of the most important elements of what I want to do. Even though we’re living in this sort of two-dimensional world, I want to make sure people feel connected and they feel a sense of purpose, because I believe that’s what everyone, especially the younger generation, is looking for. It might have been rewarding to me at one point in my career to have saved one of my clients a lot of money in taxes, but this generation really likes to see a greater purpose in what they’re doing. So as much as I can I’m just trying to reach out to our staff and clients and make sure we maintain some degree of personal connection. Everything is focused on people right now.

Challenges and opportunities: This is a relationship business, which means it’s crucial to be able to attract and retain talented professionals. We of course need the technical competence, but it’s the relationships that really make what we do rewarding. We’re seeing fewer individuals coming through the education system with degrees in accounting and, once here, it’s very difficult to retain those people. That’s the challenge right now – it’s all about staffing.

On the flip side, any way that we can enable our people to really embrace the relationship side of the engagement and be a strategic partner to our clients is the biggest opportunity. The goal needs to be to innovate so we can truly minimize the compliance side of things and educate people on the softer skills to be more consultative. I think that’s where we all want to be.

Thoughts on remote working: I feel like it took the pandemic for the profession to realize that some of the things that have historically caused us to lose talent – like being rigid about being in the office – are actually possible. People can do excellent work remotely and if we embrace that, maybe we won’t lose some of those who may have thought the profession was too demanding and not flexible enough. It’s a huge opportunity if it helps us keep more people in the profession. It’s sad that it took a pandemic for us to figure that out, but now that we know, hopefully we can make the most of it.

The best advice she received as a young up-and-comer in the profession: One mentor and former partner of mine told me that as important as it is to know your craft, it’s more important to listen. Clients expect that you know all the technical things, but to ultimately become a good consultant, you really have to listen to what they need. Sometimes it’s tempting to show off all the technical stuff you know, but particularly in the private client space, that’s not always going to get a client to open up and really share what they need with you. Listening is the key to being seen as a trusted advisor.

What success will look like in her first year as MP: The retention element is something we’re really going to keep an eye on – so we’ll be looking at turnover and engagement and things like that. We need to make sure we’re providing our people with opportunities and continuing to bring in exciting new work for them. We have a lot of big companies in our backyard, which is great, but when it comes to keeping talent, it can be hard to compete with some of the things that they can offer. We just want to make sure that we’re providing a good quality of life and keeping them with us.

On being the first woman and first person of color to lead the firm: Throughout my professional life, whenever people would refer to my gender or ethnicity, I’ve always looked at it as sort of a qualifier. It’s like if someone says, “You look really great…for your age.” I would hear that, and in my mind, I would think maybe they’re qualifying the hard work and dedication I’ve put into getting where I am by noting my gender or ethnicity. As time has passed, however, I’ve realized that I have a responsibility as a woman to identify some of the inequities that do happen in the world and in business, and really try to be a positive role model for younger women in the profession.

One of the things that really touched me was when the announcement was made, one of our staff members sent me an email that said, “There will be a time when a woman of color will be named managing principal and it won’t make me cry, but that’s not today. Thank you for your leadership and for showing me this is possible.” In that moment, just with that email, I realized that this is about how I can model this role for other women. I feel like I have a responsibility in that way, and I see it as a real honor.

 

 

 

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