Change is to leaders as water is to fish. If accounting firm leaders were not already adept at anticipating change and pivoting when needed, they would have drowned long ago.
So said three-time author and organizational psychologist Nick Tasler, who presented the keynote speech at INSIDE Public Accounting’s PRIME Symposium in Plano, Texas. “I want to excavate the lessons that you’ve already learned that maybe you’ve forgotten about or that are buried under a pile of half-truths and myths,” he told dozens of leaders from IPA Best of the Best firms. “Then I want to codify your well-trained instincts about change and about needing other people to change.”
First, though, he reminded the group that change is always preceded by a season of uncertainty. “Change around us unleashes growth inside us, which produces the big wins that are up ahead of us,” he said. Imagine the quarterback who was convinced that his injury meant he wouldn’t make the starting lineup the year before he led the team to the conference championship. It was the injury that altered his routine and led to growth. “Strange and unexpected changes act like an alarm clock that wakes up creative superpowers that most of us didn’t even know we had,” Tasler said, offering his favorite definition of change: “Change is the loyal friend who shows up just in the nick of time to snatch us from the jaws of mediocrity.” But it’s one thing to accept change yourself; it’s another to
lead others to embrace it and move forward to advance not only the goals of the organization but also their personal aspirations. One key of successful leadership is to “push with one arm and love with the other,” he said, meaning that few people will change of their own volition. It takes nudging staff to perform beyond what they think is possible while supporting them as someone who wants the best for them. “I heard it said once that a great leader is somebody who loves their people exactly the way they are but loves them too much to let them stay that way,” Tasler said. “I think that’s a great mantra for us.”
Staff need to know three things to embrace change, he said.
Staff need to understand the realities of what they’re facing — the good, the bad, the ugly — and the goals the organization is trying to achieve, even if leaders don’t know the steps needed to get there. Some examples of balancing the hard truths with a positive vision: “I worry that maybe our best days are behind us, but I wonder what we might discover in the months ahead if we all join together and think a little more creatively,” or “I worry that I don’t have all the answers, but I wonder what our clients are going to teach us in the months ahead about what we do well, about who we really are and about how we can grow.”
Staff also need to know what’s NOT changing. Some leaders advocate the burning platform approach, thinking that no one will jump unless you set their feet on fire, but while it may sound counter-intuitive, employees should understand that the changes are simply new expressions of what the firm has always stood for, whether it’s using AI for the first time or leaning into advisory services. “Within an organization we attach much of our personal identity to the organization’s identity, and so if the message I’m hearing is all of a sudden everything is changing, then all of a sudden now that uncertainty is compounded — now I don’t know who I am anymore.”
The most common thing people say about change is that it’s hard, but Tasler cautioned against using that description. “It creates discomfort, it creates inconvenience, but saying that change is hard is missing the point. It’s burying the lead because the big story, the headline story, the front-page news story is not that change is hard, it’s that growth is happening.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting.