First Impressions: Lessons in Leadership From New MPs

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With business booming and revenues going through the roof for many firms, 2022 would seem to have been an ideal time to step in as a new MP. But the long-term challenges facing the profession in the years ahead – from ongoing staffing issues to the never-ending onslaught of new technology – suggest the road ahead will be anything but smooth.

IPA checked in with the following trio of MPs, all of whom assumed the role for the first time in 2022, as they recounted their early impressions of the top job and reflected on not only the aforementioned challenges but also the opportunities that lie ahead for both their firms and the profession as a whole:

  • Joseph Gleba joined Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based IPA 200 and Best of the Best firm Porte Brown (FY21 net revenue of $31.4 million) in 1996 and was admitted as a partner in 2009. After a decade of running a branch office, serving as lead partner of the construction industry practice and working closely with his retiring predecessor, he assumed the role of CEO in February.
  • Steven Harris took the reins at St. Louis-based RubinBrown LLP (FY22 net revenue of $160 million) in June as just the IPA 100 firm’s fourth MP in 70 years. Harris began his career at RubinBrown in 1999 and had most recently served as PIC of the firm’s entrepreneurial services group.
  • Mike Ziembo assumed the managing director role at IPA 400 and Best of the Best firm Baden Gage & Schroeder (FY21 net revenue of $9.5 million) of Fort Wayne, Ind., in January. Ziembo started with firm in 1995 in the audit department, but throughout his career got exposure to several different areas of the firm, eventually helping lead the charge for new technology.

What follows is a selection of insights from separate conversations with these three leaders.

Early impressions of the role – and the importance of a solid succession plan  

Gleba: Some surprises that I have encountered – excluding managing a firm within this new remote working environment – include seeing the growth, development and involvement of other partners. I am very fortunate to have a great partner team and have seen many of them advance and take on new challenges as we continue to manage the firm in our changing industry. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside our past CEO for several years, which has certainly assisted with the transition of my responsibilities within the firm.

Harris: When you go from leading a group of 80-plus people to a group of more than 800, the responsibilities obviously grow and change, but you try to build off the same fundamentals that got you to that point from a leadership standpoint. You understand quickly that your No. 1 client is the firm – every decision you make has to be good for the firm and good for the people inside it. The biggest surprise is probably the commitment of time to the people who want individual access to me. I have to be able to help people with different issues and find ways to motivate people to achieve more than they think they can and help them find great solutions.

I’m fortunate that my chairman John Herber is still here, and he’s done a great job of bringing me into the role in a piecemeal fashion. I didn’t have to jump right in and learn everything right away – I’m learning bits and pieces as I go, which has been a lifesaver. I can’t imagine someone taking this role and having their predecessor be gone right away. From a succession planning standpoint, the way we’ve gone about it just makes a lot of sense.

Ziembo: There haven’t been a lot of surprises so far, aside from the fact that there’s a lot more administrative time than I had anticipated. It really helped that we had a succession plan in place here and we’ve had a long-term transition process. Chris Hootman is my immediate predecessor and she’s still around for guidance and support.

Best advice from their predecessor

Gleba: Make your decisions based on what is right and fair. This will take you a long way with your staff.

Harris: The best advice that John gives me is to always make sure that I’m following the organization’s vision points. We want to always work as one firm and inspire our team members and live our core values and deliver totally satisfied clients. Staying within the guardrails of that concept helps me make a lot of key decisions. Every decision we make we always ask, “Is this good for the firm?” We have to be firm-first in everything we do. There are a lot of things that could be good for me individually or good for the partner group, but are they good for the overall firm? I have to be the steward of the overall organization, and John embeds that in me all the time.

Ziembo: Right before Chris was Perry Schroeder, one of the founding partners, and his best advice was to not worry about filling Chris’ shoes but to instead develop my own management style.

Something they’ve discovered that they wish they had known coming in

Gleba: I had always found the joy in public accounting working on various engagements with different clients. As CEO, you’re focused mainly on one client – the firm. Therefore, I have seen my role evolve into a more traditional business professional focused on primarily just one business – Porte Brown.

Harris: Calendar management in this role is so important. What you don’t realize is that you’re going to have a lot of people who want to share everything with you about what they’re doing for the organization. When people are winning, they want to tell you about it. When they need your help, they want to share that with you. And it’s such a rewarding experience to be on the front lines with people when they’re having those successes, but it takes time. I always joke that I’ve never heard “do you have a minute?” so many times in my life. But it’s important in this role to make yourself accessible and available. If I can help somebody celebrate even the smallest success and make them feel good about it, then I’m doing a great job in this role. And hopefully that motivates them to want to do more and more for the organization. The minute I don’t make myself available for those opportunities, I think it’s going to be problem. I’d rather people feel comfortable with coming and asking if I have a minute than feeling like they can’t get to me. At the end of the day, I’m here to serve our people, our firm and our profession.

Ziembo: In addition to more administrative stuff, there’s a lot more emphasis on soft skills these days. We’re up to nine partners now from five when my predecessor was in this role, so as we bring up the younger people in this next generation it’s going to be a little more challenging as we grow.

The biggest challenge ahead (read: staffing)

 Gleba: Without question, staffing is the primary concern facing the profession. With the exit of the Baby Boomer generation, the reduction of new candidates entering the profession, other industries attracting the profession’s current talent and the compression of the traditional tax season, the ability to complete engagements within a short timeframe has become much more challenging. This has been especially heightened during the shift in the profession to remote working and better work/life balance.

Harris: For everybody right now it’s the evolving talent market. It’s both the pipeline and the question of whether we have enough new people entering the profession, but also the other end with people exiting the profession coming out of the pandemic. It’s kind of the perfect storm right now. You also have a lot of people who are evaluating whether they want to continue on in this profession and go the distance. There’s a lot of competition right now, and every firm is looking to recruit, develop and retain the talent they’re investing in. That said, we’re fortunate that there’s no shortage of opportunity in the profession. Our services are needed in so many different facets, whether it’s tax strategies or assurance strategies or consulting strategies – those things are all still very relevant and prevalent. We’re just somewhat restricted by the amount of talent we have available.

Ziembo: Staffing is just the biggest thing. For a firm our size, the ever-changing tax laws that we have to keep up with require good people. And that’s always been an issue, it just seems more pressing right now.

Opportunities on the horizon

 Gleba: We have seen tremendous growth with our client advisory services. More than ever as we have helped clients navigate through and past the pandemic, our role as the client’s trusted advisor has only been enhanced. Whether it’s providing accounting support with back-office processing, transitioning a client through new business opportunities and tax incentive solutions, or assisting with business and personal succession planning, we continue to put the client’s needs at the top of the agenda. With these opportunities, the firm has been able to expand and develop new lines of services.

Harris: I think it’s creating the best possible team member experience. A lot has changed in this profession coming out of the pandemic, and I think the organizations that get it right from the people standpoint are the ones that are going to win. And we as leaders can’t just sit here and make all the decisions – we have to invite our team to the table to make sure we’re creating the kind of great fundamentals, great processes and great expectations that everybody is buying into. We need to find ways to keep people engaged.

Ziembo: We have to look past just the compliance work. We try really hard to be that trusted advisor for our clients and they really rely on us and look to us for guidance. Accounting is the language of business, and we need to lean into that.

Top priorities and areas of focus

Gleba: Firm mergers and acquisitions will continue to be an important area for growth and a solution for adding to a talented workforce. There are many great firms that are looking for a succession plan or to simply take the firm to the next level; unfortunately, many firms lack the resources or are not interested in making this happen on their own.

 Harris: Coming in, my initial priorities were to help us through some transitions. We have some long-term partners who are getting ready to retire, so we’re working through that process. And now I’m looking at our talent development – looking at key roles that we need to introduce into the organization and working with our leadership team to make sure we have the right people and right processes in place as we move forward. We really want to win this talent war – and not from the standpoint where we’re competing against other firms, but rather just trying to make sure we’re a best-in-class organization. When people look at our firm, we want them to see it as a place that does great work and is a great place to work.

Ziembo: My focus is to maintain the culture of client service that has helped make us successful. The founding partners built this firm on the notion of taking care of our clients as the top priority and I don’t ever want to lose that. Now that we’re getting into the third generation of partners, I think it’s important that people understand that history and maintain our focus on that.

 Advice for up-and-coming professionals

 Gleba: The CPA profession is unique. There aren’t many industries that provide a path for an excelling employee to one day become an owner of the company – I think this gets forgotten by talented individuals who decide to leave the profession early. That said, there are also positions and alternative solutions for individuals who do not wish to become a partner.

Harris: I would tell any young professional coming in to really embrace this opportunity and get engaged. A lot of our more senior leaders understood the value of getting involved in the profession, but you don’t see that as much today because young people have so many different demands on their time. I would challenge them to get to know the best of each other in their organizations as well, and to be intentional about that. The key for any young professional is to be in a position where you’re not just working for the firm, but you’re also working on the firm. Find a way to be seen as adding value to the organization, not just working there.

Ziembo: The great thing about the accounting profession is that you’re always relevant. Everything that happens in a business touches accounting in some way. It takes time to build experience, but the more you learn and stay open to the possibilities, the more you can get out of this profession.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting. To subscribe to INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly click here.


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