Developing Future Leaders: Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them


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Firm leaders can start planning to move staff members from ‘doers’ to leaders as early as the first year on the job – or even before their first day on the job.

Jason Yetter, MP of Englewood, Colo.-based Richey May (FY21 net revenue of $46.7 million), an IPA 100 firm, and Tamera Loerzel, partner with ConvergenceCoaching, see the best results when firm professionals are quickly identified and nurtured at every step. Sheila Enriquez, the MP of Houston-based Briggs & Veselka before it was merged into Crowe in 2022, showed her potential at her first firm by voluntarily taking on bigger and bigger projects, learning from mentors and blossoming in a partner training program that ultimately led to the top job.

Firms can’t hire enough and can’t keep enough employees – it’s a perennial problem that’s only worsened in recent years – so the “busyness” of the daily grind can derail the development of star hires into future leaders.  can stop the development of their stars into their future replacements. Even though firms know the investment now will pay off later, leadership training can be fraught with preventable obstacles if current leaders wait too long.

Here are some observations from Yetter, Loerzel and Enriquez.

 Yetter: Self First, Firm Second, Team Third

Richey May starts looking for potential leaders during the interview process by asking candidates questions about their behaviors in various situations. An example ­– Tell me about a time when you were working in a team with someone who didn’t perform. What steps did you take? What happened in the end? “That gives us a running start,” he says.

The firm then commits to customized, non-technical trainings every month – one for associates and another for managers. Richey May isn’t large enough to conduct all the training on its own, so it uses Leading Edge Alliance at lower levels, and The Partner Institute, a three-year program by The Growth Partnership, for more senior professionals who show the aptitude to become partners. The firm spends “well into six figures” annually for The Partner Institute alone.

In all cases, Yetter believes high-performing staff should understand why they behave the way they do, how the firm operates as a business and how to lead teams. In that order.

“This is my core tenet of leadership training: You simply have to start with self. You need to understand yourself to be able to begin to develop the skills to lead effectively. If you don’t know who you are, and how you lead and what your traits are, and what you’re better at and what you’re not so good at, you have no shot at leading teams and ultimately managing firm responsibilities.”

Advice for Firm Leaders

  • Find the tools for talented professionals to learn how they tick, such as 360-degree assessments and DiSC personality profiles.
  • Read 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
  • Double down on communications training to help managers more effectively lead hybrid or remote teams.
  • Don’t focus on billable hours, focus on long-term ROI. “Why would you view this investment any different than IT or upgrading laptops? I know that sounds a little bit trite, but how is it different? It’s not.”
  • Track progress by monitoring how emerging leaders interact with teams and manage projects.
  • Play the long game. It takes patience but the rewards will come. “You watch them come in as 23-year-olds and then 10 years later they’re just amazing people.”

Loerzel: Identify The Range of Career Paths

Among the many training initiatives at ConvergenceCoaching are its Leadership Development Program for Seniors and Supervisors™ and its Transformational Leadership Program® (TLP) for “high-potential” directors/managers, key administrators and new partners.

Like Yetter, Loerzel believes firms should take an active role in identifying those high-potential team members before the training programs start. “It’s easier to do if we build leadership skills at a base level with all people much earlier.” Who are the technical whizzes, visionaries, exceptional providers of client service or top motivators in team projects? Show staff they have multiple career tracks and nurture them along the way, she says.

Self-awareness is one key to the TLP program, revealed through input from their superiors, staff and peers and a personality assessment. Participants are required to go through a SWOT analysis and to pick three goals, with at least one being a leadership behavior goal. A firm mentor can encourage up-and-coming leaders to use their new skills by speaking up and contributing their insights, delegating work and developing others on their team. “The transformation happens when they find their voice and unique contribution for the firm,” Loerzel says.

Advice for Firm Leaders

  • Change your mindset about remote work.Loerzel agrees with Josh Bersin who says, “Give up the idea that your invisible workers are not working.” Instead, set clear expectations about the deliverables and learn how to build strong relationships virtually.
  • Moderate your focus. Technical expertise is required, but not by everyone. “One of the challenges we see over and over again is we scare away the ‘people people’ because they’re thinking, ‘I don’t fit here.’ ”
  • Don’t worry about singling out high performers. “If they’re standing above, if they’re producing results, if they’re initiating, we should do something special for them, so we have to get over that.”
  • Understand the 70/20/10 rule and apply it at your firms. Knowledge comes 70% from experiences and assignments, 20% from relationships and 10% from coursework and training, according to the Center for Creative Leadership.
  • Make goals measurable, even behavioral goals.
  • Say yes to new ideas. “The partners have to be willing to be coachable and take the ideas that they’re getting, whether it’s from our program or from a conference, it doesn’t matter.” Rejecting a proposal from a newly trained professional is the No. 1 way to kill their motivation.

Enriquez: Teach to Learn and Pass it On

Enriquez is now Crowe’s Texas market leader and chief DEI officer, but early in her career she believed she had a lot to prove as a first-generation immigrant while came to the United States from the Philippines on a student visa. She’s since earned a law degree along with her CPA and MBA – a credit to her own drive to improve, enhanced by mentors who believed in her and leadership training that transformed her.

Enriquez put in the hard work at her first firm, completing assignments and continually taking on more, but never thought of herself as someone who could develop business. When she arrived at Briggs & Veselka, then-MP John Flatowicz took her on client meetings and taught her that it’s about helping not selling. “To be honest, I even wondered if I had what it took.”

When she was newly promoted as a principal in 2009 she went through three years of training through the BKR accounting association, a true game changer that led her to apply her experiences at the firm, which cemented all that she had learned. “The epiphany for me is when I realized that if I were to develop others, and if I were to bring the best people around me – and I learned that from my mentors – then you can make the pie bigger. It’s a growth mindset as opposed to a limited, fixed mindset.”

Enriquez is a big believer in finding future leaders at the intersection of skills, passion and the needs of the firm. “If you find that – and I’ve lived it – that’s where I feel like the magic happens because now you’ve got a motivated individual meeting the needs of the firm and they’re good at it.”

She’s continuing to invest in leadership by teaching and mentoring others. “I love this profession so much that I feel like I want to pay it forward.”

Advice to Firm Leaders:

  • Teach non-technical skills at every level, and allow staff to try different things. Their preferences may not be clear to them at first.
  • Read The Reluctant Salesman by Terry Mullins and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Serve as an example. “As a leader you have to be right there in the trenches with the people you’re leading too. Many times we have to be the first ones to roll up our sleeves, then they’ll follow you.”
  • Teach potential leaders to lead without the title. Professionals in accounting are primed to learn technical details but firm supervisors can also teach staff about “leading from their seats.” Enriquez recalls, “I took ownership, I raised my hand, and partners leaned on me for things beyond my job title.”
  • Ensure inclusivity. Throughout her career, firm leaders have allowed a flexible schedule to accommodate raising children and supported her desire to learn more and pursue advanced degrees. “I could bring my whole self to work.”
  • Understand that training alone isn’t enough. “To me it’s not enough to just have the training, you have to have the support and the sponsorship and that comes in the form of mentorship and coaching, which is super critical because that’s where you have a one-on-one relationship with someone invested in you.”

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


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