The Top 100 People: 20 lessons learned from COVID-19

While the coronavirus pandemic reminded accounting’s leaders of what’s truly important, both professionally and personally, it also revealed the resiliency of the profession.

As part of this year’s Top 100 Most Influential People survey, Accounting Today asked, “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from the pandemic?”

The T100 expressed pride in their teams’ abilities to transition into remote work and find new ways to serve clients and connect with each other, as well as in the profession’s ability to serve as advisors to clients for new complications like the Paycheck Protection Program. Still, many emphasized the need to focus on human connection and mental health, and make those priorities going forward.

(To see the full responses of all the candidates for the Top 100, click here.)

While I have always known that our people are the most important part of our firm, the pandemic has reinforced that. Our people have risen to the occasion at every turn—supporting each other, our clients and our communities. Even as they faced their own challenges, our teams maintained a steadfast focus on our clients and supporting their needs during this difficult time.

— Joe Adams, managing partner and CEO, RSM US 2018
The importance of leadership and teaming during very stressful and uncertain times. We worked hard to provide the best available information to the firms and also teamed with others in the delivery of solutions.

Also — the importance of acting and rising to the occasion.

— Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO,
Wiley-Sandra-Boomer Consulting 2018
That we are a very resilient and adaptive group of humans. We are in the midst of some massive change,and we are learning new lessons every day. We are changing the world, and while we feel anxious sometimes, we certainly are making the absolute best of it. I hear far more good than I would have imagined. Keep holding each other up, and we will get through this stronger than ever before.

— Sandra Wiley, president, Boomer Consulting Inc.
BDO USA CEO Wayne Berson
Invest relentlessly in your people and in your own digital infrastructure. When COVID-19 first hit the U.S. in mid-March, we immediately adapted our day-to-day work and transitioned 65+ offices to a remote environment. Our people stepped up and made a tremendous effort on behalf of their clients, utilizing digital tools to provide a seamless delivery of services, no matter the obstacle. Although we continue to work in a challenging environment, it is because of our investment in our people and our technology that we remain resilient.

— Wayne Berson, CEO, BDO USA LLP
Bhansali-Chandra-AccountantsWorld 2018
We, as a profession, have the capabilities to do far more than we thought. Accountants helped their clients more than anyone else during these unprecedented times and adjusted to the new reality quite well.

— Chandra Bhansali, co-founder, AccountantsWorld
I should have listened to my wife a long time ago ... “Jim, do you really need to hop on a plane to fly 17 hours to speak for two hours in Sydney? You talk about technology, don’t you? Why don’t you use some of that technology to get some of your life back?”

Kills me to say this … but she’s right. What was I thinking?

— Jim Bourke, managing director of advisory services, WithumSmith+Brown
Cieslak-David-RKL eSolutions 2018
Take time for yourself … each day. Step away from your home office, take a walk, go for a fun, get out of the house and just appreciate the many things we might previously have taken for granted (or might have gotten lost in the frenetic pace of our pre-COVID regimen). The necessity for self-care has never been more evident than now — both physically and mentally. To be your best self, you must first take care of yourself.

— David Cieslak, EVP, chief cloud officer, RKL eSolutions LLC
Crosley-Gale-Consultant 2018
How to live more in the present, while taking time to gain more perspective on the past and future.

— Gale Crosley, president and founder, Crosely+Co.
People are in need. This makes the work of leaders more difficult but more important than ever. People want to know you care. They are in need and dealing with so much. It may sound basic, but empathy for each other has never been more important. The basic human understanding that we are going through this pandemic together can help all of us feel a sense of community.

— Sasan Goodarzi, CEO, Intuit
Grier-Kelly-Ernst 2018
For me, leading with empathy and compassion is of the upmost importance — lifting each other up and supporting each other in new and meaningful ways — and during these crises and these most difficult moments, this is what our people need more than ever.

I’ve realized that we all have a unique opportunity to reimagine our future. It’s one that looks very different from our past, but I strongly believe we are uniquely capable of realizing that bright future together. We’re looking for the silver linings in this and not wasting the opportunity to think boldly about transforming our business for both our people and our clients.

— Kelly Grier, U.S. chair and managing partner and Americas managing partner, EY
It is critical to spend more time with people to ask how they are doing personally, how their family is doing, and how they are getting along. Further, it is mandatory to take the time to listen to their situation and story carefully. The bottom line is that people matter the most, but that was true before the pandemic and will be true after COVID-19 is under control.

— Randy Johnston, CEO and founder, EVP, NMGI and K2 Enterprises
Be flexible and get used to dealing with uncertainty. The one thing that’s certain about this current crisis, is the massive amount of uncertainty. In order to succeed, you must execute on the activities and behaviors that are within your control. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen and learned how effective and efficient our people can be in a remote work environment, continuing to deliver valuable client solutions and services with excellence and quality. It’s essential that we support and care for our people and continue to create supportive environments that help them grow and thrive. Frequent, transparent and empathetic communication is an important element of this.

— Paul Knopp, U.S. Chair and CEO, KPMG LLP
Melancon at 2018 Engage cropped
It is important for leaders to speak openly about mental health challenges, including awareness and support. They exist at all levels and in all organizations. In our profession, the stresses will increase given changing laws and business assistance programs, the time overlaps and the implications of economic recovery. The continued family complexities add to the mental health risks.

— Barry Melancon, president and CEO, AICPA; CEO, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants
To wear a mask ... Seriously, I think about the things I’ve missed the most — travel, theater, seeing far-flung family — and I’ve realized that it’s way too easy to take those things for granted. Same goes for seeing my team on a Monday morning and exchanging stories about the weekend and getting to see members in person and really hearing what is going on with them and what is really driving them or worrying them. So, what have I learned? I would say to really lean into all of those experiences and appreciate them more in the moment.

— Amy Pitter, president & CEO, Massachusetts Society of CPAs
As CEO, you’d think the pandemic would lead me to focus on purely financial matters. But, as it turns out, when I looked at any financial issue related to the pandemic, all I saw was people. Whatever the issue, the first and most essential step has been to protect the safety and well-being of our people and build out from there. All the metrics that executives track — quality, performance, productivity, innovation, client experience — these are all human outcomes. They depend on people.

— Bradley Preber, CEO, Grant Thornton LLP
Ben Richmond
The pandemic has shown us the importance for businesses and accounting professionals to work together and embrace the “do it together” (DIT) mentality. Now is the time for accountants and bookkeepers to reach out and show how they can support clients, whether it’s through recordkeeping and maintaining compliance, business continuity planning, or scenario forecasting. If we display a deeper, collective sense of awareness and understanding, we can make better decisions for our clients and support more of them in the short and long term.

— Ben Richmond, U.S. country manager, Xero
Root-Darren-Rootworks and Liscio
That we have to be advisors over anything else. Our clients needed us for everything from figuring out the PPP to simply easing their minds.

— Darren Root, GM, Rootworks LLC
Ryan-Tim-Pwc 2020
That our people are incredibly resilient and that they care so much about the work that we do. While adapting to working virtually nearly overnight, they have continued to seamlessly meet client demands and upend traditional ways of solving our client’s problems, all while juggling the effects of a global pandemic, stepping in to teach their children from home, serving as caretakers, and dealing with the systematic inequalities that plague our nation, all without missing a beat. It’s been made clear to me more than ever the value of taking care of our people, providing them with the support benefits, mental health resources, and flexibility to work how and when best suits their needs.

— Tim Ryan, chair and senior partner, PwC US
Telberg-Rick-CPA Trendlines 2018
Change can't wait. (And wear your mask, dammit.)

— Rick Telberg, CEO and founder, CPA Trendlines Research
I’ve learned to embrace disruption and the opportunity to pivot at a pace that would typically take years but is now only taking months. This crisis has accelerated our digital transformation and how we work with and deliver to clients to thrive in a virtual/hybrid future. Particularly now, as organizations determine how to exit a virtual-only environment and find their next normal, we are focused on leveraging the learnings we have from this time to reimagine a new work environment suitable to the evolving needs of our business and our people.

— Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO, Deloitte US