A Leadership Preview

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While the rest of you spent the first couple of weeks in November choosing, and then adjusting to, a new president, we had the pleasure of hosting a number of managing partners and CEOs from leading accounting firms in our video studio here in New York City, as part of a series of interviews with top leaders in the profession that we’re partnering on with Phil Whitman and his consulting firm, Whitman Business Advisors.

Our studio, like all things in Manhattan, is much, much smaller than it looks on TV, but it was worth cramming in there with Phil and our video team and the extraordinarily hot lights to listen to these leaders discuss their careers and their thoughts on the profession. Both Accounting Today and Whitman Business Advisors will be sharing the insights we gleaned from those interviews, and from the many more like them that we’ll be conducting with other firm leaders in the future, throughout 2017 in a variety of platforms — our respective Web sites, these pages, podcasts and more — but for now, I want to share a preview of a few things that stood out for me.

Among many other things, we asked the MPs to describe their career paths, including how long they had been at their firm, and how long it took them to make partner. The answers were instructive.

First, most of them had spent the entirety of their career at one firm — and even those who didn’t join their current firm right out of college generally joined it within a few years of graduating, or founded it themselves. The upshot is that the vast majority had been with the firm they’re leading for upwards of 25 years.

Second, most of them made partner within five years of leaving college (in a few cases by launching their own firm), but the average time that it takes to make partner at their firm — both then and now — is between ten and 12 years. So by and large, they were ahead of their peers. In a few cases, this was because they made their own opportunities, but in most, the firm leadership at the time recognized something special in them and raised them up above their cohort. (And bear in mind that for most of those who didn’t start their own firms, they still spent a decade or more as a partner before taking the reins.)

For me, this raises two follow-up points — one for young accountants, and the other for current firm leaders. First, given the growing tendency to explore a wide range of career options, often in short bursts of job-hopping, next-gen accountants who aim for the top spot may want to bear in mind that it can take a decade or more with the same firm to build the broad understanding of its business and the political network among partners that election to the MP’s office can require. Most accountants probably aren’t aspiring to lead their firms, of course, and for them, a wide-ranging resume can reflect an exciting career — but for those who want to lead, time in place and a long-term commitment to the same colleagues and clients matter.

Second, for current firm leaders — how much of an eye are you keeping out for young talent? Many of the CEOs and MPs we’re interviewing were marked for a bright future by a mentor or boss in the first few years of their careers — and this was in the years before firms learned how to identify high performers and funnel them into leadership development programs. When you look at your entry-level talent, are you expecting to find future MPs there? What would you look for? And if you find it, do you have a plan to nurture it so it will stick around for another decade, waiting for the top slot to open up?

Keep an eye out for more insights from these interviews throughout 2017.

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