Many in the accounting profession are experiencing a human resources crisis and a corresponding shortage of future leadership. What are most firms doing about it? Sadly, the problem is not going away. In fact, it will only increase in intensity. Some firms have implemented leadership development programs in an attempt to focus on the leadership issue.

However, isn’t the identification of leaders as important as the development of leaders? I believe that identification is very important and perhaps the most difficult step in the leadership development cycle. When and how do you identify leaders? What do you look for in future firm leaders? What traits do you avoid? Leaders should be identified early in their careers and provided with the opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Potential leaders often leave if they don’t have the opportunity to lead and don’t see a significant future with the firm. This often occurs when firms stagnate and fail to grow. The following mistakes are easy to make when it comes to leadership:

1. Firms wait too long to identify leaders.

2. Firms focus on consensus-building skills, rather than leadership skills.

3. Firms hire homogeneous personnel, rather than aiming for diversity.

4. Firms overvalue problem-solving and fact-finding in defining leadership traits.

5. Firms overvalue workaholics (charge hours and the effort-based economy).

These issues may not sound that significant, but they are very important in selecting people to lead your firm.

Many people think leadership is only necessary at the top of the firm. Leadership is necessary at all levels and good leaders are developed over a career and not in a period of one to two years. Therefore, it is recommended that firms identify leaders as early in their careers as possible and develop an individual professional development plan involving diversified experiences.

Good leaders have what Jack Welch referred to as “edge.” They can make a decision without every fact. The higher people go in the firm, often the fewer facts they have in order to make a decision. Ambiguity is often present and good leaders must be able to make a decision. Consensus-builders tend to wait too long by ensuring that everyone is in agreement with the decision. This type of leadership often promotes mediocrity.

With this said, what should a firm look for and how can they avoid basing assessment on insufficient information? Knowing what to avoid in identifying and selecting leaders may be as important as a list of criteria.

Awareness of the 10 traits in the accompanying table should improve your process and help you avoid falling into some common traps (see “Looking for leaders?,” below).

The identification of leaders is imperative to firm sustainability. Visionary leaders cannot be easily manufactured through leadership development programs. Most good leaders are hard-wired and demonstrate their leadership traits in early adulthood. It is your responsibility to look for those traits and nurture them.

Future leadership within the firm is attainable at every level of the practice, and by focusing on finding the individuals in the firm who value a diverse workforce, have “edge” in their decision-making abilities, can make decisions quickly without having all the facts, and who have a tolerance for risk, you can put your firm in a better position to develop the talent it needs for the future. Your firm will then be responsible for developing great leaders through the experiences you have allowed them to engage in. These firm leaders will then chase the vision — not just goals! AT

 

LOOKING FOR LEADERS?

Many of the qualities that get people promoted in accounting firms — technical skills in their area of focus, willingness to put in long hours, longevity, reliability — are not necessarily the qualities that make for great leaders.

Similarly, many of the qualities that people assume are valuable in leaders — being able to build consensus, for instance — may, in fact, turn out to be counterproductive.

What, then, should firms be looking for when it comes to identifying their next generation of leaders — and, perhaps more important, what should they avoid? Here are seven positive traits you should hope to see, and three negative traits that should give you pause.

1. Look for people who have a tolerance for risk.

2. Avoid those who spend too much time in consensus-building. (While consensus is important in a professional service organization like an accounting firm, it is time-consuming and doesn’t always lead to good decisions.)

3. Look for those who can manage a diverse group of people. An appreciation of others’ unique abilities is the sign of a great leader.

4. Avoid weighing a person’s ability to be a good implementer and problem-solver too heavily. These abilities don’t necessarily make good leaders. Their tendency is to over-analyze and delay making decisions.

5. Look closely at personal integrity and the ability to trust others; this is of the utmost importance.

6. Look for the ability to turn dangers into opportunities.

7. Avoid those who are overly competitive and lack humility.

8. Look for those with the ability to engage, inspire and convince others.

9. Identify those who have an instinct to know which problems to solve, not just how to solve problems.

10. Look for those who have excellent one-on-one social skills; they are just as important as public speaking.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA. CITP, CGMA, is CEO of Boomer Consulting Inc.

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