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? Not enough, and sadly, the problem is not going away and will only increase in intensity as increasing numbers retire from the profession. Some firms have implemented leadership development programs in an attempt to focus on the leadership issue. Some say, "Too little, too late."

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 firms 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 or fail to communicate the fact to star talent.

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

3. Firms hire homogeneous personnel, rather than diversity.

4. Firms overvalue problem-solvers, technical skills 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. Don't be afraid to provide them exceptional training opportunities and experiences.

Good leaders have "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 promotes mediocrity. Excellence hates mediocrity and mediocrity hates excellence.

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

Awareness of the items on the accompanying list should improve your process and help you avoid falling into some common traps. (See "Picking leaders," below.)

The identification of leaders is imperative to firm sustainability. Visionary leaders cannot be easily manufactured through leadership development programs; however, their skills can be reinforced and their confidence increased. 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. Great leaders identify and develop their successors.

Future leadership within the firm is attainable at every level by focusing on the individuals in the firm that value a diverse workforce. They must have "edge" in their decision-making abilities, can make decisions quickly without all of the facts, have a tolerance for risk, and can put your firm in a better position to develop the talent it needs for the future.

Your firm is responsible for developing great leaders through the experiences you allow them to engage in. These firm leaders will then chase a vision -- not just goals! You can set the tone, culture and environment for success.

PICKING LEADERS

Here are 10 characteristics to look for in identifying future leaders:

1. Look for people who have a tolerance for and can manage risk.

2. Avoid those who spend too much time in consensus-building. (While consensus is important in a professional service organization, 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 good leader.

4. Avoid weighing a person's ability to be a good implementer and problem-solver too heavily. These abilities don't necessarily make great 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 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, as they are just as important as public speaking.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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