Krista McMasters made history in April when her firm, Clifton Gunderson, named her to succeed Carl George as chief executive next year.

McMasters is the fourth chief executive in the firm's history and the first and only female to serve as chief executive among the country's top 25 CPA firms.

After starting with the firm in 1978, McMasters was admitted as a partner in 1985, became director of assurance services in 1989 and more recently served as the firm's chief practice officer.

She will take over the reins officially in June 2009, and George will continue to play a key strategic role within the firm until his retirement in 2012. McMasters talked to WebCPA about her leadership and management style, the culture within her firm and how, for her, accounting is all in the family.

Q: How did you find out you were in the running for CEO? How did that process happen?

A: Part of that process was forming a task force that consisted of the board and several leaders and practice partners across the firm. Their goal was really to vet and recommend candidates to the board for the next CEO. I knew I was one of the candidates that was recommended by the task force to the board, and the board ultimately made the decision considering the task force's recommendations.

Q: How long ago was that?

A: They started meeting in the December or January time frame, and ultimately the board made the choice at the end of March.

Q: When you found out you were offered the position, what did you do to celebrate?

A: I've been so busy, I really haven't taken a whole lot of time to celebrate. I think I'll celebrate when the position is effective and I'm through this transition year.

Q: What have you been doing to transition into the position?

A: I've been going out talking to the partners and senior managers in the firm about where we are in our strategic plan, where we are going to go from here, and my vision for the firm.

Q: What initially drew you to accounting?

A: It is one of those "I was good at math" things. I did take a bookkeeping class in high school. My uncle was a CPA, and both of my grandmothers were bookkeepers, so I had some knowledge of what accounting was about. I really didn't know what I wanted to do when I went to school. Somebody said, "If you're good with math, then go with accounting," and I really started with accounting right from the beginning and it stuck.

Q: What have been some obstacles or challenges you have faced?

A: There aren't things I can think about offhand that were real long-lasting memorable obstacles or challenges. Certainly there are lots of challenges in the profession, all the things that are out of our control like regulatory change and threatened litigation and all the standards you deal with at an accounting firm. Those are always challenges, but for me personally, I've been fortunate to be with a firm that has given me the opportunity to be in a position to develop so I could be qualified to assume this responsibility.

Q:  You describe the culture at Clifton Gunderson as progressive. In your mind, what makes a firm progressive?

A: I'm sure there are different things in different firms, but what makes us progressive is really our approach and commitment, both in time and resources and everything we do in growing our people. Our mission is growth of our people, growth of our clients, and all else follows. That mission is going to continue in the future. We've got numerous initiatives that really revolve around that mission, all with the goal of developing passionate, gifted professionals who really provide innovative, high-quality services to our clients. Everything we do revolves around developing our people.

Q: Are there any new initiatives that you are going to roll out in the near future?

A: We just rolled out, in the last couple of weeks, a formal women's initiative. It was on the drawing board long before they chose me to become the next CEO, so it really doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm female. We just knew that we needed to have something more formal that provides more leaders at Clifton Gunderson. We believe we have a lot of programs right now to help develop people in general, but we needed to really focus.

Q: So there was no formal initiative in place for females prior to that?

A: There are lots of programs. We've certainly got many flexible work arrangements and a lot of coaching and mentoring programs, and all those things that go around a women's initiative, but nothing formal that really had the goal of getting women and making them become leaders at Clifton Gunderson. That's the goal of this program.

Q: How are you actually going to go about doing that?

A: We started with a task force of people around the firm to help vet what they wanted as a mission and what their goals were and how they wanted to go about doing that, so we had that meeting. What they decided they wanted the first step to be is to put a survey together so we could really determine where the firm wanted to focus initially. We've just done the survey and we think the results will tell us to pilot some different initiatives in three or four different client service centers and then take them across the firm.

Q: What do you think is the obstacle for women in becoming partners?

A: Historically, the biggest obstacle has been the flexibility. That certainly has changed in the last four or five years and certainly has changed at Clifton Gunderson. But we all need to put it in the forefront and give women more networks to talk to each other. That's what we're working on.

Q: What is your vision for your firm and what will you be focusing on once you take the reins in June?

A: Certainly, people initiatives are in the forefront today and they will continue to be, even more so in the future. We want to really focus on succession because many of our leaders are aging just like any public accounting firm. We realize that things are moving internationally so that is certainly going to be a focus for us, to really put more resources than we have in the past in our international alliances. We want to continue to grow the practice strategically and focus on where we want to have more of a presence across the country than we do today.

Q: How has the firm changed from when you first got there?

A: Culturally I think the firm is very similar. Thirty years ago, we were really focused on quality and developing the skills of our people, and we're like that today. We had several offices, but back then many of them were pretty small and they were operating somewhat independently. Back then, we certainly were a firm of generalists, and today our offices are really linked into a common vision and structure. We're much more of an overall firm than we were 30 years ago.

Q: In terms of the younger women coming into the profession, do you see any differences in the way they exhibit their leadership and professional personas as compared to the more seasoned veterans?

A: I think women today could be more confident earlier in their careers then they were. Very quickly after they are recruited into the firm, they are really engaged and passionate in the firm and in the profession. They want to get involved very early in leadership type things. They are really interested in hearing about how they can progress and develop quickly. They are really good at reaching out to mentors and coaches to help them develop. They are more willing and confident to do that.

Q: In terms of your new position, how will your day-to-day work change?

A: I think my day-to-day will be still involved in strategic initiatives, but really working with key leaders across the firm more on the execution side of those initiatives.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: I think I am a change agent, but I am a participative leader. I really love recruiting and developing and working with really talented people to grow the firm overall together. I am someone that wants to help them through that process and be part of the process with them.

Q: Any advice for those younger women coming up through the ranks?

A: I think you really have to commit to your own development and lifelong learning. You have to surround yourself with people who can really mentor you and teach you. You have to make teaching and developing others a priority, even early in your career. It's important to discover your strengths, whatever you are passionate about, and really focus on developing those and using those because that's when you're really going to fly. Our profession is really built on ethics and integrity, and you can't forget that. You always have to act with that in mind.

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