Leading in times of crisis

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The tumult of 2020 has amplified many issues that the accounting profession was already contending with, including future-readiness, diversity and inclusion, and technological investment and training.

In response to two of the defining moments of the year, especially — the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality — the profession’s leaders were forced to navigate new complexities in managing and caring for their people. The chief executives honored on Accounting Today’s 2020 MP Elite list are examples of strong leaders doing just that. The actions of these managing partners, all recognized for their leadership in an extraordinary year, offer aspirational lessons in conviction and adaptability that are essential in times of crisis.

Responsibility & privilege

Central to these leadership efforts is solid communication, especially from the top.

Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner at Big Four firm PwC, helped set the example, publishing an article on LinkedIn on June 5 discussing what the Big Four firm is doing to combat racism. Back in 2016, he co-founded the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge, which seeks to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace, a mission he addressed in a Zoom call with other leaders of the accountign profession in June to discuss those topics in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

These issues are personal to Ryan, he wrote in his LinkedIn post: “I co-founded CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion in response to the killing of unarmed Black men in the summer of 2016. Two years later, in 2018, we lost a member of our PwC community, Botham Jean, to this same kind of violence and I witnessed the pain his family had to — and still has to — endure over the loss of their son and brother.”

“It is my responsibility as a leader to not only stand with them against racism to condemn these killings, but to use my privilege to be a part of the solution and take action — to help dismantle the racism and injustice that has become so pervasive in our society,” he continued, before outlining six steps PwC is taking to contribute to the fight for racial justice and equality. The firm has:

  • Created a D&I staff advisory council;
  • Committed to being transparent and holding itself accountable by sharing its diversity strategy and results;
  • Donated to social justice organizations;
  • Donated time to nonprofits;
  • Empowered markets to engage locally; and,
  • Put “our best minds” to work to advance public policy.

PwC provides a model of communication and action for other CPA firms to follow, albeit scaled down from a Big Four firm’s expansive reach and resources.

James Wallace, CEO of California-based BPM, took a similar approach in his initial public response to the anti-racism activism, publishing an open letter to the 589 members of his Top 50 Firm on LinkedIn.

“There continues to be senseless and heartbreaking violent confrontations with African Americans in our country,” he wrote. “Race remains a divide. Diversity is still too often seen as a threat and not a strength. We all must do better. We must attempt to emotionally walk in the shoes of those who are different from us. We must recognize that to be a young Black man walking or driving brings risks that are unthinkable to others. This is not an issue that solely rests in the hands of law enforcement, rather a responsibility that rests with each of us every day.”

Wallace listed some of the accolades BPM has received for its D&I initiatives, while acknowledging that more needs to be done.

That discussion continued in two firmwide town halls, Wallace later explained, which included “our COO, Scharrell Jackson, an African American and mother to three young men. She shared her experiences and the realities she and her sons face every day, and offered words of encouragement and understanding to our diverse staff. In addition to the communications, we also realized the need to take action and allowed team members to take up to eight hours of paid time off to participate in peaceful protests.”

Carla McCall, managing partner of Massachusetts firm AAFCPAs, adopted the same communication methods for her 240-person firm, penning an open letter entitled “Black Lives Matter” and hosting a firmwide virtual roundtable to discuss BLM and racial equality.

This open format was also employed for the 120 staff members of Maryland-based GRF CPAs & Advisors by managing partner Jackie Cardello. “Following the death of George Floyd, GRF has held several open forums via Zoom for employees to share how social injustice has affected them both personally and professionally,” she shared. “The dialogues have been well attended and offer participants the opportunity to share but to also propose solutions.”

For Houston-based McConnell & Jones, one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the country, managing partner Ira Wayne McConnell stressed the importance of education and reflection for the firm’s 88 members: “The recent senseless acts of racism and violence are a reminder for everyone that equality has not been achieved for everyone, most notably the African American community. As an African American-owned firm, we have always been committed to diversity and inclusion. This year our firm observed Juneteenth, by closing all offices on June 19 to give ourselves time to reflect, discuss the issues, seek solutions, and gain better understanding of race in America.”

While MPs of smaller firms have a narrower public forum, that has not stopped the exemplary leaders among them from sharing their message.

“The protests that are still continuing today in cities all over our country brought into stark realization that, much like many companies, we had overlooked the pain of systemic racism that had insinuated itself into our organization,” said Lee Ann Collins, MP of Dallas-based Lane Gorman Trubitt. “As a white woman managing partner in a predominantly male industry, I have had struggles, but I have never had to fear red and blue flashing lights or worry about if all my family members will be at the table for dinner tonight.”

LGT is exploring how to address this problem, she continued: “Our partner group has discussed these matters and explored what we can do to make our firm an even better work environment for our team members. We looked at everything from hiring practices to resource allocations and found several ways to improve.”

For a profession that was already in dire need of overhauling talent hiring and development practices to foster greater diversity in accounting, recent events have made an evaluation of these processes mandatory.

While BPM expanded its D&I initiative in 2019 to “encourage colleagues of all genders, ethnicities, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ to feel safe to be their authentic self,” Wallace explained that the group’s scope will continue to shift as necessary. “We are also reviewing our IN! (Inclusion Now!) strategy to ensure we address racial injustices and incorporate specific actions our team can take as individual BPMers or collectively as a firm. We are calling our plan ‘Listen, Watch, Donate, Act — BPM.’ The plan includes video material, books, contribution opportunities and action items.”

In leading 68-person Minnesota firm Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen Russ, managing partner Roz Allyson emphasized training. “Through giving and continuing to inform ourselves about racism and associated concerns, our staff are involved both personally and professionally,” she shared. “As a firm, we are providing informative training on ‘unconscious bias’ and forums to continue to be open and responsive to our community and its needs. We are committed to fostering awareness, support, and modeling our culture of respect.”

In addition to encouraging internal dialogue, many accounting leaders are reaching out to their wider communities and clients.

In July 2020, AAFCPAs donated $10,000 to clients supporting racial equity causes, according to McCall. And McConnell & Jones has deepened its ties in the business community, developing “strategic alliances and partnering with other minority-owned firms on current engagements and pursuits.”

“More specifically,” Wayne shared, “one of our partners, Odysseus Lanier, is a member of an ad hoc committee that is meeting with a major business organization in Houston to express views from the African American community to the organization’s board members regarding the systemic racism in our community, focused on topics such as disparities in health care and education; diversity in the C-suite and board rooms; and contracting and business opportunities for African American-owned businesses. As a board member myself, I am participating in these discussions as we all work to develop a plan of action for this regional chamber organization. Furthermore, we have committed to being even more intentional about diversity than ever before, and examining how we interact with each other, our clients and the community as a whole.”

‘No past playbook’

Client outreach is just as crucial for accounting firm leaders amid the pandemic, along with ensuring the health and safety of their people.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has become every leader’s top challenge of 2020,” said McConnell. “From remaining nimble in the face of deferred projects to keeping up with massive regulatory changes impacting our clients’ businesses, this pandemic has resulted in a high degree of uncertainty. The COVID crisis has forced firms across the country to examine the way we provide value and comfort to our clients beyond compliance. To stay ahead of the curve, we are openly talking with our clients about their business needs and keeping our teams engaged in training initiatives focused on current regulatory changes, cash flow issues, employee matters, and a myriad of other COVID-related economic issues.”

Like many firms, Lane Gorman Trubitt took swift action in the early days of the pandemic’s outbreak in the U.S.

“Early on in March, I instituted, based on the CDC and our own county guidelines, a work-from-home mandate for the safety of our employees,” said Collins. “Due to our already instituted flexible schedule policy and technology we were able to continue to fulfill our client service with only minor disruption. For our tax clients, we had software in place that allowed our staff to securely support our clients during busy season without interruption. For our other services, including audit, we have guidelines in place to adjust in-person fieldwork that adhere to required safety guidelines. After a month we began to reopen our office for essential staff, as well as providing daily deep cleaning to ensure proper steps are taken according to CDC guidance.”

For Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen Russ, “Balancing the measures necessary to ensure the health and well-being of our employees remains a top priority while continuing to serve our clients and perform the operational needs of the firm,” said Allyson.

“Like most leaders, my biggest challenge has been to balance the support of our colleagues and clients, while continuing to push on performance to sustain the long-term success of our firm,” echoed Wallace.

BPM instituted daily COVID-19 task force calls between team leaders and the chief risk officer; daily firmwide emails from Wallace and the firm’s chief people officer; use of communication tool Yammer; and support and resource centers offering training and tips, information, guidance and workshops.

“It is inspiring to see organizations and businesses jump into the fight against the novel coronavirus,” Ryan wrote in a MarchAccounting Todayarticle addressing a crisis that was growing exponentially. “My goals for PwC in the U.S. are simple: to protect our people and continue to serve our clients.”

To accomplish that, Ryan laid out an action plan that mirrors what is guiding many businesses through the crisis. In general terms, PwC is:

  • Doing all the firm can to keep its people employed;
  • Supporting the humanitarian response by supporting communities; and,
  • Enabling staff to work virtually seamlessly.

PwC also donated $2.85 million to coronavirus-related efforts in March.

The same month, Massachusetts firm LGA launched LGA Cares, with a commitment to provide $100,000 in consulting services for any business or individual impacted by the effects of the pandemic. “We assembled a group of dedicated team members that committed tireless hours and efforts keeping up with the ever-changing regulations,” reported managing partner John Geraci. “As of May, we increased our commitment and extended over $175,000 in pro bono services to over 250 businesses and individuals.”

As all firms find themselves serving clients in new ways given the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program and other COVID-19-related legislation, their methods of delivery have also become more complicated.

“The demands that they have placed on our clients, our practice and our team members have been extraordinary and could not have been predicted or planned for,” Geraci explained. “But like other challenges, I believe that leadership is key to reflect on the past, be in the present, and continue for the future … . My leadership style is to lead with enhanced communication, decision-oriented focus, calming influence, be optimistic, available and flexible, given there is no past playbook to follow for this situation. I needed to enhance this leadership style and be the example to my own leadership group so that they could follow and lead in these uncertain times.”

“Our clients had to navigate uncharted waters,” reported AAFCPAs director of marketing JoAnne Starks. “We established a COVID task force, dedicated to studying, interpreting and advising clients (with consensus) on challenges and opportunities, including federal stimulus initiatives. There was a slowdown in new business, especially in consulting. Partners participated in a brainstorming forum to discuss creative ways to continue business development.”

AAFCPAs devotes the same attention to its people, with McCall producing weekly videos addressing the firm and checking in on staff.

“We had to ensure we were keeping people connected and part of a team,” said Starks. “Again, we responded to this with MP videos, video conferencing, and team-building initiatives, such as ‘self-care’ breaks, and happy hours. We had to address team member mental health concerns. This led to the development and aggregation of mental health resources, including a self-care checklist. Mental health is a personal passion of Carla’s.”

Under Geraci’s direction, LGA has personalized its approach to its 71 members. “We made sure that we kept in touch with our team members, technically and personally, so that they did not feel isolated,” he said. “We sent various gifts and care packages to our team members to keep them connected to LGA to know that they are not alone. For one of these ‘gifts,’ it was important to me to deliver it, in a contactless manner, to each of my team member’s homes. I wanted them to know that it was about more than spending money to make them smile; I wanted them to know that I cared enough about every one of them to spend over 20 hours in a car driving from house to house as a symbol of what our culture represents.”

Meanwhile, Alabama firm BMSS has held weekly leadership team meetings and bimonthly firmwide meetings for its 195 staff members, along with offering webinars and an online resource center. “We have had to figure out how to communicate differently with our employees since we are not seeing them face to face,” explained founding member Don Murphy. “Ramping up our homeroom program has proven to be an effective way to ensure that each person feels connected and heard in what can be a very isolating time.”

David Peterson, managing partner at Utah firm Haynie & Co., focuses on empowering the firm’s 310 people. “Our main concern was for our employees and their families,” he shared. “Working remotely, providing support to move work around, and not taking strong positions on anything, allowing each individual to make decisions for themselves, was best. We trust our employees and they have proven exceptional.”

In this time of crisis, accounting’s most successful leaders, including the MP Elite, recognized their roles as more than leaders of their firms or even the profession, but the wider business community.

“As our industry was considered part of the essential workers, we took this role very seriously,” said Geraci. “We kept our workforce safe by deciding that most were best working remotely at home given our IT structure, with only a small number of consistent team members at the office to keep the mail and workflow ongoing during busy season. This allowed us to be responsive and flexible in uncertain times but also continue our routine business operations to meet our clients’ needs.”

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Coronavirus Leaders Diversity and equality PwC
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