[IMGCAP(1)]At different times over the past several months, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with leaders from a number of very successful accounting firms. They were all very different people, and their firms varied widely in size, focus and goals, but the more of these leaders I met, the more clearly a common set of characteristics emerged.

As individual traits, the list isn’t that surprising; what interested me was the way they interacted — the way these successful MPs balanced the elements of their characters against each other, threading a line between the big picture and the small, between positivity and realism, between big dreams and hard facts. That balance, I suspect, plays a big role in their ability to create strong practices.

  • They have big visions … . Whether it’s taking a local firm national, turning a bricks-and-mortar firm into something virtual, or completely radicalizing the way their firm practices (and maybe yours, too), they are not afraid to think big. In fact, I get the impression they wouldn’t be happy without a big goal to work toward.
  • But they have very specific plans for achieving those visions. They know how they’re going to fill the gap between today’s reality and tomorrow’s dream. They know the skills their firm needs, the partners they need to convince (or get around), the client bases they need to build. They’re also constantly thinking about their tactics, and revising their plans as they go.
  • They know what isn’t working … . They have very few illusions, they don’t drink their own Kool-Aid, and they can often seem gloomier than you’d expect — more focused on the challenges they and their firms are facing than on the successes they’ve had. That’s because they are constantly on the hunt for solutions, and they never let problems fester.
  • But they also know exactly what is working. They are quick to realize and capitalize on successes, and bold about taking up opportunities. They also know their firm’s strengths in great detail. Just because they aren’t constantly trotting out their successes doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of them, or that they haven’t tried to replicate them elsewhere.
  • They’re proud … . Not bragging isn’t the same as not being proud, and there is, in fact, one easy way to get great firm leaders to boast: Ask them about their best colleagues. They are far more likely to praise other members of the firm than to take credit for anything.
  • But they’re never satisfied. They have long-term plans, after all, and until they reach them, they can’t rest. They’ll pause to acknowledge important milestones, but then it’s back to work. And because they’re revising their plans along the way, they’re frequently finding ways to improve them.
  • Finally, they are all about people. Whether it’s clients or staff or partners, they are constantly thinking about relationships, and how to improve them. They spend the majority of their time dealing with people — teaching staff, uncovering client concerns, cajoling partners, building consensus, moving people forward — and in the end, much of what they do boils down to winning hearts and minds. Even at smaller firms, where the amount of the leader’s time spent on client work naturally tends to rise, they’re still focused more on the relationship than on the technical specifics of the work.

By no stretch of the imagination were these cookie-cutter MPs — you’d be hard-pressed (at least, within the diversity-challenged precincts of the accounting profession) to find a more varied group in terms of styles, attitudes, backgrounds, ages and much else. But in their natural balance between extremes, and in their focus on the people around them, they were very much the same.

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