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Leaders in accounting: Neither born nor made

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It’s an age-old question: Are leaders born, or made? For all too many accounting firms, the answer is neither. They simply happen by default, which may explain why so many leaders aren’t actually very good at leading.

In full fairness, this problem is not restricted to the accounting profession. It’s true of most businesses (and, some would argue, of society at large), with companies rolling the dice and hoping that the person who was good at doing a particular thing will end up being good at managing others while they do that particular thing under his or her direction.

With the presidential election upon us, as we are all making a fairly momentous decision between two different models of leadership, this seemed as good a time as any to delve into the many problems that surround this question.

Here’s one of the biggest: We don’t really know what leadership is; we only recognize it when we see it — and even then, we often disagree on what we’re seeing. At accounting firms, this plays out in two ways: Firms don’t know (or know only vaguely) what they want in the leaders they’re promoting or hiring, and high-potential candidates often don’t know what behaviors they’re supposed to be modeling.

Here’s a simple solution: Firms need to decide what, exactly, they want from leaders, and they need to share that clearly with the men and women who they hope will become their next generation of leadership.

At some larger firms that have begun to grapple with this, it literally means a laminated card for each level of management, laying out the specific functions and responsibilities of that position, side by side with the specific skills someone needs to aspire to it. Lamination isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but the specifics are, because they can then be shared with staff, so they begin to understand that leadership isn’t just that you like to work for Partner X and hate working for Partner Y: It’s about a clear set of behaviors and actions against which a person can be held accountable.

But that’s only the start. Next comes the part where you help your young accountants grow into those descriptions. Some tiny percentage of leaders come by their skills without consciously working at it: For reasons no one really understands, the rest of us just naturally want to follow them. For the other 99 percent of leaders, though, it’s hard, constant work that will go much easier if someone intentionally trains them in it. Modeling good leadership isn’t enough; you have to explain it, or find resources — executive coaches, management books, training courses, and so on — that will explain it to them.

And it’s worth remembering that leadership will look different on everyone — the mix of skills will vary, often based on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. That means you’ll have to help your young leaders identify those, and customize their development to amplify or compensate for them, as the case may be.

It all adds up to a great deal of work on your part and on theirs, and in the end, that may be the real answer to the old question: Leaders don’t start that way the moment they’re born, and they aren’t made the moment you promote them to management — they’re built, painstakingly, over a long period of time that begins the moment they join your firm, and starts anew each day when they come into work.

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