Voices

Leadership: The hardest soft skill CPAs need today

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COVID-19 is affecting us all, whether that’s through staying home or the unknown financial impacts that are snowballing. Couple that with tax season and your stress is likely running high. Not only are you fielding calls from clients looking for help and support with the decisions they need to make, your staff is looking to you for guidance. So how do you remain the calm, collected advisor that your clients and staff need right now?

According to leadership coach and psychologist Gretchen Pisano, CEO of pLink Leadership (whom I recently interviewed about this topic), when people are faced with change, they first look for a map.

“The problem is that we don’t have a map,” she said.

When that’s the case, people feel in limbo and make up a story instead. There are two patterns seen when people are confronted with a reality they don’t like that is either unwanted or doesn’t fit with their story. They do one of the following:

1. Face reality and deal with the risk, offload the risk and start moving on to the opportunities.

2. Ramp up their delusions and make up stories about what they are dealing with that either drop them into total fear, where they are unproductive and irrational, or into a place of denial, where decisions are made by cherry-picking information.

“Notice if you are ramping up your delusions and telling yourself stories about what you think should be happening instead of grounding yourself into the reality of what is happening,” said Pisano. “And then think about how you want to show up in that.”

Being the voice of reason to your clients

With financial ramifications occurring worldwide, businesses shutting down and employers not being able to make payroll, how can CPAs and accountants be the voice of reason for clients?

Pisano advises that you take a moment, if you need it, to freak out before a client meeting. Make sure that when you show up with a client, you are grounded in your field and your ability to ask questions.

“It’s not about having the right answers because there aren’t any,” Pisano said.

It’s also not about judgment or you being the smartest person in the room. In order for a client to feel the most confident with decisions, you have to let them make them. It starts with asking great open-ended questions and ensuring that you are compassionate and empathetic. Allow the client to be afraid and nervous, and reassure them that you will be there with them to help them find their way through this.

Basically, CPAs and accountants need to do what they have always done — be a trusted advisor — with less focus on being the expert and more on being an excellent financial coach. Take comfort in the fact that you know what you are doing!

Leading your firm and direct reports

There are probably a few of your employees who are freaking out with the astronomical amount of COVID-19 information out there. You can help them by following these simple principles from the CDC:

  • Be consistent. This does not mean saying the same thing over and over. Rather, you need to be consistent with the frequency of your communications and the tone you bring to those communications.
  • Be accurate. Pay attention to what’s happening in the external environment and communicate the most important pieces to your firm. Do so in a way that’s forthcoming.
  • Be forthcoming with vital information. Be sure you communicate and rapidly adapt to the way your firm is addressing the changing reality.

If you see your direct reports taking out fear and anxiety on staff, that’s a conversation with clear boundaries. Pisano suggests saying something like, “It’s OK for you as a leader to feel afraid and to not know what the right answer is and to be stressed. It’s not OK for you to take that out on staff.”

What you, as a leader, may have realized in our coronavirus environment is that empathy is important in leadership. You have to address fears and feelings. It’s also important that all your cultural norms exist in virtual environments.

And if you’re looking to build trust among your team, Pisano suggests asking for help.

“The number one trust builder, as it relates to a connection between human beings, is being willing to ask for help,” she said. This can be done by simply saying, “I don’t know how to do this; how do you think we should?”

Leaving your role at work before heading home

You are probably facing a rollercoaster of emotions all day long. How do you avoid not wigging out on your family and reverting to your introvert self?

Anticipate that during the day your attention will get fragmented — it’s called "disintegration," Pisano explained. You’ll want to use the time between work and home to prepare for being home. Even if you are working from home, you need to build in a gap of time before reintegrating with your family.

That means no phone, tablet or computer, Pisano advises. Try something like exercise, meditation, journaling or reflection to calm down and bring things together again.

Your leadership role at home should include teaching your family how to manage in uncertainty. Consider a schedule; there are samples available online. Schedules keep us calm and focused. If you build one with your kids that makes sense for them, you put a steady cadence on a day that’s otherwise quite unfamiliar.

It’s really about coping skills. As a parent with kids, you are going to need to show up for those conversations and lean in. Listen to what they are trying to tell you without needing to solve it.

In the coaching world, this is known as "acknowledge and validate." To Pisano, that would sound like, “It’s OK to be afraid. You have every reason to be and we’re going to be OK. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we’re going to be OK financially and health wise.”

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