insight magazine

Growth Perspectives | Spring 2024

Talent Retention Starts With Inspiring Leadership

By focusing on these six leadership traits, you can create and support environments where employees are motivated to stay and work.
Brian Blaha, CPA Growth Partner, Wipfli LLP

There’s been no shortage of focus on the growing problem of talent retention across our industry, with many stakeholders working to uncover the reasons for why accounting and finance professionals are leaving their employers at a higher-than-average clip. The Illinois CPA Society, for example, released its related survey findings in the Insight Special Feature, “Righting Retention,” citing several factors that are driving voluntary resignations. Among them are lack of advancement opportunities, defined career advancement paths, and mentors/mentorship programs, along with uninteresting or mundane work and wanting a job that has more social impact.

For employers, these factors can appear overwhelmingly large and impossible to solve. But I’ll contend that it’s leadership that carries the burden of creating an environment where employees are inspired and motivated to navigate these perceived barriers.

While there are various leadership models, most point to the ability of inspiring and motivating others as having the highest impact on employee engagement. When employees are engaged in their work and enthused to go the extra mile, they’re more successful at solving problems and achieving objectives, and therefore, retaining them almost becomes a moot point.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Create an organization of motivated employees led by inspiring leaders and the retention problem goes away. Of course, nothing is that easy, and all of us need to do our part in evolving our leadership skills.

At a recent internal continuing education class on the topic, Wipfli’s Chief Human Resources Officer Maureen Pistone offered this: “Having spent my entire career in HR, I’ve coached, trained, and learned along the way, and evolved my own management and leadership approaches over the past 30 years.”

The key takeaway here is “evolved.” Being an inspirational leader takes practice and reflection. You have to understand the big picture, read the room, and know your team. Honing your leadership skills and taking the time to get to know each employee will help foster inspiration as an outcome.

Leveraging an article by Kathy Lockwood of Forbes Coaches Council, the attributes of supporting inspirational leadership can be narrowed down to six core traits: humanness, listening, integrity, resilience, remaining calm, and developing talent. During Maureen’s session, we were asked to reflect on each of these and where we see our own evolution on the path to inspirational leadership.

  1. Humanness: We could debate the order of importance of these traits. For me, it starts with being human. People generally follow those they have a connection with. We’re social beings who require connectivity. In building a connection, it’s important to get to know the individual while also allowing yourself to be accessible and vulnerable. I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve, which can be positive or negative depending on the situation.

    I find that this human element is important when coaching an employee. Understanding the individual, what’s important to them, and what motivates them are all critical to explore. Notably, it can take time to get to a spot where an associate is willing to be vulnerable enough to share these things; however, I believe it starts with being fully present to the person.

  2. Listening: Recently, one of our leaders called me; they had a challenging meeting and needed to vent. Naturally, I had an innate urge and desire to help solve their problem. Yet, in the moment, I realized they didn’t need help solving the problem—they just needed someone to listen. Providing a safe space for people to get their feelings out can offer a forum to clear the mind and talk out a plan to address a situation.

  3. Integrity: Do the right thing every time. In our profession, this is a critical trait—it’s the hallmark of the trust we have in the public eye. Yet, on an individual level, it can be difficult to do the right thing, especially when the right thing may be perceived as hurtful by an employee. Honing your skills to provide critical feedback is one of the most important things you can do as a leader. When I give feedback, I like to approach the situation with empathy, starting with an understanding of the employee’s point of view. However, I also consider the facts to develop a mutual path forward.

  4. Resilience: As a leader, people will look to you when faced with challenges. When we can approach challenges as opportunities and persevere, it creates confidence that employees will want to follow. Over my career, I can point to many times when I had to have thick skin. But as I reflect on those times, it was the focus on the end goal and the purpose of why we were doing something that kept me going, which built trust in those around me.

  5. Remaining calm: I closely correlate this trait with resilience. It’s also one of the hardest traits to maintain (at least for me). I can be very passionate about where we’re headed and see the end result clearly, but others may not be there. This can occur when the end state and the path to getting there haven’t been clearly articulated. Practicing patience and delivering calm, clear communication is essential to strong leadership.

  6. Developing talent: Employees are increasingly looking for opportunity and advancement. This is one of the most important areas of focus for today’s leaders and requires us to practice all of the previous five traits. For me, it starts with keeping commitments and carving out time for meaningful conversations and coaching sessions. I find it important to schedule recurring appointments in my calendar throughout the year to meet with staff on their development goals. In the likely event that a conflict arises, I prioritize rescheduling the appointment immediately rather than canceling.

Despite making progress across a range of areas, our industry still has a lot to do to support retention and improve its turnover rate. I believe making this profession attractive to current and future generations starts with inspirational leadership that creates an environment that fosters vision, purpose, and meaning for the employees we lead and mentor.

Remember, leadership is a spectrum—we’ll never be truly done evolving. I invite you to join me on the journey of using these six traits of inspirational leadership to create formative and purpose-driven work environments where meaningful connections and relationships, solid systems for performance feedback, and clear expectations and opportunities for career advancement exist for every employee.

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