insight magazine

Are You Role Model Material?

To be revered, emulated, admired. Who wouldn’t want that? By Bridget McCrea | Winter 2015

Winter role model 2

The accounting profession presents a unique set of challenges for those with aspirations of one day being lauded as an inspirational role model—the boss who’s simply unforgettable, the mentor to whom underlings owe their meteoric success. The biggest obstacle for many lies in the fact that while CPAs are technically astute, the softer skills needed to manage, lead and direct teams are often sought with far less gusto.

“The main reason people get into accounting is because they enjoy the technical side of the field,” says Elizabeth Pittelkow, director of accounting and compliance at Arrow- Stream Inc. in Chicago. “When individuals who perform well on the technical side get promoted into management roles, they need an entirely different set of skills to succeed.”

In other words, they need people skills. “The sooner you can start amassing managerial and strategic skills, the better off you’ll be,” Pittelkow advises. “It’s much easier to start developing your leadership style early in your career versus having to pull it together once you become a manager— and having to figure it all out after the fact.”

Step one is to ask yourself, “How good are my soft skills?” You know, those personal attributes that help you interact effectively and harmoniously with others? It’s pretty much a guarantee that any CPA who achieves role model status has excelled at the art of communication, and, in fact, Pittelkow sees speaking and listening skills as core competencies for anyone striving to become the type of leader others can’t help but follow.

“When you’re the boss, you need to make sure your team members are advocating for you and standing behind you,” she says. “One of the best ways to inspire trust among your team members is by opening up those lines of communication, fielding feedback, asking for input, and then listening to what they have to say about where your company and/or department is heading.”

Taking the communication component a step further, Pittelkow suggests asking employees exactly how they want to be communicated with, what motivates them in the workplace, and how they’d like to receive praise and feedback.

“What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to learn everyone’s communication style and preferences,” she explains. “Then, through open dialogue, you can really help to motivate your team and be able to quickly hone in on any successes or problem points.”

Aside from soft skills, role model worthy leaders know when they should be accountable for their own actions and those of their team. They live by the motto, “If the team succeeds, we all succeed; if the team fails, we all fail.”

“You need to be able to take responsibility, even if it’s not directly your fault,” says Pittelkow. “It’s about having the confidence and humbleness to step in and support the department through both its successes and its failures.”

Helping others perform “at the highest possible levels” is where your focus as a role model should be, adds Geoffrey Harlow, CPA, a partner at the Deerfield, Ill. firm of Kessler Orlean Silver & Company. He admits, however, that “None of us are born knowing how to do that; we all have to learn.”

You need to “treat people like you would want to be treated,” he says, despite the stresses that might be swirling around the office. “Try to always be positive when dealing with your staff and keep in mind that you’re trying to better them,” he explains. When providing feedback on a particular situation, for example, “try to keep in mind that it’s really a training point, versus criticizing the individual for not doing something the way you wanted him or her to do it.”
Shahla Khan, a learning and development expert with Pink Boss Blue Boss, points out that being a role model is more than just a title; it’s an attitude. “All human beings have the basic desire to be respected and appreciated for their efforts,” she says. “But with leadership comes power, and that pow-er can get into your head.”

To avoid ego becoming a problem, Khan offers up these three tips:

  1. Leave Pretensions at the Door. Practice humility from day one. By adopting a modest view of your own importance, employees will be more apt to warm up to you and see you as a role model.
  2. Don’t Aspire to Be Flawless. Admit failure and say, “I don’t know” when you don’t know. “Stop being pretentious and create transparency for your team,” says Khan.
  3. Be Yourself. Don’t be afraid to bring your personality along. Employees are more productive and engaged when they have fun. “No one likes to be around a know it all,” Khan admonishes. “Professional boundaries are one thing, but giving clients and employees a reason to smile can help you quickly blast through objections and boredom.”

The idea is for CPAs to not only be-come good role models, says Harlow, but also develop effective teams that nurture the next wave of role models.

“The key is to make sure the people who work for you are comfortable and that they know where they stand and that you’ll be honest with them,” he says. “In return, you’ll wind up with a team that truly loves its work and workplace, and that has the same good experience that you’ve had.”

6 Qualities of the Ultimate Role Model

  1. Awareness & Perception. Role models need to objectively evaluate the people around them and the work world in which they thrive.
  2. Commitment. Successful role models are unwaveringly committed to developing the people around them into the leaders of tomorrow.
  3. Empathy. Role models need to be able to “stand in your shoes” and accept imperfection.
  4. Decision-making. Being a confident decision-maker and having good instincts about what’s to come are among the traits that give leaders—and therefore role models—their “mojo."
  5. Listening. Truly listening to the people who look up to you empowers and validates them. It’s an indispensable skill, and the mark of a successful role model.
  6. Persuasion. Role models are distinguished by their ability to influence, motivate and mold.

Source: Sharlyn Lauby,