Jul 06, 2020

Firm Managerial Success Takes Strategy, Organization, More

In a podcast related to her feature in PICPA’s Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape, the 2020 digital-only, special edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, Kathy Gutierrez, director of human resources for RKL LLP in Lancaster, Pa., discusses the traits needed to succeed at the manager level of a CPA firm, including strategic thinking, project management skills, and the ability to motivate.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

In PICPA's Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape, our special digital-only edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal that you can find at www.PICPA.org/journal, we explore how CPA roles are changing as a profession grows and evolves. One of the roles we look at is that of new and would-be managers. In our feature on the topic, Kathy Gutierrez, director of human resources for RKL LLP in Lancaster, discusses some of the key skills accounting professionals need to sharpen if they are going to be successful as managers, such as strategic planning, decision-making and leading with influence.

How important are strategic thinking skills to the success of a manager-level professional?

[Gutierrez] Strategic thinking is extremely important. As a successful manager, you have to think and plan for your future needs and meeting current demands and expectations. In order to effectively meet those future goals and objectives, you need to be able to map out an effective plan and you need to do that today. Including identifying and preparing for those barriers and obstacles that you'll face.

What can a new manager do to help hone those skills?

[Gutierrez] I believe new managers need to surround themselves with other strong strategic thinkers, either in their organizations or in their circles of influence. I think you should be prepared to do a lot of observing and not be afraid to ask questions. I always like to surround myself with people that have something that I don't have. So, being willing to acknowledge your own performance gaps or areas that you're unfamiliar with and always asking for feedback and being willing to learn from others is extremely important to hone in on those skills.

I think you also need to focus on results and know what needs to be done. Be super-intentional with your time, and also make sure that you understand what's important both short-term and long-term to be able to manage your time effectively. I guess that's the best way that I would recommend, outside of your normal in-class learning or webinars, is really just surrounding yourself with those who can demonstrate those same skills that you're looking to acquire.

Strategic thinking and project management skills: do those go hand in hand? Can you be a successful strategic thinker without being incredibly organized?

[Gutierrez] I'll chuckle here a little bit. I know a lot of good strategic thinkers that are strong project managers may not appear to be as organized, but I do believe strategic thinking and project management skills go hand in hand. As a strategic thinker, you need to be able to organize your thoughts and develop those clear roles. Your organization looks different for all, but as long as, as a leader, you're able to provide enough clarity on organizational objectives and direction for those who are executing the day-to-day, then that leader should be able to experience a high level of success.

But leading with clarity doesn't mean that you're super-rigid and super-organized. However you define, as a leader, your organization, by whatever your definition is, once you lose that organization or that perspective, then you can't think clearly, you can't prioritize, and you're unable to delegate effectively. So, they do go hand in hand. It does look different from one manager to the next, but it is important to be able to have some good project management skills and have some type of organization in order to be able to execute.

Again, the point here is to lead with clarity and be able to provide enough instruction and directive to those who are executing the database.

Part of being a leader is successfully influencing others and motivating them to act. What do you think the key traits are that allow a person to do that and how can these skills be cultivated?

[Gutierrez] In order to influence others, you have to be able to communicate effectively. Clear and consistent communication is extremely important, especially as it relates to building trust and rapport. Being sincere with those that you care for is also extremely important in influencing others. I love John Maxwell's quote, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So, strong managers should be able to communicate the fact that we care, and if there's ever a time or scenario where you're not as effective in your communication or in clarity, then you have that foundation of trust and goodwill to fall on. So, in order to influence, again, you need those listening skills. You need to be able to build rapport and you need to have that credibility.

People often look to their managers to help them solve problems and make tough decisions. How can a manager become better at those skills? Is it simply through experience or are there other ways that you can build that?

[Gutierrez] I think experience seems to be the right answer. However, if you rely too much on experience, in some sense, that can take away the focus on the solution due to your familiarity or just your level of experience.

I think it's best to make decisions by thinking through all angles and being relentless in getting new information and perspective. Making sure that you stay humble, open-minded, curious, you invite others to the table for questioning to get to the right answer. That's the best way to learn how to solve problems and make tough decisions. But a reminder that, as a manager, you will need to make the decision at some point and not everyone will agree, but as long as you do all of the above, where you're curious, you're intentional about asking questions, inviting people to the table, that decision should stand and people will respect you for it.

When growing as a manager, how important is it to have a support group who has been through the transition, and what are some steps you can take to make sure you have the right people around you who help you to grow?

[Gutierrez] It's just extremely important not to go at this alone. Making sure that you have a good mentor who can be your sounding board to help you through difficult situations. Someone who is not afraid to give you honest feedback. This is not your yes men. This is somebody who is going to give you feedback when you need it. It is said that being in leadership is lonely, but it shouldn't be. You should nurture trusted relationships and always be open to feedback. If someone is always agreeable to your thoughts and ideas, they're not necessarily the right mentor or at least shouldn't be your only mentor. Look for someone who preferably challenges you and encourages you to move into those uncomfortable places. Those are the people who are really going to help you grow. They may not always be the people you call a friend, but definitely somebody who stretches you.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.