By Sun Lee, CPA
Sun Lee, CPA, is a tax partner with KPMG LLP, where he leads the Pennsylvania business tax services corporate practice. Through his work with different companies, he has come across many inspiring stories of leadership. Lee will reach out to corporate leaders and share their insights here in CPA Now on an ongoing basis. This interview is with Puneet Sapra of Accordion Partners.
Puneet Sapra understands the challenge of holding onto one’s authentic self, even when it is out of sync with one’s environment. From growing up as one of the few Indian families in rural Virginia to forging his way through a business world often dominated by extroverts as a relative introvert, being true to himself has been the key to Sapra’s success. Currently the managing director of private equity financial and technology consulting firm Accordion Partners, Sapra is a graduate of Harvard Business School, a former leader at Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, Philadelphia Business Journal’s 2016 CFO of the Year honoree (The StayWell Company), and an admired innovator in the pharmaceutical industry.
Puneet, you had a number of influential mentors along your career journey. What advice have you received that continues to resonate with you?
The most important thing anyone ever told me was to be authentic. Early in one’s career, it is a common pitfall to try to fit into someone else’s profile for a short-term win. This can be unsustainable. Early in my career, I found myself trying to emulate the most visible, highly extroverted leaders that naturally attract more attention. That leadership style was not going to work for me long-term. If an extrovert is a 9 or a 10 on the extroversion scale, I’m a 5 or a 6. Introverts have other strengths, like creativity, focus, and deep empathy. Those qualities have been central to my leadership style and approach to maximizing potential. In addition, because of my experiences growing up in Virginia and experiencing new environments, I’ve learned to embrace ambiguity and adapt. So, I enjoy continuously learning and absorbing new things. I’m very comfortable with experimentation.
I observed this mindset is particularly helpful in today’s constantly changing environment. No matter what industry you’re in or what size your company is, there will always be change – product change, new leadership, external economic change. Three years ago, few would have predicted COVID. A year ago, few would have predicted the economic factors facing families, businesses, and governments. Being a leader in this environment can be difficult in terms of guiding teams to successfully manage these challenges, so it's more important than ever to remain nimble and centered while staying true to your core principles through it all.
Much of your career has been focused on the health care industry. Why has this industry been so compelling to you?
The epiphany that good health care can have a profound impact on a community started when I was a young child. My father was a pediatrician in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Many of his patients were underserved, but he treated them equally with the utmost care. Although my first job out of Duke University was in banking at JP Morgan, I was still thinking about how to make a difference in people’s lives. After a serendipitous meeting at the George Soros Foundation, I ended up taking a 10-week sabbatical to work with the foundation on developing a business model for bringing reading glasses to 100 million people in developing and impoverished cities in India. The project was so impactful that it was eventually funded by the World Bank. Later, when I was in marketing at J&J, I launched a similar project to expand access to drug-eluting stents to heart disease patients throughout India, China, and other parts of southeast Asia. Working with physicians, regulators, and local governments, we were able to scale the project in developing markets.
From those two experiences, I realized how motivating it is to nurture business solutions to difficult health care challenges, such as health inequities, accessibility, and digitization. My career has steered toward companies that share this philosophy. Most recently, I’ve supported companies ranging from medical device manufacturers, diagnostics companies, physician practice management groups, and health insurers.
How would you describe your management style?
Both in stable times and those of disruption, the most important thing is to help people thrive. It’s important to rally one’s team around meaningful guiding principles. I found Paul O’Neal’s story inspirational. After struggling for many years, Alcoa brought in Paul O’Neal, an outsider to the industry. He was able to galvanize the entire company around the core goal of safety – across the company’s plants and offices around the world. As a keystone value, this motivated and impacted the actions of all employees of the company to work together, communicate better, serve customers more efficiently, and explore innovative ways of improving the business. Over O’Neal’s tenure, Alcoa became admired for its turnaround and strong performance.
In finance, setting a meaningful guiding principle can be just as transformative. In a prior experience, my leadership team promoted the value of precision. Seeking precision in everything – from bookkeeping, reporting, analysis, communication, and so on – fostered a desire for excellence and motivated the finance and other teams to focus their energy and passion. I believe that leaders need to bring out the best in people and I’ve found focusing on core principles unleashes individuals to find creative pathways and angles to maximize potential.
What impactful books have you read?
I’m very interested in books on how psychology and human behavior influence productivity and process improvement in all settings, including business. In that category, I’ve recently read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I’ve found reading to be a helpful habit. I also like to complement reading with writing about how certain books have influenced me as a leader. When an idea moves me, I find that combining reading with writing helps me understand it better and truly integrate it into my life.
Puneet Sapra is a managing director in the New York office of Accordion Partners, a private equity financial and technology consulting firm.
Sun Lee, CPA, is a tax partner with KPMG LLP, where he leads the Pennsylvania business tax services corporate practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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