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VSCPA Leadership Academy: The Power of Mindset

December 6, 2018

Your attitude is your choice. That’s one of Merikay Hunt’s main lessons from her session at the 2018 VSCPA Leadership Academy, “Discover the Leader Within.” When you’re faced with an unfamiliar scenario, she says, the way you react to it can make all the difference in your professional success.

“A growth mindset is willing to take risks,” said Hunt, a speaker and professional coach. “We’re willing to take the test that we might not have all the answers to. We’re willing to go up and talk to people we don’t know.”

That kind of self-confidence can be a big factor in the career fortunes of people in the early stages of their careers (like, say, Leadership Academy attendees). Having the confidence to speak with people you don’t know to further your career — and the curiosity and presence of mind to do so properly — will make you memorable to the people you meet.

Of course, that means pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. Staying where you’re comfortable won’t do anything to get you to the next level of your career. You have to let go of your worries about how you’re going to come off and focus on what you can accomplish.

“When you’re meeting somebody, it’s not about you. It’s about the person you’re meeting,” Hunt said. “Don’t get hung up on what you’re going to say. Just ask questions.”

Hunt talks about a “growth mindset” in contrast to what she calls a “fixed mindset,” where people tend to stick with what — and who — they know. Taking on that growth mindset is the best way to push ourselves to learn new things and earn new responsibilities.

That necessitates soliciting honest feedback from those around you and receiving it in the proper manner. That’s one thing — and not necessarily an easy thing — when you’re dealing with your supervisor or coworkers. It’s even harder, but just as important, to learn from clients and other outside sources.

“If you lose a client, have the courage to call and ask why they’re leaving,” Hunt said. “You have to have the courage to learn, to understand.”

Giving feedback in the proper spirit is another huge part of professional growth. Hunt uses what she calls “Oreo coaching,” sometimes known as sandwich feedback, where the giver bookends substantive feedback with positive reinforcement.

In this case, the top layer of the Oreo is something you say to another person that’s positive and purposeful (but not cheesy). The cream is encouragement, direction or corrective action. The bottom layer is another positive, purposeful statement.

It’s important to remember that coaching and feedback are like any other communication opportunity — and that handling it poorly can have lasting consequences.
“You’re going to have to speak to people above you, beside you and below you,” Hunt said. “How you craft your sentences will have an impact. Communication is like toothpaste — once it’s out there, you can’t get it back.”

Hunt challenged attendees to think of a recent work interaction they wished they could have back. Many such interactions can be improved by following a few simple communication principles:

  • Ask questions instead of giving orders
  • Make any faults seem easy to correct
  • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain
  • Smile
  • Use the other person’s name

And remember that knowledge about whomever you’re dealing with is power. Whether it’s about clients, supervisors or colleagues, the more you know about the other party in a conversation, the better off you’ll be.

“When you met people, you are never going to know what they’re experiencing unless they tell you,” Hunt said. “We are layered like an onion, and you have to peel back the layers to get to the core of who you are. That’s why knowing your strengths is so important. The more you can make your strengths come through in your work, the more powerful you’re going to be as a professional.”

Expanding (and Utilizing) Your Sphere of Influence

The VSCPA has worked with Richmond company Floricane on the Leadership Academy for a couple of years now, and two of the company’s experts, Kathy Greenier and founder John Sarvay, joined the event for an afternoon session.

Floricane follows the Insights personality model (red/green/blue/yellow, to jog your memory), and Sarvay discussed the importance of being aware and intentional with how your energy is manifesting itself.

“It’s hard to turn something off that you’ve been leading with your entire life,” he said. “If you lead with a lot of red energy, it’s challenging to turn that off. But you can look at what’s needed and turn something up. How can I turn another energy up without lessening my attention on things that I already do? Saying ‘I’m going to turn my blue up’ refocuses you.”

Greenier added: “All four of these [color energies] are needed for an effective team. Ask those around you, ‘What’s my perception of how I’m showing up? What can I be doing different?’ You may be focusing on a couple of characteristics and attributes that you’re singling out, but all of this is needed to make a team effective. If you had a team that was just operating one way, maybe they would get a lot of stuff done, but ideally you’re leveraging all four. A team needs all of this together.”

Sarvay focused on the example of music leadership and cited two orchestra conductors: Roger Nierenberg from New York and Steven Smith from the Richmond Symphony. Both of them have created leadership education curricula based on their experiences — Nierenberg’s Music Paradigm and Smith’s First Chair — but they take very different approaches to their roles.

Nierenberg is a traditionalist — his orchestras have a top-down culture where he leads and the musicians follow. Smith is much more democratic. Both have applications in today’s business world.

“Leadership is often very role-dependent, and those roles are given to people,” Sarvay said. “We don’t choose those roles. We don’t get to be vice president or CEO for the day. We climb the ladder and earn roles.

“While that may be true, that leadership or power or authority or some mental blocks that we put in place with how we show up can be defined by chairs or roles that are given to us, every day we are given an opportunity to perform and make great things. Those two things can exist simultaneously, and I think that’s one of the hardest things for emerging leaders to appreciate.”

Sarvay focused a bit more on Smith’s philosophy because of its applicability to the business world. A conductor can see what’s happening in the room, just as a CEO can see what’s happening in a company. But they can’t solve problems by themselves.

That fact served to illustrate that not all the power and leadership in a company resides in the C-suite.

“While you may have a conductor in your organization who is setting strategy and sending communications to the rest of the company,” Sarvay said, “that conductor sits in a place that’s not false power — it’s real power — but it’s not the only place of power in the organization. It’s not the only place of leadership. The conductor has a role, and each of you, as leaders in your section, have your own role.”

One of the key concepts from the Leadership Academy in recent years has been the sphere of influence that every person has. Each individual has coworkers he or she works closest with, and that and one’s own department is the perfect place to start making a difference.

“Your ability to shape your organization is much higher than most people believe it is,” Sarvay said. “You can recognize what you can do within the fences established by your organization and how you can rise above that and expand your influence without breaking the law, so to speak.”

“The more often you’re exhibiting these personal leadership behaviors, the more you’re influencing. Just by being yourself and doing some of these things well and existing, you’re exhibiting that,” Greenier said. “People are watching.

“While you may not get to set all of the rules, the more you influence by saying ‘I turned off Outlook for 30 minutes. I cleared my calendar because I can’t have that 8 a.m. meeting,’ folks are noticing. They are noticing even when you’re not at the top rack of your organization, and it has ripple effects everywhere.”

That influence works in tandem with the good you can do for your own productivity by grabbing moments of hyper-focus.

“How do you take micromoments? You’re not going to get four hours,” Sarvay said. “You might get 10 minutes to really focus on this one conversation or solving a problem this client has and devoting your energy to that.”

Leading Through Change in a Positive Way

What you do with your sphere of influence is more important than ever in a profession where the traditional path upward is changing rapidly. That was the thrust of the session “Leading Change,” led by VSCPA President & CEO Stephanie Peters, CAE, and Chief Operating Officer Maureen Dingus, CAE.

The lesson? The profession is changing exponentially, and CPAs must be ready to roll with the changes or be left behind.

“To attract and keep the best talent, you’re going to have to have a culture where you’re embracing innovation and change and have an agile environment,” Peters said. “It’s not the old top-down hierarchy. It’s much more collaborative, less of a ‘My way or the highway,’ time-based, how you do your work. People have the ability to fail, to try new things, see what works and move on if it doesn’t.”

That makes managing change — up, down, sideways, what have you — even more important. Handling disparate sets of emotions and reactions can take all a manager’s energy. Insights refers to it as the Change Curve, where individuals go through the stages of change acceptance at different rates:

  • Stage 1: Change is introduced. Reactions: Shock, denial
  • Stage 2: Reality sets in. Reactions: Self-criticism
  • Stage 3: Doubt. Reactions: Confusion, but signs of acceptance
  • Stage 4: Acceptance rationalization. Reactions: Explorations of what changes mean
  • State 5: Solutions and problem-solving. Reactions: Embrace of changes
  • Stage 6: Moving on. Reactions: Learning how to flourish in new system

Compounding things, however, is that people process change at different rates, and they don’t always begin the process at the same time.

“If you’re at the bottom and no one included you in the discussion, you’re never going to accept the change,” Dingus said. “If you’re at the top, you’re ready to go. If you’re in the middle, you need some time to get your head around it, you’re in the messy zone, but you’re going to be okay.

“You need to have a vision of what’s happening and why it’s important, and you need to accept that people are going to be a little freaked out and not as accepting of what’s happening.”Professionals across the working world need to be ready to accept change, and CPAs are no different. The hiring of new accounting graduates dropped 19 percent in 2016, driven largely by the largest firms, who are hiring more non-CPAs to perform analytical and advisory work.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, the key skills of the professional of the future include:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity, originality and initiative
  • Tech design and programming
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Complex problem solving
  • Leadership/social influence
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Reasoning, problem-solving, ideation
  • Systems analysis

The common thread through most of those traits is flexibility. As Peters said, successful professionals of the future will have the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn critical skills. And it’s not just non-CPA professionals who are taking on some traditional CPA tasks — it’s machines. That means the human traits are the ones that will set successful CPAs apart.

“You’ve got to understand business, you’ve got to understand people and you’ve got to understand leadership,” Peters said.

That makes it even more important to help bring your colleagues along. Leaders with vision will need help to accomplish their goals and take their businesses to the next level, and how they manage change can make a huge difference.

“You need to have a vision of what’s happening and why it’s important,” Dingus said, “and you need to accept that people are going to be a little freaked out and not as accepting of what’s happening.”

“You can have all the money in the bank,” Peters said, “but if you don’t have the right people, it won’t matter. You have to find those people and keep them.”

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