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Why Leadership Means Leading Your Clients, Too

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Female accounting professionals who are considering making the change to advisory have a number of unique leadership strengths that will help them be highly successful. Meghan Watson of Withum kicks off a new content series by discussing these attributes and explaining how they will benefit women who decide to offer client advisory services.

May 24th 2021
Lead, Management Consulting Services Withum
Columnist
In association with
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As early as nursery school, my report cards (despite “exceeding expectations”) would always mention, “Meghan needs to keep her social interactions to a minimum.” Later, my creative side had most friends and family thinking I would go into graphic design or become an educator. I’d like to think I was the mastermind behind the artfully crafted bulletin boards in high school. I went on to thoroughly enjoy my photography class as an escape from accounting classes at Boston College. I then took to scrapbooking when our first son was born, and that quickly evolved into party planning with elaborate and innovative themes for cocktail shindigs, birthday parties and, most recently, a bridal shower for my sister-in-law. Throughout many of those years, I was a server at a local pizza place before graduating to an upscale restaurant in Lawrenceville, then a Major League Baseball stadium and a well-known restaurant chain known for an Italian dessert made with ricotta cheese. I also happen to be the only child of a hard-working single mother, who was thrilled when I landed an accounting job in New York City before graduating.

So, what does this have to do with women in advisory or leading clients? Professionally, during my 22+ years in advisory, I’ve been engaging in many of these same activities – learning, sharing, being creative, listening intently, absorbing everything, being aware of my environment, adapting, leveraging my knowledge, working hard, connecting the dots and cherishing relationships. Just like when I was trying to get to know my classmates or when I was waiting tables, I paid attention to small cues, body language, word choice, facial expressions, emotions, etc. I’m proud to say that I do all of these things with my clients regularly – some intentionally and some unconsciously. I guess you can say I’ve been tapping into my emotional intelligence before it was a “thing.”

As a consultant, I have a job to do. Clients expect that I will assess their current state (e.g., declining revenue, organizational issues, operational inefficiency, technology woes, lack of strategy and vision, etc.), explore and understand where the organization wants or expects to be, and develop a detailed roadmap to get them to the desired future state. Of course, to be able to effectively execute, a “qualified” consultant brings to the table many years of experience working on a wide array of similar engagements for a variety of clients. We have a number of tools and techniques we deploy to deliver on such objectives. However, to become a trusted advisor and truly lead our clients, it is about engaging so much more than your technical brain or a few tips and tricks.

To understand some of the unique strengths women have to be leaders in advisory, we can dive into Daniel Goleman’s five key elements of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.  Before we get started, let me just say this is NOT a comparison between the emotional intelligence or resulting success of men and women in the advisory world or even the workplace in general. I just happen to believe that many women working in advisory, myself included, have successfully embraced these concepts and, as a result, have been able to experience fulfilling careers through servant leadership.

Self-Awareness: The “capacity to be aware” is not always easy. We naturally come into situations with preconceived notions or biases formed from previous experiences. Certainly, our clients do the same thing. “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” or “That will never work!” or “We don’t have the resources for that!”  They look to us to be able to open our minds and ask good questions – to be truly aware and help them do the same. This independent perspective and awareness helps us to better understand the root causes of challenges and identify potential solutions, as well as connect with our clients in a way that establishes trust. Self-awareness, setting aside those preconceived notions and taking an honest look at whether your feelings or perceptions are impacting decisions or actions, takes practice and discipline. As women, we tend to be very aware of how words and behaviors impact us personally as well as those we lead.

Self-Regulation: We all have experienced a difficult scenario where you feel strongly that YOUR position is right and if the other person (whether it be a client or even your teenager) would just see it your way, it would save a lot of time and aggravation. However, women understand that being able to maintain control, share your thoughts without getting emotional, understand the other’s point of view, and tap into a growth mindset instead of digging in your heels can be much more productive – not to mention more enjoyable. Flexibility, intentional restraint and personal accountability encourage collaboration and, as a result, gain respect from clients and colleagues alike, as they feel valued through our leadership.

Motivation: The driving factor for our actions, willingness and our ultimate goals is often described as motivation, and it comes in many forms. I and many other women appreciate recognition and respect; some of us are motivated by position, stature and even tangible reward. We also thrive when engaging with others, contributing in some way, being held to a high standard, or being provided an opportunity to learn and grow. We are often optimistic and strive to find the positive in a situation. Many times, our motivation comes from the desire to see others succeed and finding pride in the work we do with our clients. When that comes across, they respond in kind, and our motivation and goals become aligned.

Empathy: Being able to understand or feel what another person is experiencing and convey that through your actions are both key to establishing rapport and eventual relationships. It can be simple, like a nod and a comforting wink as another mom chases her crying kid to the car because you’ve been there before. Or, it could be something like breaking up the awkward silence while serving a couple who is clearly on a first date. Or it might involve smiling at a junior staff member before their first big presentation as if to say, “You’ve got this!”  A client and advisor relationship is no different.  While clients are often engaging us to solve business challenges, the personal interactions we have as we go about our work are critically important to successful outcomes. Understanding their why, who they are, and what motivates them helps us to identify where we can offer personal wins that can lead to organizational wins. Getting to know your client and handling that relationship empathetically solidify the relationship while also developing a sense of gratitude as you come to appreciate each other personally AND professionally.

Social Skills: Effective communication, the ability to make others feel comfortable, active listening, respect – these and other good social skills can truly make a difference when it comes to leading others, especially clients. Flashing a great smile, being neutral but attentive when facilitating, delivering bad news in a supportive manner, sharing a quick story, getting genuinely excited with the team when celebrating positive news, and simply enjoying social interactions are other examples where social skills can provide tremendous benefits for women in an advisory role. Enabling our clients to see us as intelligent, experienced professionals but also as relatable and understanding people makes it easy for them to engage and trust we are leading them through a process that will benefit them and their organization.

In sum, and to borrow bits from the definitions of “emotional intelligence” from Oxford Languages and the APA dictionary, I think women in advisory are aware of, control, and express their emotions well, utilize that capacity to manage social interactions and relationships judiciously and empathetically, and demonstrate their ability to process and use emotional information for rational and servant leadership. I guess I'm just a people person, and it's a good thing I didn't keep my social interactions to a minimum.

Women have long been key contributors in the tax and accounting profession, bringing new ideas, perspectives and insights to an industry that’s traditionally comfortable sticking to the familiar. Yet, despite huge strides, recent survey results suggest female accountants are less confident and less equipped to take on new business challenges than their male counterparts at a time when creativity and challenging the status quo is needed more than ever. See the stats and get the knowledge you need to empower women in your practice.

 

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