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When Leaders Don’t Lead

At a recent Boomer Leadership Academy session, there was a lot of discussion about what happens when leaders don’t lead. Some of the young managers in the group feel they’re not getting the help they need from partners to meet their goals and move in the right direction.

For example, several passionate professionals expressed frustration with business development expectations. It’s not that they don’t want to help the firm bring in new clients and offer new services to existing clients. However, when they make time for business development activities on their calendars, partners admonish them for not focusing on billable time. Receiving such mixed messages, it’s no wonder the middle of your firm feels stuck in a catch-22!

Signs of a bad leader

Above is just one example of how leaders can fail to lead, but there are many more examples. Others might include:

  • Treating people like expenses rather than assets and showing little concern for their well-being. Team members feel expendable and easily replaced.

  • Micromanaging work, distrusting the team and refusing to delegate to others. This stunts growth because your team doesn’t have an opportunity to make decisions or take on stretch projects.

  • Fear change. Technology and processes are stuck in the past because that’s where the decision-maker feels most comfortable. As a result, team members worry the firm is destined to fall behind.

  • Refuses to make tough decisions. Being liked and avoiding conflict is more important than making decisions. People become frustrated by a lack of direction.

Often, it’s not that the person in a leadership position wants to be a bad leader; it’s that they never developed the skills to lead others effectively. Perhaps the partner was a top performer, but the technical skills that made them talented auditors, tax preparers and business advisors do not necessarily translate into leading a team.

What happens when leaders don’t lead?

When partners are poor leaders, you’ll see evidence of it in firm culture, turnover and profitability.

People who become disillusioned with the firm's leadership typically follow one of two paths. Some will attend industry conferences, hear about other firms' great cultures and inspiring leaders and leave to work for the competition. Others will stay but disengage. This is arguably worse than losing talent because you have people in your firm who are checked out, complain to others and further drag morale down. Either way, others will follow. Your firm’s profitability will decrease because you’re not leveraging people and inspiring them to take your firm to the next level.

How to lead

Leading isn’t as simple as claiming to be a leader. Others need to feel your leadership.

Employees and their development are key measures of what leaders achieve. Most of the time, when people perceive you as not being a leader, it involves expectations and communication. If you create expectations (or allow them to be created for you) and don’t communicate them well, people won’t perceive you as a strong leader.

Here are a few tips for leading your employees to success:

  • Set high goals. Your firm must have a strategic plan that identifies the firm’s objectives and strategies or initiatives supporting those objectives. Every partner, manager and employee also needs a personal 90-day game plan that supports the plan. Individual game plans aligning with a firm-wide strategic plan paint the big picture so your team understands expectations and which activities are worth their time and energy.

  • Measure and report. Setting goals is one thing, but ensuring benchmarks and milestones are measured and reported helps your team see how far they’ve come and how much further they need to push. Financial metrics are important but are not the only way to track results. For example, if you’ve identified increased revenues as a strategic objective, you may want to track how many networking events your team attends and how many conversations they have with existing clients about utilizing the firm’s advisory and consulting services. Visibility into your goals and how you measure progress toward those goals ensures everyone knows they’re sailing the same ship.

  • Recognize and acknowledge. Feedback keeps people passionate. People like to know where they are on their journey and how their actions contribute to the cause. Have regular formal reviews and informal check-ins with your team to discuss their progress and performance. A coaching dialog will ensure your team leaves thinking they can do better rather than losing motivation.

When leaders lead, they share vision and excitement and motivate their team with a picture of what is possible. When leaders don’t lead, people move on and organizations fail.


Sandra Wiley, Shareholder, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is a leader in the accounting profession with a passion for helping firms grow, adapt and thrive. She is regularly recognized by Accounting Today as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Accounting as a result of her expertise in leadership, management, collaboration, culture building, talent and training.

Sandra’s role at Boomer Consulting, Inc. includes serving as co-director of the Boomer Leadership Academy as well as the Boomer Managing Partner Circle, the Boomer Talent Circle and the Boomer Learning & Development Circle. Her years of experience and influence as a management and strategic planning consultant make her a sought-after resource among the best and brightest firms in the country.


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