We see what leadership looks like - delegating to teams, making decisions, being somebody’s “boss” but there’s a ton of learning that happens in the world of leadership. It’s an ongoing thing because when I wrote the 3 E’s of Leadership a few summers ago, I thought I captured everything.
Still on a high from finally passing the CPA exam, I spoke at an accounting conference in Los Angeles. Being all too familiar with these conferences, I knew taxes, month-end, cryptocurrency, CPE, and software demos were on the agenda. I also knew, even as my first national speaking engagement, I didn’t want to bring more of the same to the conference. It was important to me to talk about something I understand and have personal experiences to draw from - leadership. Yes, I did a leadership talk at an accounting conference. I’m glad I did and here’s why . . .
Accounting and finance careers vary from general accounting, advisory, attestation, and tax. Regardless of area, everybody can learn something about leadership. The way the audience nodded, engaged, and asked questions confirmed my need to delve deeper into what it takes to lead and be led - which was the title of my talk. Thinking about the fast pace and stringent timelines accountants are usually up against, a leader must be prepared to pivot, make quick decisions, and think strategically about process improvements and talent management. There’s typically some ambiguity in all of that, which makes leadership even more complex and at times draining.
My talk focused on the 3 E’s of effective leadership - you must engage, empower, and educate your team. Several weeks after I was back home, I was still feeling confident and reflecting on the many notes I made thinking I'd forget something, only to not need my note cards once I got comfortable after a few minutes. Leadership requires ongoing learning and as I revisited my talk that I also created a blog post about, I realized I missed a very important E: empathy. Empathy is the 4th (really the FIRST) “E" that a leader must have and without it, the other 3 E’s are irrelevant.
Empathy "involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial, or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced." I chose the Psychology Today definition over the dictionary because empathy is very human. By listening to others and acknowledging their emotions you’re showing empathy. We hear empathy as “being there” for someone or "putting yourself in someone’s shoes." In the workplace, empathy is a fine line because of the need to remove emotion from a situation. As a manager, if your employees have a conflict and you’ve stepped in to resolve, you must be objective in handling the situation so that outcomes are driven by facts and protocols and not emotion. So how can you show empathy without showing emotion?" It’s a function of opening your mind to other perspectives and removing personal views from a situation. With empathy also comes trust so it’s something that can improve not only internal relationships but external ones with customers and vendors.
Once you’ve built trust and broke the ice through the empathy lens, then comes the importance of the other 3 E’s of leadership - engagement, empowerment, and education. Especially for leaders new to a company, engagement is key in establishing relationships with direct reports. To lead effectively you must understand their role and how it ties into broader company objectives. Are they adding value to the role or just keeping the seat warm? Creating an environment where it's OK to share both the positives and negatives is the first step in getting to know your new team. Once you have an idea of what your team can do (or not do), then you empower them - give them the space to use their brains. Too often people see only the leading side of leadership not realizing the leader is learning just as much from the team. When leaders miss the empowerment phase, not only are they hindering the team's growth but their own as they miss opportunities to learn the details of departmental duties. Without empowerment, the team is left to rely on the leader’s way of thinking and any deviation from that is seen as deficient or subordinate. As leaders, we must recognize the need for collaborative working which often gets overshadowed by the fancy Lead, Senior, and Chief titles.
You know when the team totally misses the mark and you have to take the fall for it because you’re the leader? This is where education comes in. Correcting wrong actions + coaching and investing the time to ensure the team understands where pitfalls are. If a task is completed beyond the due date or the answer the team gave was totally off-base, that’s your opportunity to create a teachable moment. Empathy again comes into play because the delivery must be tactful and objective especially if your team’s wrong caused you to be called out by your superiors. Again, setting the emotions + any embarrassment aside, the is the time to delve into what went wrong, why it was wrong, and what should have happened. This has happened to me many times from both sides of the table, but it hits different when you have to take the fall for someone else’s mistakes. In these situations, I call a team meeting and start with, “Help me understand what happened.” This approach is effective in first removing emotions of “you guys got me in trouble” while fostering an environment to speak freely about the miss and take corrective action going forward.
There’s more to being a leader than giving orders. It’s more than approving and assigning and delegating. There’s a focus on what a leader is giving - mentorship, guidance, coaching, but there’s a lot to learn about yourself and how you’ll find many opportunities to learn how to be a better leader. What does a great leader even mean? You can be a great leader then go to another company where your leadership style doesn’t fit. Even if it doesn’t fit, that’s an opportunity to pivot which may be necessary depending on the needs and strengths of your team. Your once laid-back approach won’t work in an environment where you have underperforming or junior staff who can’t handle the workload. Another key learning as a leader is knowing when to make decisions like firing someone which can be emotional but if their performance is detrimental to the business then it’s necessary. It’s being able to review and approve everyone else’s work while still keeping up with your own. It’s being a sounding board for employees and understanding that you will be privy to information that others aren’t. All of that starts with empathy.