As any mentor or leader can tell you, leadership isn’t easy. In fact, it involves having a great deal of self-awareness and a learner’s mindset in order to be effective. That’s what this interview is all about!
Continuing our series of CPA interviews conducted by the Radical CPA Jody Padar at the AICPA Engage event in Las Vegas, the following is a chat with Mike Maksymiw from Marcum LLP, which recently merged with Filomeno & Company. Padar and Maksymiw focused mostly on leadership, especially in the face of a company merger.
Maksymiw talked about the different leadership skills professionals can include in their businesses, but perhaps what’s most interesting is the way he’s seamlessly applied them in his firm to create a common understanding of expectations. You’ll hear and see a lot of coordinates from high school geometry class that Maksymiw and his team use to describe leadership styles. In a way, it’s this shared language that really promotes a firm-wide understanding of what it means to be a leader.
Listen to the full interview below or keep reading for an edited version of the interview.
Jody Padar: Welcome back. I'm Jody Padar, the Radical CPA, and you are listening to Let's Get Radical. We are live at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at the Engage conference. There's so much here for everyone—it's pretty cool. Our next interview is with Mike, and he’s with the EDGE group. And I'm going to have him introduce himself and EDGE, as well.
Mike Maksymiw: I'm the incoming chair of the EDGE task force for the Conference Planning Committee. And it started out as a young CPA conference, but it's really morphed into leadership and management development skills. That next level when you're already a technical expert, but now you're in charge of people, and now what? A lot of accountants like numbers, but then five years in, they're dealing more with people than numbers—your team, your clients. So it's a lot of that scaling, you need to interact with people and have tough conversations and just learn how to put as much effort into learning managerial and leadership skills as you did your technical skills.
Padar: It gets a lot of people, right? I know that those sessions draw a lot.
Maksymiw: They do. So my session last year, I was expecting about 40 people and 105 people showed up. When you're talking for the first time and twice as many people show up as you're expecting. It's scary. And you use some of those skills you know—I'm still talking about the same stuff. This year, we had 150 people that are signed up for the EDGE track and in the different sessions, and you see a lot of different colored lanyards. So that means there's a lot of cross pollination from people that are here for a PFS (Personal Financial Specialist), tax audit, wealth management. And they're coming to EDGE Sessions too because the topic resonates with them.
Padar: So now tell us a little bit about the session you're doing this week at Engage.
Maksymiw: Tomorrow I'm leading a session called Leading Leaders. This is a question that I've had since I first started trying to learn how to be a leader and how to get these management skills. I was like, "All right, eventually we're gonna be in a group of people like you who are also leaders, and I'm gonna need to lead you." That's a different skill than leading a team where they almost have to follow you. That's a captive audience there. Right. When you're trying to lead leaders, it's not necessarily captive because they're also leaders. They have an option of not following you. And their own agendas. I draw a lot from that.
I volunteer a lot with the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, and it's all volunteer-based. I've got a group of people that come back year after year. So I asked, “Why do you come back?” Well, they say they like the work and that we work as a team. You have zero holds on a volunteer. It's similar that the leaders can do that, too. They have their own agenda. They could just peace out and say, "I don't care what you're doing. I'm going to do it my way, and I can." So how do you align them and get them to all follow along the same path? If you can do that, the firm can really start to do some cool things if everybody's walking the same path.
Padar: Your firm recently merged into a much larger firm. Has that challenged those skills that you had to lead the teams at a much larger firm?
Maksymiw: Yeah, it's definitely challenging. No merger is not challenging. There are lots of pros, a handful of cons, you work through those and the challenges. It's really accelerated the use of those skills, and it gives you a chance to mess up, try again, tell people what you're trying to do and say, "Hey, I'd like to do X, what's the right path to do that here?" It's taking the time and being patient to learn a new hierarchy, a new process. How does information flow? How should it flow? And really learning the “why” behind how we do things.
Marcum [LLP] is pretty successful, so they put some thought behind what they do. If you lean on that, it's a little bit easier when you disagree with how we do something because you say, "All right, well, somebody thinks this is the right way. I just got to figure out who that person is, why we do it this way. Get comfortable around that “why,” and then if I want to change it, the change is around that same “why.”
Padar: As far as leadership goes, you're going to be talking about these five primary leadership skills. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
Maksymiw: So we numbered them just to make it easier because we're accountants. It looks like a graph. X-axis, y-axi,s and you start the bottom left corner. It's 1, 1. That's a person that's kind of retired on the job. You never want to work for that person because they don't make waves. “I don't want anybody to know your name. I don't want anybody to know my name. I just want to come in and punch in and punch out, call it a day, and stay way under the radar.” So that person is not helping you in your career.
Then you've got 9, 1. That's the person who's super into being productive and getting stuff done and doesn't care about you at all. “Work here till midnight. Get this project done. I don't care if your dog's sick or if your kid’s sick. Get the work done. That's all I care about.”
The opposite end is 1, 9. It's a country club, right? So all I care about is you. “Oh, it's noon and your dog’s sick or something that's maybe silly or stupid (neither of those two things are—they were bad examples). I just care about you. And if the work doesn't get done, don't worry about it.” It's leaning too far to the other side.
A lot of people think that the good one is 5, 5, the negotiator. “If you do this, you can have that. Help me out and then I'll do this for you.” It sounds like it is a good compromise, and it can be. But if that's where you always are, everything's a trade-off; it becomes expected.
The best one is 9, 9. That’s when I care about you, and the project. “Let's get this done. All right. So your kid’s sick today? What can you do, or can we move something off your plate to still get it done? What time is the doctor's appointment?
Do you have any ability to log in and work from home because you have the expertise on this and the delivery date’s coming up? Is there a way that we can work together to get both done?” And if the answer's no, then the answer's no. But, you can have that conversation.
We have the trust that I'm not just going to shove it down your throat and say, “You have to get this done.” It's more give and takes. And if that's the leadership style you employ the most often, when I have that conversation with you, you know where I'm coming from.
You know that I do care. "Oh, I'm really sorry that Kayleigh's sick and that you've got to go take care of her, but we've got this thing at noon today, and it's 11:00 and we're almost done with it. What can we do? Can you teach me something that I could wrap it up with? How do we solve this problem together?”
Padar: And now how did you learn this?
Maksymiw: So we had some leadership consultants come into our firm before we merged in. They were the ones that kind of walked us through the basic leadership and management skills. And we've been working on them for a long time because the firm recognized that we deal a lot with people. And if you want to have a successful firm, you need people aligned and talking the same language. That's why we can walk around saying, “Are you nine-nining right now?” It’s a nice shortcut.
Padar: So it's actually become part of your culture.
Maksymiw: Yes. And there was one point where I was home sick, and I was the one who owed somebody something. And they called up and said, "I have a client meeting tomorrow and I need this." I was like, "I'm barely out of bed." She's like, "I told you about it last week. I need it done." She had to 9, 1 me right there. Because it was really my fault. I hadn't gotten it done yet. I felt bad that I didn't get it done, but I felt weird that I got yelled at for not doing it, and I was sick and I just wanted to get better. So, I asked her “You know, you really nine-oned me there.” She was like, “I know, it was one of the few times I had to because, at that moment, we needed to get it done. You were the one that had to do it. I didn't have time to. I know it stinks, but that was one of the few times I had to nine-one you.” And she did it the right way.
Padar: And by having this common language around it, everybody understands it, and they can see how their behavior is fitting into this matrix.
Maksymiw: Correct. And because she's a 9, 9 so often, I felt comfortable going to talk to her and having a 9, 1 conversation, and she explained it. I learned. "Yeah, I did need to be nine-oned right there. You're right."
Padar: I like that because it’s common language. That helps facilitate and everybody understands the impact it has on the culture. So, last night, what did you do?
Maksymiw: Yeah. Monday is traditionally the leadership academy alumni reunion. So we've had 10 years of classes, and we all get together on Monday night, and we played some basketball, threw some footballs around, caught up, met people from the other classes. And then, of course, I had to play Byron in beer pong. Yeah, that was my Monday night in Vegas—reverting back to college and trying to throw ping pong balls into cups.
Padar: And what does it feel like now to be part of the leadership class as it's evolved? I think it's interesting because now you're like the old leader of the young leaders.
Maksymiw: We're just starting to realize that it's our 10 year anniversary. I couldn't even apply right now because I'm not in the age bracket. I'm thinking, "I'm old," and then I'm like, "But I'm not old. I'm just old in this group." So then you look at it, and you feel bad for a couple of seconds, but then you go, "Yeah, but then they're all gonna look up to us like we looked up to the people who led us." Now you’re right back into your leadership mode of role modeling.
I met someone yesterday—she’s a senior. And she referred to herself as, “I’m only a senior.” And I said, “Time out. You’re never only a senior. By definition, you are the most popular accountant on the planet right now. Everybody wants you. So don’t refer to yourself as only a senior; you’re a senior. Own that, and as you progress through your career, have more self-confidence in your role, your level, and what you contribute.” I was sitting at a bar, playing beer pong, and giving leadership advice to someone who just graduated.
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