Assessing Your Leadership Team

Businesswoman sitting on table while talking with four coworkersFour common challenges.

By Anthony Zecca

“Every person is unique, put the right people with the right capability to the right position to solve the right problems.” – Pearl Zhu, author “Digital Master” book series

One of the most critical factors affecting the ability of a firm leader to be an Edge leader versus a center leader is the effectiveness of the leadership team. There is a direct link between the strength of the leadership team and the firm leader’s ability to lead from the edge. A strong team allows the firm leader to lead whereas a weak team forces the firm leader to manage.

MORE: Incremental Vs. Exceptional Success | Do You Lead or Just Manage? | Managing Vs. Leading | Is Your Leadership Team at the Edge? | 6 Leadership Challenges Through COVID and Beyond | Edge Leaders Share 7 Strengths | Leadership Must Drive Culture | Leading from the Edge
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Center leaders appoint or promote individuals to leadership positions generally without any objective model of what is needed in the position to drive success and to support the firm’s strategic objectives. Center leaders promote based on what they think they know about the individual or based on putting someone on the team who will be a team player – someone the center leader knows will not rock the boat. All too often, the center leader will promote or appoint someone to a leadership position because they have been there the longest or based on friendship.

The question is, are the individuals being promoted or appointed the right ones to drive the long-term vision and strategic objectives? In center-led firms most often the answer is no.

Edge leaders choose leadership team members based on the skills that are needed for success and/or to fill a gap in the Edge leader’s skill set. They don’t value compliance from their leadership team. Edge leaders value confidence and independent thinking within a strong team mindset. Edge leaders know that it is the total leadership team that makes the difference in the firm’s success; center leaders think it is their leadership that makes the difference.

“You need to get the right people on your team to fill the gaps in your skills.” – Robert Minkler Jr., leader of Anders CPAs.

As the firm leader, you can’t begin to assess your leadership team until you have defined the qualities, skills and personality your leadership team needs to reflect. A critical component necessary to effectively assess your leadership team is to develop a talent profile for each leadership position. The profile should define the skills and talents necessary for leadership success in each position. The talent profile is the critical tool for completing the assessment of your team and is critical to determine what leadership gaps exist. Once the gaps are identified the firm leader can then determine what steps can be taken to address those gaps.

As stated above, if you have the right person with the right skills in the right position, it all works.

“Part of the challenge in managing risk is getting the right talent in the right spot.” – Kevin Keane, leader of PKF O’Connor Davies

Over the years, clients have retained me to work with them to develop growth and profit strategies as well as related strategic plans. Part of that process generally includes evaluating the leadership team as well. When I look at leadership teams not just in accounting firms but in other organizations, there are four common leadership challenges that I evaluate in my assessment of the leadership team’s effectiveness.


illustration of four common challenges













Creating Alignment

“The nutshell version is that you need to think about the employee mindsets, behaviors, knowledge and expertise that are potentially linked to the performance outcomes of interest.” – Pearl Zhu

The lack of a leadership team that is aligned with the skills necessary to achieve the long-term strategy of the firm is by far the most common negative characteristic affecting the overall performance of the firm. This results in the firm leader spending too much time managing versus leading. In far too many firms, leadership does not operate as a well-coordinated team.

If you are a parent or have a niece or nephew who is five years old and learning to play soccer on a team, you will clearly understand the metaphor. It is impossible to get a team of five-year-old kids to play position soccer regardless of their skills when they all instinctively run to the ball, all trying to kick the ball. They lack the skill and ability to think as a team, and they end up playing as individuals based on what they think they should be doing, not playing to achieve the game strategy to win.

In the case of five-year-old kids, that’s completely understandable and part of the learning process. Unfortunately, for a leadership team who have learned their leadership habits and built their skills – good and bad – over time, the challenge for the firm’s Edge leader is how to change that group of individuals into a well-coordinated, talented team of Edge leaders aligned with the skills necessary to drive the firm’s success. It takes time to achieve the alignment, but it starts with the talent profile.

“To pull partners out of their cocoon and judging leaders based on how they get their team to perform is a very difficult challenge and takes time.” – Jim Pitrat, leader of Singer Lewak

Center leaders tend to choose members of their leadership team for the wrong reasons as noted above. This selection process keeps the center leader focused on managing versus leading. It also keeps the center leader comfortable.

Edge leaders by contrast see the firm’s leadership team, starting with him, as a team whose collective skills make the firm and leadership stronger. The firm Edge leader knows that to lead, he must have a team that strengthens him, that allows him to lead and not manage and that shares his vision for the firm. Edge leaders desire alignment of their team; center leaders desire obedience from their team.

So how do you create the alignment?

  • Complete the talent profile noted above.
  • Evaluate each leader’s skills, experience, behaviors, attitude and style against the talent profile. A huge mistake many firm leaders make is basing their evaluation on, “I know this team, or this individual having worked with them or her.” The rabbit hole this can lead to is an assessment based on emotion versus objectivity. This assessment should be completed utilizing four steps:
    • an upward evaluation by the team each leader manages
    • each leader should complete a self-assessment against the profile
    • retain a consultant to complete an independent evaluation of each leader and compare that evaluation to the output from (a) and (b)
    • as the firm leader, develop your own evaluation of each member of your leadership team based on your experience with each individual and the results they are achieving
  • Utilizing these steps, develop a gap assessment for each leader that compares their current profile against the desired profile.
  • As the firm leader, most likely you have a pretty good sense regarding how each member of your team would respond to a personal development program focused on closing the gap between their current state and the talent profile. This step would involve you (with or without the consultant you may have retained) meeting with each member of your leadership team. The focus of the meeting should be a discussion regarding areas where there is room for improvement. It is important that you listen first and then explain why the areas of improvement are important to ensuring that the entire leadership team is aligned with the overall vision and strategic direction of the firm. It is essential that each member of the leadership team “own the responsibility” for their development and ultimate alignment with the profile because you, as the leader, can’t just force it.

“You can open the door, but I don’t think you can push people through. You have to create the opportunity that enables people to make the choice to walk through the door.” – Ron Weiner, leader of Perelson Weiner LLP

  • Accountability and monitoring are necessary to ensure that there is sufficient progress against each individual’s development plan. You should meet quarterly with each individual to discuss their progress and to provide one-on-one coaching to help each individual reach success in their leadership – a win/win/win for you, the firm and the individual. Depending on the specifics, it may be beneficial to retain an outside coach for some members of your team as well.
  • Finally, the above steps should be repeated as needed based on changes in the firm (growth, mergers, new service lines, etc.), as well as on the progress each leadership team member makes relative to their improvement plan.

The above may sound daunting and time-consuming for you as the firm leader given your other areas of responsibility. However, think about what Larry Bossidy (author and former CEO of Allied Signal) has to say about talent: “There is no way to spend too much time on obtaining (recruiting, promoting) and developing (training) the best people.” That is the bottom line.

No Edge leader has every single skill or is the perfect leader. Great Edge leaders understand this and build leadership teams that complement their skills and fill the gaps where needed. Edge leaders look for members of their leadership team who are strong in areas where they might not be as strong. Edge leaders understand that the strength of the team is driven by the strength of each individual member, including himself.

Center leaders tend to surround themselves with individuals who tend to say “yes” versus challenging the leader’s thinking. Center leaders see themselves at the center of the leadership team, with each team leader viewed as a spoke of the wheel. Edge leaders by contrast see the leadership team as a star with all positions connected and joined as one.

“The best leader recognizes what characteristics they don’t have and surrounds himself with people that have those characteristics.” – Glenn Friedman, leader of PragerMetis

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