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A Lesson in Leadership

At 22 years old I was given one of the greatest leadership lessons in my 25 year career…and it happened in an instant while riding an elevator on a cold February day.

As a newly minted college graduate and a first year accountant for one of the most prestigious accounting firms in the country, I was short on experience but long on enthusiasm.  Being a first year accountant/auditor meant that we were at the bottom of the proverbial food chain in the big world of public accounting.

Weeks of 80+ hour assignments were common place during the busy season as we audited numerous Fortune 500 companies.  During a particularly grueling period of endless 16 hour workdays, myself and my fellow first year co-workers slumbered into the elevator of the ground floor parking lot and headed up to our monthly staff meeting lead by our firm’s Managing Partner.

There we were, six sleep deprived, highly-caffeinated workhorses who just a few hours earlier were at a client site auditing until the very wee hours of the morning.   As the elevator slowly rose upward through the various parking levels on the way to our firm’s office, it stopped at the last parking garage floor.   As the doors opened, in strode our Managing Partner staring at six pairs of bloodshot eyes, some with hair still wet from their quick shower.

Aquatic Food Chain

You need to understand the dynamic at my firm, not unlike most companies around America. In most companies the Managing Partner or executives, for that matter, are at the top of the food chain.   They are in a sense the Orca, the Killer Whale.   At the other end of the food chain are a group of 22-year-old first year accountants wearing inexpensive suits and shirts that could have been crisper.   In this aquatic food chain we were the equivalent of Plankton: a small organism that lives in the ocean that cannot swim against the tide, whose singular purpose in life is to be born, then simultaneously eaten by larger creatures.   Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

In the world of public accounting all Managing Partners started their careers as first year accountants, working the same endless hours, drinking the same stale coffee to stay awake and survive.   It is the great circle of life, just like all generals started in the same boot camp as a private and carried the same rifle as every other soldier.

The Orca

As the elevator slowly displayed one floor at a time, we all stood staring at the numbers, trying not to be intimidated by riding with the Orca.   Somehow it is a phenomenon that by staring at the elevator numbers, you really think the elevator will go faster.   At about that time, the Managing Partner turned his head halfway toward us and gave us the gratuitous rhetorical time-filling comment….”so how is everyone this morning?”.

This question was responded to with cricket-like chirpings of “good”.  That was until one of our more bold first year co-workers summoned his caffeinated courage to say….”we are all doing well Steve, working a lot of hours at the XYZ audit, drinking lots of late night coffee and eating lots of takeout Chinese food, but we are fighting the battle….you remember those days….right Steve?”

My imagination showed that the Managing Partner was going to turn around and say, ”boy do I ever. I never drank so much bad coffee and appreciated sleep so much, but you guys are doing great and keep up the good work.”  At that point my imagination had us floating out of the elevator, two feet off the ground, ready to take whatever hill the Managing Partner wanted us to attack.

“You remember those days, right Steve?”

Turning Point

Instead, what we were met with was a quarter turn of his head and the stoic reply:

“No, I really don’t”

At that point the elevator doors opened, the Managing Partner stole one quick look at his oversized gold Rolex,  and as confidently as he entered the elevator, vanished into the cavernous office of our firm’s lobby.

There stood the six of us, emotionless.  Then what quickly followed was the chorus of murmured words that cannot be printed on this page.  As I leaned my head against the back wall of the elevator, I realized that I just experienced one of the most profound leadership lessons I would ever be given.

Never forget where you came from.

At that moment, I vowed as a 22-year old accountant, that if I ever am so honored to be chosen as a leader of people, that I will never forget what it is like to be the guy on the docks at 5 a.m. loading trucks, the rep in the call center taking hundreds of calls sometimes promoting your product and on the next call defending it, or the sales rep who is questioning if they can handle one more rejection.   It is these people that are the backbone of any organization.

A leader has the power to lift an entire organization to new heights with what outwardly appear to be simple gestures or can sink it to new lows.   Leadership is often won with hand to hand combat.   A simple smile, a handshake with a simultaneous “great job on the project”, a moment to stop by someone’s cubicle and ask how their son’s Little League is going, all propel people to continue to charge the hill.  The void of that human compassion and acknowledgement can sink a team even quicker.

In over 25 years of leading thousands of people across hundreds of offices, I have never forgotten the feeling I had in that elevator so many years ago.   I promised myself that every moment I encounter someone it is a moment of truth.  One that will leave them ready to charge forward, or ready to run away.    It is up to me as a Leader to ensure that we never forget where we came from.

By Marty Stowe