Barry Melancon, CPA, is president and CEO of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a position he has held since 1995. Prior to his work at the AICPA, Melancon served as executive director of the Society of Louisiana Certified Public Accountants for eight years. He recently took a few minutes to talk with me about his thoughts on leadership.
Describe your leadership philosophy.
Leaders should not fear change, Melancon said. “I’m a big-time embracer of change,” he said. “I think that’s the world we live in.”
Another guiding philosophy: “The pursuit of perfection is the enemy of progress.” That doesn’t mean quality isn’t important. But sometimes leaders are stymied in their decision-making by what they perceive as a lack of sufficient information.
“I tell people, and believe myself, we are imperfect human beings,” he said. Leaders must seize the moment and take rational risks, and not be overly critical of themselves if they make mistakes along the way. “The only way you can make progress is to do those things,” he said.
Melancon also believes in hiring talented people and allowing them to do good work. “My role is to set a course, as much as possible, and then let great people do the things that they are capable of doing,” he said.
Tell us about the first time you were somebody’s boss.
Melancon first found himself in a management position while working at a small accounting firm in southern Louisiana, where he began his career. He was young and inexperienced, he said, and he looked to the people who had been his bosses for cues on what to do, and what not to do.
“The managing partner was someone who was very challenging, but at the same time, (someone) you could go in and have conversations with and disagree with,” Melancon said. “I tried to set that tone with the people I was supervising early on.”
How do you decide if someone is right for your team?
Melancon looks for people with critical-thinking skills, who have the ability “to connect the dots on things, understand the outside environment.” He also seeks people who are good at communicating and multitasking.
What is the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year?
For CPAs, staying on top of complex economic, regulatory and technological change is essential to the business, but it can be daunting, Melancon said. The challenge isn’t new, but the pace of change continues to accelerate. Being on the leading edge requires a high level of personal investment, including time and money.
“It’s the same in other professions,” Melancon said. “We don’t want a doctor who was current 10 years ago. We want a doctor who is current today.”
What is the biggest challenge your association is facing?
Managing resources and managing change.
Melancon said most organizations today are dealing with limited resources. While businesses might respond by defining their mission and narrowing their operations accordingly, associations don’t always have that option. No matter how strategic they are, associations have a diverse set of members and needs. Melancon said he responds by focusing on core services, a strategic plan and innovation.
Managing change is another challenge. The AICPA works with its members to envision the future and to map out how the industry should respond to changing conditions. But at the end of the day, it’s up to CPAs to make those changes happen.
Melancon gave the example of cloud computing, a technology he considers the most important advancement since the microcomputer. Cloud computing can improve how CPA firms operate and interact with their clients. “But we can’t go into a firm and say, ‘You need to embrace cloud computing,’ ” Melancon said. “What we have to do is provide information and tools to help people see the opportunities and threats of cloud computing.”
Looking outside of Washington, whose work do you admire most?
“When I look at … America’s workforce, I actually have the most admiration for single working moms,” Melancon said.
If a recent college grad came to you and said they one day wanted your job, what advice would you give them?
“I would encourage them to invest in themselves to be able to communicate well,” he said. “I would encourage them to spend time in environments that allow them to think strategically, or to think in what I call progression — not just the implications of today, but a little bit further down the road.”
Also, anyone who wants to be a CEO needs to be willing to coach others.
“That’s the only way that they can be as successful as they want to be,” Melancon said.
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