John Sensiba grows Sensiba San Filippo through participatory leadership

John Sensiba, managing partner, Sensiba San Filippo LLP

Last May, John Sensiba was elected to his second term as managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, a CPA firm with approximately 100 employees. Having been in the role for a little more than three years now, Sensiba has come a long way since he first transitioned from the practice side of the business to take the top spot.

“It has been a dramatic change,” he says.

One of the first lessons Sensiba learned was that he needed to be more confident in the strategic decisions he made and recommended to the firm. It was tempting to be overly participative in decision-making, but by taking a more laissez faire approach in everyday decisions about activities and investments, he realized he was freed to focus more on setting policy and strategy.

“In a professional services firm, the more that you involve the partners in those decisions, usually the better, because they are a bunch of smart people,” he says. “But sometimes you can do it to the point of distraction. Then you might wonder, ‘Why do you have a managing partner if the decisions are all made by a group?’”

While a leader should be able to make some decisions without too much input, Sensiba says you need a way to gain honest feedback on your choices. That becomes increasingly difficult the higher you get in an organization.

“Regardless of the fact that you know folks and you feel like you are approachable, you get different and filtered feedback when you are in the top position in an organization,” Sensiba says.

He now frequently looks outside of the organization to get critical feedback about his leadership and the business from other leaders.

“I learn a lot just talking to people who have been in different roles not within the profession but just in a variety of different businesses or nonprofit enterprises,” he says.

“It may not be the kind of praise that most of us would like to hear all of the time, but it can be really productive to hear things from somebody, and you change your behavior.”

That communication goes both ways. Sensiba found out the hard way that as a leader there is no such thing as overcommunication.

When he first took over as managing partner, he would very carefully craft communications and messages to the firm and for meetings only to have people approach him later on and be frustrated that they hadn’t received the information.

“I thought, ‘Ugh, can I go back to your e-mail for you and show you where I sent it to you?’” Sensiba says. “You get that frustration and sometimes that would come through in my communication.”

Sensiba knew it was damaging for the culture to show frustration with his people, but he admits it was a good lesson to learn early on. He shared his irritation with one of the other managing partners about how his efforts to communicate seemed to be futile.

“He said, ‘If for some reason they didn’t hear it, it’s still your fault,’” Sensiba says. “‘If you said it 10 times, maybe you need to say it 11, but the market is never wrong. Your people are never wrong.”

If people are not getting the message, you can’t blame them. As a leader you need to look at the way you are communicating and do something differently.

“You just cannot put the message out there enough,” Sensiba says.

That goes for communicating day-to-day info and strategy, but also communicating the everyday vision to inspire future leaders of your business. That has been the key to maintaining the firm’s 92 percent client-retention rate.

“My role is to continue to build leaders at every level within the firm — to convince people that you lead from the day you start in a business — you are a leader,” he says.

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

Relationship mechanics

For John Sensiba, retaining clients and generating new business at Sensiba San Filippo LLP is a matter of executing a simple and popular principle.

“It goes back to the golden rule,” says Sensiba, the firm’s managing partner. “Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”

How does this apply to business? Sensiba gives the example of going to a mechanic to work on your car’s transmission, only to find out that it was your fuel injectors that needed work. Even though the mechanic might do an OK job, it’s not that person’s specialty.

“He might say, ‘You know what, it’s your fuel injection and I’ll work on that for you.’” Sensiba says.

“But I would have much more respect for that mechanic if he said, ‘It is your fuel injection and here is my business partner who does nothing but fuel injection, and he is the guy that you need to talk to.’”

While you may lose some business referring customers elsewhere, you earn their trust by showing them that you are looking out for their best interests.

“If you come to me with something that we don’t have the expertise for or we’re not passionate about it, we’ll tell you ‘Call my friend from X, Y and Z firm. They really focus on that. They will do a great job.’” Sensiba says. “Because that is what we would like people to do for us.

“Our growth is built on a very stable client base that tends to stay with us and refer us business. It’s a very good upward spiral when you do good things for people.”

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

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