Julia Poston embraced recessionary challenges to take Ernst & Young Cincinnati to new levels

Julia Poston, managing partner, Ernst & Young, Cincinnati office

Asked to take the managing partner position of Ernst & Young’s Cincinnati office in November 2008 with the recession looming was both good and bad timing for Julia Poston. On one hand, she quickly realized the amount of challenges and drastic changes that the firm would need to cope with, but on the other hand, she could utilize personal strengths and take the firm to levels of business it hadn’t been before.

It didn’t take long for the effects of the recession to cause clients of the accounting firm’s 300-employee Cincinnati office to begin to pull back and shelve projects. Poston had to look for alternative ways to keep clients and customers satisfied while also making sure the employees of the firm understood what was needed of them moving forward.

“We were pressed to figure out how to manage our business a little differently with our revenue dropping as clients shelved things. Trying to manage the business with a smaller revenue base just meant that you had to be more frugal,” Poston says. “We really looked closely at where we could drive some of the costs out of our business without impacting the services to our clients. There were people challenges too, because people were just really worried about the recession and what it was going to mean and they felt vulnerable.”

Luckily for Poston and the firm, those were things that played to her strengths as a leader. She had to drive transparency and openness with her employees as the firm dealt with the changes of a recession.

“It caused us to have to ask them to do more with less and we had a chance to really see who the leaders were during those tougher times,” she says.

Here is how Poston took the negatives of doing business in a recession and turned them into game-changing initiatives for Ernst & Young.

Communicate in tough times

As the recession began to take effect and some of the early signs of change crept into the firm, Poston had to be upfront and clear about what this meant for employees.

“We really looked to people to come to us with ideas about how we could do things differently and challenge things that we once did,” Poston says. “What we tried to do was say to our people, ‘Hey guys, we’re in the midst of a recession and we need you guys to act like you own this firm too. Tell us how we’re going to manage through this. Rather than feeling that things aren’t as great as they once were, tell us what you would do if you were running this business.’”

In order for this approach to work, everyone in the firm had to understand that changes were inevitable and they had to embrace that fact.

“Change happens in every business,” she says. “You can either try to manage around it or you can take it and say, ‘All right, how do we need to continue to transform what we do, how we serve our clients, how we behave internally as an office given this change and react to it?’”

To get people to step up with ideas and have the urge to be engaged in helping the firm forward, Poston was open and transparent.

“If you want everybody to own the goals of your business or your practice and not just have their own personal individual goals … you have to be very transparent with them,” she says. “You have to co-develop the goals with them and then build in the accountability with all levels. The only way to do that is with transparency. Just kind of barking that out and setting those goals and telling everybody that everyone has to own those goals doesn’t work if people don’t feel that they’ve got all the right information and transparency into the process.”

Poston and her other partners took the recession as an opportunity to engage all of the firm’s employees in new ways to run the practice.

“We need to approach our work and our client services differently coming out of this recession,” she says. “We need to have far greater diversity of thought. We need to make sure that we bring, not just our partners to the table to help make decisions as it relates to our client’s business issues, but we need to invite our younger people to the table to think about how we come up with solutions and creative ways to help our clients deal with their business issues. We really have had a big emphasis on connecting everyone from partners to staff both in horizontal and vertical teamwork. We’ve really changed the culture to challenge people to speak up and share their ideas no matter what level they are in the firm.”

Through the process of communicating what it would take to get through the recession and getting employees engaged, it became evident who the leaders in the firm were.

“The people who stepped up and said, ‘We can manage through this change,’ are the ones who are most vital to our business and largely have been the ones who have been most successful coming out of the recession,” Poston says. “The ones who were kind of paralyzed by the recession and didn’t show an ability to adapt to change and doing things differently, they didn’t show great strength. They showed a resistance to change and wanted to harken back to the old days, which the old days aren’t back again.”

Discover new leadership styles

Poston wanted everyone to challenge the old ways of thinking and doing business at Ernst & Young.

“One of the things that’s been a game changer for us was we took our partner group and did something different in terms of challenging leadership styles and creating an environment of teamwork in a really different way than we had ever done before,” Poston says. “One of the things that we did was we had an off-site, three-day, two-evening event out at Camp Joy, which is a camp that has a lot of those outdoor activities like ropes courses and those physically challenging things. We called it the partner leadership challenge and it was a combination of those activities outdoors along with facilitated classroom on leadership challenge. Everyone had to attend and it was a huge game changer for us because there became an element of trust and partnership that we thought we had before, but we didn’t have any idea just how far we could take that.”

The leadership challenge and classroom part of it was started with a 360-feedback process that all the partners needed to do with at least 10 people — people above them, at their same level and below them.

“We really openly dived into all of the feedback that each of us had gotten and set goals for ourselves and buddied up to help drive that accountability,” she says. “We all got a lot of lift from one another by doing this, and that’s the kind of culture we want here — a culture of LIFT. LIFT stands for leveraging insights from teamwork with the idea being that if we team and trust in it in an extraordinary manner, we will be able to leverage each other’s insights and do an even better job serving our clients and taking care of our people here.”

The partners took it upon themselves to make sure they were acting as the best leaders they could and made sure they didn’t just talk about it, but demonstrated it.

“We identified what we thought were the five key practices of good leaders and really honed in on those,” she says. “Do we model the way? Do we actually walk the talk? Do we inspire a vision for our people and communicate that? Do we challenge processes? Do we enable others to act? Lastly, do we encourage the heart? Do we really let people get into what they’re doing? We took those five practices of leadership and we discuss those in each of our partner meetings and remind each other that we have to model the way.”

Keep your clients close

Poston understood that it wasn’t just her firm and the accounting industry struggling to get through the recession. The firm took advantage of the situation by getting closer to clients and helping them achieve better ways of doing business as well.

“When times are good and companies are growing and earnings are growing, sometimes there’s not really a burning platform for them to be interested in hearing our observations of how other businesses are tackling different issues,” Poston says. “When you’re in a recession and everybody is really struggling, we found our clients were far more interested in hearing our ideas on how they could approach the recession. They welcomed other thoughts and ideas and observations from others and they might not have as much previously. When things are good, you’re not concerned about best practices.”

It’s easy to relax and allow business relationships to just carry on when things are running smoothly. However, it’s when times are tough and those relationships are put to the test that you have to really deliver on the promises of service and support.

“If we had this come again, we would do the same thing in terms of investing more and more with our clients and spending more time with them and building those relationships so that you can help them and be a partner with them,” she says. “When the economy starts to turn, you’ve positioned yourself far better as a trusted business adviser to them. Spend more time with your clients when they are struggling and have bigger business issues, not less.”

Competition in the accounting industry is fierce, so it is crucial that Ernst & Young find ways to differentiate itself to clients.

“We’re in a really competitive business,” Poston says. “We’ve really coached our people to not take any client interaction for granted and always be at our best. A differentiator between Ernst & Young and our competitors is over the course of the last year and a half, we have really globalized our firm. We have the same methodology for client service and delivery, the same metrics, the same type of communications across the entire globe. The reason that that’s important is that it’s a pretty big benefit to our clients that have a global footprint. Our project teams, our integrated solutions are very consistent across the globe. That consistency that we have in our firm across every location is a huge plus. That’s not necessarily the structure for other firms.”

While the changes in thinking, communication and leadership have been a huge help to getting the Cincinnati office through the recession, the top priority and most helpful aspect of those changes were the clients.

“Make client service the No. 1 thing you do,” Poston says. “If you approach your business from what would be best for your clients, chances are you’ll probably be doing the right thing. And then, just really invest in your people. Take care of them and give them challenging things to do and let them be a part of the decision-making and treat them like the great young professionals that they are and they’ll deliver. You’ll have great retention and have really satisfied clients.”

HOW TO REACH: Ernst & Young Cincinnati office, (513) 612-1400 or www.ey.com

Takeaways

-          Communicate your challenges and changes to get employees engaged.

-          Challenge the old ways of doing things.

-          When times are tough make the best of client and customer relationships.

The Poston File

Julia Poston

Managing Partner

Ernst & Young Cincinnati

Born: Boston, Mass.

Education: Attended Miami University and received a B.S. in accounting

What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?

I worked in a restaurant when I was 16 years old, and it was a really great job because you work really hard, but you learn all kinds of valuable things: how to operate with equipment, how to deal with customers and handle money. That’s when I started liking accounting because I enjoyed interacting with customers and the financial end of it as well. It was a great starting place to learn some valuable skills.

What is the best business advice that someone has given you?

My dad used to tell me that business was so unethical. I didn’t agree with him, but I’ll never forget that because, as a business leader, we have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens.

What is one of the most stressful things about tax season?

Right now, given the political environment, there is an awful lot of chatter and proposals of how our tax system might change. One of the things that we try hard to do is understand what these proposals are and talk to our clients about them so that if any of these come to be, we will be able to help our clients think about them and respond to them.

If you could speak with anyone either from the past or present, who would you speak with?

From a business standpoint, there are some incredible business leaders that I admire. A.G. Lafley was an incredible CEO at P&G, and I find those kinds of people inspiring.

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