Why accountability matters for Rick Fezell, both with his team at EY and his crew back home

Why does a man who has been managing partner of the Midwest Region for EY for less than a year jump into Lake Michigan on a cold, winter’s day in January? Why does he climb the 2,109-steps of Willis Tower and bring his wife along for the trek to the top? If you’re Rick Fezell, you do it because you love challenging yourself with physical feats that test your limits. But you also see the opportunity these challenges present to show people that you’re not a stuffy, aloof leader who just sits behind his desk all day thinking about work.

“When they have people in scuba gear and snorkeling equipment 50 yards offshore and their job is to make sure you don’t hit your head on an ice block, you probably ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Fezell says. “But it was fun. It was a great opportunity to show people that you’re just like everybody else and there is a different side to you than work. Finding things you can do that will make that statement quickly is very important.”

Fezell was named managing partner for the professional services firm’s Midwest Region in the spring of 2012. He had spent the past 20 years in Silicon Valley, most recently as managing partner for Markets in the West. So the move to Chicago was a big change, both for him and his family.

“Building new relationships and nurturing the existing relationships is something we have to do every day,” Fezell says. “But when you’re put in a new position, you really have to accelerate those things and jump-start them. That was the biggest challenge being a leader in a new marketplace.”

As Fezell jumped into his new post and the 4,500 people who now reported to him, he wanted to get up to speed with the work and the market as quickly as possible. But just as important to him was getting his family, which includes his wife and three children, acclimated to their new surroundings.

“I made it pretty clear to all of our people in those first six months when I was running around meeting with people that I had two objectives,” Fezell says. “I had to be successful in what I was doing here at work and at the firm and with them. But maybe more importantly during those first few months, I had to be successful at home getting the family integrated and getting them comfortable.”

It wouldn’t be easy to balance both priorities, but for Fezell, it was the only way he could achieve success.

“If I didn’t get my family right, it really didn’t matter how much we were growing or what our people surveys were,” Fezell says. “I would have found myself coming home to a very unhappy family or a family that was headed west pretty quickly without me.” 

 

Get in front of people

The key to achieving success in business is finding a way to balance and succeed on both sides of your life. Fezell’s focus on his family is as strong as it gets, but he is as devoted as anyone to EY and the work that the firm does for its clients. He quickly set out to build relationships with as many people as he could.

“I do firmly believe in the first 100 days theory,” Fezell says. “That first 100 days in any relationship is really important and people are going to form their opinions or develop their trust in you based upon that initial experience. So I hit the road pretty hard in those first three or four months to get out in front of all our people and give them a chance to know what I stood for, not just professionally, but personally.”

Fezell made plans to visit each of the region’s 10 offices and get in front of people to talk about the challenges they faced and what Fezell could do to help them.

“I got schedules of all our meetings going on in the Midwest, and I tried to get on the road,” Fezell says. “I had to be visible. Those aren’t the kinds of things you can do through voice mail or email.”

As those conversations took place, Fezell had people on hand to take notes and write down observations about what was discussed so they could be addressed.

“Collectively as a leadership team, we set up a cadence around us getting together,” Fezell says. “We do once a week for a couple hours every Monday, and we have a once-a-month all day session as a team. We’re all running around in different places and it’s important that we stay connected. We just find a way to make sure those things aren’t getting lost in translation. I wouldn’t say it’s foolproof, but I would say we do a pretty good job of keeping track of open items.”

As Fezell got to know his people, he kept an open mind to what he was hearing.

“You can become wedded to the way you’ve always done things,” Fezell says. “I thought everything I did in the West was right. Then I came to this market and realized there’s a lot of great things going on in the Midwest that I wished I would have thought of in the West. It’s all about trusting each other and knowing you can debate and challenge each other. So our firm is like that. I’m not autocratic. That’s just not my style.”

 

Make an impression

It was very important to Fezell that he find ways to fit in with his new home. It’s part of what drove him to dive into a frigid Lake Michigan and climb Willis Tower. But as the leader, you still need to take steps to establish yourself as the leader.

“It’s important to make changes when you come in as a leader,” Fezell says. “Let people know that you are different. Some of those changes may be people, some may be structure and some may be process. To just come in and maintain the status quo is not a good thing as the new leader. You’ve got to find a way to make your personal imprint and stamp on the practice.”

Fezell wanted his leaders to understand the importance of meeting on a regular basis and keeping in touch with each other about what was happening in the firm.

“My understanding is there weren’t these weekly meetings,” Fezell says. “There have been a couple of situations where our attendance or participation has lagged through different things and I sent out a reminder to everyone as to why this was important. Even with no agenda, sitting in a room together for an hour or two would probably be a good use of our time. We need to be meeting all the time.”

Employee survey results indicate Fezell has struck the right chord with his people.

“We went from a number of 72 percent of our employees engaged two years ago in April 2011 to 81 percent being engaged two years later,” Fezell says. “That is a big swing, a 9-point swing. What I’m most proud of is our partner level engagement went up significantly. What it proves for us is when our partners, who are our leaders, when they are engaged, it’s a much better place for everybody in the firm.” 

 

Be part of the team

One of the factors in that high level of employee satisfaction is the way Fezell empowers people to give as much to their families as he gives to his own.

“Nobody punches a clock around here,” Fezell says. “We trust you. You’re a professional and you’ll get your work done. I used to work really hard in San Jose when I was an audit partner. But when my girls were in elementary school, I found the time a few times a year to just show up at school and pick them up in the afternoon and take them to a matinee movie.

“To some people, it may seem like, ‘What’s the big deal about that?’ But in this environment, doing that and telling people that you’re doing that creates a license for people. We’re proud as a firm of what we’ve done around flexibility. We trust our people and encourage them to take advantage of that flexibility.”

It becomes even more crucial when tax season hits and everyone, including Fezell, has to work long hours.

“You’re going to get those periods when you work hard, but we try to tell people to take advantage of the down time you have,” Fezell says.

When everyone works together as a team, Fezell believes a great deal can be accomplished.

“You’re the new guy in town and you get asked to do about 35 different things quickly in the community,” Fezell says. “How do you hone in and how do you decide on where to play?

“In that arena, I relied on the group I mentioned, but I also relied on some folks outside the firm in the community, strong community leaders in business. I really spent time with a couple of those people, and they were very helpful to me in prioritizing or making me think about where I should play.”

 

Takeaways

  • Focus on your family.
  • Look for opportunities to change.
  • Be flexible.

 

The Fezell File

Name: Rick Fezell
Title: Managing Partner, Midwest Region
Company: EY

Born: New Brighton, Pa.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Westminster College,
New Wilmington, Pa.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an NFL player. I was a defensive back. It’s a fun position, but it’s better if you’re 6 inches taller and faster. I went to school and I was able to play Division III college football.

What lessons did athletics teach you? Athletics are the best training ground for this profession. To the outsiders, we seem like accountants and CPAs and tax people who work solo in our office. But we’re all about teams. Our clients are served by teams ranging from three to 53. If you can’t work together as a team, if you can’t set aside your personal goals and work together on the collective success of the team, this probably isn’t the profession for you. I played sports all my life and the lessons and the values you get from team sports can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? Probably my mother. She’s a great lady. She was divorced, so she raised us on her own for a while until she remarried. Her message to us: “Would you do this if I were standing next to you?” So I always had that fear. Not that I always did everything right, but her view was she never liked parents who always assumed their children were guilt-free and saints. Her view was we were guilty until we could prove we were innocent. So if we were expecting her to be our protector when we got into trouble, we had the wrong expectation. 

Who would you like to meet?  President John F. Kennedy. I’m amazed by him. He just seemed like he could lead better than anybody and great leadership is something to treasure.

 

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How to reach: EY Midwest Region, (312) 879-2000 or www.ey.com

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