The fire inside Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Like any good parent, Susan R. Bell strives to teach her 7-year-old son about how to properly treat other people.

“Remember the Golden Rule,” she always tells him.

The rule is simple: Treat others the way you want to be treated. But her son asked her a question that caught her off guard regarding this rule.
“Mommy, is there a silver rule?”

While technically there is no silver rule that has been handed down through generations as a means to live by, the question got the wheels in her head turning about life and business.

“It occurred to me that maybe it’s not that,” Bell says. “Maybe it’s realizing that people don’t always want to be treated [how you do] — they want to be treated the way they would like to be treated.”

As Atlanta office managing partner of Ernst & Young LLP — and the first female office managing partner at a Big Four accounting firm in Atlanta — Bell keeps this realization at the forefront of her mind each day. Her firm has clients all over the world, and she and her 1,100 employees have to communicate and build relationships with them all and ultimately serve every one of them. She says that a big part of learning how to satisfy each client’s needs comes from starting with the basic principle of having integrity. While this word can mean different things to different people, Bell says that for her, integrity means to operate with honesty and respect in every situation with every person.

“Integrity is doing the right thing every time, regardless of the situation,” Bell says. “From a respect perspective, I like to say treat others the way you want to be treated. There’s a nuance to that because the way you want to be treated may not be how they want to be treated, but that’s how I have to start. Absent a relationship, where I know something differently, that’s where I start. That’s the starting point. Once you’ve determined that someone has a different need or a different point of view, then respect is about understanding that and relating to that.”

Bell says that honesty and respect guide her in focusing on her employees as well as focusing on her clients. By doing these two things, she can adapt to their needs, and in turn, her firm will be successful.

“The most important things we do is serving clients with a passion and being equally passionate about our people — recruiting and retaining the best talent,” Bell says.

Focus on your people

Bell is part of the tail end of the baby boomer generation, and as she has ascended the ranks, she has noticed that there are differences between the former generations and the younger ones.

For instance, more and more younger workers are interested in international assignments. Along those same lines, there is an increasing amount of diversity of backgrounds in the work force. And as technology improves, there are so many different ways to communicate and keep up with the business.

“I don’t think you can assume that things are one-size-fits-all either across generations or within generations,” Bell says. “People are different. Their goals are different.”

In order to adapt to a changing work force, you have to make sure you’re connecting with them and building strong relationships. She says that one of the best ways to do this is by focusing on having integrity and respecting others.

“It has to start with listening and listening with a view toward understanding what the nuances are,” she says. “I don’t think human beings fundamentally are changing. It’s more about the way we do business, so you have to start with that two-way dialogue of communication and listening — spending time with folks.”

It’s important to focus on your people and really get to know who they are so you can be the most effective leader possible. One way that Bell gets to know her people is by asking about what they enjoy doing and what they’re passionate about.

“I’m a big proponent of the ‘Good to Great’ philosophy of you have to know what you can be good at, what you can be the best at, and you have to know how you can do that profitably, but you also have to have a passion for it,” she says. “I’m a huge believer in being passionate about our people and about serving our clients. I try to get a feel for that. What are people passionate about?”

She says one of the keys to learning the answer to that question is to listen sincerely.

“If you really sincerely care about people and what their needs are and what their wants and desires are, then it’s much easier to listen,” Bell says. “To me, it really gets back to being yourself and being sincere in how you communicate, and then you’re able to read [people.]”

She says it’s important to listen carefully because in doing so, you’ll develop intuitions about what people really believe, think or feel.

“Sometimes you can hear someone saying they’re interested in or passionate about something, but you just sense that they really may be more interested in something else, something that may be more important to them, by a combination of what they’re saying and following the body language and intuition,” she says.

As you learn what’s important to your employees, you will also learn better ways to effectively communicate with them.

“Some people say you can never communicate enough, yet in this world of technology it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all,” Bell says. “Some people like e-mail; some people like voice mails. I actually like to ask people when we’re one on one, ‘How do you like to communicate?’ … That can be a difference among generations, so it’s important to ask and not assume.”

As you have those conversations, you’ll find other ways to reach out to people. For example, Ernst & Young now has online forums on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, to communicate with people. By reaching out to employees in different ways, it will create stronger bonds between you and them and help retain them, which ultimately benefits your clients.

“It’s about communicating early and often through different forms and different forums — multiple forums,” Bell says. “I think nothing really replaces frequent communication.”

Focus on your clients

After Bell left a meeting with one of her firm’s clients, one of her employees came up to her and commented that she was shocked by the amount of details Bell knew about a particular area of focus that had come up in the meeting.

“Some people believe that once you’re in a certain leadership role that you’re out of that level of detail, yet that, to me, is what our business is all about,” Bell says. “It’s about serving clients; it’s about being relevant.”

Staying relevant requires you to make sure that you never stop learning and seeking information. Bell has a natural level of curiosity that leads her to always be looking at herself and how she can improve. This curiosity keeps her grounded, and it also helps her do a better job of focusing on her people and her clients.

“You’ve never arrived,” she says. “It’s always a journey. The more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know.”

She says it’s important to be self-aware, and one way to focus on becoming more self-aware as a leader is to become inquisitive.

“Ask questions,” she says. “To me, it’s not just self-aware from a personal perspective but aware as a business about what you’re doing and the implications.”

For example, an important aspect of Ernst & Young’s business is its level of service quality it offers to clients.

“That’s about getting feedback, and by getting feedback, you become more self-aware,” she says. “We’re on a constant mission to improve our services.”

By focusing on learning more, you also become more attuned to what drives you and who you are as a leader. When you’re more conscientious about these things, it helps you to better relate to your employees and clients and create a more open environment for everyone.

“You have to be who you are and sincere and having that passion for what you do,” Bell says. “To me, in any business, whatever your clients needs are, you want them to be met by people who are passionate about serving the client or the customer. It’s showing that passion and being genuine that can be infectious.”

Passion can come in many different forms, but she says one way to exude passion to your clients is to prioritize them.

“I was told at some point that when a client calls, you don’t answer the phone — you dive on it,” she says. “It’s about having a passion for serving clients and developing the people. It’s really that symbiotic between people and clients. You can’t — I can’t at least — elevate one over the other because they’re so interrelated.”

One of the most important things to do in interacting with your clients is to make sure that you are, above all, meeting their needs.

“You have to ask them,” Bell says. “Sometimes you can have a sense, but you clearly have to ask. To me, there’s nothing more important than asking for feedback.”

Bell says that while technically there may be other things that are more important in the grand scheme of running a business, her point is that you can’t overlook the importance and magnitude that asking your clients for feedback carries.

“From a service perspective, I don’t think you can assume,” she says. “It’s important to ask for feedback.”

A lot of executives like to ask their clients what keeps them up late at night, and while Bell doesn’t like this cliché, she says there is some merit to what the question is getting at.

“It starts with, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on in your business? What are the key drivers?’” she says.

When your clients do talk to you, it’s important to really listen with both ears to what they’re telling you so that you can be agile and quickly adapt to how their needs are changing.

“Listen and have a strong enough relationship that you can have an ongoing dialogue, and listen as things evolve,” Bell says.

And remember that it’s not about you in this business — it’s all about other people.

“Focus on the clients’ needs as well as the development of the people who are serving them because, again, they’re intertwined.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (404) 874-8300 or