Leadership is a Behavior, Not a Title

Howie Siegal RSM US LLP

We’re no longer in the era where bosses say, “You work for me.” People want to own their careers and personal growth. To thrive in the modern workplace, where collaboration is the new norm, team leaders need to sharpen their leadership abilities. Our conversation with today’s guest, RSM Audit Partner Howie Siegal, reveals what qualities excellent leaders need along with the tools that can help you become a better one. Howie talks about why embracing feedback and being a good communicator is the foundation of successful leadership. Based on his own experience, Howie shares how the ‘lead by example’ style of guiding teams doesn’t work and that the essence of leadership lies in providing accountability, challenging your team, and sparking constructive debates. This results in a multiplying effect that improves your team’s performance. Howie contrasts this approach with that of the ‘accidental diminisher,’ who ends up taking opportunities away from people. Emphasizing the importance of boosting your soft skills, Howie talks about how coaches, ranging from your spouse to your colleagues, are vital in improving your leadership ability and providing you with alternate perspectives. While some are innately better at it, Howie highlights that anyone can learn good leadership. Tune in for more on how you can become a better leader.

Key Points From This Episode

  • Why being a good communicator is a hallmark of successful leadership.
  • The importance of reflecting on your communication and having people give you feedback.
  • Why you should implement a ‘360-degree’ feedback process into your annual plan.
  • Learn about how Howie’s leadership style allows his team to own their careers.
  • The difference between delegation and directing people to follow instructions.
  • How you can avoid being an ‘accidental diminisher’ and let your team grow.
  • Why we need to develop soft skills to sharpen our leadership abilities.
  • How professional coaching helped Howie become a better leader.
  • Why Howie will remove barriers but won’t ‘give people answers’.
  • Finding a mentor is key to accelerating your growth, especially when you’re young.
  • All great leaders seek perspective from people outside of themselves.
  • How building a network of coaches around you will better your leadership ability.
  • The complexity of modern work and how it increasingly requires collaboration.


[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.

[00:00:22] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Branch Out. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today’s guest is Howie Siegal, an audit partner with RSM. Very excited to share this conversation today, as Howie and I dive into leadership in a professional services organization. We at Connection Builders believe that leadership is a fundamental aspect of your professional success and it ties back to being able to connect with other people and really build those genuine relationships by helping others succeed as well. I hope you all enjoy.

[00:00:55] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.


[00:01:02] AD: Howie, welcome to Branch Out. Super excited to have you here today. Howie, you and I have talked a little bit about this idea that leadership is not a title, but rather a behavior. We’re excited today to spend some time really unpacking what leadership means. I think first, where we want to start is being a good communicator is a core element of leadership. Can you share some of your thoughts on that and how you’ve seen that in your professional career?

[00:01:26] HS: Yeah. Certainly, Alex. Thank you for having me here today. I guess, my idea of what leadership is has evolved quite a bit over my 16-year career. Most of it’s really formulated around my career in public accounting, which is where I’ve spent all of my post-college years. I’ve seen a lot of different leadership styles; some good, some not so good. The one theme when I really think about what a good leader is or does is they are really good communicators. They are completely transparent and they make you feel like you’re being heard.

[00:02:00] AD: Well, I think that’s such a powerful part of it there. You’re feeling heard. As a leader, if we step back and we really say, okay, our job as a leader is to develop and to bring our team up around us. Part of that is being able to communicate clearly with someone, so they understand, but also, being able to listen and hearing what the other person is saying to you.

It’s tough. People are different. People all approach life from different ways. When you’re dealing with a high-pressure situation, sometimes forgetting to communicate, or forgetting about how important communicating is becomes very easy. That can break down trust in so many ways.

[00:02:34] HS: Absolutely. I mean, in any deadline-driven profession, you start losing sight of what’s important and what you’re trying to accomplish in a team game. I mean, there’s numerous times where you start out with the best of intentions, things get off the rails and then you default back to your standard MO, which may not be what you’re trying to drive towards to when it comes to the leader that you want to be. Yeah. I mean, it’s important for sure to stay grounded and stay focused and stay the communicator that you want to be throughout the entire process.

[00:03:05] AD: You bring up this idea of reflecting on your communication and really thinking about how you’re doing. What I would recommend to everyone out there listening is find people that you can ask, “Hey, how am I communicating?” Whether that’s down in your team, or it’s up to your leadership that you work with, find someone, or an outside coach, someone that can give you honest feedback about how you are as a communicator.

The one thing I will caution people to when you look for that feedback, make sure you are getting different perspectives, because I know a lot of people and I’ve seen this happen before, where the senior team, the partners, they communicate well together and they all look at each other and say, “Well, you’re a great communicator.” “So are you.”

Then if you ask the team, the managers, or the associates that work with them, they roll their eyes and say, “No, he’s a terrible communicator.” Remembering that it’s important to be asking that, what I’ll say up and down the chain of command and saying, “How am I doing?” Getting that real feedback and coming at it with a real open mind, looking for ways to genuinely improve.

[00:04:00] HS: Yeah. I mean, 360 feedback is absolutely an important component of being a leader and something that you should always be trying to get from the people that you work with. You can’t get enough feedback from the people below you. You can’t get enough feedback from people above you. One of the tools that we use is a 360 feedback tool.

Listen, whether it’s working with us, or working with others that can bring those tools, I highly recommend 360 feedback. I’ve done them myself and I’ve helped others work through them. It’s amazing what it brings to light, what it really does bring up to the surface, recognize that just sitting down and asking someone, “How am I doing?” Well, that’s a great start. That’s not getting a full 360 feedback.

It takes a facilitator. It takes someone that is outside of the two parties involved in it to help really draw some of those strong comments out. Again, you don’t have to do these all the time, but it is something that you should build into your annual plan. It is something that we should all look at, because you said it super well there, you can never get enough feedback. Feedback’s what helps you improve. If you’re not getting that, how are you expected to improve in what you’re doing?

[00:05:04] AD: Absolutely. The one thing I will add to that is make sure that when you get your feedback, you don’t immediately just disregard it because you don’t like it. Constructive feedback may not always be the most fun thing to receive in the world, but you have to look at it and strip out the personal nature of it and just say, “All right. This is what I’m hearing. This is how I need to change and this is how I need to be behaving in order to get the most out of my team and to be the leader that I want to be.”

We actually see this a lot in when we use personality assessments that will highlight characteristic traits and people say, “Well, no. I’m not like that.” Or, they get the 360 feedback and say, “Oh, no. That’s not right. This is why they’re saying that.” What I always recommend to people, go ask people that are close to you. Go ask your spouse. Go ask someone that’s close in your life that can be really honest with you, because a lot of times the characteristics that we all have that we unknowingly have that are negative characteristics and listen, I am just as guilty as the next guy. I ask my wife the number of feedbacks that I get. It’s good. It’s positive. It helps you. That’s what we all need to continue to grow.

Now on that point, I want to jump in. We keep this on the theme of leadership and obviously, the communication aspect, getting the feedback, seeking for ways to always improve. I think that also leads to this idea of being a multiplier. Can you share some of your thoughts on what it means to be a multiplier in a leadership fashion?

[00:06:23] HS: Yeah. This was a book that that was introduced to me through my experience leadership development program at my firm that I went through as probably, a midterm senior manager, so probably about two years, three years before I made partner with the firm. This was truly a program that changed my mindset completely. It was by far, the most rewarding thing I have ever done in terms of continuing professional education.

I’ve always wanted to be a leader. I’ve always thought that just lead by example and get the work done, people will follow. That’s just how things are. Quickly realized that’s actually not how this is supposed to work. How it’s supposed to work is you have a team and you give people accountability. You be a debate-maker, you challenge and you hold people accountable. Those are the things that create multiplying effects within your team, within your organization.

It’s not about what you can do and how much you micromanage people. It’s allowing people to own their own careers and own their own projects. Your purpose there is to remove barriers and help them and guide them along the way.

[00:07:26] AD: You’re so right there. The term directing versus delegating, I think it falls a little bit more in the management realm, but I think it is applicable here from a leadership standpoint. A lot of times, we in our professional careers when we are working with our teammates, we think that we’re delegating and what we’re really doing is directing other people to follow instructions.

While at times, especially for less experienced team members, directing them is something that’s important. As you really look to grow your team and you have people that are smart, driven, motivated professionals, you have to step back and really delegate to them. That means handing off a project, letting them do it their way and you may have specific ways you want it done. You have to be clear on that communication. Then, your real goal is to jump out of the way and say, “How can I help you accomplish this task? How can I help you get where we’re collectively trying to go?”

[00:08:18] HS: Alex, that’s on point. We need to realize that the new generation of folks coming out of school, they don’t want to be micromanaged. They have all of these ideas as to how they want to accomplish things and take over the world. We have to serve as a way to guide them and we need to invest in them.

When we bring in new folks from public accounting each year, I always tell people, “Look, I’m not training you to be an auditor. I’m training you to be a business professional. I want to invest in you and make you the best version of yourself that you can be.” That is the key.

You can’t do that if you’re telling people to do things the way that you want to do them and you’re not giving them an opportunity to grow and you’re not giving an opportunity to learn. There’s a lot that can be said for just delegating and then getting out of the way.

[00:09:03] AD: You’re a young professional. You are moving in from that role of being the doer to the delegator, which is in my opinion, it is one of the hardest transitions you go through in your professional career and it usually happens to people somewhere between three to seven years into their career, they move to that mid-level and they start to have to really learn how to delegate.

I always hear the excuse, “Well, I just don’t have enough time to train them. I just don’t have enough time.” Well one, if you don’t train them, if you don’t help them learn how to accomplish the task, then you yourself are going to do it forever and that doesn’t seem like a good system. Two, when you start approaching it with a mindset of hey, my way may have worked and I may be really good at how I do it, someone else may approach it differently and they may not be as good as I am at first, but my job is to help them figure it out. That’s the mentality to walk in there with.

[00:09:54] HS: I mean, you can’t jump in and I mean, as you mentioned, I don’t have the time to train them, so I’m just going to do it myself. That’s actually a classic case of what they refer to as an accidental diminisher. Rescuing people is not long-term sustainability for yourself, or for those employees, because they’re going to look at it and say, “Oh, I just won’t do it right. Then so-and-so will just take it over for me and get it done. I’d go on vacation or something.”

They’re not learning. You’re over-working and there’s no team, all right. There’s just you doing the work. That was actually my mistake. I thought, me jumping in and getting things done and helping people was actually being a good leader. One of the light bulb moments that came onto my head was just saying, “Wow. I’m actually taking opportunity away from people. They’re not growing. I’m feeling stressed and this isn’t working for anybody, because they’re going to quit a year or two anyways, because they’re not actually growing their career.”


[00:10:45] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast.


[00:10:55] AD: You said something so important there. People want to grow. We all as professionals, we want to grow. If you have someone in your culture that doesn’t want to grow, they’re probably not the right person to be in your culture, because as a professional, our job is to grow and to evolve and to be able to help our clients solve problems. Now when you put in that exact perspective there, recognize that when you do jump in, when you do do work for someone, it doesn’t help them grow, unless you’re holding their hand and really showing them and helping them understand and asking for that feedback back to communication.

Are you saying, “Hey, do you understand this? Is there anything I can do to help you accomplish this better? How can I be there for you?” Rather than saying, “Well, this is wrong. Well, you should have done it this way. Or no, that’s not how you do it.” Because it doesn’t get you anywhere. The best way is to say, “Hey, here go do it and come to me when you have problems and I will help you through it.” If you give it to them and they bring back something that’s not good enough and you say, “I don’t have time and we need to get this done for the client. I’m just going to finish it up myself.” Well, you just took that learning opportunity away from them.

I don’t discount, there’s times where you have deadlines you have to meet and you may have to jump in, do the work and accomplish the goal for the client, but make sure you stop and go back and help that person learn and take away that piece of knowledge, because back to when we started this conversation, being a multiplier, that’s because you’ve helped other people grow and develop in their roles.

[00:12:13] HS: That’s correct. I learned probably the bulk of my knowledge when I first made manager, which also coincidentally happened when I was moving to Wisconsin, into a new startup office for RSM. There weren’t a lot of staff people there and the staff people we had were new and I did a lot of work myself.

I learned an awful lot. Certainly, it made me who I am today to a certain extent. It didn’t make me a good leader. It made me get the jobs done. Most of the people that were there when I just first moved up to Wisconsin aren’t there anymore. I can tell you that the last three or four years of my career in Wisconsin, before I moved over to Detroit about a little less than two years ago now, pretty much everybody that was there at the tail-end of my career, when I was employing the tactics that I had learned and being a multiplier and challenging and investing and debate-making, they’re all still there.

I still talk with most of them periodically throughout the weeks and the months. They still look at me as someone that they can talk to. It’s completely different, now where it’s like, gosh, the first half of my career in Wisconsin, nobody’s there anymore. Well, there’s probably a reason. I wasn’t a very good leader.

[00:13:17] AD: Listen, we all make mistakes and I want to be really clear to listeners, we’re going to make mistakes, we have made mistakes and we’re going to continue to make mistakes as leaders. There’s no way around it. It goes back to the feedback. It goes back to seeking out what went wrong and trying to improve upon that in the future. What I heard you say there that I think was really important is as a professional, especially accounting in your world, this is very, very much applicable. I think as most professionals, we start off in a highly technically focused environment.

We went to college to obtain some form of a degree that gave us some unique technical abilities that other people weren’t able to do. We come into an organization, the senior members of the team say, “Go solve this problem.” It’s so fun to be that technical problem solver and it’s a huge aspect to your career bringing that technical knowledge, but at some point, the technical knowledge only gets you so far and that’s when the shift becomes it’s all around soft skills, it’s all around that ability to truly connect with other people.

[00:14:16] HS: Set another way, I guess would be the skills that get you to a certain point in your career aren’t the skills that advance you to a higher point in your career. There’s a point where being the doer is needed and you need to learn and build that skill set. Your can do attitude as a doer doesn’t translate well to a point where you are leading a team and needing the team to do what you were capable of doing.

That’s a transition that not everybody makes and some people make it very well and other people struggle with it and they struggle to build teams and keep teams, quite frankly.

[00:14:52] AD: You’re right. Not everyone does it well and I would argue, it’s a challenge for everyone. Some people may naturally have some abilities to help them, or they may have mentors, or different influences in their life that help them see that and overcome those challenges earlier. It is challenging to learn that skill set. Put yourself in the younger, earlier career version of you that was struggling with those. How do you overcome that? How do you find the resources, or where do you start to make sure that you are growing in that way and you are developing those critical skill sets for that next stage of your career?

[00:15:25] HS: It’s training. Some people are born with the ability to just be good leaders. They naturally are curious, caring individuals that just magnetize other people to them. They just have that ability. I am not one of those people. I had an idea in my head of what needed to be done to be a good leader, it turns out it wasn’t right. I needed training. I needed coaching, professional coaching.

I try to pay it forward as much as I can. I mean, every day when I’m talking to my team, whether it’s an intern, a staff, a manager, a senior manager, here are the qualities that I want to see. All right. When you come to me with a problem, I want you to come to me with a solution, all right. Don’t just say, “I don’t know what to do.” Because my response back to you isn’t going to be, “Here’s what you do,” because I don’t rescue people anymore. I’ll remove walls and I’ll remove barriers for people and I will help train them, but I will not give them answers, because I’ve seen what that does.

While that sometimes is frustrating, it also is funny when a senior comes into my office and says, “Hey, Howie. I got a question for you, but I already know you’re not going to tell me the answer, so let’s just talk about it anyway.” Because they already have that expectation that I’m just not giving away free answers anymore. It’s not because I don’t want to and it’s not because I’m trying to be difficult, or a pain, it’s because everybody needs to learn how to grow and this is the way to do it.

To answer your question, the younger generation when you’re 22, 23, 24, you need to start having someone look out for you, have someone – I could do a whole episode on mentors for you, by the way. You got to have someone showing you the way, because I’m going to tell you right now, I learned too late. I wish what I learned when I was 29 and 30, 31, I wish I learned that when I was 24 or 25, because I would have a different approach completely as I was coming up through the ranks.

Luckily, I got it at some point in my career and was able to pivot, make some changes and really see some exponential growth, not only for me, but from the team. This starts when you’re young. I mean, you got to remember, the point of this is to say, you don’t need a title, all right. You can be a leader when you’re 22, 23, 24. Those new higher classes, there’s naturally people that gravitate to certain people and it’s because they have that skill set of listening, of bringing in different ideas, of helping organize without micromanaging and being that fist on the table, here’s how we’re going to do it mentality.


[00:17:45] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle-market professionals.


[00:17:54] AD: Howie, you said some really important things there I want to unpack. First off, everyone can be a leader. In my opinion and there’s many different opinions of how to define leadership. To me, an easy way to describe it, again, it goes back to living and behaving in a way that other people want to emulate. Whether that be personally, professionally, and again, you can apply that in so many different aspects of life, but let’s talk about it from a professional sense. To get there and as you said, some people are naturally stronger at some of those abilities, being able to listen being able to ask the right questions, I do believe that one, everyone can get better, everyone can improve and it is a challenge for everyone.

Even you ask some of the greatest leaders and they will tell you that it’s still a challenge every day and you have to seek out resources to have people pour into you. Whether that’s reading books, finding the right podcasts, reading the right blogs, or finding mentors, finding coaches, finding peer groups that you can talk about this stuff, if you don’t spend time talking about it and thinking about it and really working those muscles, how are you ever going to get better?

[00:18:58] HS: I don’t have numbers to support this, but I would bet a lot of money that pretty much all of our leaders have coaches. Whether we’re talking leaders in organizations, whether we’re talking about leaders in non-profit organizations, whether we’re talking about leaders on baseball teams and managers and all that, I mean, they all get professional coaching. It’s an important thing to do.

To your point, we all don’t know how to do it. Even if you are a great leader, you’re sometimes faced with challenges that you need to help think through. Coaches help you think through those things. I mean, there’s not a day goes by where I don’t think, “All right. Well, I’ve got the situation. How do I best approach this?”

Sometimes I ask other peers. Sometimes I go to a coach. It just depends. Sometimes I ask my wife. It’s important to realize that it’s okay to ask for help, because pretty much everybody does.

[00:19:51] AD: I want to unpack coaching for a minute. One of the things that we do offer through Connection Builders is coaching services, whether that be individual or team. The reason that I want to talk about it is it comes back to being such an important element in your professional growth. I think for many people not understanding what is the purpose of a coach and coaching relationships can be formal, or they can be informal. They can be internal in your organization, or they can be external.

There’s a different need and a different reason for each of those. What it really comes down to is having someone else that can step back outside of the situation and give you different perspective, because in the end, if you internally had all the right perspective and knew all the right answers, you would have solved all your problems and everything would be perfect. I bet all of us can look around and say that not everything in our life is always perfect and we always have struggles that we’re facing.

The sooner we can admit to that and then pull someone in that is outside of the situation to help us say, “Okay. Let’s reframe this and let’s look at it a different way,” in the end, it’s really just having a second set of eyes. Someone, who their real purpose of being there at that moment is to help you accomplish what you’re trying to do. Again, whether it be internal, external, or formal, or informal relationships, having those in place and just being cognizant of the need for that in seeking those out and putting those in place will take your career so far.

[00:21:16] HS: I’ve got former clients that are coaches to me. I’ve got family members that are coaches to me. I’ve got obviously, other peers that are coaches to me. You can’t have enough of them. If they’re the right coach, they’re going to be there for you. I like to think of myself as that for certain people as well.

I always want people to reach out. If they’ve got issues, if they’ve got concerns, if they want to help think through something, that’s what I want my role to be. I know that my role is to grow my firm, be an auditor, be really great at accounting and auditing. Really, I don’t want to be known for that. I want to be known as the guy that people feel comfortable going to and can help them with their careers and help them think through challenges and help them grow in the way that they want to grow.

[00:21:59] AD: Well Howie, you brought such a great point there that you as a leader and in your organization, being a partner that has a team of people that you work with, your job is to be a coach. It is your job to step back and coach other teammates through overcoming those challenges. Again, you can be cognizant of it to make sure you’re putting yourself in a position to act as a coach for those people.

Then more importantly, you can also be cognizant to find other coaches, mentors and other resources to pour into yourself, so that ultimately, you have more to pour into those that you work with on a team.

[00:22:32] HS: Yeah. I mean, I think any leader and organization should view themselves as a coach for their employees. That goes without saying. I mean, that’s just the way the world is. I mean, you can’t undo all of the evolution of the last 20, 30 years where we moved from a, you work for me, this is how we do things, go get it done, to nowadays, people want to own their own careers a little bit more and have some flexibility.

People just don’t respond well to the older model, where hey, you’re the new guy. Just go do your job. That’s not how you attract talent. That’s not how you grow talent. That’s not how you keep talent. I’ve always made a very purposeful, intentional goal of being the person that is there to groom people, is there to help people, whether it’s I got an issue.

I certainly help people in accounting and I certainly help people in auditing. I also want to help them in saying, “Hey, I got this challenge with this other employee. Help me think through this. Or God, this client is just really hard to deal with. What are your thoughts? Or hey, I’m really struggling with my work-life balance. Do you have any thoughts? You got any ideas?” You got two young kids and a wife. You’re trying to do a million things. How do you make it work? Any one of those things are things I love talking about and love trying to help people understand what they’re fully capable of and the decisions that they can make.

[00:23:51] AD: Howie, that was so well said there. You talk about this idea of the evolution, the change has happened in the workplace in the last 30 years. I think this is such an important thing for people to be thinking through is our world and especially, we’re talking to our audience today, being middle-market professionals, where you work in an environment where you are ultimately a commodity in some ways and you are really just selling thoughts and solutions for your clients.

You are a problem solver and we are living in an ever more complex world. The old approach of you go do your job, follow steps X, Y and Z and go home, that’s gone, especially in the professional services world. Rather, we are in an environment where it’s complex and it takes collaboration and it takes people working together to solve those problems. The way you do that is by engaging with your team, by finding ways to be that that strong leader, bringing the best people to the table and then helping your team bring the best version of their selves every single day to the workplace, to accomplish those goals.

You said it earlier, leadership is not about a title. No matter where you are, you can be doing this. You can bring that positive energy and that positive light to what you’re doing, whether you are the analyst, or the associate, or the manager, or the partner, but that is your job is to bring that into the organization, into the workplace every single day.

Howie, this has been a ton of fun. Really loved having you here. I’ve really loved having this conversation and looking forward to having you back on here again. We’ll have to get another episode in again soon.

[00:25:24] HS: Agreed. Anytime, sir.

[00:25:26] AD: Awesome. Thank you.


[00:25:28] ANNOUNCER: Thank you for tuning in this week. Share this podcast with your professional network to help others connect, grow and excel. Like what you hear? Leave us a review and don’t forget to subscribe now.