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Finding the Right Side of the Line

By Russell (Rusty) Calk, CPA
January 1, 2019
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I was sitting in my office, visiting with a partner from KPMG before his presentation to my class. During the conversation, I mentioned to him that I wanted to start talking with one of his audit seniors about returning to school to pursue a Ph.D.

 

He said, “You mean Heather, right?” Getting her Ph.D. had always been part of Heather’s long-term plan, and she had shared that with the partner during the interview process before she accepted her offer at KPMG. She did, in fact, complete her Ph.D. at the University of Alabama in May 2016 and is now on the faculty at Texas Tech University.

 

But I wasn’t talking about Heather. I said, “Becky.” He flinched. It took him a few seconds to gather his thoughts. When he did, he gave his blessing and said that he would support Becky in whatever she decided to do. KPMG, after all, prides itself on creating opportunities for its people. It was the answer I expected.

 

Later, I reflected on that conversation and, in particular, the partner’s reaction. He had seen countless talented people come and go over his career. I know that he saw that as a necessary aspect of the business model. As turnover happened, he typically reacted with a metaphorical pat on the back, sincere well wishes, and the script provided by HR.

 

But Becky was different. She added more to her teams than just the technical competence to do her job. The partner’s reaction made it clear: Becky would be hard to replace. And as I started looking around, I found Beckys in other companies and firms. They existed at all levels from entry level to partner or senior executive. I wanted to know what set them apart.

 

Over the course of two years, I, along with 32 student officers of a Beta Alpha Psi chapter and a dedicated group of nine partner- and senior executive-level professionals (see the acknowledgments) from eight different organizations, set out to answer that question. The simple answer, of course, was a focus on soft skills, or what Ken Bouyer, the Americas Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting at EY, calls “survival skills.” While accurate, we weren’t looking for the simple answer. We wanted a specific, detailed conclusion.

 

During these two years, we studied leadership experts such as Jim Collins, John Maxwell, and John Wooden. In open, oftentimes passionate discussions, we challenged their ideas and our own preconceptions. We emerged from these discussions with an identity we dubbed a right-side-of-the-line (RSOTL) professional and a set of attributes called a character map that an aspiring professional can use to help move to the right side of the line.

 

A young engineer at Sandia National Laboratories met with Phil Montoya, his mentor and one of the professionals involved in developing the character map. The engineer shared his frustration, saying, “I know I am smart and talented, but so is everybody else that works here. How do I set myself apart?” Phil shared our work, and the young engineer seized the opportunity to take his career to another level.

 

You can find the attributes on the character map throughout existing leadership and professional development literature. The model seems to resonate. From public accounting to industry and governmental accounting, and from federal law enforcement to K-12 public education, leaders react to the model as if it captures a vague idea that they have been trying to articulate.

 

Becky did eventually leave KPMG to pursue her doctoral studies. The management team at KPMG didn’t try to dissuade her from following her dream, yet they did make it clear that the door remained open any time she wanted to return. Becky completed her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon in June 2017 and is now on the faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso.

 

ATTRIBUTES OF RSOTL PROFESSIONALS

 

What defines the RSOTL professionals? Naturally, RSOTL professionals are technically competent, but technical competence alone doesn’t define them. After all, a prescribed level of technical competence is required simply for entry into and upward progression through an organization. Thus, even left-side-of-the-line (LSOTL) employees can be technically competent.

 

RSOTL professionals distinguish themselves by adding essential intangibles to their technical competence. These intangibles are commonly referred to as “soft skills.” The group of professionals working with the officers of the Delta Lambda Chapter of Beta Alpha Psi identified and articulated the character map, which contains the set of 12 survival skills a professional should seek to develop in the quest to become a RSOTL professional.

 

 

RSOTL professionals internalize the character map to define and refine their value for the benefit of their organizations and those around them. The 12 attributes of the character map have great impact when used collectively and successively as a guide to becoming a RSOTL professional. RSOTL professionals are genuine in their desire to develop these traits. They may individualize their paths, but their journey toward becoming a professional begins with courage, cultivates professionalism, and manifests itself in character. Ultimately, character defines the person.

 

  1. Courage: The mental strength to persevere in the face of pressure, opposition, or adversity. The journey to the RSOTL begins with courage. RSOTL professionals must resolve to act with intent. They intentionally:
  • Perform in a manner congruent with their principles,
  • Commit to excellence,
  • Manage strategic relationships,
  • Discipline their thoughts and actions,
  • Prepare,
  • Engage in conversation,
  • Gain and learn from experience,
  • Acquire and employ knowledge,
  • Take ownership of results, and
  • Stay present and develop professionalism.

 

RSOTL professionals commit to the appropriate path rather than the path of expedience. This requires focus and follow-through to avoid distractions and continue the journey.

 

  1. Honor: An unwavering determination to not compromise personal or professional principles. RSOTL professionals have well-defined principles that serve as an internal compass providing specific guidance and parameters for how to behave and act.

 

Honor subsumes integrity; it prohibits violations of principle and mandates a balancing of priorities through respectfully negotiating and managing risk to enhance the value proposition.

 

  1. Attitude: The resolve to improve that which is within your control and to not be a victim of that which is beyond your control. RSOTL professionals control their thoughts and choose to act in an appropriate manner. Their environment may dictate their circumstances, but they intentionally choose how they manage those circumstances. They discern between the situations they can control or influence and those they can’t and then direct their energies accordingly. They are accountable for how their thoughts and actions will impact themselves and others.

 

  1. Relationships: Deliberate connection with people for a shared purpose. RSOTL professionals intentionally initiate interactions with specific individuals to achieve the value proposition. They seek out and develop connections where both parties can benefit. That benefit can range from a practical or pragmatic purpose to professional development or personal fulfillment. RSOTL professionals also recognize and act on the necessity to sometimes sever a relationship.

 

  1. Accountability: Proactive ownership of and responsibility for your actions and their outcomes (good or bad). All RSOTL professionals manage resources to achieve negotiated expectations. As outcomes materialize, RSOTL professionals exercise the initiative to own the results. They humbly accept praise and publicly share success with appropriate contributors, but they publicly take full responsibility for negative results. Yet they will follow through to coach or correct team members in private.

 

  1. Communication: Appropriate delivery and receipt of intended messages. RSOTL professionals practice the discipline of active communication. They listen in order to understand, not for an opportunity to speak. They read with the intent of understanding the true meaning of the communication rather than an implied or self-serving purpose.

 

They understand the power of words and consider both the content and tenor of their message. Their words are intentional. RSOTL professionals communicate in a concise, candid, and timely manner. They utilize the full spectrum of communication media in the appropriate manner.

 

  1. Toning: The disciplined investment of personal time to exceed expectations. RSOTL professionals employ a full range of activities to expand their professional competence and intellectual wherewithal while maintaining their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

 

They are lifelong learners and recognize the need for ongoing constructive assessment to strike a holistic balance that will position them to fulfill the value proposition. They employ discipline, focus, and self-control to achieve the goal of self-improvement.

 

  1. Expertise: The ability to identify your own skills, the self-awareness to recognize your own limitations, and the curiosity to learn more. RSOTL professionals bring their skill to bear on ever-increasing challenges for the benefit of their clients and colleagues. They own the responsibility for the perpetual self-assessment of their skills. They acknowledge and manage gaps in their skill sets through toning and seeking to leverage relationships.

 

  1. Readiness: Preparedness to competently respond to relevant questions, concerns, or opportunities. RSOTL professionals adeptly intersect expertise and attention to exceed the expectations of their clients and colleagues. They position themselves to react confidently in a concise, accurate, and intuitive way. They prepare so they can approach each project with a clear understanding of what should be accomplished and how best to accomplish it.

 

  1. Maturity: Wise judgment based on a suite of experiences. RSOTL professionals embody ambition tempered with patience. They build upon a foundation of learning to grow in a structured way through their careers.

 

They master their emotions by finding the peace of mind in knowing that they strive to be the best that they can be in any role. They know that doing so will naturally lead to greater competence and expanded opportunity. RSOTL professionals balance critical self-assessment with trust in their advisors to pace their progression.

 

  1. Attention: Presence and engagement. RSOTL professionals possess a hypersensitive awareness of the value of time. They act in a manner that respects their time and the time of their clients and colleagues. This is accomplished through thoughtful and deliberate concentration on and participation in the task at hand and the schedule ahead.

 

  1. Professionalism: Adaptation to various situations with poise and confidence while remaining true to oneself. RSOTL professionals are dedicated to mastering the attributes of the character map. They arrive ready to offer their skills, not to demand their desires. Their dedication is transparent and executed with a precision that proves their respect for people and place. Professionalism is a state of being; it’s woven into their character.

 

With the exception of courage and professionalism, the order of the character map attributes isn’t fixed. The RSOTL professional begins by exercising the courage to develop the other attributes. Developing those attributes, in any order as opportunities arise, will ultimately lead to greater professionalism.

 

THE VALUE PROPOSITION

 

Individuals can strive to develop the attributes of the character map, but it’s third parties such as superiors, clients, or peers who make the decision to place the individuals on the right side of the line—often without an explicit declaration. Selection is reserved for those who embody the character map attributes and offer the value proposition, and the RSOTL position isn’t permanent. Being an RSOTL professional requires the daily discipline to exercise the attributes of the character map.

 

Most organizational hierarchies follow a pyramid structure (see Figure 1). Shift that structure to a right triangle with the same area so that the same number of people populate the organization. Now draw a vertical line through the triangle. That line divides the triangle and becomes defining for RSOTL professionals. By its very nature, the line divides the triangle and separates the RSOTL professionals from their peers.

 

RSOTL professionals add value to and are valued by their organizations. Supervisors, peers, and subordinates inevitably take notice of the value added by RSOTL professionals. It’s then that the organization reciprocates the value proposition. In recognition of the value added by RSOTL professionals in comparison to other employees, the organization’s leadership will consciously strive to add value back to the professionals, who will:

  • Have priority in promotions,
  • Be compensated at amounts greater than employees on the same level, and
  • Be presented with tailored professional development opportunities.

 

In addition, their work-life balance will be of genuine interest to their organization. A smart organization seeks to ensure that RSOTL professionals find personal and professional fulfillment working for the organization, which thereby increases their potential value added to the organization.

 

If the organization doesn’t reciprocate the value proposition, RSOTL professionals should reassess and perhaps seek to validate if they are, in fact, viewed as being on the right side of the line or if they should continue their involvement with the organization. When fully realized, the synergy between the RSOTL professional and the organization creates a value proposition shared by the two. The RSOTL professionals add value; that value is reciprocated by their organization.

 

The value proposition for RSOTL professionals is to exceed expectations. They commit to the purposes, principles, and people of their organizations. Their contributions effect positive change, and they become essential to their organizations. Should they leave, their departure creates noticeable voids. Their organizations in turn reciprocate the value proposition by demonstrating a commitment to them by investing in their personal and professional development.

 

RSOTL professionals, not the organization, initiate the value proposition. For the RSOTL professionals, quality is everything; hours worked is incidental. The RSOTL professionals may actually spend fewer hours at work than their peers. At times, they may spend more. Regardless, they do what is necessary to deliver a zero-defects product on time and under budget, all in a collegial workplace environment.

 

RSOTL professionals offer a level of exceptional quality, thereby lightening the loads of their leaders, exemplifying outstanding performance for their peer group, and adding to the reputation and bottom line of their organizations.

 

RIGHT SIDE VS. LEFT SIDE

 

RSOTL professionals stand in marked contrast to LSOTL employees (see Table 1). LSOTL employees may be very good employees, performing their assigned tasks with due care. They deliver an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Given that LSOTL employees compose the majority of an organization’s workforce, it would be impossible for the organization to accomplish its operational objectives without their efforts. But their relationship to the organization is purely contractual. Even though they may do good work, they do exactly what their jobs demand. In so doing, they become imminently replaceable whereas RSOTL professionals make themselves essential.

 

Click to enlarge.

 

RSOTL professionals and LSOTL employees exist at every level of the organization. The RSOTL professionals are an elite subgroup of the total population at every level of their organization. The number of RSOTL professionals in proportion to the total number of employees increases through the levels of the organization. LSOTL employees may advance up the hierarchy out of necessity for the organizations to fill job vacancies, but ultimately it will be the RSOTL professionals who successfully define and lead the organizations forward.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

The concept of the RSOTL professional and the related attributes of the character map wouldn’t exist without the involvement of a host of individuals too lengthy to be formally recognized as coauthors.

 

A group of dedicated professionals from industry, government, and public accounting worked closely with and guided the officers of the Delta Lambda Chapter of Beta Alpha Psi to develop the basic framework, articulate and define the attributes, and operationalize the concepts presented here.

 

A partial, but certainly not exhaustive, list of those professionals includes:

  • Andrea Barrio, associate, EY
  • Sarah Clifford, senior manager, EY
  • Rebecca Dieser, associate, Beasley Mitchell & Company
  • Brandon Fryar, CFO, Presbyterian Healthcare
  • Mandy Funchess, principal, Schlenker & Cantwell
  • Shelly Garcia, partner, MJ Associates
  • Brandon Haines, partner (retired), CliftonLarsonAllen
  • Phil Montoya, manager, Sandia National Laboratories
  • Brett Thompson, senior manager, KPMG

 

Russell (Rusty) Calk, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at Texas A&M University–Central Texas. He can be reached at rcalk@tamuct.edu.
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