Michelle Thompson and 6 Degrees of Learning toward the C-Suit

Standing up to be one of three women leading one of the 25 largest accounting firms in the country. The chairwoman recalls her first lesson as a part-timer till the lesson of today’s success. What has made of her and ace cards of the fight?
Cherry Bekaert CEO and her staff in lunch break
Courtesy: Greenville County
By | 12 min read

Founded in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1947 by Harry Cherry with collaboration of partners Charles Bekaert and William Holland, the firm was originally named Cherry Bekaert & Holland (CBH). Later, moving from Charlotte to Richmond in 1988 and subsequent rebranding five years later established Cherry Bekaert.

The company is a full-service tax, audit and advisory firm that provide services from your basic personal to more high-level forms. Generally, its corporate headquarters directs operations in the Southeast and Texas, and its affiliation with Baker Tilly gives it a global footprint. According to the site, as of 2019, the company employs more than 1,250 staffs and generate around $220M.

The firm now run by a female leader who started her career at the drive through to ended up became the first woman chairing this 70-year-old firm. What has this CEO got to share?

About the Storyteller Michelle Thompson

Michelle Thompson is CEO and Managing Partner of Cherry Bekaert, she oversights the firm’s executive team as well as executing and promoting the overall strategic plan and driving firm growth. Prior to the CEO title or an auditor at the firm and Deloitte, her starting point was at a local drive-through.

However, Thompson says, that is how her story is told. “That is what has made of me, that is where I started, and it reminds me of how I am here now.” On a talk series with Ben Fanning, the chairwoman recalls many lessons she has learned over the years and how that mentality has put her practices into the right place to get notice for the position of today.

#1 The Drive-Thru Is My First Exposure to Leadership

Cherry Bekaert CEO in a podcast
Courtesy: Cherry Bekaert

Started off working at the drive-through for 6 years, surprisingly, it was where Thompson had her first taste of leading. “Because you have to get your teams together and direct cars as fast as it can and be prepared for the next thing that is coming. All those things about running teams have come to me working at the drive through.” Managing lines of cars and customers, competing with front while being aware of the back, it was a big game of assembling and planning.

While recognized what was happened at the drive-through and able to translate it into a meaningful skill, today looking back Thompson is grateful for the percept she has taught herself before.

Perspective is everything. To be a master of something you must first be a good learner, be able to identify situation and be tedious were how Thompson has absorbed everything on the go and transform it into valuable lesson.

#2 Different Perspective and ‘Pulling Rank’

Fast forward to the days at Cherry Bekaert, 23 years at the firm has taught her a lot about the essential of embracing different perspectives and the borderline between saying yes and ‘pulling rank.’

To compare with other corporates, Thompson says, even though her company was still a small firm but it has big capabilities. “Because it stays at a range where every partner could be so close-knit that it able to listen to all and make the best of any discussion.”

The chief recalls over twenty years ago, coming along her is two other colleagues who have shared the first day altogether. Now they are working on the leadership at the firm, side by side to her regardless of disparate location. As Thompson puts it, besides the magic of a small firm, leading from afar works because the team was able to grasp others’ diversity.

“All individuals and teams have different perspectives and strengths – we all do, maybe early on we were very competitive to each other but then over the time under the name of the end result, you will start appreciates differences. Especially in the leader role.” Thompson explains.

Have a habit to check on people and check on yourself once in a while, because if teams are thinking the same as each other, your organization is not set to make outstanding work.

Cherry Bekaert team discuss in a seminar
Courtesy: Cherry Bekaert

However, prior to create diversity in perspective and background you have to learn how to foster that inside the organization.

“I always look for people before really making decision, I want to know what perspective I need to have. I wanted my blind-spots to be exposed,” the chief claims, surround yourself with people that are hard-head master in their field, earn their information and see problem under their scope. That is how you come up with the best solution!

“Even though you already has the answer yourself, still it is necessary to check up on your people.” Because besides the benefit of a more complete answer, you will be granted a even bigger payoff. As listening voices and taking up ideas is actually a part of team-working – which is fundamental  and very vital to team building as well as engaging.

Thompson remembers, there are lots of communication cases where managers did not bite staffs’ ideas so they started to back off and disengage. That is when ‘pulling rank’ back fire, as a leader of course it is essential to say ‘no’ to bad ideas but the question is how do you say it.

“I don’t make decision that way, I refer it to be a group decision, and if somebody is off you have to figure out who is not there and can you get them there,” the chief says, the best way to do it is talk employees into it with senses and evidences.

There is nothing wrong about pulling rank, she says , but you have to make compromises or it will back fire and it will be really bad.

#3 How Did I Get To the C-Suit?

‘How did you get there?’ probably is the most asked question as of the time she was announced to occupy the chair, Thompson says, yet she had this total disconnect that becoming CEO was anything special.

Because prior to the transition, she was already in a firmwide leadership role as managing partner of the firm’s audit practice. She was coming up by step-by-step and what continues next is just as natural as it be. “I didn’t see it as anything other than any other person who work very hard.” The hard work pays itself off!

However, the chief says there are some notable advice she would give for people from underrepresented group in the C-suit or are on a mission to get there.

First of all, is to be true to yourself. “I was always true to myself I’m going to be who I am I may communicate differently than the typical account but I’m going to be who I am and I think that’s number one.”

As being true to yourself, you would focus on developing your own mastery as well as characteristic and that’s how you gain presence and voice within an organization. Beyond that, Thompson adds, you have to have advocates – people that are in your corner – and it goes both ways, either you seek them or they seek you. You have to have them because they know things you don’t know and they are going to put you in positions and help you advance. “So, to me it’s about really making sure you get that network around you at work that make an impact.”

As powerful as networking is, it should grow from a strong foundation. Which means, at the same time of building relationships and building trust you have to have your things in place. Go back and forth between that and the personal development you needed to be successful.

Secondly, perceive your values. The chief says, even though putting yourself out there and willing to fail are very precious, yet be acknowledge of the values you are bitting for.

“Look at people that I say ‘Yes! I want them on my team,’ What is it that I value? Have I seen them stick their necks out or they’re going to come in and contribute their voice with different perspectives?” Recognize your principles as well as values and build relationships upon that!

Cherry Bekaert staff work at her station
Courtesy: Cherry Bekaert

Especially women who are making their way up, you have to display confidence – even when you do no feel it, communicate consisely – even when you want to ‘show your work’, and self-promote – even when you think you are unqualified.

These are all things that you can control. Even with all that, you must have a sponsor. Find those people that bring out the best in you, allow you to be you and will champion you in the organization.

#4 How to Deal with ‘a Lot of’ New Ideas?

There will be cases where you lose all your interests and energy to new ideas. Individuals and teams are frustrated because their voice and ideas are not heard. How could you make a better end result out of it?

“I always tell people you’ve got to be able to pitch it and you’ve got to make clear of what’s the problem you’re trying to solve,” Thompson explains, ideas are not boring but rather how your team present and stress the problem are. Therefore, it is vital to equip them with the essential materials you need. Ask them about how they are going to solve it? It is going to help your people is it going to help your clients? Would it help the leadership run the organization better? And especially, the dollar side of it? Make sure your teams are able to put it into context and pitch it professionally.

More importantly, you have to foster an innovative environment yourself before expecting people to come up with theirs – a space where employee feels safe and knows that the size of the ideas does not matter.

“It does not have to be a grand solution with an enormous impact on the organization, all I need is something that could change how they work daily within their world of influence,” Thompson adds.

According to the chief, the small is powerful because it is modest to organization but important to the person. It helps leaders engage employee and empower them, that is the most valuable outcome organization could expect to see.

#5 Self-Management Is the Answer for Everything

Cherry Bekaert team in professional seminar
Courtesy: Cherry Bekaert

Another trait Thompson has recognized as part of her professional foundation is self-management. The chief does not only encourage leaders to excel the skill but also want to instill it in every employee at the firm. “You have to be able to manage yourself. That is one of the things that set you off in any job any positions,” especially within this industry, if you are not well-organized and on top of your stuffs, you are going to put a lot of things at stake, she explains.

If you cannot manage yourself, you might as well will not be able to absorbed and learn all the thing around you. “People assumed that they have get that at a certain point but, as I have worked with so many people over the years, still that is an essential skill I see people lack of. They are overwhelmed because they don’t know what are their priorities.”

And to be well-organized comes down to knowing how you work.

You might be a night person or a morning person, you might like to write thing down or you prefer listening carefully. You have your own style of working, so go figure it out what is that style and practice accordingly. The point here is to understand how you work, not just reinforce yourself to a particular standard.

People feel anxious and withdrawn, because they have been staring at the screen for every hour, every day. “The physical barriers are no longer in place, there is no more ‘getting in the cars and be home.’ That is why being organize matters, you have to decide what time is off.”

On this context, the chief says, she always be strict on her own leisure time, time block at the specific hour and day she will not take calls or cameras. Not just for the shake of a reboot, having time off means knowing you can work better and contribute much more value on other time. “And because I know do better and think better on this specific time. I need to have my schedule reflect that at the period I am ready and I’ll the most productive person – for the team that I interact with and need me,” Thompson insists.

It is not just about you, it is about how you show up in front of people and for people. The chief believes if you know how you work, when is your peak performing time – you will be able to bring out the best version that teams need and you are going to be the best to work with.

#6 How Self-Reflecting Is the Deposit of Your ‘Trust Bank’

Before coming up to the CEO role, Thompson was an auditor. And that has revealed to her that she is a person of process, she like atomic habits. It is about design processes that help you to be your best, Thompson explains, “like how my team has to do something over and over again. And I usually drive them crazy by asking if they can streamline some of it, so that it will not involve all of us in further time. That is a mindset has been with me till this point.”

Cherry Bekaert team collaborate in workshop
Courtesy: Cherry Bekaert

Gradually, the chief recognized how she has always been self-reflective on every approach and point of view, “I am conscious of my ways of acting and thinking, and I think it’s a good system.” According to her, the ability to be self-reflective and self-awareness is really important when it comes to leading.

You have to notice your attitude and behavior to later assess yourself – what do I need to tweak to do better?

Besides, being self-reflective is also a good way to build trust. As Thompson puts it, while being self-correct and taking self-awareness along the way, teammates and individuals would perceive and identify you with desired accountability.

“It is like making deposit in your trust bank. That every-day of self-reflecting to teams would pay off when you pulling rank downstream.”  

Last but not least, Thompson talks about the two critical things she learned from Howard Kies – the company’s former CEO who step down from more than 30 years running the firm.

The first one is the importance of living out the firm’s shared value of mutual respect. The chief recalls for over seven years working directly for Kies, every time she faces a challenging decision or torn on how to proceed on a matter. His first question was, ‘Have you heard all sides of the story?’ And his second question was, ‘What is the impact on our people?’

The second one is an advice for companies as far as internal controls. Kies believes that companies need a discipline approach to step back on a regular basis to look better at their business processes, systems, and controls. “Otherwise, you are doing piecemeal fixes or creating patches, which opens your organization up to risks, fraud and unknown damage.” Thompson explains, how organization look at it simply, when establishing a system of internal controls and pretend not knowing who will be executing these controls, is one way to wipe out their employees’ effort.

The Bottom Lines

According to the Business Journal, as of now Michelle Thompson is the third woman to lead in the industry. It was a long journey from the drive-through to the chair of Cherry Bekaert, which is adventurous and unique enough to shape Thompson as who she is today. This is a story of how the auditor fights her way up the ladder with gratitude, self-reflection, and a lot of herself.

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