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What 20 years in leadership has taught me

Debbie Messemer, managing partner at KPMG San FranciscoDebbie Messemer, managing partner at KPMG San Francisco
Debbie Messemer, managing partner at KPMG San FranciscoCourtesy of KPMG

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? is written by Debbie Messemer, Managing Partner at KPMG San Francisco.

During my 20 years of leadership, I have found there are a few defining moments early in a new leader’s tenure that will set the tone for their future success. Use your “honeymoon” period to lay the foundation for your leadership. Define your personal brand with your team members, colleagues and clients. People will have new expectations of you — identify those expectations and determine whether they’re compatible with your own. Establish your leadership style and methods of operating. It’s especially important to avoid getting bogged down on administrative tasks that eat up precious time during this crucial period.

Here are four tips that I believe are beneficial for every new leader:

Be decisive
Due to the rate and amount of innovation occurring in the world today, a leader must be more agile and informed than ever. When evaluating a situation, tap a variety of resources to gain different perspectives and then be comfortable with your decision. These trusted advisors with diverse views are critical — they will enable you to make well-informed decisions.

Find a mentor
Having a mentor is beneficial at any level. Even the most senior executives have mentors, however, choosing the right mentor is critical. For instance, currently mine is a seasoned executive outside of my field who is able to provide valuable personal and professional advice. I am thankful for the various mentors I’ve had throughout my career and their honesty. They helped me realize the areas I needed to improve on and the skills necessary to do so.

Never stop learning
Leaders must have a thirst for knowledge – for themselves, their business, their customers, and the world around them. Taking time for continual learning not only positions you for success, but it sets the tone for those around you.

Inspire your team
If KPMG’s late chairman and CEO, Gene O’Kelly, hadn’t inspired me to dream big and define the attributes necessary to be an effective managing partner, I wouldn’t be here today. The book he wrote at the end of his life, “Chasing Daylight,” inspired me to make work-life balance a priority. For these life lessons and inspiration, I am eternally grateful.

Ever since my first management position, head of KPMG’s Southwest Region Financial Services practice, I have believed that being a leader is a privilege, and I carry a responsibility to create and support opportunities for others to pursue their goals. A leader’s success is often determined by the growth of each individual team member, in addition to how well the team works together. Leaders must not only understand the skills and capabilities that today’s business requires, but they also must attract and retain talented employees whose skills complement the team.

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