The accounting industry is all about people, from the expert CPAs who advise their clients to the teams supporting them at each firm. But the industry has a talent problem. Experienced CPAs are ready to retire— or at least plan for a successor— but fewer college students are pursuing accounting degrees in favor of other STEM career paths. So when CEO David Wurtzbacher and Chief People Officer (CPO) Erin Stahmer set out to found Ascend, an Alpine Investors-backed platform that partners with entrepreneurial CPAs to usher in their next stage of growth, they knew that getting the people side of the business right would be crucial to their success. Envisioning the future of work at Ascend and in the entire accounting industry, former Alpine VP and Head of Playbook Erin Stahmer shares how she takes a PeopleFirst approach to her work, why the CPO role is one she’s passionate about and why she never refers to employees as “resources.”
I spent college and the early years of my career exploring how I could best leverage my skills to make an impact. After roles in consulting and product management, I went back to business school at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) with two goals: first, to deepen my fundamental business knowledge, and second, to equip myself with the skills needed to be a great people manager and leader. At Stanford, I discovered that leadership development and coaching was a career path unto itself – and one I was very passionate about. That’s also where I met GSB professor and Alpine founder Graham Weaver, who invited me to join Alpine in 2018 to help the private equity firm build its leadership and strategy programs. For the first time in my career, it felt like everything was flowing. I realized that becoming a people leader was the ultimate path for me.
After two and a half years working with Alpine and almost two years with ghSMART, a leadership advisory firm focused on helping executives solve their most pressing organizational challenges, I chose to become a CPO alongside David to help build the Ascend team. I was drawn to working with David because we share the belief that PeopleFirst leadership is a core piece of business strategy that unlocks value for the organization, and I was drawn to the accounting industry because people are at the heart of delivering value to customers and thus, driving business results. To borrow a phrase from one of Alpine’s original PeopleFirst facilitators, “business is no more than people, working with other people, to build stuff or provide services that ultimately serve other people.” In accounting, the better people you attract, the more your customers will thrive and revenue will grow.
For me, PeopleFirst is both an ethos and a way of running your business. It’s making sure that people are at the heart of every decision you make. It’s creating space and time on a regular basis to zoom out and work on the business instead of just being in the business. At Ascend, we make sure we’re bringing people together, engaging teams, reviewing how we performed against the goals that we set last quarter and then stacking hands and committing to go after the goals for the quarter ahead.
People, Not Resources
As Chief People Officer, it’s my job to set our people up for success by ensuring each person is in a role that is well-matched to their skillset. We don’t have a chief human resources officer, and we’ve eliminated “human resources” from our vocabularies because we want to be clear that humans are people — not resources.
Day to day, my role is to oversee our three people-oriented teams. Our People Operations team is focused on -benefits, payroll and employee relations. The talent team is the recruiting arm of Ascend Partner Services— our HQ team— as well as recruitment for all our partner firms. Then we have the PeopleFirst Leadership team, which guides each business to create a strategic One Page Plan, adopt an operating rhythm to accomplish big goals, and build a winning culture over time.
Attributes Over Experience
Next on Ascend’s radar is introducing a brand new Chief Growth Officer role to each CPA firm. We believe that by placing someone focused on growth alongside a Managing Partner or CEO, we can grow more quickly and intentionally. The idea of placing a non-CPA into a very senior position at the firm can be uncomfortable to embrace for some, but we’ve already seen early success with this model at LMC, our partner firm based in New York City.
To do this well, it takes embracing the idea of attributes over experience in a candidate, an idea that Alpine evangelizes and has seen work in other industries. Choosing the right person for the chief growth officer position means having an in-depth career walkthrough with that leader to collect data, form a picture of their strengths and development areas, and use that analysis to inform our level of confidence about this person’s ability to lead and make a positive impact on the business.
Solving Talent Pipeline Challenges
Long-term, Ascend set a big goal to revitalize the accounting profession— that’s our promise to the world. A key part of success means making the accounting industry a place where career paths and compensation are as attractive as other STEM careers. Currently, we’re rethinking incentives and compensation so that everyone who is part of the Ascend family of firms can benefit.
The CPA industry is facing a shortage of talent. I’ve heard many suggest that we should simply encourage high school and college students to go into accounting, but to me, that doesn’t really address the root cause. If we want people to pursue an accounting career, we need to make it attractive with exciting career opportunities and competitive compensation. I’m interested in a shift away from “doing your time,” to clear role expectations and opportunities for growth based on demonstrated abilities. Over time I hope we can upend the entire model and provide CPAs with access to long-term incentives earlier in their careers.
We’re partnering with some of the most entrepreneurial CPAs in the country. It is so rewarding to hear their goals and visions and work alongside them to achieve them. Right now, we’re working hard to put a lot of systems in place, but I’m excited for the moment when we can start to work with our partner firms on training programs for skills like management or hiring. We’re also focused on leveraging technology to free up CPAs to do the work they love, like offering their clients strategic advice. If we can get people out of the weeds, they’ll have more time for high-value work and they will feel more satisfied in their careers.
I’m incredibly passionate about career development and about connecting with people and seeing them connect with each other. I feel lucky that I get to spend every day making a positive impact on our people and our business. This chief people officer role is yet another job I couldn’t have dreamed up for myself during business school, but it’s one I see myself continuing to serve in for a long time.