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Transcript: Leadership Lessons in a Crisis (EP7)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.


Brendan Rogers: Hello, everybody. I'm Brendan Rogers, the host of The Culture of Things podcast and this is Episode 7. Today, I'm speaking with Matt Spindler. Matt is a partner and co-owner of MCS Partners, which is an accounting firm on the Central Coast, so Matt's a Chartered Accountant. He's got over 20 years’ experience working with small and medium businesses. Matt's key areas of focus are SME tax and accounting, business sales and acquisition, business structures, business restructures, business development and SMSF tax and compliance. Pretty experienced dude. Matt's a great mate of mine.

There's two other bits of information that I want to share with our listeners before we get in. Matt’s a fellow Liverpool supporter, which I love about him. The thing that I probably tolerate him more, he admitted to me some time ago that he's a swinger and I mean that in a political sense, so don't get the wrong idea about this guy. He's a fantastic guy. That's the only thing that, like I said, I tolerate about him. The focus of our conversation today is Leadership Lessons in a Crisis.

Matt, how are you buddy?

Matt Spindler: I'm good. Thanks, Brendan. Thanks for having me.

Brendan Rogers: Give the listeners just a bit of a brief overview, first of all, of what you're about, your journey so far, and then we'll dive into those lessons that you've learned over this time.

Matt Spindler: I’m Matt Spindler. I'm a partner in a Central Coast-based accounting firm, MCS Partners. We set up back in February 2005 and we've been operating on the Central Coast ever since then. Our target is business owners, mainly local, but we do have clients all over Australia. We run under a slightly different model than is the norm in accounting. It's a very traditional type of industry. We run under more like a medical model where we have a number of practitioners, so we're all accountants. We share a brand name, we share infrastructure, but we all have our own client bases and deliver services to our clients.

One of the key focuses we've had since the beginning is to always challenge our business model. And it was never a plan that we're going to end up where we've ended up, but it was an evolution over a long period of time where we looked at what's working, what's not working, and continued to try and improve and change to adapt to not just a changing environment and a changing world, but also to adapt to our own personal wants and needs and requirements.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, we were talking just the other day. Accountants have been at the forefront in this situation, you know, in this crisis of COVID-19. Can you give us a little bit of an example or an overview of what work life has been for you and helping managing this process for clients during this crisis?

Matt Spindler: First of all, the first challenge was for most businesses was this shift from a physical presence where we all congregate every day to work to working remotely. For us, it wasn't a major transition because our business was already operating that way. We do have a centralised office, but a lot of our team work remotely all the time so that wasn't a major shift for us. As accountants, we thrive on certainty and consistency. And what I mean by that is we're lucky we're in an industry where we can, generally, at the start of a financial year, we know what 90% of our work is going to be for the year ahead and we can plan around that. So we can smooth out the workflow through the year and keep things consistent and we work to a legislative framework and just about everything we do, which normally, gives you that clarity.

The biggest challenge for us was when all this started was that the certainty went out the window. No one knew what was coming next. No one knew what to expect. We were no different, to every other business. We had to quickly adapt to that to be able to be there for our clients that were facing the exact same issues that we were facing. We did learn through that process straight away that the shift to full time working remotely. There's certain pros and cons to that. You pick up efficiency in certain areas because there is a lot of time, daily time in the office where you may very importantly get engaged in a social conversation as opposed to a business conversation or that we will collaborate and we'll call people in and we'll all workshop a client issue or something like that so you remove that time. It does give you more time available, but then on the other side of things, we can often resolve things really quickly when we're working collaboratively if we're in the same space.

Once we moved to full remote operations, we've found that if I needed someone else's help or support or they needed mine, we were dependent on them being able to be reachable at that point in time and they may not answer the phone so there's a little bit of pickup and put down of work or jobs and we had to get used to that. But overall, the team adapted really, really quickly to that and the biggest advantage was that in that particularly in the first three to four weeks, our clients really needed us. We're spending a lot of time on the phone. A lot of time on emails and being in a remote environment without the other distractions meant that we could actually just focus 100% on communication with our clients.

Brendan Rogers: As a leader in your business, what was the single biggest thing you felt was most important or you'd learned was most important over this time for you as a leader in your business and to make the changes or to identify changes that you needed to make to make things work in this virtual environment?

Matt Spindler: Probably, a number of things. The first thing I did notice was the power of a common goal. When this first happened, it was a shock to all of us. And what galvanised the team was that we really had to narrow it down to one thing and that common goal was: what do we need to do to help our clients? Once everyone shared that same goal and it wasn't a forced process, it wasn't a workshop, it wasn't anything. It just happened naturally. As part of this process, everything started to flow and we all grew from the sense that it was hard and we knew it was hard and we knew it was going to continue to be hard, but we knew exactly what we had to focus on. And once we created that focus, everything else just seemed to get that little bit easier.

Brendan Rogers: That's a fantastic example. I mean, you use the words the power of a common goal and nothing brings a team or a group of people together more powerfully and more strongly than a common goal. And I really like what you had, you know, what do we need to do to help our clients? As you said, it really breaks down the barriers and you've got a number of people in your team in MCS accountants. So just being able to bring those people together. So that's a key learning for you.

Off the back of that, before we go into your leadership for the business community, what are you going to do as we're getting to the other side of this crisis to make sure that you continue that teamwork and people pulling together around a common goal?

Matt Spindler: It's interesting. That's where my thoughts are starting to shift and I don't know if that's because we're getting further through this process that there's a little bit more space to think about that sort of stuff. Prior to this crisis arising, whatever term you want to use for it.

I was probably too focused on people's personal value systems and caught up with ‘if you have people with similar value systems, that's what gels the team together’. Through this process, I've learned that that's probably not as important although there needs to be some similarities. Everyone's going to have a unique value system because it's shaped by their own experiences. The key for me is to respect those differences between each person in terms of their value system and then what actually galvanises the team is that common goal. So it's a shift of focus from me away from “what are your values on why do you work in the way that you do” to “here's the common goal”. If we're all aligned with that, we each take our own individual approach based on our own value system and it's the goal that aligns everyone. That will be a key focus for me in terms of teamwork and collaboration.

The other side of that will be more aligning our approach that we use with our clients with our internal approach. I have noticed through this, we have a completely different approach to each other internally then what we do in terms of our approach to clients. So with clients, it's typically “what can I do to help”? Or what does my client need? How can I be of service? Those sorts of questions where internally, and this is only, through this current experience, I've noticed because we work autonomously as part of our business model. There's a tendency to work in a silo and your internal communication is basically only triggered by when you need something from someone else. So it's almost the opposite approach. We’ll approach a client based on what do you need from me. And internally, it's “what do I need from you”? And that has worked. It is certainly the autonomous nature of our business, allows us to be able to help more clients but I would like to see an internal shift as well more towards what can I do to support the other people within the business.

Brendan Rogers: What do you envisage that to look like? What are you going to do as a leader and you've got a partner, Trent in the business. So what are you guys going to do as leader to try and reach that alignment? ‘Cause what you've shared is to me a really, really powerful learning and really, really insightful. But manufacturing that outside of a crisis is a real challenge and a real test for leaders. So what do you think you're going to do? What's your steps in that journey?

Matt Spindler: First step is awareness. It is always awareness. It's something that, I don’t know if these are the right words, but I was blind to, I didn't quite see. I have noticed it now. Trent and I have always worked under that same approach with each other as we do with clients. And it enables us to assign accountability and responsibilities, what’s Matt going to look after, what’s Trent going to look after, what does Trent need from me, what does Matt need from me? So we've always done it naturally as part of our business partnership. It's extending that approach out with other people. So first and foremost, we need to take that framework and apply it to our interactions with the team. Because without leading by example in that way, the change will be hard and it probably won't stick. So number one, we'll take that as our learning and we'll then look to change our behaviour around those.

It's often interesting when you look at these things because any change in behaviour can often be hard. But when it’s a behaviour you use somewhere else, it is a lot easier once you're aware of the fact that you do differently in another area to say, well, let's take the behaviour from there and let's apply it to this now. So that's the number one focus. I'm also a big believer in ‘don't get too far past that’. By that, I mean, we know the first thing we need to do, so let's do that. Let's see how that goes. Let's learn from that and then let's work out what's step two. Then step three and step four is.

Brendan Rogers: Let's look at the leadership that you show and you're a leader in the business community, particularly on the Central Coast. And for your clients, a lot of people, especially over this time, have come to you for advice and have a high level of trust in you to provide and guide them through. Look at that from a perspective of what that felt like before the crisis and how you may have had to adapt or maybe no, it's just been smooth sailing for you as a business leader for your clients during this crisis. Tell us a little bit about that.

Matt Spindler: Overall, it wasn't a massive shift because naturally, my focus has always been on how I can help my clients. The biggest thing is, and we all tend to have this tendency, is undervaluing the service we offer in terms of the difference that it can actually make as accountants. Sometimes, we feel a little bit like historians where we're just looking at transactions from the past and telling people what their tax liabilities are based on the past. This highlighted the fact that we probably play a more important role than that or we can play a more important role than that and that can be a little bit overwhelming at first where it's the first time in my career independent of major changes in tax policy where almost all of our clients needed us at exactly the same point in time. We worked out very quickly that communication was the key to that and it was going to be critical in helping our clients get through.

So we didn't have a planned communication strategy. It evolved as a result of the situation we found ourselves in. Where again, it highlighted a difference in behaviour, for me, personally, is dealing with clients. I've always felt natural having that approach but my internal leadership style is a lot different to my leadership style with clients and I wouldn't, I've never really classified what I do with clients as leadership; it’s just what I do. But I tend to have a different approach internally. So, it's highlighted to me that I have, not a lack of alignment, but sometimes you need different approaches. But I think as my own natural learning cycle, I need to be able to look at the way I act with clients and take the good bits of that and change my internal leadership style.

Brendan Rogers: Give us an insight into that and those contrasting views, you know, the leadership style. Really important. And you mentioned internal versus external. What are the differences that you see?

Matt Spindler: Externally, with clients, it’s the approach. It’s very, generally very clear what they need from me because they will normally tell me, “I need you to just listen for a little while. I need to vent. I need help with JobKeeper or I need help with some tax planning”. Or they tell us exactly what they need and you then adapt to that. Internally, I find, I assume what people need. And I don't actually ask the specific question, ‘What do you need from me?’ I very much like to internally work to a process where unless I'm hearing from people, I assume everything's going okay. With clients, I'll check in to see, “Everything's going okay”. They're not major things, but they're just subtle differences, which I believe I've developed different leadership styles for client service to internal but they're both equally important.

Brendan Rogers: Yeah. As you say, they are subtle changes but can be very powerful. So, let me ask you the million dollar question -- how are you going to change internally?

Matt Spindler: Becoming more aware, first of all, and as we progress down the path and restrictions are eased and we get people back into the office, and we do need at the moment, we still need to be 100% focused on what our clients need from us and to be there to support them through. Although things are easier now than they were six weeks ago, we're not through it yet. So, in the short term, our focus has to remain with the clients. What I would like to do is when things ease off a little bit and we've got the space, is to have a, not a workshop but have a conversation internally. I need to get greater clarity around where everyone else is at and what they need and then once we've got that, I’ll feel like we've got a framework to work to in terms of if people need me to. I'm assuming that what I'm delivering internally can be improved and it always can be. But again, I don't want to assume that internally, people need me to be like I am with my clients because they may not need that. The shift I need to make is just asking the question, “What do you need from me as a leader within the business?” Because it's not as clear internally as it is with the external business world and our clients. 

Brendan Rogers: Great learning and great insight. It sounds like Matty Spindler has had this epiphany around the power of teamwork. Am I right to say that?

Matt Spindler: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. It's been an ongoing battle for me. My default, particularly when things get tough is to go lone wolf and that is to basically disconnect myself from the world around me and become very insular and just get on with what I know I need to do. You can achieve a certain amount that way, but when it comes to the time, like this current situation, with COVID-19, that approach is not effective and it's actually marginally self-destructive. That at times like this, teamwork is the only thing that matters.

Brendan Rogers: I want to move the conversation to your organisational culture, the culture of MCS Partners. There's a saying that, “Culture is a reflection of leadership”. So, with some of these learnings that you've had in your own leadership style and through this crisis, how do you think when you take these learnings on and put them into action, what impact is that going to have on your office culture?

Matt Spindler: Culture is an interesting thing, particularly in independent businesses where you'll often have mum and dad business owners or brothers owning a business or sometimes it's just one person owning that business. And for a long time, I've always watched with interest because a business tends to adapt to the owner and vice versa. So, if you look at some key features of a business culture, they’ll be very, very similar to particular attributes and traits the business owner has. So it's very difficult to change one without the other. If you want to change your business culture, I've found that I need to change myself first. It's the only way that it works. So, in terms of our culture, it’s that shift back to ourselves internally and what we need to learn and improve on and the culture will flow from that. So, I've noticed this disconnection between our external approach and our internal approach. So, the first thing I need to do is to change the way I operate if I want the business to change. So, I'll be focused on what I can do to help everyone else. And over time, that then becomes habit. Habit becomes culture.

Brendan Rogers: If we were looking at each other across the desk, you could see this smile on my face because, you know, really, what you're saying is self-awareness and I have a very, very strong belief that self-awareness is an absolutely key foundation for a leader. And you're just saying that that's what you're focusing on. I need to be self-aware, I need to understand how I impact. And when I'm doing that and learning that and understanding my blind spots even, the organisation will be far better for it because I'll be a better leader.

Around the businesses you're helping, what challenges have you seen with them? And again, I don't mean financial challenges. Again, we'll leave that for your own accounting podcast. Let's look at the culture, the leadership, the teamwork side of things. Where have you seen some real sufferings as a result of this organisation's just dysfunctional as a group of people and how has that impacted them and their ability to survive through a crisis like this?  

Matt Spindler: I was actually reflecting on this. Oh, it's been continuous over the last couple of weeks and I'm not even going to profess to be anywhere near expert level. At this stage, it's a train of thought and some observations. The biggest thing I noticed is a lot, effectively what this brought up was a fear of the unknown. And then when I thought about that, it's everyone's behaviour then is based on how they feel about the unknown and to a certain degree, we all strive for consistency and certainty in all areas of our lives because we feel like then we're in control and when that's taken away from us, it's a scary position to be in and people will revert back to whatever their default behaviour is for when things get hard. Whether that's becoming reclusive, whether that's more conflict, whether that they change their leadership style and become very autocratic all of a sudden because they're trying to cling to whatever they can control.  

And what I've noticed talking to lots of business owners and employees and people that work in businesses around that was, that was the core of it. When I started looking, I think a lot of our fears are fear of the unknown - whether it's a fear of flying, it's a fear of the unknown. Will the plane fall out of the sky? What could happen? And we get caught up in the what if’s. And that was the default we all went to, me included. When this first broke, was, what if this happens? What if that happens? It's important but it's very, very dangerous because as soon as you then start reacting to the what if's, your focus tends to become more and more and more internal. You build more and more and more worry. From worry, breeds anxiety. And from there, it's very, very difficult to get back to focusing on what you can be doing and to bring your team together.

I think talking to all of them, it was almost trying to be that, not voice of reason, but helping people accept that we don't know what's coming next and there's only so much that we can control. And our shift internally, the first two weeks, Trent and I were on the phone to each other for at least an hour every day. But what we would do is we'd say, “Where are we now? What do we need to know? What's our rough plan A, B and C? And what are our triggers for action?” So, if this happens, then we know we need to act. And once we had that, it got those worries out of our head because we had a broad plan. We didn't put too much time into it but enough so that those thoughts, I call them brain worms, when things are digging around inside your brain, they tend to be linked to some kind of worry.

If I was worrying about our business and the internal operations of our business, I would not be able to get the focus to help my clients. So, we, through that, I went OK, I feel so much better now that we've got a rough plan and we know what we can control and what we can't control and we'll just keep touching base and we'll keep talking every day. And do we need to take action? So that was the key question. Do we need to take action? Once we'd resolve that internally out of necessity, that was how we had to operate so we could focus on our clients. That then really became what I saw as my purpose in talking to the clients. It’s to get them more comfortable with the fact that we don't know what's coming next.

And by and large, our clients are brilliant. We have good relationships with a lot of our clients and you could almost sense in some of those calls it was just once they accepted that we don't know what's coming next, but here's some things you can control now. You could almost feel the anxiety level just drop.

Brendan Rogers: I can imagine again that the amount of business owners that have been in that position recently, particularly financial, and you know, you as a trusted confidant, having the, really to be a psychologist or, you know, something in that realm to have these conversations just to help them through and hopefully help them say, “Well, you know, you're going to be okay and this is how we can help”. Or maybe the realisation for some is that, “You know what, you're not going to be okay and we need to start thinking about how do we exit out of this in this process?”

Matt Spindler: That's actually a really, really important point. It didn't matter or what I found was it didn't matter what the likely outcome was. If you had to have the tough conversation, it was almost the same effect as the other conversations. It was that sense of relief. At least I know now and now that I know, let's plan some action. So again, even if the conversation was tough, it’s unlikely you're going to make it through this “You may have to consider appointing a liquidator. You may have to consider personal bankruptcy”. They're incredibly challenging and tough conversations to have and we haven't had to have very many of them to be honest, but regardless of the actual content of the call, it was the same result in that it just created some certainty and some focus.

Brendan Rogers: I love how you use the term tough conversations. It's another key aspect of leadership - having tough conversations. Tell me something, if you had to choose between a tough conversation with a client and a tough conversation with one of your staff, which one would you choose?

Matt Spindler: That's an interesting question because I’ve generally avoided tough conversations my entire life. It's not something I'm naturally good at. It's something I've had to learn. I will readily admit I'm still not a hundred percent comfortable with it. I do find having tough conversations with clients easier than having tough conversations with people internally. Again, it's that focus of, it's easier for me now to recognise in those situations that the best help I can give the client is to have the tough conversation. But internally, I shift back towards most of the time trying to be a peacekeeper where it's not always the most effective way and it's certainly not the most helpful way a lot of the time. But again, I'm learning, evolving and trying to take what I'm learning from interacting with my clients to hopefully make me a better business leader within my business.

Brendan Rogers: Well done, mate. So you've heard it first here on The Culture of Things podcast is that we will be keeping Matt Spindler accountable for having tough conversations with people internally because you care enough about them. You want to see them improve and that's your intent for having a tough conversation, right?

Matt Spindler: A hundred percent and it's also overcoming that fear of, you have a tough conversation, you need to be prepared to get some tough-to-listen-to feedback coming back to you. And that's probably where a lot of it does stem from that hesitance to have those conversations. It's the fear of, “Oh, I'm not naive to think that it's all a one-way street and that it's everyone else that needs to improve”. I generally know that most of the time, it's me that needs to improve. And overcoming that fear of getting some feedback that I might not want to hear and I was waiting for you to pick up on something that you guys kept me accountable for. I knew it was coming. 

Brendan Rogers: Life’s about accountability, mate. (Matt laughing) That's how we get results. (Both laughing) Mate, I want you, we've spoken quite a bit there about your own leadership and again, you've shown fantastic self-awareness around your learnings and you're a really reflective person. I know that over the years. If you could highlight one thing that you have experienced which you think has been the most beneficial lesson for you and your business and flowing onto your clients, what would that be?    

Matt Spindler: I’d go back probably to one of the first things we spoke about, which was that power of a common goal. I understood it theoretically prior to this crisis, but understanding something theoretically is not really understanding it until you experience it. I think through this experience, I now have that deeper level of understanding of how important that common goal is in aligning people and culture flows from that, teamwork flows from that, leadership flows from that, because I'm a big believer in leadership isn't the job of one-person in an organisation. It's everyone's responsibility. We are all leaders, whether that's to each other, whether that's to our clients, whether that's to our children or the next generation. We are all leaders and we all have our own value systems and way of going about that but if we are united by a common goal, we're all heading in the same direction. And those differences at that value level is what creates friction and friction is what creates change if you manage the friction effectively. So, that's definitely my biggest takeaway out of all of this.  

Brendan Rogers: Before I get you to share with the listeners how people can get in touch with you, a fellow Liverpool supporter, are we going to be crowned champions irrespective of if the season continues? What's your thoughts?  

Matt Spindler: I'm a big believer that truth is relative, not absolute. There is no absolute truth. It's relative to each individual person at that particular point in time. And for me at this point in time, we are already champions. So, I've convinced myself of that and regardless of what happens, we are the current season EPL champions.  

Brendan Rogers: Great stuff, mate. I will second that thinking. To some of those listeners out there that are Tottenham supporters, I'll name Alex Carver, I'll name Andrew Patten Smith who's West Ham. You've heard it first here on The Culture of Things podcast, Liverpool Football Club has been crowned champions of the English Premier League for the 2019/2020 season.

Matty, well done buddy. You let listeners know how they can get in touch with you.  

Matt Spindler: Anyone can get in contact if you jump onto our website, www.mcspartners.com.au Look me up on LinkedIn. I'm there also, Matt Spindler. By all means, reach out and I'd be happy to help in any way that I can.  

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I wanted to say a huge thank you again. You're a fantastic dude. You and I've got on for a long time since I first met you. You've done fantastic things on the Central Coast. You're a massive, passionate person around small business and doing what you can to help small business. So, keep up the great work. Well done on what you've done through this COVID-19 crisis and continue to do for your clients. I appreciate you coming on. Thanks for being a guest on The Culture of Things podcast, mate. Really appreciate it.

Matt Spindler: Oh, thanks for having me, Brendan. It's been great.  

(Music plays)

Brendan Rogers: Matt and I have been friends for many years. In my experience, there isn't much he doesn't know in the accounting space. In today's world, it's very easy to find an accountant, but there are very few with the overall business knowledge, who you feel you can partner with to grow and develop your business in a sustainable and successful way.

I look at Matt as a business confidant who happens to know a lot about all aspects of accounting. These types of people are rare breeds. As you can hear from the interview, Matt is also a very thoughtful and reflective person, especially around his own development and what he can learn from any situation. This is why I was so keen to capture his thoughts around his leadership lessons in a crisis.

These were my three key takeaways from my chat with Matt:

My first key takeaway, the power of a common goal will bring people together as a real team. Matt said this happened naturally and they narrowed it down to one question. What do we need to do to help our clients? At the time, they didn't have a specific plan. They were just comfortable in the fact that it would evolve over time. Once they had that goal, once they had that focus, everything flowed. It was hard work, but they knew exactly what they had to focus on. Having this common goal in a crisis is actually quite easy. The challenge for leaders is making it happen and finding a common goal when there isn’t a crisis. Matt made the statement, “At times like this, teamwork is the only thing that matters”.

My second key takeaway. Culture is a reflection of leadership. Now, Matt didn't use those exact words, but he referred to the culture of organisations being a reflection on the traits of the business owner and if you want to change your business culture, the leader needs to change themselves. Having self-awareness is absolutely critical to making the necessary changes. Matt raised a great question that he's going to start asking of his team, “What do you need from me as a leader in the business?”

My third key takeaway. A leader must be able to have tough conversations. Matt mentioned how he found the tough conversations with clients much easier than having them internally with a team member. He referred to his default of shifting to peacekeeper, which he said isn't effective or helpful. Ultimately, the main job of a leader is to help people improve. If leaders maintain this intent, the tough conversations can be easier.

So in summary, the power of a common goal will bring people together as a real team. Second, culture is a reflection of leadership. And third, a leader must be able to have tough conversations. 

If you have any questions or feedback about this episode, please feel free to send me a message at brendan@brendanrogers.com.au

Thank you for listening.

Stay safe. Until next time. 


Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.