Gary Grossman on leadership: Give yourself time to think, face brutal facts, never lose faith you’ll prevail
Gary Grossman is co-managing partner of Grossman St. Amour CPAs. Grossman joined the firm, founded in 1957 by Edward Green, as managing partner in 1983. A few years later, Green sold his interest to Grossman and Steve St. Amour. Since then, the two owners have been co-managing partners of the 50-person firm, headquartered on the ninth floor of Lincoln Center in downtown Syracuse.
As significant as his business role is, Grossman may be better known for his leadership in community organizations, especially at the Everson Museum of Art. He was chair of the Everson board in 2014 and ’15. He was followed by Cliff Malzman as chair.
The museum’s director had resigned in January 2014. Significant financial troubles were brewing. Some worried that the museum might not survive to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its iconic building, the first museum designed by the late I.M. Pei.
“They assumed their roles at a sink-or-swim moment in the museum’s history,” said Elizabeth Dunbar, the director and CEO that Grossman and Malzman recruited to run the museum in 2015.
Grossman and Malzman brought the museum back to financial stability, engaged and energized supporters, and retained it as a community jewel.
On June 20, Grossman and Malzman will receive the Everson Medal at the museum’s annual fund-raising picnic on the plaza. The medal recognizes their community leadership and strong conviction that the arts enhance the quality of life.
I like to ask leaders about significant challenges. You and Cliff led the Everson at a crucial time, perhaps even saving it. Tell me about that.
Well, in 2014 I became the chair of the Everson board of directors and shortly thereafter the executive director resigned. Additionally, we were experiencing difficult financial conditions.
So we embarked on a search for a new executive director as well as figuring out a way to finance and turn around the organization.
Elizabeth Dunbar came on in January of 2015, so we ran for about a year without an executive director.
It’s fair to say that we got it to a point where we hired Elizabeth and we balanced the budget for 2014. Elizabeth has been primarily responsible for the success that has occurred since she came.
I can tell you something else. I believe in the arts for many reasons, but one of the reasons is because I believe it helps develop the ability to think creatively. I think that when you learn how to appreciate art, there’s a part of the brain that has to let go and it’s that area of your brain that enables you to think creatively.
The arts seem to be one of the first things cut to save money when times are hard and one of the last things restored when times get better again.
I can’t tell you how strongly I feel in doing the opposite.
We need creative people in accounting firms, in law firms, in architectural firms, people doing basic jobs in shipping departments. We need them everywhere in our economy.
I’m a complete believer in studying the arts, in training our elementary school kids in the arts to develop this ability to think creatively, so that people can figure out how to think creatively to accomplish a task.
I think you need to give kids a project, not tell them how to do it. Give them a sheet of paper and three different color paints and let them do anything they want and not judge them. You’re going to develop one of the traits that differentiates our country from other countries. We have more creative people here than anywhere else in the world. One of the reasons for that is because people have learned how to think creatively.
What qualities do you see in effective leaders or in effective leadership?
I think effective leaders are smart. They have vision. They have courage. They think big. Thinking big is really important. And I think that they leave themselves time to think.
Thinking is underrated. Many people will move from one thing to the other and they don’t sit back and give themselves time to think about whether what they’re doing is the right thing. Great leaders spend a great deal of their time thinking about what they should be doing.
You mentioned that a leader must have courage. Tell me about that.
Do you know what the Stockdale Paradox is?
The Stockdale Paradox says retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
I believe that this is how our leadership team was able to help the museum thrive in 2014.
The entire time that we were going through this difficult period at the Everson, I had total confidence that we’d be successful. And I don’t think we had a good idea about how, but I think it was the belief in the organization, belief in the arts, belief in the importance of the Everson. The facts that we were confronting day by day were brutal. But we were never pessimistic.
It was a very difficult period. When we were done, it looked obvious to others that we were going to succeed because they could feel that, and I had leaders in Syracuse tell me in the middle of this how certain they were we were going to succeed. I think it all relates to the Stockdale Paradox.
There wasn’t anybody that we spoke to that didn’t know the depth of our problem and they also knew the strength of our conviction.
Even though a leader should be honest in facing brutal facts during stressful times, you don’t want people to get down and dour. Am I right?
Down and dour is bad. (Laughter)
You want to help them understand that they need to spend time with their family. You want them to stay physically fit and healthy. Those are important things to do during the most stressful times.
I think you want to check in frequently with them to make sure they’re not getting down. When you’ve worked with a person for a long time, you can sense when they’re having a problem.
When you sit down and they share the problem with you, part of the problem is unburdened. They feel camaraderie. They feel like someone else understands. The leader takes away anxiety by being there and by listening.
Do the qualities you were describing apply in day-to-day business leadership as well?
I think it’s the same thing. You need complete faith in what you’re doing.
I think you have to always try to be the best in your field. You have to constantly search for ways to make your organization the best it possibly can be.
When you confront problems, you can look back at that faith and that mission and believe that you will succeed and get through your most difficult problems. It’s transferable to for-profit organizations. To succeed, you must have complete faith and belief in the mission of your organization.
Leadership creates that organizational culture, that faith. How do you go about creating the culture you want?
I believe that trust in your people and them having trust in you can speed the communication of your discussions.
For instance, my co-managing partner, Steve St. Amour, and I have been partners for over 30 years. We talk to each other on a daily basis. We have complete trust and faith in each other. So when I communicate with him, the speed at which we can get through a problem is greatly enhanced.
That kind of relationship is contagious throughout an organization.
I trust the people that I work with, so they’re not concerned that something is going to come out of either of us that’s unexpected. They know what to expect.
I think one of the things that people want is they want vision. And they want security in their own situation. They want to feel like the organization is moving in a direction that’s going to provide them with challenging work, trust, and longevity.
When you constantly live in an organization like that, people enjoy it – even when we go through a tax season and it’s very hard to meet the deadlines. They have a trust and faith in the organization that overcomes those difficulties.
I think that good leaders intuitively know how to create that atmosphere.
How do leaders learn to be intuitive?
One of the things that we do is participate in an international accounting association called PrimeGlobal.
I’ve been a member of PrimeGlobal for 30 years. Our company has been a member for that time. I’ve sat on the board of directors. I was the treasurer of the organization. Over the years I’ve gone to PrimeGlobal leadership courses and I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t work. We send a number of partners to these conferences each year. We send our young leaders to these conferences. We send staff people to these conferences.
I think that they believe that we care about such things as good leadership and good management skills and performance at the highest quality.
These things permeate your organization. You model. You see what other people do that demonstrates good leadership to you and sometimes our people will model for them what they see as good leadership qualities.
Were you in leadership roles growing up, and what were the key influences?
I didn’t have that many leadership influences when I was very young, although I recall constantly organizing kids in my neighborhood for some kind of a game or task. We were doing some kind of an activity every day. I think that those experiences were very useful because it was hard to organize all these kids. I think I learned how to work with people.
When I got to high school (Jamesville-DeWitt, Class of 1971), I became the president of our student council. That was a great experience because I had some goals I wanted to accomplish, and I learned that there were certain steps that had to be taken if you wanted people to do certain things. They had no reason to follow what you wanted to do except through the words that you used with them. That was a good experience.
My mother (Barbara) was a nursery school teacher early on and then stayed at home. My father (Daniel) was a sales representative for a number of furniture companies throughout New York state.
I remember the importance my father placed on integrity, honesty, and trust. Those things that I learned from him are some of the most important characteristics in leadership.
After I finished college at Ohio State University (bachelors degrees in accounting and in photography), I was working part time for a large public accounting firm while I was in graduate school at Syracuse University (masters degree in accounting). The Syracuse business program was extraordinary for me. You could take what you were learning and see the application in the business world.
I took a course that looked at the militaristic type of approach being used to a large extent in management at the time. In the course, we looked at a contrary approach. It was created by a person named Herbert Terryberry.
Terryberry believed that focus on individuals and structuring for teamwork were a better approach.
When I came here, I looked back at that Terryberry approach. I started to institute those theories and philosophies. That was really the start of my leadership experience in public accounting.
What advice would you give for effective leadership?
Some of the things that work for me have a lot to do with the profession that I’m in.
Organization and delegation skills, I think, are very important.
One of the things that I do is create a prioritized daily task list every day.
As a result, I can always go back to determine what the next project is that I need to work on without giving it any thought because I thought it through early in the day. That is extremely helpful for time control.
In addition, I think learning how to delegate tasks and knowing who to delegate to are important to succeed. You learn the characteristics of all your people – strengths and weaknesses.
I like to delegate to people without telling them exactly how to accomplish the task. Because if I don’t give them explicit instructions, they can be much more creative in how they accomplish something.
So delegation does not require micromanaging?
I don’t believe in micromanaging at all. I don’t think it works.
There are so many ways to accomplish a task in public accounting. You can do computations in various ways. You can come up with great tax plans in many different ways and come to the same result.
If you start structuring an experienced person in how you want them to think, they’re going to have a much more difficult time getting to a good result because you set them off in a path that doesn’t work with their thinking process.
The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at . Last week featured Greg DeFisher, whose advice for leadershipincludes the Golden Rule.