Becoming a leader is something many employees strive for, but not everyone accomplishes this goal. GHJ’s Managing Partner Tom Barry and Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Mari-Anne Kehler spoke at the 2021 Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) Summit about how to earn a seat at the leadership table. Their insightful dialogue focused on the synergies among culture, leadership and career growth. By finding the right culture fit, providing diverse input and thinking outside traditional roles and responsibilities, one can become an impactful leader within any organization.


An organization’s culture is defined by its employees’ values, behaviors and beliefs. It should come as no surprise that culture is a significant factor when an employee decides to stay at their current firm or seeks out new opportunities. According to Leftronic, 79 percent of workers say that company culture is important to job satisfaction.

Finding the right cultural fit is the first step of a successful career. Mari-Anne shared three indicators that someone has found their workplace “home.”

  1. Chemistry. Is the chemistry there? Building a culture of recognition is key to employee retention. When someone’s achievements are overlooked, the company runs the risk of losing a valuable team member. Firms with successful cultures find ways to celebrate and reward performance.
  2. Trust. Is there a baseline of trust? Trust does not always come from doing everything right. It also comes from debating, disagreeing and arguing. Good teams are comfortable voicing dissenting opinions and providing space for all to be heard. After all, this is what creates diversity of thought and, naturally, a stronger outcome. A strong team can count on one another to bring diverse ideas to the table.
  3. Resilience. Are relationships resilient during conflict and dissent? Conflict is an important element to critical thinking but should not be the focus of the conversation.


According to McKinsey & Company’s report “Delivering Through Diversity,” companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Beyond purely financial gains, diversity of thought in leadership can sharpen performance and foster innovation.

Firms can successfully promote diversity of thought by pulling from different talent pools and skillsets across the organization. Having Mari-Anne, a marketing and strategy leader, as a partner at GHJ provides a unique and critical non-CPA perspective.

With her strategic mindset, Mari-Anne has added value and ROI beyond the scope of her position that earned her a seat at the partner table. As the first non-CPA partner at GHJ (still uncommon among many accounting firms), Mari-Anne showcases the importance of diversity of thought. Oftentimes, diverse voices can lead to conflict, but that conflict can also create constructive debates that foster creativity and critical thinking.

Mari-Anne is no stranger to pushing boundaries and challenging other leaders in the organization when she can offer a different strategic perspective. Good leaders are not afraid to go against the grain or go it alone. They stand firm on their beliefs and use reason to guide their decisions. This give and take allows for productive conversations that promote excellence and produce better outcomes for the firm.

Diversity of thought combats group think, nurtures different perspectives and promotes collaboration across the organization.


Being a leader is about more than a title or rank. To be recognized as a leader, one must step outside one’s role and department and think enterprise-wide. A Gallup study found that 82 percent of the time companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job. It is more important than ever for employees to self-advocate and share their innate talents.

For example, Mari-Anne was originally interviewed for a marketing role when approached by GHJ. Knowing she had more to offer GHJ beyond marketing, she worked with the partner group and created a Chief Strategy Officer position that better fit her skillset and aligned with the Firm’s needs. Rather than asking for permission, she seized an opportunity to showcase her skills to lead the Firm into new opportunities.

“Not everyone is given the same authority and ownership,” Mari-Anne explained. “You need to prove why you deserve an enterprise-wide seat at the table.”

Mari-Anne shared three tips on how to position oneself as an emerging leader:

  1. Speak their language. Read the room. When talking to leadership, frame the message in the context of their role and experience. Put yourself in their shoes. Understand the priorities of the organization and connect the dots to how to contribute value.
  2. Be center-brained. Have right and left brain attributes. The ability to be creative as well as break down analytics are equally important when promotions are being considered.
  3. Own the client experience. All members of an organization are responsible for the client experience. Apply observations and feedback to improve processes and efficiencies. Leverage business development materials to glean insights into what information clients and prospects are responding to most.

Excellent leaders think outside the box to add value across the organization and beyond what is in the job description.


Leaders can continually develop and grow their careers with the right environment, unique perspectives and strategic thinking.

After finding the right culture fit, take up space and share new ideas – even the “bad” ones. Leaders are not afraid to be wrong because they use their mistakes as lessons to better prepare for the future.

Leaders continue to push their firms forward. Be consistent and approach each day as an opportunity to add value and to improve. Remember that a seat at the table comes after hard work, a commitment to excellence and demonstrated leadership.

There are opportunities to lead no matter what title one has. Leading at a different level might look like helping a colleague with an assignment, onboarding a new team member or finding new ways to be efficient. Being a leader is more than a title; a leader makes a positive impact and inspires growth.

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Ida Paquin

Ida Paquin has more than four years of experience working in marketing and social media. She enjoys staying current on marketing trends and helping find new ways to reach target audiences. At GHJ, Ida designs digital marketing collateral, provides research and analytics and manages the website…Learn More