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Episode 70:

Unlocking Authentic Leadership

Carla McCall


Jeremy Clopton rejoins us for Episode 70 of The Upstream Leader as he engages in an insightful conversation with Carla McCall, managing partner at AAFCPAs and Chair of the AICPA. Exploring her journey of authentic leadership, the importance of candor and self-reflection, and how creating a culture where team members can bring their whole selves to work can drive success, Carla shares her personal experiences and practical strategies for fostering a human-centric workplace culture that enhances productivity and employee satisfaction. Don’t miss out on key book recommendations and actionable advice to elevate your leadership game!

About the Guest

Carla McCall serves as managing partner at AAFCPAs, a preeminent, 300-person CPA and consulting firm based in New England, and she was named as the new Chair of the AICPA in May, 2024. Carla has contributed to the evolution of AAFCPAs, driving the expansion of services for its clients beyond the core audit and tax, such as managed accounting, wealth management, robotic process automation, IT and cyber security, system selection and implementation, and data analytics.

Carla has set an influential tone at the top of AAFCPAs to inspire its people-first, cultural environment and core values. In 2011, she launched AAFCPAs’ Women’s Opportunity Network (WON), which serves as a platform to ensure women have a clear path to leadership. In 2017, recognizing the need to expand on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, she helped launch the firm’s DEI initiative. In 2018, she established the firm’s Innovation Lab and Changemaker Challenge, where team members are encouraged to question everyday processes and think like intrapreneurs. And in 2021, she debuted the firm’s Automation Initiative, supported by AAFCPAs’ in-house Data Analytics/Robotic Process Automation team, to help realize measurable results through more efficient and effective working infrastructures.

Highlights / Transcript

Welcome everyone to The Upstream Leader. I am excited today to be talking about authentic leadership, which is. A really important topic in every profession today is everybody is trying to figure out how can they succeed in their career and authenticity is so important, but at the same time, it’s not exactly the easiest of topics and it’s hard to think, okay, how do I just show up to the office and be authentic? Is that even allowed? Is that okay? How do I turn that into career success?

So for that conversation today, I have Carla McCall, the managing partner of AAFCPAs, which is a preeminent firm, a CPA and consulting firm based in New England. She’s also chair elect of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Carla has been named one of the most powerful women in the accounting profession for the last four years. And her dynamic executive leadership, bold practicality and enthusiasm to embrace change have made her an instrumental force in the evolution of AAF CPAs. Carla, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks, Jeremy. Nice to see you.

Yeah, likewise! I am excited about the conversation today. And before we jump into all things authentic leadership, I’m going to start us off the way I start every podcast. And that is, how did you become the leader you are today?

Okay. Oh, the journey. What a question. You know, it’s interesting because when I think of myself as a leader, I have time to sort of reflect about how did I get into the seat, right? And I don’t know that I always thought of myself as a leader. It really took a period of self reflection for me to realize the strengths that brought me to where I am today. And when I thought about those strengths, it really was a deep desire for me to improve the environment around me. Coming up in this profession, there was a lot that I thought was missing that we needed in our firm. And so, I ended up creating a lot. I’m very creative. I’ve always been not afraid to voice my opinion, even in a room where nobody’s speaking or offering alternate ideas or disagreeing. And I think that all of that is what was noticed really, my drive, my initiative, and really got me to a managing partner seat in 2011 in my firm. And so it’s been quite the journey. And I think there’s certain characteristics that all leaders could probably reflect on their journey and point out as being strengths for leadership.

Definitely. And you say in there that you didn’t always see yourself as a leader. Do you remember a time where you started to see that changing, to where you thought, you know what? I am a leader. Was there anything in particular? Was it a bunch of things in a row? Kind of what led to that moment?

Yeah, you know, it was, I was so laser focused on my own career trajectory, right? And moving up the ladder. And so I was creating all these programs. I created our first mentor program, our first coaching program, our women’s opportunity network in 2011 is when I started that, that has transformed women. Next thing was the innovation lab and then our diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I could go on and on, but you’re so focused on what’s next, that’s what I was saying on the self reflection, and you just don’t take time to think about it. But I will say that it was obviously when I threw my hat in the ring for managing partner and then was able to sit in a managing partner seat through a founder transition in 2011, that was sort of a defining moment for me, but I will tell you, I have not always been a good leader.

You know, as a new managing partner, I found myself trying to fit the narrative of people ahead of me or what people were telling me of how I should lead. And there was one moment in my career, is probably three or four years into being a managing partner, I still was working with clients, and I had a manager come to me. We were going over some things in the job. And at the end of the conversation, she said to me, can I give you some feedback? And I said, yes, absolutely. ’Cause I truly value feedback. I think it’s really important. And she said to me, people are afraid to come talk to you and ask you questions. They’re scared of you. You’re giving this aura of just, you know, intimidation maybe, in the meetings and things like that. And so I thanked her for the feedback. I told her I’d, you know, I’d work on that.

And it really sent me into a deep period of self reflection as to what type of leader did I want to be? It was in direct contrast with my desire to improve everything. And I wanted everybody to love the profession as much as I did. And I wanted the culture to be strong. And so I always was working to create things to make things better. And the fact that people didn’t want to come to me and like, tell me things or offer suggestions, was somewhat horrifying to me. So I took some, I know you laugh, but it’s true.


And I took some time to really work on myself and to say, okay, what’s, who’s the leader I want to be? And I, and that’s when I realized I was trying to fit a mold of somebody else. And I had to come to the realization that you can lead in different ways. It’s not one mold. It’s not one size fits all. I was trying to fit a narrative that I thought was an expectation.  And that sent me on a journey to really find my authentic leadership style, which was opposite of how I was acting. That’s what was so crazy about it, right?

That’s so interesting. And that’s such a powerful statement that you were trying to fit a narrative that you thought was an expectation. And I hope that everybody that’s listening to that, if they’ve heard nothing else so far, there’s been a lot of good stuff already, but if they’ve heard nothing else, that is such a critical statement for anybody at any stage in their career, it is stop trying to fit the narrative that you believe to be the expectation. So was it that feedback that helped you realize that you were buying into a story that you actually thought was the expectation? Or how did you kind of reconcile that, wait a second, I’m just, this is a narrative, not the expectation. How did you make that jump?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I think we all do this. We only know what we’ve been exposed to. And so, you know, when you’re coming up in your career, you automatically think “I have to do it that way. That’s how they got there. That’s me.” I try and talk about that a lot. Like it’s not one size fits all, carve your own path. People can do it different. ’Cause I’ve come to an appreciation that people can lead in different ways and still be successful. And it was really that moment when I said, ’cause I saw managing partners tell everybody what to do. And so I was a managing partner now, and I was, you know, it was kind of rough, you know, I was making decisions, I felt like I had to make every decision. People were afraid to make decisions because will Carla agree with it?

I mean, and so, when I took time to really think about the leader I wanted to be, and then solicited feedback from people and I had my partners give me some candid feedback, I realized that there were things that in order to be the person who was inspiring, that people wanted to come to, that people felt like they had a connection or part of a team, that I had to listen more, that I had to respect diverse opinions, that I had to come to the realization that diverse minds around the table actually bring you to a better decision, and that I had to let my leaders lead, and that they could not be scared to lead or scared to—and that I really wanted to shift the firm to be more human. Build empathy into leadership that would make everybody feel comfortable.

I firmly believe, I mean, I say this all the time, partners don’t have all the answers. In fact, some of the best ideas come from other people around the firm who are in the day to day, who are on the front lines, call it what you want. And if people are afraid to bring those ideas to the table, we’re going to suffer as a firm. And so I needed to create an environment that was comfortable for people to raise ideas and talk about hard things. And I knew in order to get that culture, I had a model from the top. And so I had to work on myself, quite frankly.

That makes a lot of sense. And it’s interesting that the idea of same as last year. We talk about it so much in audit and PAX and consulting, and you get away from same as last year, get away from same as last year. What I’m hearing you say is when it comes to leadership, get away from same as last year. We can’t just keep doing things the way that we’ve always done it if there might be a better way forward.

So finding your way to be a leader and becoming the leader that you wanted to be, not the leader that you had seen or experienced growing up, in the firm. So let me ask you this, the term authentic leadership, what does that even mean to you? What exactly, how do you define that?

For me, authenticity is leading in a way that feels genuine to you. And if you are thinking before you make a decision or before you do something, if you’re asking yourself, what would so and so do, you’re probably not being authentic. I mean, that’s like the basic way for me to describe it because everybody is going to define authenticity differently for themselves. For me I love to build humor into leadership. So I tend to be a little bit more, maybe, casual in my interactions and more, you know, softer, I guess, as some people may say in my interactions with people. Around the firm where I grew up, it was, you know, suits and everybody’s business, and you spoke a certain way and you could say things and not say things. And I just think that that’s not the environment that I really feel comfortable in. And so I knew I had had to change.

And once I started to really lead in a way that I felt was making people more at ease and more comfortable soliciting ideas, helping other people get success. Like I get a lot of joy out of helping. I’ve always been a helper. Like, how can I help you do this or that? And as a leader, as a managing partner, I have the ability to help my partners be better, to help our departments be better, to improve the firm. And once I. Was able to find sort of my authentic style, I was able to do that in a much more effective way.

Yeah. And you said that in order to find that style, one of the things that you did is you got your partners to give you candid feedback. And not a lot of people like feedback. Let’s just call it what it is. Not very many people are asking for feedback that really want it. But on the flip side of that, it is hard to go to the managing partner of the firm and say, hey, real quick, got some thoughts for you. I’d like to share some things, right? Here’s some feedback for you. That’s not anybody’s comfort zone. So how did you get your partners to provide you meaningful, candid feedback that unlocked your authenticity?

Yeah. So it goes beyond the partners, just so you know, we have anonymous upward feedback throughout the firm and the partners specifically, it’s intentional. And I think that’s really important, but there’s two things that I’ll highlight: One is the feedback and in order to get candid feedback, you have to have a culture where candid feedback is accepted. And a good way to do that is to make yourself vulnerable, okay? So I went to my senior leadership team and partners to say, I’ve done some self reflection and I realize I have not given—I’ll use my partners as an example—I have not given everybody a safe space to have a voice. I tend, my immediate reaction is to either, if I disagree, to you know, cut you off, disagree, give my own opinion, maybe push my opinion too much. I’m working on that. And I really want to hear everybody’s voice. I think there’s a lot of value. And so I would like you to let me know if I slip or if I’m, if I’m improving. By calling yourself out, and nobody’s perfect, we all have things that we have to work on, we all have blind spots, but the more self-aware that we are as to where those blind spots are, then we can actually take action to try and improve. So I think you have to create a safe environment for people to give you that feedback, and making yourself vulnerable is a good way to do that.

I think the second thing that really sort of transformed my leadership And I’ll say the firm communication in general is understanding personality differences. So we took our whole firm through TypeCoach, which is a type of Myers Briggs, I guess, but it’s super user friendly and it gives you a deep appreciation for how everybody’s natural preferences are different. And that sometimes when we’re in the room with different types of people, we have to flex our own style in order to get the most out of them. So there’s lots of information and training on people’s type and trust and type and motivation and all of these things. And I think that has really also helped me in managing sort of a diverse workforce.

Yeah. And so two things that you mentioned that I want to make sure that everybody pulls out of that: first and foremost, when you went to create that safe space, you didn’t ask for feedback, you actually gave feedback on yourself. It sounds like you said, look, I know this is an area where I could improve. And that’s totally different, right? From the very first time going in and saying, hey, would somebody give me feedback on where I could improve? You made it easy for them and safe for them by acknowledging right out of the gate, I know I could improve in this area. I’m committed to doing that. I want you to hold me accountable. And that really opened it up, right? To be able to get people to then share other things with you because they knew right out of the gate, Oh, well, Carla’s looking for these things. She values that. She wants to hear it. Is that fair?

That’s right. That is fair.

I love the personality assessment. I hear more and more about these e every week. It feels like there’s, you know, so many of them out there. And the way that you applied it, it really captures what’s so valuable is it’s not that there’s one that’s right or wrong. It’s not that there’s a type that’s right or wrong,


But what you said is how do you use that awareness of yourself and others to communicate more effectively? I love that.

Yeah. I think it’s really important because we are all, you know, we slip into a, I think it’s, I’ll call it human nature, I guess. Well, I did it that way. Why aren’t they doing it that way? I had to do this. Why aren’t they doing this? I had, it’s always, you have to do it the way I did it. And a lot of, when I grew up, that’s what people told you. I’d leave a meeting, I was an auditor, and the partner would say, you should have said this, and you should have said it that way, and this way, and that way. And you know what? When I took over those relationships as a partner, the clients were like, oh my gosh, that was wonderful. It was so concise. And you did, you know, they appreciated my style. Those moments, you have to capture, because those are the learning moments that you realize, you know, what, We don’t, I don’t have to do it the same way as so and so. Actually, they appreciate my style. I have value. I have something to bring to the table and it’s not going to be the same as somebody else’s. And we have to learn to appreciate that.

Yeah, no, I love that. I love that.

Can I just jump in one more time?

Go ahead, please.

I’m sorry. I just want to jump in on one thing because I had, you know, this isn’t a one person initiative. Managing partner, you know, it has to be a culture and tone at the top in order to create the safe environment. I had all of our partners read a book. It was called No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. Now, obviously, it’s based on the culture of Netflix, but it is an incredible read about candid cultures where it is accepted and expected for people to give each other candid feedback. And what they created there in that safe space is pretty important. So setting the tone with what you’re trying to build, I think is really important, and it can’t just be one person. It has to be toned from the top.

I love, yeah, no, I appreciate you sharing that and always enjoy a great book recommendation. So you’ve talked about three different concepts that are all interrelated that I kind of want to explore just a little bit more: You’ve talked about having to be vulnerable, creating a safe space, and also candor. And often they can be a little bit contradictory because people want to really embrace the candor side. I know I’ve had numerous conversations around candor where somebody’s like, oh I get to be brutally honest. It’s like brutality is not actually what we’re talking about. Honesty is good.

How do you teach people, because if you had this desire to create this culture, this tone at the top, how do you teach people to balance vulnerability without oversharing, candor without brutal honesty, and ultimately get to a place where it is safe, yet still benefits the business all at the same time, because that becomes so challenging for leaders to, to try to reconcile the three.

Yeah, that’s a that’s a really good point and I will tell you we have a saying in our firm candor is kindness and feedback is a gift. Didn’t I hear that from from Sam Allred? I think I did.

I’ve heard that somewhere before, yeah.

It was a leadership training I went through, it’s in how it’s done honestly, and I’m going to give you another book recommendation because I saw this woman speak live, I had everybody read her book, and our whole candid conversation training in our firm is modeled around her approach, but it’s Shari Harley’s How to Say Anything to Anyone.

Oh, I love that book.

It’s awesome. And she is awesome when you hear her speak because she’s so real, and she’s so genuine. But people think candor is mean or candor is upsetting or rude. Or if I give this feedback, someone’s going to quit. If you do it in the right way, it’s actually a gift. Feedback is a gift. Honest feedback is a gift. But people need to be trained as to how to do it, and how to do it in the right way. I think a type coach can help in that and certainly good trainers on candid feedback and i’m sure you guys offer courses on that right or training in that area?

We do.


How you phrase it, right? How you phrase it is really important and it’s constant we have to constantly give people those resources. Now we happen to have executive coaches that sit inside our firm and they are available. Their whole sole purpose is to counsel our team members, but they also do training and they are there to help. So I have to go give feedback to someone and I’m unsure how to do it, I can book a meeting and they’ll help me write it.

Okay. So you’ve got north of 300 people, last I checked, how many executive coaches?

We have two and in our budget, we’re hiring a third this year. But what’s interesting, I’ll tell you, this is sort of going a little bit off script here, Jeremy. But when we brought Ingrid in, my goal was you have to coach the seniors, you know, that’s the group that is the most, you know, we have the most retention issues with, right? She ended up after, I think it was a year, 18 months, she came back to me and said, I know you hired me for the seniors, but I’m doing 80 full potential coachings with partners and managers right now. And she said, I’m afraid I’m not delivering on what you hired me for. And I said, no! That’s awesome! Because you can’t have an environment where seniors want to stay if your partners and managers aren’t working at the level they should. So the fact that they are coming to you for full potential coaching is very valuable. And so I ended up shifting the focus and started from the top down.

And that coaching, does it help them? Because we kind of framed this up through the lens of authentic leadership, but let’s just broaden it a touch, shall we?


Do you find that when people feel more comfortable being authentically themselves, that they don’t have to put on a mask when they get to the office, right? That they can actually be who they are. Do you find that they’re more successful? And does the coaching that you’re doing within your firm, does it help them with that? Knowing that that’s your leadership philosophy, does that spill out to all the other areas of the firm as well?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, if people feel like they don’t have to be somebody else when they go to work, they’re going to be happier. But it doesn’t, again, it just doesn’t happen overnight. You have to have a sort of a buy-in. And I would say that the culture to develop that environment wasn’t just through the executive coaches, I’d say it’s hand in hand with our diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. And the two kind of have to run parallel, but we have a goal, you know in our vision plan, that every person who comes into our firm feels comfortable that they can bring their whole selves to work. And that’s written and that’s that’s what we’re working toward.

If I can ask, how do you measure it? We got accountants that are going to listen in right? How do you measure they can bring their whole selves? I’m curious.

Oh, gosh, you should read my vision plan because some of it is not like, oh, we can’t run a report on that. Well, we ask very intentional questions in our anonymous, upward feedback. And now you’d say, if you have a candor culture, why do you still need anonymous feedback? ’Cause I get that question also. And we’re not there yet. I think people still, I think it’s human nature. If you’re going to, if you’re going to give feedback upwards, there’s still a just a reaction. Well, what if, what if, I’m not sure I’m comfortable. So I’ve purposely kept the anonymous open, and we encourage people to write it in a professional way. We encourage people if they’re going to give a lower rating, they have to have a comment, or there’s not much that you can do about it without the context. And we do a lot of training on that. So did I answer that question or no?

No, you did. And it gets to the point that, you know, trying to create a culture of authenticity, which is what it sounds like you’re trying to do, right? And therein lies belonging. When you can be authentic, you’re going to feel like you belong, because if you don’t feel like you belong being yourself, it just, you can’t be, in that way. I love the fact that you’ve been so intentional with keeping the anonymous feedback to ensure that you’re hearing all the voices, even if people don’t necessarily feel comfortable, because you can have a great culture. You can have a great culture of feedback, and a brand new hire straight out of college is still going to be nervous giving somebody with 10 years more experience and clearly their senior in the hierarchy of the organization feedback. That’s just a human nature that’s going to happen. Recognizing that that’s there and you being so intentional about keeping the safe place for them to provide that candor is what it sounds like is reinforcing your culture of authenticity and, you know, the culture of everybody has a voice and everybody’s voice matters.

Yes, for sure. And we do try and create safe spaces. I will come out like all of our diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, either our lunch and learns or our meetings or forums or events. We purposely say this is a safe space, right? Because we’re still learning, right? And people are, our goal is to just be better today than we were yesterday. We want to be better tomorrow than we were today. And so the only way to really do that is to create safe spaces where people can learn. You know, we also have followed this concept of do overs, where, you know, people are going to make mistakes and the key to a mistake is to acknowledge it and ask for a do over, right? Like, you’re right. I had a blind spot. I shouldn’t have said that or done that or whatever. I’d like a do over. And it’s just a self acknowledgement that, you know, I didn’t realize it, but I’m willing to learn and I’m willing to grow.

I like that. Do over. It sounds so much better than a mistake, right? Hey, I learned. Let me do it over. I can get better the second time. It’s like golf, right? The second shot is always better than the first shot.

That’s right.

Still not great, but better, right? So let me ask a question that I know somebody is probably listening to this and thinking is authentic leadership, that’s great. Authenticity, that’s great. Safe spaces of vulnerability, wonderful. We’re running a business here. What’s the business case for embracing what you’ve just talked about?

The business case for for human cultures and authenticity and—


Oh gosh, I mean the business case is that you’ll you know, you’re gonna, we believe you have happy team members, you have happy clients. If you have less turnover in your team, you can grow and you’re going to keep clients longer, and that’s going to add to profits and it’s going to allow us to pay people more. I mean, we could do a whole separate session, on accounting firm pipeline, but we’re all trying to do more with less. One of my sayings is we want to work smarter, not harder. You can’t get any of those initiatives done if you don’t have, if your people aren’t happy. You have to start with your people. And so having an open mind, trying new things, sort of looking at, we have to scrap how firms have been built, because we’re in a different world today. And so we need to think about our business models, and our cultures in a very different way, and anytime you can bring humanness into an organization, I can’t think of any negatives that that would have, other than some people may be uncomfortable with it, but so what? I say, so what? I mean, that you can’t lead the firm by the minority.

Yeah, that is so good.

Yeah. And you need that influence, right? I happen to have a lot of influence in my firm and so you need those influencers to embrace it and to model it, if you will. 

Yeah. And authentic influencers are way more impactful than influencers that are trying to fit that narrative that you believe to be an expectation. Going back to what you said earlier, you’re going to be so much more impactful when you’re yourself and you’re leaning into who you are. 

Absolutely. And people know when you’re not genuine and you don’t mean it.


And as a managing partner, I have to call my partners out on it. You know, in the early days when we implemented TypeCoach, and in a meeting, I think there were one of the partners said, well, I don’t really know all the TypeCoach stuff. Offline, I called that partner, and I said, it’s our responsibility as partners to understand it, to live it. So I suggest you go take some webinars and get with one of the executive coaches and really understand it, understand the types of your team and start to implement it. I don’t think people realize, I think they, you need people to call that out, right? And then they’re like, okay, I get it.

Yeah, it akes accountability at all levels. Carla, this has been an absolutely enjoyable conversation. Thank you so much. You’ve mentioned two books: No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, the second one was How to Say Anything to Anyone by Shari Harley, I’ve got that on my bookshelf right in front of me. I actually recommended it to somebody yesterday and we had her speak at a conference a couple years back. I heard her at Engage right before that, she just completely changed my mindset on difficult conversations and feedback, and such a wonderful, wonderful resource for anybody.

As you’re thinking about authentic leadership creating safe places and vulnerability, it’s really that self reflection sounds like the most impactful thing in that area?

Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s, we need to take time to self reflect on our own journeys and ask ourselves questions. How did I get here? What do I bring to the table and strengths? What should I do more of? What should I do less of? And then getting that feedback and having that safe space for candid feedback will, I think, open our eyes a lot to where our blind spots are. And then we can become better leaders. The authenticity piece is a hard one because only you know, whether you’re leading authentically and whether you can, whether you feel good about it, whether it feels genuine and comfortable, where you’re feeling good about your leadership and, and how you’re doing it.

Yeah. No, that reflection, it sounds like is arguably going to be more impactful than reading any book because it really is figuring out yourself. And as you said, only you are going to know that.

So Carla, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation today on The Upstream Leader. I may have to take you up on the additional conversation about the talent pipeline and the profession. We may have to look to have that conversation in the future, but thank you so much for joining me.

I’m busy that day! I’m just joking with you, busy that day.

Yeah, right?

Thanks for having me, Jeremy, as always. Good to see you.


Take care.



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