IPA’s Most Admired Peers Discuss the Challenges of Leadership: Steve Knebel

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Every year INSIDE Public Accounting asks accounting firm leaders to name peers they most admire in the profession. Five MPs were named most often by the more than 540 accounting firm participants in IPA’s Annual Survey and Analysis of Firms. Over the next few weeks, we will share some thoughts from the 2014 IPA Most Admired Peers.

Our third of five IPA Most Admired Peers continues with Steve Knebel, Austin, Texas-based Maxwell, Locke & Ritter (FY13 net revenue of $17.9 million), a two-time recipient of the “Most Admired Peer” honor.

Steve Knebel 2014 Most Admired Peers

Steve Knebel
2014 IPA Most Admired Peers

How would you describe your leadership style? How does that manifest itself inside the firm?

Knebel likes to spread the leadership around. For example, Maxwell, Locke & Ritter tapped a group of employees, representing all ages, personality styles and service lines, to help design the work space, including furniture and equipment needs, when the firm lease was being renewed. Partners do not lead these groups. “We want our younger people to have a voice.”

Do you believe leadership is a skill that can be learned or is it something you are born with?

Knebel says that his small-town upbringing in Texas, eight years of parochial school and strong family have informed his work ethic and world view. While his background set the foundation, he learns from other leaders. “When you identify a great leader, visit with them as they will be honored to share their story, in their own humble way.”

Besides “on the job training,” what have you done to help improve your leadership skills over the years? Who has helped shaped your approach to leadership?

Knebel points to his family, in-laws, friends’ parents, founders of Maxwell Locke & Ritter and leaders at Deloitte Houston as being great influences, but he says nearly being fired at age 16 was a pivotal learning moment and one of the roughest days of his life. His best friend’s father, who was like a second father to Knebel, threatened to fire him for a bad attitude. The experience changed Knebel, who has intentionally worked to maintain a positive outlook. In fact, when the firm was young with about 25 people, the staff took nearly a year to study motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar. “It really helped us transform the firm,” Knebel says.

What would you advise an MP stepping into the top role for the first time?

Knebel says his friend and past AICPA chair Scott Voynich says it best:

  • Protect the core – firm culture and values
  • Keep your eyes on the horizon
  • Deliver what you promise
  • Generate consensus
  • Strive for humility

What areas of management and leadership are you looking to improve?Best of Best 2013

“Regarding management, one of our operating principles is continual improvement and it’s everyone’s responsibility to help us get better every day,” Knebel says. As far as continual improvement of leadership goes, Knebel says he strives to become a better listener, to be humble, and to make Maxwell, Locke & Ritter a fun place to work.

What’s your philosophy about growth?

Knebel says the firm has had a “trial and error education” about growth. “We’ve tried it all. And we’ve learned a lot along the way.” The winning combination, he says, is organic growth coupled with very selective and very strategic M&A.

How important is culture in what you do every day, and how are you developing the right culture in your firm?

Culture impacts everything, Knebel says, from reputation in the community to client service to recruitment of new talent. “Some key components to a great culture include maintaining a reputation as a leading firm, being leaders in your community, a fun, family friendly workplace, flexibility in location of where you work and how much you work, community involvement, and appreciative, technically challenging, nice clients.”

View previous interviews with Gordon Krater and Andy Armanino.