IPA Spotlight On … Kathy Sautters, AGN International

Kathy Sautters

Kathy Sautters

Name: Kathy Sautters

Association Name: AGN International

Title: Regional Director, North America

Accomplishments: I was fortunate to find a great amount of opportunity early in my career. As director of marketing at SS&G, my team won many awards both inside and outside the profession for creativity, growth and innovation. I worked with some of the top firms in the country as part of The Leading Edge Alliance, and contributed to one of the most progressive CPA firm cultures in the profession under the leadership of Gary Shamis. As executive director of The Advisory Board, which included Gary as well as other top consultants and thought leaders, we created and built many educational programs, including the flagship Winning Is Everything Conference. I later transitioned to a not-for-profit association environment at PrimeGlobal, where I used technology to create forums and tools for members to share information and connect with one another, and played a major role in building systems that became the backbone of the North America member service and recruitment platform.

While I have only just started with AGN, the new initiatives that we are already putting in place are very exciting. We are rebranding our organization from the inside out – not just a logo, but embracing an avant-garde perspective and creating the “next generation” of CPA firm associations. In just two and a half months, the progress we have made has been outstanding. It’s been a lot of fun!

You will be filling Rita Hood’s shoes when she retires this spring. Where do you plan to focus your attention as you work together over the next five months?

The overlap is one of the major advantages of this position. Rita has been at the helm for 16 years, and has been on the team for a total of 30, so her insight and knowledge are absolutely invaluable. But the world isn’t standing still, so during this transition we’re still working on some key priorities:

  • Moving to a virtual work environment for better service, flexibility and access. (We’re closing our brick and mortar office in the fourth quarter of this year.)
  • Growing AGN’s international programs and connecting firms across oceans and borders.
  • Broadening our reach in North America by meeting with prospects and determining potential new members.
  • Rebranding the organization for the next generation of accounting firms, which includes fostering an internationally collaborative culture, developing innovative member tools and implementing cutting-edge technology.
  • Finding new resources and concepts to improve existing member programs.

What attracted you to AGN International?AGNlogo

This is a unique opportunity to meld the strength and equity of the past with a new direction for the future. AGN’s investment in the long leadership transition demonstrates a commitment to keeping the organization strong and stable  – I’ve never seen a group so personally invested in the success and health of an association.

At the same time, with a fresh leadership team across the world, AGN is going through a major revitalization with a new brand, a new perspective on globalization and a cutting-edge approach to member service. Thanks to the foresight of the current boards and the innovative perspective of our new international CEO Malcolm Ward, plenty of creativity and opportunity is on the horizon for AGN.

You have a strong accounting marketing background. How did that work prepare you to take on the regional director role?

It is funny how you look back and everything that you’ve done seems to come together, even though you never planned it that way. Everything that I have done has been about creating an image, a personality, a feeling of community and belonging. At SS&G, it was about gaining the trust and confidence of the partner group and eventually bringing them together for a focused plan. We developed tools to help them promote both themselves as individuals and the firm as a whole. Working with association members is very similar. We support them in developing their own brands and also help them to represent AGN standards and ideals. Working inside a public accounting firm in an operational leadership capacity also taught me how things work – not just ideally, but politically, emotionally, etc. I understand how our members think, what happens internally and – most important – what they want from outside resources like an association.

At The Advisory Board I also had the incredible luck to work with some of the most innovative leaders in the profession – people who set trends and act as ambassadors to the future. While much of what I did daily revolved around marketing, programming, client service and sales, I learned so much about leading and running an accounting practice. This has been incredibly helpful in defining and predicting our members needs and areas of opportunity.

What is the role of accounting associations today in an increasingly global economy?

Over a decade ago, developing international reach become vital to the growth of mid-size and regional firms in North America. Often these global connections were gained from membership in an association, but as referrals have multiplied, it has become clear that providing a map with locations just wasn’t enough. True international associations are now working to:

  • -Develop platforms that enhance communications and understanding between multi-lingual members.]
  • Ensure quality standards and timely response in all firms across all regions.
  • Approach firm growth, operational and technical education on an international level, with frequent collaboration and interaction.
  • Provide resources not only in a broad geographic pattern, but also with deep service and sector expertise.
  • Demonstrate cultural understanding and work to eliminate organizational bias.

Everything we do as an association stems from our primary goal of making our firms stronger: to help them serve their clients better, to operate more efficiently and to be more competitive.

What’s the biggest challenge AGN member firms are facing, and how are they working together to address it?

Recruiting, developing and retaining quality talent is the No. 1 priority. However, there is strength in numbers, and collectively our membership has created a package to enhance their local compensation packages and internal offerings.

Statistically, education and development opportunities are more important than financial compensation to younger generations. AGN offers five levels of highly customized audit and tax training in a small, closed peer group. This starts as early as their first day, and helps develop networking skills and bonds with other AGN colleagues. Plus, while many smaller firms struggle to offer candidates the international intrigue of the Big 4, AGN’s Staff Exchange Program allows members to travel and work in other parts of the world, fulfilling their desire to learn about other cultures.

As these staff members grow, they can also develop leadership skills both formally and informally through AGN. Our Partner Development Academy goes far beyond other programs, with multiple levels of engagement and education on a national level for the emerging leader through the managing partner. Additionally, members can sharpen both technical and leadership skills by actively participating in or leading AGN’s national or international sharegroups and committees.

Finally, firms need a strong recruiting process and plan. Our Human Resources Sharegroup is a key component to benchmarking, idea sharing and generally ensuring that a member is competitive in the marketplace. Professionals openly share information to help them win candidates and develop strong firm cultures.

Any long-term plans or goals for AGN that you’d like to share?

Your question is perfectly timed! We actually just returned from our first international retreat for all staff members outside London. It was an incredible week of collaboration, but the most valuable outcome was the focus on creating the next generation of AGN.

Major components include:

  • Anticipating what our firms need and creating it to help them thrive not just next year, but in the next 10 years.
  • Celebrating the unique, individual persona of each firm and helping them to develop and promote their own brands.
  • Thinking differently, and acting unexpectedly. We are developing diagnostics that will provide immediate practice management guidance and using technology to deliver valuable member tools globally.
  • Ensuring quality among our members worldwide, and implementing standards to measure and quantify the results.
  • Finding more forward-thinking, progressive firms to build our reach and our growing list of social communities.

Final thoughts?

This is an incredible period of change and consolidation for not only firms, but for their associations as well. More organizations like ours are joining together in unique and different ways. We’ve recently seen association mergers (and separations) and there will undoubtedly be more to come. With this shifting landscape, I’ll admit that it is an uneasy time to be taking on a leadership role. However, AGN is quietly confident of its ground. Our strategy is to maintain a constant, unrelenting focus on increasing the value that we provide to our members around the world, and with the diagnostics, tools and strategies that we are introducing I am confident not only that we’ll succeed, but thrive.

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