Podcast (EB&Flow)

Leading through Change: Lessons Learned in the C-Suite

May 13, 2022

The last two years have put a spotlight on one of the most important skills a leader must develop—how to lead through change. Dave Stende, former Managing Partner/CEO of Eide Bailly, is our guest on this episode of the EB & Flow podcast, and he’s learned a great deal about how to do just that.

Dave served as the Managing Partner/CEO of Eide Bailly for the past nine years, from 2013 to 2022 and was Chief Operating Officer for seven years before that. Dave was interviewed for the podcast just before his time as CEO was coming to a close, and he discussed what he’s learned about leadership throughout his career, what advice he has for leaders in 2022, and some of his favorite memories from his journey.

“The one thing I've learned is the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. And I can look back on the nine years and realize at the beginning, probably I was a little naive about a few things. And I learned. And the more I learned, the more I realized, man, there's a lot I don't know. And, you know, I think in a way that probably helps because it certainly grounds you and it probably opens your mind to really hearing the opinions of others because you don't know all the answers. And you need to build a good team and you need to rely on their input and trust their decision making in the process, too.”

– Dave Stende, Former Managing Partner/CEO, Eide Bailly

Contact us if you have any questions about the topic of this episode or to inquire about any business challenges you are experiencing.

Clinton LarsonHOST

Clinton Laron
Media Relations Manager 
Eide Bailly


Dave Stende
Former Managing Partner/CEO
Eide Bailly

Show Notes and Resources

The Transcript

Clinton Larson: Hello and welcome to EB & Flow. I'm your host, Clinton Larson. And today we're going to be continuing our conversation about leadership in the workplace. And joining me to talk about that topic is Dave Stende, the managing partner and CEO of Eide Bailly. Welcome to the podcast Dave.

Dave Stende: Good to be here.

Clinton Larson: So, like I said, we've been talking about leadership in the workplace for the last few episodes, and we thought this would be a good topic to bring you on to discuss. Because for our listeners who don't know, Dave is retiring in May after nine years as managing partner CEO of Eide Bailly. The firm has seen tremendous growth and change in those nine years and I imagine the last couple of years have been the biggest curveball that you've ever had to experience in your career. So I thought maybe that would be a good place to start a conversation. You know, when you look back on the last nine years, what are some of the top lessons that you've learned as a leader and how did those help you through? What I'm guessing is one of the most challenging are some of the most challenging years of your career.

Dave Stende: Yeah. So I became the CEO nine years ago and prior to that I was the chief operating officer for seven years. So I've been involved in firm management for a good long time. So when I became the CEO, you know, I really was mentored well by my predecessor, Jerry Top. And I thought, well, this is this will be a piece of cake. And I know everything there is to know. This will be easy. You know, one thing I've learned is the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. And and I can look back on the nine years and realize at the beginning, probably I was a little naive about a few things. And I learned. And the more I learned, the more I realized, man, there's a lot I don't know. And, you know, I think in a way that probably helps because it it certainly grounds you and it probably opens your mind to really hearing the opinions of others because you don't know all the answers. And you need to build a good team and you need to rely on their input and trust their decision making in the process too. So I think that certainly helped in my transition over or over the last nine years in the CEO role.

Clinton Larson: So related to what you just said about, you know, what you don't know and building a team that can help you fill in those gaps. I imagine, you know, going through a pandemic is something that nobody knew how to do when we started. So maybe can you walk us through some of that experience? Like what was that like trying to, you know, try to lead a firm in what is just, you know, unprecedented is just been overused with this. But I mean, it really was I mean, this is something that none of us had ever experienced for. So what was it like to try to lead a firm through something like that?

Dave Stende: It was an incredible time. And, you know, I like to joke, our firm's 105 years old. So this isn't our first pandemic. We had the Spanish flu in 1919, but we we couldn't find the playbook, so we kind of had to make it up as we went. You know, the lessons that I took away from that was I mean, there was this deep concern and uncertainty and worried about not only your health, but your financial security and what was going to happen this big unknown. And, you know, I think it really enhanced the communication aspect, just communicating to our people, communicating to our partners, communicating with our management team and trying to work our way through it in communication with you know, I tried to put a little optimism in there, but also reality in there and not that hiding the concerns that that lay in front of us. And, you know, you think of, hey, we might have to do some cuts here and being honest with our people with the information that we had at the time, because as we went through this, the information changed constantly. And and probably that was another aspect is you make decisions based on the best information at the time. You've got to be decisive. You've got to be make decisions quickly. But you also can't be stuck with those decisions and you have to adapt as the information keeps changing. And it kept changing on a daily and weekly basis in the early times of the pandemic. So overall, it was a good experience. Yeah, I think I feel good about the experience and I think it taught me some leadership skills and you know, on top of the pandemic, shortly thereafter we had the whole. Racial issues that came to forefront with George Floyd, and that just compounded it. And I think that also helped. I like where we went over the last two years from a diversity and inclusion standpoint. So you take those two events together and they were, yeah, the most challenging events that I certainly had in my nine years as a CEO. You know, normally when you step into the role, you expect, hey, there will be a recession at some point. But this was completely different and off the charts.

Clinton Larson: Yeah. And you brought up a few things that I've heard other people talking about when they talk about leadership right now, they see the adaptability, having to just be comfortable with change, the transparency that we've sort of been expecting now of of the companies work for the leaders that we work with. And also, as you mentioned, you know, just like this sort of cultural shift in terms of like talking about things in the workplace that we've never talked before, like diversity, equity and inclusion. You know, so all of this is obviously a lot of change management. So I'm curious, like, what are some of the fundamentals that you lean on when you when you have to lead through change? What are some of the things that you make sure are, are or have been a bedrock for you as you've led through change throughout your career?

Dave Stende: You know, I look at that. There's that bell shaped curve of people's adaptability to change. And so you have to realize you've got a segment, you've got a third that absolutely don't want to do it, and a third that would think we're changing too slow. And it's really that big middle group that that you've got to explain the whys. And we talk about change. I think it's a certain amount of courage it takes from a leadership perspective as far as sticking to your guns and and pushing that change along, knowing that there will be a lot of detractors along the way. But, you know, you've got to accumulate the information, make the best decisions possible. Again, I go back to I think one of the keys of good leadership is being decisive, being decisive, but willing to adapt along the way and with change. I think it also takes a lot of communication. You know, the old adage, people have to hear it ten times. Also have to be pushing on what's in it for them. Why is this change good for them in the long term, even though there might be some short term pains associated with it? So probably communication is the whole key to that. And perseverance.

Clinton Larson: Those are great skills that I feel like, you know, we look to in our leaders and they bring countries back to like what you were talking about when you said, you know, when you started this, you all of a sudden realized there was all these things you didn't know that you had to learn then. I'm curious, you know, in terms of like yourself, learning about yourself and learning, you know, what you needed to develop, you know, and sort of getting to these skills of being decisive but able to adapt. What are some of the things you've learned being a leader in the workplace that about yourself that maybe you didn't anticipate?

Dave Stende: You know, the whole thing is, is a big, long journey because my first I'd say the leadership role was on a department head and then that was probably like 27 years ago. Mm hmm. And, you know, I look back now. I wasn't leading the department. I was managing the department. And just, you know, from a earlier, earlier age, it's just learning the difference between leadership and management. And it's the evolution of leading is much more focused on not managing the people, but leading the people, empowering people and, you know, giving them responsibility and nurturing them and mentoring them along the way. And that's a big part of the leadership aspect. And probably the other aspect is, is really looking forward more than looking back when you're managing, you're managing by what are the numbers we had, what's on the schedule, that sort of thing. And you know, from a leadership standpoint and I think that's where the skills get enhanced. The more you do it is what's the vision look like five years from now and how are we going to get there in the steps that we need to take to get to where we want to be in it. And so it's enhancing those skills about the people development side and also the whole visioning side and strategy.

Clinton Larson: I think that's a great analogy that management tends to be focused on what's what came before in that, you know, leadership is more about looking ahead. So in terms of looking ahead and trying to, you know, hone that vision, what are some of the skill sets that a good leader needs in order to to be able to do that effectively? Obviously, you know, like no one has a crystal ball. Right. So what are some of the things that leaders can do to help, you know, look ahead in a way that's meaningful and takes into account the goals that they have today. And, like you said, the adaptability that they need to maybe succeed in those goals.

Dave Stende: One skill I think is extremely important is just this natural curiosity. And with that natural curiosity and the desire to keep learning. And, you know, as you look ahead, it's a lot of reading. It's a lot of listening to podcasts. It's however you choose to learn just to get the various perspectives of different experts in the field and then having those conversations with, you know, locally with your management team and talking through it and, you know, what are the unintended consequences and obstacles. And it's just general knowledge of learning, learning, learning and always being curious about what's going to happen.

Clinton Larson: When you look back at it, at your tenure here at Eide Bailly, what are some of the things that you that you saw coming? What are some of maybe the things that you didn't see coming, you know, in terms of like the changes we've had and, you know, and just in maybe the industry and also, you know, the accounting industry, but also just like the business world.

Dave Stende: Well, you know, when I go back 20 some years ago, I was probably not a big change agent. And one of the things I'm proud of that I saw coming was we bought our first fax machine and I said, This is stupid, we don't need this. And it turns out 20 years later we didn't need it. So I feel good about that aspect.

Clinton Larson: No, you're right. You're absolutely right. The fax machine was something that we didn't we it turns out we didn't need. But in terms of like, you know, I'm thinking about technology, you know, you know, when the Internet started and things like that, you know, what are some of the things that, you know, like I said, when you look back on your tenure here, what are some of the things that you could have you saw sort of things were shifting in a certain direction, you know, or what are some of the things that just totally were you never considered would be part of what you do you know nine years ago.

Dave Stende: Looking back over nine years. In that time frame, you knew technology was going to advance quickly. And, you know, looking at Gartner curves of what new technologies are coming, you're always thinking how to implement those in the practice. You know, the one thing that probably surprised me was I thought in certain aspects we'd be further along now than we currently are. If I go back five years ago and, you know, the intelligent assistants, let's take Blake and Alexa. I really thought by this time that would be incorporated in our business and we'd all be using those on her desk to really make ourselves more efficient. So I'm kind of surprised some of that has been slower. Now, on the flip side, and this is probably driven more by the pandemic, the how we do business and the whole virtual world in which we live, whether it's Zoom Technologies or just the remote working tools that we have. I didn't see that coming. Mm hmm. It was there. It was available, but it took it took a disruption like the pandemic to move that along. So some things, I think, went quicker than I anticipated and some things actually a little slower than I would have thought over the last few years.

Clinton Larson: And if I could put you on the spot a little too. Like, if you look ahead now, five years, what do you get the sense of what's going to happen with, you know, the accounting industry, maybe specifically or like I said, or in the business world? What are some of the things you think might be, you know, what does accounting look like in five years? What does business look like in five years?

Dave Stende: I do think there will be major strides in the automation of some of the lower level work. You know, we've seen snippets of that. That would be one area over the last five years I thought was going to move faster. But at some point in time, I think it's going to be like a hockey stick and it'll happen very quickly. And, you know, I think that will have an impact on the accounting profession, but business as a whole, because and I think that the disruptive thing that's going to make it into a hockey stick is it it's just so difficult to get people and we have to automate some of those tasks. And you saw that in other the fast food restaurant area, for example, where you have to order through the kiosks. It's delivering some of those more menial tasks that no one really likes to do anyway. And then the challenge is, well, how do you develop people quicker to do the more meaningful tasks that that really require the intelligence and some expertise. How do you get those people up to speed? That that's where the challenge is. But I, I look at that as more exciting and I think I think it will enhance the work experience for a lot of people to get those better experiences earlier on in their careers.

Clinton Larson: We've just been talking about the future, so I'd maybe I'd like to take you back now. When you look back at when you started with the firm, you know, what was the firm like when you started?

Dave Stende: When I started 40 years ago, we had, I think, four offices and we had 100 and some people, you know, compared to now 40 some offices and a one 700 people. So quite a difference there. But I started as an auditor and you know, obviously everything was all paper. We had big audit bags we had to carry. It really helped me up a little bit, make my arms a lot longer. And the two pieces of technology that I joke about that we had was a tempo calculator and a mechanical pencil. Those were kind of the two innovative things that we had. It wasn't till probably my fourth year with the firm. We got our first computer, which was I don't even know what brand it was. It had a little screen that you could barely see and with £34 and you know, it really didn't do much. So, yeah, it's amazing the transition that I've seen over the 40 years. You know, the one thing that hasn't changed. Is the culture that we have in the firm been going back to those 40 years and the people that mentored me which. Term was a lot smaller when they started. It's that same, same sort of culture that we have about, you know, our people come first, those caring for the people and try to make a family relationship. Even as we've grown. That's one of the things I'm most proud of, is we've been able to keep that great culture that we have as a firm through all the changes that have taken place, both in terms of the size and just how we how we operate with technology and all sort of things.

Clinton Larson: That that's a great point and it's something that we've talked about in the previous episodes about leadership is just how important culture is now for the next generation coming up in for the you know, the new people are going to be adding to the workplace. And also, just like in this new era of, you know, hybrid workplaces, which is something, you know, that's likely not ever going to go away, you know, more people working from home, more remote work happening in terms of keeping a culture intact when you're leading through change. Because like you said, the firm is you know, it's tremendous growth in 40 years. And even in your tenure as CEO, you know, we're talking doubling the firm and keeping that culture intact. What are some of the ways that you as you helped keep that in? What are some of the tips you would give leaders to to make sure that they're creating a culture that people want to be a part of?

Dave Stende: You know, first in our culture, I think we certainly talk about the team approach. And what I've always done about our firms is whether you're a partner with a lot of experience or a new hire. We're all teammates and we're all on the same team and we we're all approachable. And, you know, our job as partners is to how do we help develop and mentor staff along the way and give them a great learning experience and helping them, whether they stay in the firm or go somewhere else. You know, the commitment we have is we're going to enhance your skill set. And with that, it takes the mentoring that it's this relationship building to help them along the journey. Now, as we go into a hybrid or more remote work environment, there's certainly challenges to that. And I think that's been the struggle I've had over the last couple of years with the pandemic. And now that we've went into the hybrid model is, okay, we don't have to go back to the old way, but we still need that relationship building. And you know, that's why I'm a fan of the hybrid is don't have to be there five days a week, but there has to be some interaction to build those relationships, to have those casual conversations which turn out to be in a lot of cases, casual mentoring sessions. Without that relationship, that's difficult. So I know this sounds a little old school, but if people could be in the office three days a week and really make it intentional when they're there. That we're helping each other along the way and we're working together as a team. I think that goes a long way with the development of the skills of our people, the both the personal skills and the technical skills of our people. And really, that's what binds that culture together. Culture is about this really enjoying who you're working with. I mean, that's the culture that we want. I enjoy the people I work with and you've got to have a certain amount of personal relationship to really get that feeling.

Clinton Larson: That's a that's a great perspective. And I wanted to ask you about the mentorship aspect you just you just mentioned there, too. You know, mentoring is one of the things that you often hear leaders talk about. You know, the mentors that they had, the mentors the chance to, you know, mentor someone else. Can you talk a little bit some of your experiences, either being a mentor or having a mentor that really taught you something and just like how that how that helped you build your leadership skills?

Dave Stende: Yeah, I've thought a lot about the mentors throughout my career and they're not the same. They, they, they change and reflect back on from when I first started the mentors and they got me to a certain point and then there was others that sort of took me under their wing and that's probably the wrong way to say it, because I could say I've been mentored by people and they didn't know that they were mentoring me throughout the journey. There's, there's snippets from a bunch of people and not just people I work with. I'd say there's a number of clients that. I have seen as whether you call them role models or mentors, that I've learned from them a number of aspects of just. Business aspects or how they interact with people and some of the skills that they have that I've tried to emulate along the way. So then as far as mentoring people, some might say I've done more intentional and some probably unintentionally like that also. But to me part of mentoring is encouraging and, and being honest then and when it comes to intentional, it's finding opportunities for those people to help them progress in those career and in their career. I've done that for others and I know there's a number of people that have done that for me.

Clinton Larson: Let's go back and talk about some of those client experiences that you mentioned, because I feel like that's you know, I hear this from, you know, other people in the industry about, you know, that, you know, the relationships people build, the clients are often, you know, lifelong in some instances and always memorable. So I'm curious, like, what are some of the what are some of your favorite client stories or client experiences that you've had through the years?

Dave Stende: McClinton It's been a long time since I've worked on clients, but the clients I worked on and did a lot of governments that did a lot of utilities and I did a number of commercial enterprises, and they're different. And you learn differently from all these different clients and leaders of those positions. When you talk about private business, there are some clients that I had that were just true entrepreneurs. You know, one client is really close with I think he went broke three times, but he always had new ideas and he built a when I was working with him in his large successful business, he sold for a lot of money and they ended up retiring. But, you know, that would be a client that really taught me about creating his vision and creating the excitement, getting people on board. And you talk about perseverance, man. This guy had the perseverance and the risk taking aspect of willing to take a risk not careless by any means, but understanding what the risks are and to succeed and to achieve his vision. Here's what he had to do. And I just admire, admire him for what he did and the perseverance that he had throughout his entire career.

Clinton Larson: What about maybe some of your other memories of, you know, either is your time as managing partner and CEO or else just Eide Bailly, you know, what are some of your favorite memories through your career?

Dave Stende: One of the funny stories in this gets back to this is before we had email back in the nineties. So we put in a new phone system and we put in this new phone system in like January which. Yeah. It's a bad time of the year to be. Doing something and this phone system. CLINTON This was the first time we ever had voicemail. So this is something new and exciting. Mm hmm. So the it's getting to be towards the end of busy season. And we've had trouble with this phone system and people from the phone company there, they were there darn near every day. It's CNN. So it's getting towards the end of busy season. And our administrative person, Arlene, who sort of ran the firm, she'd been there forever. And, you know, you lived in little fear of Arlene. She's nice lady, but you lived in fear anyway. And she came around with their interoffice memos, you know, because it had to be typed, and she would lay it on everyone's desk. And she came into my desk and into my office, and I'm on the phone, this client, and she's put this interoffice memo on my desk and I'm reading this and it says the people from the phone company will be here later this afternoon to blow up the phone lines. So. Come to the front desk and get a paper plastic bag to wrap your phone in when they blow up these phone lines thick enough. I don't have time for this. It's busy, though. I finished my phone call. I have to leave for a meeting, so I just take my phone. I put it in my garbage can and I walk out and she's at the front desk and I say, Hey, Arlene, I just put my phone in the garbage can. Is that okay? And as I said that, I realized, hey, today is April 1st. April Fool's joke on me. So we laughed about that one.

Clinton Larson: But that's good.

Dave Stende: You know, but over the time, it's the best memories. They're just the people I've worked with and the friends have made. And it's been an incredible, incredible time. A lot of fun.

Clinton Larson: Yeah, I know. I would imagine. And, you know, when you look towards, you know, what the future brings for you. Anything on your list right now that you think you want to tackle right away?

Dave Stende: Well, right away I'm going to the Kentucky Derby that first weekend. I'm retired, so I'll try that again. If I don't become a professional, the horse better. I will. I'm just kind of looking forward to taking a summer off and I'm probably this fall, I'll reassess. What do I want to do? Like to do something but something with a little slower pace than what I have been doing.

Clinton Larson: Sure. That's understandable. So maybe to wrap up, Dave, I was curious going into a time that maybe is going to be something close to normal again, you know? What advice would you have just for for leaders right now in 2022 who are just trying to, you know, enter into not only a new era, but also trying to just, you know, remember what it's like to be normal and remember what it's like to be a leader in the workplace. Like, what advice would you give somebody right now?

Dave Stende: Yeah, that's a good question, because certainly over the last two years, the world has changed and the world is never going back to what it was. You know, that said, if I was to look at what are the skills that are important for a leader, I don't know if the skills change. Maybe there is a little different degree of emphasis on a few. But I still think the leader needs to make sure they have honest, transparent conversations and communication. And I would say in this new world, maybe the level of communication just needs to be enhanced. I would also. Say a leader still needs to have that curiosity and. Thirst for knowledge because the pace of change just continues to increase so much more quickly. And that curiosity and really soaking up the knowledge of what are the trends and where are we going in the next five years? It's our business aspect. I think that's even more important than it was in a pre-pandemic world. But, you know, those are the attributes that I think have always been there that just probably need to be accelerated a little more in this new world in which we live.

Clinton Larson: Great advice. Great food for that. Well, thank you very much, Dave, for being on the podcast. This has been a great conversation and I'm sure I speak for everyone at the firm when I say thank you for your time. Here is as a leader and wish you all the best of luck in the future.

Dave Stende: Thanks, Clinton. I appreciate it.