Lyceum – Wally Gruenes, Grant Thornton

by Tom Hanlon

Lessons on Risk Taking, Leadership, and Culture

Wally Gruenes, who graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1980 from the University of Illinois with a BS in Accountancy, told a recent accountancy lyceum crowd that he hadn’t been to campus for quite a while. But he didn’t miss a beat in leading the audience through a rendition of “Hail to the Orange,” perhaps becoming the first lyceum presenter to lead a sing-along with the audience.

Gruenes, managing partner of the Dallas office for Grant Thornton, was not seeing if there were any potential American Idol candidates in the crowd. He was making a point: Despite the students’ reluctance to sing, he said, “We can all sing. We tell ourselves ‘I can’t sing,’ or ‘I can’t do such and such.’ Well, that’s BS. It’s a point I want to make and it ties in to lessons about leadership and culture.”

Take Calculated Risks

Part of the point is about being willing to take risks. Gruenes did, and it’s how he became a partner. He started his career in 1980 with Arthur Andersen in Chicago and was asked to go to Dallas in 1982. Soon he was asked to give up the clientele he had developed and start a new book of business during a time when the economy was less than booming.

“That was pretty scary for someone in the business for five or six years,” he said. “But we were wildly successful. We brought in 25 to 30 new clients in a year and a half. I loved the team I was on. It was fun, we were using new technology.”

Before he could settle in and ride that success, Gruenes was asked to go to the Fort Worth office, which was in bad straits. “They were losing clients left and right,” he said. “So they sent me and another manager and a couple of partners to fix it. It was like going from a World Series winner to the last place team.”

But in five years, Gruenes added, they had turned the operation around, and he was promoted to partner. “I took a calculated risk, and it worked out.”

Once Andersen folded, Gruenes worked in London for another company before joining Grant Thornton in 2008. But his time overseas led him to understand the value of a foreign assignment. “If you have a chance, to take an overseas assignment,” he said. “But don’t just go for six months or a year. You want to go for three years. The first year you just get used to how things operate and work. The second year you start to accept it and enjoy it. The third year you absolutely love it.”

Lessons Learned

Gruenes shared five lessons with the students:

#1. Hard work is required and pays off.

  • “Don’t think you can skate by with the minimum.”
  • “You can have balance in your life. But you have to work at it; it doesn’t just happen. I coached both my kids’ baseball and softball and basketball and soccer teams, and I made probably 90 percent of the ballet and band recitals. I had dinner with my family almost every night. When the kids went to bed I got some more work done.”
  • “I get up every morning at 5 o’clock, I’m an endurance athlete, triathlons, marathons, Iron Man, every morning I’m up at 5 or 6, no one bugs me. So you can do it.”
  • “You’re never going to be in perfect balance. Sometimes work will take more time, sometimes family will take more time. But hard work is required, there’s no question about it.”

#2. Start fast in any new role—momentum will carry you further, faster.

  • “Ask for the extra assignment, the hard assignment.”
  • “When you hit a bump in the road, if you have momentum, you’re going to skip right past that bump and people won’t notice you had that slipup. But if you don’t have momentum, it’s going to slow you down.”

#3. Your career advancement will be limited to or accelerated by your leadership ceiling.

  • “You can be a leader in a lot of ways. You can be a leader as an intern. But no matter how smart you are, no matter how technically strong you are, no matter how good you are at developing business, your advancement in any organization is going to be limited by your leadership capability.”
  • “Leadership isn’t a title. You don’t need to be a ‘charge the hill’ kind of person. But you do need to be a good leader, develop people, set examples, mentor people. I’ve seen it over and over again; people are brilliant but they don’t get past that next level.”

#4. Developing and mentoring people is the highest call of leadership.

  • “The best thing you can do throughout your career is develop and mentor people. Who doesn’t like mentoring people and seeing the light bulb go on for them?”
  • “Developing and mentoring people is critical to your success because no matter how hard you work, you can’t do it all yourself. It’s a team sport.”
  • “You have to spend time teaching the people below you. And yes, that will take extra time. But the payback is going to be enormous and awesome and quick. One, you will reap that dividend by them respecting the heck out of you and two, you have taught them something that they can apply and three, they’re going to get it done more quickly and effectively and save you time.”

#5. Culture eats strategy for lunch.

“The culture that you embody is much more important than any brilliant strategy you concoct. The culture of an organization is more important than any great strategy.”

The Role of a Leader

Gruenes also spoke about the role of leaders in developing their staffs and producing results. “Leaders need to develop relationships with the people they are leading,” he said. “I can’t develop relationships with the 1200 people I’m responsible for. But I can develop relationships with all of my partners and my senior managers, and make sure I lead the rest of the team in a broad sort of way by setting the right examples and by when I see inconsistencies in the behaviors of our people relative to our culture, I can point that out in a professional way that doesn’t shame or embarrass them.”

Gruenes also pointed out the need to deliver results; that’s part of leadership. Beyond that, he said, “You need to develop the people behind you to be leaders. And you need to develop the whole person. You will have people who work for you who have personal issues and you can’t send them all to HR. This is the highest level of leadership because you have the title, you’re developing relationships, you’re delivering results, you’re helping them to be the next partner or next manager, and you’re giving them the personal attention.”

Culture and Values

Gruenes said that culture is an important part of a company and students need to find a company whose culture fits them. “Culture is really what an organization does when no one is looking,” he said. He listed several items that went into forming a company’s culture: beliefs, spirit, traditions, ways things are done, historic behaviors, habits, values, attitude, energy, and unwritten ground rules.

One of the most important behaviors for him is summed up in three words: “Be here now.” In other words, give your full attention to what you are doing. Don’t multi-task during team meetings or conference calls or one-on-ones.

“At our partner meetings,” Gruenes said, “our computers are off, phones are off, we get what we need to get done. And if someone comes in my office and says can I have five minutes, I either say can you come back in 15 minutes or I say yes, and I shut my computer off. So: be here now.”

What Shadow Will You Cast?

Gruenes left the students with this thought: “When you are in leadership you will have influence on others. We need to be aware of the shadow we cast and the impact we have on others. What kind of influence and shadows will you cast on colleagues, clients, and friends?”