Leading Culture Change with Mike Kirley

How do you create a major culture change at an 88-year-old company in an industry as traditional as accounting? How do you assemble a team of engaged, inspired FutureMakers who will lead an organization into the future?

Mike Kirley is chief operating officer at McGladrey. He’s helping lead the company and its 6,700 employees through major market changes. I’ve been lucky to work with the McGladrey team as they’ve started their change journey, from the inside out.

The challenge

As customers have become more informed, they’ve started to expect more. What kept McGladrey competitive 50 or even five years ago simply isn’t enough today.

“We used to pride ourselves on our great technical expertise. Then, that became old hat. So, we differentiated ourselves by bringing specific industry expertise. For a while, that was enough to stand out. Now, it’s a layered cake. We have to bring technical expertise and industry knowledge and act as trusted business advisors above all else. It’s about understanding the aspirations and challenges of each client and developing strong relationships and trust with people.”

The promise: “The power of being understood”

McGladrey’s leaders recognized the opportunity to deliver more value to the marketplace and clearly dominate in their defined niche. The vision: to be first-choice advisors to the leaders of the middle market.

They mapped out 51 “change missions” on the path to realizing that vision. But 51 initiatives was too many to focus on. It became clear that two areas were the most important (and interdependent): the talent experience and the client experience.

The team came up with one core promise that’s at the heart of McGladrey’s change mission and strategy: the power of being understood. Understanding clients and developing deep relationships means owning their growth goals as your own. It’s serving as a deep reservoir of insight and knowledge to help clients navigate difficult decisions.

And, the power of being understood is about building relationships that are based on trust and confidence. “The advice we give a client is significantly more valuable if we have a strong relationship that’s based on trust. If we have that relationship and the client feels understood, they have the confidence to act on our advice.”

But the power of being understood isn’t just about clients. It’s about McGladrey’s talent, too. McGladrey wants employees to feel understood and supported. “It’s about understanding each other — having a relationship that lets you be candid and figure out solutions together.”

When McGladrey’s Boston office was named a Best Place to Work in 2014, managing partner Chris MacKenzie described the relationship between the client experience and the talent experience this way: “In order to have the highest client engagement level, we need the highest employee engagement level. You can’t have one without the other.”


If you’re reading this and wondering how you could create dramatic culture change in your own organization, here’s where things get interesting.

Instead of leading culture change from the top down, McGladrey leaders looked to their people for help. They started identifying employees and partners who had a zeal for improving the client or talent experience. They were looking for people who would play a leadership role in reshaping the firm from the inside out, to position McGladrey as a leader in the market. With that objective in mind, they defined the kind of leaders they’d need: “FutureMakers” who lead change and empower others to do so, too.

Mike sums up FutureMakers this way: “Engagement is not the responsibility of senior management. It’s the responsibility of the people who own the business. We realized that some people really wanted to step forward and lead this change. So, we found FutureMakers to enroll in the process.”

FutureMakers are the next generation of leaders at the firm. Each FutureMaker has a working understanding of the firm’s vision and strategy, and has internalized that vision so that every day, his or her daily activities reflect the implementation of the strategy.

For example, at the end of the year, every leader faces year-end admin and HR tasks: promotions, annual reviews, etc. There’s a choice that every leader makes: I could do those tasks just to check the required boxes and close out the year. Or, I could approach those tasks as a FutureMaker. A FutureMaker sees annual reviews as an opportunity to help employees experience a different kind of performance management, and to help them map out how they can reach their goals. A FutureMaker sees reviews as a chance to understand, recognize and reward people’s contributions to the business. FutureMakers are focused on engaging and developing talent that will deliver the McGladrey client experience and lead the firm in the future.

The FutureMakers movement started with the firm’s top 200 partners. Now, they’re cascading that movement out, to include less-experienced employees, in both inside and outside-facing roles. FutureMakers have direct ownership in the success of the strategy. It’s their job to spread the change mission throughout the company.

At a FutureMaker meeting this spring, McGladrey leaders shared this powerful message from Jim Collins’ “Great by Choice”: “We may not be able to predict the future, but we can create it.”

McGladrey employees are embracing the FutureMakers ideology: “It’s taken on its own life, and it’s a great unifier in an organization where we’ve done lots of mergers and global expansions. It’s been the kind of cultural and change management movement that shows us we’re going to really make significant progress.”

“Culture leads strategy. I’d much rather have the culture leading the firm than attempt to take a strategy and implement it. We almost had to invert our org chart to make this happen. We’ve moved away from the idea that culture or strategy can be implemented from some far-off pinnacle on an org chart. Instead, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on client-focused, field-based employees.”

Culture change like this is not an overnight fix. It’s a long-range, multi-year journey. You can’t have one meeting and expect major culture change to take effect. Four years into their new strategy, McGladrey is still looking forward. “Four years ago, we set engagement numbers as our target. Now, we’re there, and those numbers aren’t our target anymore — they’re our foundation.”


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