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Grooming Future Leaders

Two women stand in front of a white board with a flow chart on it.

In this article, which appeared in the February 2017 print edition of I95 Business magazine, Aileen Eskildsen shares her insights and experiences with publication writer Linda Esterson on grooming future leaders. 

Often when Aileen Eskildsen meets a college student or a young accounting professional, it takes her back to her collegiate career at
Towson University.

“I see the energy and fire (they need) to race up the career ladder,” says Eskildsen, who did just that when she joined accounting firm Ellin & Tucker in 1996. “I’m happy to see that. I tell them to work hard, have passion for what they do.”

Much of the fire she sees in the students is the same passion that led Ellin & Tucker to offer her a position.

“I immediately noticed that she demonstrated many of the qualities we looked for in an entry-level professional: a desire to learn, a commitment to pass the CPA exam and a strong work ethic and desire to be a productive member of the team,” recalls Ed Brake, managing director of Ellin & Tucker.

Today, Eskildsen is a partner and serves as professional development coordinator for the firm. It’s a far cry from what she expected when she joined the firm as an auditor.

“I knew I wanted to be a partner in the firm, but I assumed it would be on the auditing side of the practice,” she says. “I didn’t see myself moving away from client service and working with professionals in house.”

In 2008, as a firm founder prepared for retirement, the leadership realized the need to invest in the firm’s professionals to ensure long-term success. A new role was created and Eskildsen left her auditing clients to take on the firm’s professionals as her clients to “prepare them to be the next generation of leaders.”

“Our firm is only as good as the talent we can recruit, train and retain. These are the three pillars by which we created the professional development coordinator position,” Brake explains. “Aileen has exceeded our goals and expectations in all three areas of focus since joining our management team.

Professional development is essential for all employment levels, Eskildsen explains, regardless of where they are in their careers and what roles they fill. “Our people are our firm’s greatest asset,” she notes. “Whether working one-on-one with clients, cultivating referral sources, serving on boards for non-profit organizations or volunteering in the community, they need training programs, exposure and experience to develop the skills they need to be successful in the roles they play.”

Through professional development programs including the firm’s internal mentoring program, Eskildsen aims to grow skills, enabling employees to be future leaders in the firm and in the community. Trainings cover such areas as building business acumen, developing an executive presence, managing people and more. They cover pertinent topics for new accountants and others for more seasoned professionals.

“It is important to our firm to invest in our professionals and support them to grow into future leaders,” Eskildsen says. “It’s very rewarding to see them grow and develop into leaders.”

Officially to Ellin & Tucker, a leader is someone who is a decision-maker, influencer, able to direct and manage clients. They go out into the community and make a difference from a leadership standpoint, Eskildsen explains. As a Baltimore based firm, Ellin & Tucker officials encourage professionals to give back, become involved in the community. In 2009, the firm also convened what they call the Giving Back Committee, which organizes the corporation’s philanthropy efforts, giving programs and donation drives. Eskildsen serves as the committee’s advisor.

Another of Eskildsen’s functions is recruitment. This is a year-round focus for the firm to ensure a continued pipeline of strong talent. A priority is developing and maintaining relationships with local colleges, which provide opportunities for firm professionals to visit campus and present on topics in the classroom and during career fairs.

“It gives students a snapshot of what their career might be and that’s mentoring, too,” says Eskildsen, who serves on the accounting advisory boards at Towson University and Loyola University Maryland. Eskildsen also serves as chairperson of Loyola’s student mentor committee. “We want to keep the pulse on what’s going on in local universities and make sure our firm can work with students and be a part of the programs.”

The firm, she says, hires up to 10 entry-level employees and eight interns each year. The support provided to employees of all levels, including working with them to build their own paths to success based on their personal goals, is in part the reason the firm has a low turnover rate.

“I attribute that to the culture we’ve built,” Eskildsen says. “We’re supportive of professionals; we want them to be successful. We provide professional development and someone to go to. We provide that structure for them.”

Eskildsen has worked to advance her own skills as well. In December 2014, she joined Network 2000, which was rebranded in October and is now called the Executive Alliance. The executive women’s leadership organization aims to help advance and promote women leaders and provide support and mentorship for women to develop and enhance their leadership skills, communication skills and networking opportunities.

Reflecting on her career, she’s thankful for the risk she took in 2008 to leave her “comfort zone” and change her own career path. She expressed pride in being able to help other accountants grow and advance in their careers. She’s fulfilled by the proven results as evidenced by the low turnover and success in developing accountants and achieving high morale at the firm.

“Leadership isn’t something given to a person … it’s something earned. You can only ‘lead’ others if they respect you as a person. Aileen has earned that respect,” Brake adds, citing the fundamental leadership characteristics of honesty and trustworthiness, communication, confidence and commitment, as well as caring, all of which she has used to further the staff’s technical skills, leadership capabilities and business acumen.

And when the workday ends, she heads home to Carroll County to her two young boys, active in sports and boy scouts. Her family is her “joy,” and they enjoy being avid fans of the Baltimore Orioles.

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