In this episode of Partnering Leadership, John Veihmeyer, former global chairman of KPMG, looks back on how he started rising through the ranks at KPMG and why leading with self-awareness and empathy was critical in rebuilding morale. John Veihmeyer also shares valuable lessons in developing resilience in leadership, inspiring a purpose-driven culture in a company, and leading for impact.
● How performing in musicals in high school helped John Veihmeyer later in his career
● Why John recommends aspiring leaders study accounting
● The value of building and nurturing work relationships without expecting anything in return
● How John Veihmeyer became deputy chairman of KPMG, a role he wasn’t ready for but felt responsible to undertake
● The importance of ‘doing the hard thing now and building resilience in leadership
● How John Veihmeyer inspired trust and regain confidence in a demoralized organization
● Why John believes empathy and self-awareness are the two most important leadership traits
● Why you should surround yourself with people that are going to be willing to disagree with you
● Laying bricks vs. building a cathedral: the perspective John Veihmeyer promoted to inspire a purpose-driven culture
● How the KPMG Family For Literacy Program started and its impact
Mentioned in this episode:
Steve Harlan, former managing partner at KPMG
➡ Listen to Steve Harlan’s Partnering Leadership podcast episode here.
Linda Rabbitt, Founder & Chairman of rand Construction
➡ Listen to Linda Rabbitt’s Partnering Leadership podcast episode here.
Susan Flynn and Beth Veihmeyer, Co-founders of the KPMG Family For Literacy Program (KFFL)
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Connect with John Veihmeyer:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am really excited this week to be bringing to you my conversation with John Veihmeyer. John, who started his career at KPMG, rose through the ranks, held many different roles, including Washington DC managing partner, eventually becoming chief executive officer, and then from 2014 through 2017, serving as global chairman of KPMG.
Now, I learned so much about leadership from John and it's primarily his purpose driven leadership and the humility with which John approaches leadership that I find so energizing. And I'm sure you will learn just as much from John as I did in this conversation.
I also love hearing from you, firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com, leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow and are subscribed to the podcast, depending on your platform of choice, that way you will be first to be notified of these episodes. And finally, to the about 30% of you that listen to these on Apple, when you get a chance, please leave a rating and review, that way more people will find these conversations and become more impactful leaders.
Now, here's my conversation with John Veihmeyer.
John Veihmeyer, welcome to Partnering Leadership podcast. I am thrilled to have you on with me.
Well, thanks Mahan. I'm really excited to join you. You’ve become somebody I have tremendous respect for, and both personally, and what you're doing professionally. And it's a privilege for me to be joining you today.
Thank you so much, John. Most especially because I have seen and heard of you over the years and the purpose driven leadership that you embody, which is a big part of what this podcast is all about, helping leaders become more purpose driven. That's why I find your story to be so energizing for me and I'm sure will be energizing for the listeners all across the country and all across the globe.
Now, John, our upbringing obviously has a big impact on who we end up becoming. Whereabouts did you grow up and how did that influence the kind of leader that you became?
Well, I grew up here in Washington, frankly. I grew up in Bethesda, six generation Washingtonian. Which is pretty unusual given how transient Washington used to be when I was growing up. And, you know, large family, six kids, five sisters, and me. So I was the only boy in the family, but, you know, I had the great fortune, I think, as I look back, on having the chance to go to a great high school, which had a lot to do with, I think my foundation as a person.
I went to St. John's, but with the Christian brothers and you know, from a leadership standpoint, a whole lot of things we could talk about, about the opportunities I had earlier, and I think a lot of people do in a traditional high school, to really think about what leadership is and isn't. And then went on from there to the University of Notre Dame.
And then right out of Notre Dame, where I majored in accounting, undergrad, joined KPMG, which at that point, was known as Peat Marwick. And spent the next 42 years at KPMG. So I always tell people, I was really fortunate from the age of about 14 till the age 62, I was involved with three institutions and organizations, all of which had a great culture and which I think was very important in terms of forming me as a person and a leader.
And you also enabled those organizations, eventually, to have great culture too. But now, what is it that I find out you actually performed in musicals when you were a student?
I don't know who's feeding you that information, but when I do find out, they'll be in trouble. In high school, I did about two shows a year, musicals, and you know, it was just kind of fun, a lot of my friends were involved.
But I will tell you, like most things in life, you look back on and say, not for the reasons I ever anticipated, but you know, the number of times when I was global chairman of KPMG and giving speeches, giving talks in front of, you know, large groups or doing the, you know, three or four videos that had seemed like I was recording on a daily basis. And people used to kind of jokingly say: “Well, that's One Take John”, right? You know, we're used to having to go through things five or six times.
And frankly, I think that training I got where you had to get out of your comfort zone. I mean, I wasn't somebody who was looking for the limelight, by any stretch. And it took, I think, some guts on my part and it was certainly not comfortable for me to get up in front of people to perform. But I think it gave me the confidence where later in my career, you know, it was a non-issue for me.
And, you know, I would always laugh at the people who said, you know: “People would rather do anything in life than get up in front of people and give a talk.” And I never had to overcome that fear as an adult, frankly. I think I overcame it in high school by my involvement in some of those performances. So, paid off in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated.
It is, and it's a wonderful part of your personality. So you have this fun personality, you're performing in musicals that get you outside of your comfort zone. What was it that made you study accounting?
You know, that's a great question. I knew I wanted business when I went to Notre Dame, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. And frankly, the reason I knew I wanted business is because I hated every science class I ever took. So I knew I wasn't going down that path.
And I actually remember it very vividly, talking to one of my professors, freshman year in business, kind of those intro level courses. And said, you know: “I don’t know what I'm going to major in. What do you think?” And he said: “You should major in accounting.” And when I said: “Why?” He said: “Because it's the hardest major in business and therefore you'll learn the most.” And you know, that sounded reasonable to me.
And you know, like a lot of things in life, you kind of get on a path and good things are happening and you stay in that path. And certainly, I enjoyed it. It worked out well for me, you know, in terms of the opportunities that it gave me, not only at Notre Dame, as I continued to study it, but you know, transitioning from college into a career. I tell people all the time, there was nothing easier than being in public accounting.
And I told all of my children, none of whom majored in business when they went to college. And I told them all the same things: “You can major in whatever you want. All I want you to remember is this conversation, four years from now when you call me up one day, and say: ‘dad, all of my friends, it's September of my senior year, and all of my friends in accounting already have jobs for when they graduate.’”
And sure enough, my oldest daughter called me in one of those moments when four of her good friends had jobs and she had no clue what she was going to do. I said: “Listen, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.” You know, listen, it was a great, and I tell people, I truly believe this, I think if you had an opportunity to join one of the large firms in public accounting, it is a phenomenal way to start a career because you get such broad experience. You can go 50 different directions out of that as your base in a career.
And frankly, the number of CEOs that I've dealt with over, you know, my career, who, when I meet them for the first time will say: “Hey, you're not going to believe this, but you know, my first two years were in public accounting.” And the number of people who had that as a start to their career, I think says something about the kind of training, leadership development, and frankly, exposure across a whole lot of industries that you get when you start a career in public accounting.
Obviously those accounting skills came in handy and do come in handy for a lot of CEOs. The other thing that this shows about you, John, is that you tend to take on the hardest challenges that are thrown at you. And that's why we were told that accounting is the hardest that could be, so you pursued that.
But at the same time at Notre Dame, anyone that knows you knows that you are a committed family, man, a loving husband, loving father. You fell in love with the love of your life, Beth.
I did. I met her on my first day at Notre Dame and we dated for four years. She will tell you I was a little slow on the uptake. It took me three years after we graduated, ask her to marry me. But yes, I mean, I certainly look back and, you know, whenever I'm out at Notre Dame and speaking, and people ask me: “What was the greatest thing, as you look back, about attending Notre Dame?”
And I said: “That's really easy. I met Beth.” And a lot of other good things happened too, but all of them pale in comparison to the four great years we had together on campus, and then obviously the life we've had since.
And that is wonderful because I know she was supportive of you all through the years at KPMG, also. So you started at KPMG, rose through the ranks, and eventually became managing partner for the Greater Washington DC area, your hometown.
Yes. Which, you know, I had the, you know, you look back, and I was really fortunate in my career. I got to do some things I never would have anticipated and ended up in some roles that never planned on being in and probably never even aspired to, but that doesn't happen without getting really lucky along the way in a lot of ways.
And I was very lucky when I started my career in Washington because the managing partner of the office at that time was someone you know very well, Steve Harlan, who for whatever reason, which neither he, nor I, at this point, can ever understand or explain, took a particular interest in me and was the biggest difference and had the greatest impact on my career, of anyone.
And it was, you know, pure luck on my part that I ended up having the kind of relationship I had with someone who taught me, and showed me more than taught me, showed me the right way to do a whole lot of things that helped me in spades over the course of my career.
Anyone who has had a chance to interact with that beautiful man, Steve Harlan, that I had a conversation with a couple of months ago, has been better off because of it. I also had a conversation with Linda Rabbitt, whose life was touched. There are so many people whose lives have been touched by Steve Harlan.
Now with you, obviously, there were also leadership capabilities along with the accounting that enabled you to continue rising up at KPMG and eventually having the opportunity to become vice chairman and chairman of the global organization, but at a time when the organization was really facing a crisis.
Yes. I was managing partner in Washington, which again was the only job I ever wanted. You know, since my earliest time, I think I saw how Steve did it, and frankly, saw the impact that, if you did that job in a certain way, you could have on people. And that was purely by watching Steve in that role.
And you mentioned Linda Rabbitt who, when I started or shortly after I started with the firm, became Steve's administrative assistant. And there again, just as an aside, that's a great example of just being, putting yourself out, being friendly with people, and building relationships. You know, I don't know why I got friendly with Linda. You know, she was Steve's administrative assistant. I was, you know, three years into my career or whatever. And, but we did, we became friends.
And roll forward, you know, 15 years, I become managing partner in Washington, Linda has left the firm years and years earlier and gone, and had a tremendous career, and coincidentally, has chaired the Board of Trade, is on the Federal City Council. And no one helped me more, when I became managing partner with the Washington office, to get positioned with some of those key organizations than Linda.
And frankly, you know, Linda and Steve remain two of my closest friends. We, the three of us see each other often. And it's just funny to think back about he was managing partner, she was a secretary, and I was a brand new accountant, how differently we were all positioned. And yet I think simply by virtue of the fact that we liked each other, we tried to help each other and we invested in building a relationship.
Not because we ever thought, at least I didn’t, that any of that would ever help me in any ways. And sure enough, I think those two relationships probably had more to help me with than in most things I did. So sorry for that aside, but it's an interesting lesson in life, I think, when you have a chance to build relationships and have friendships, nurture them, because they're wonderful in many ways, in many ways you'll never anticipate.
about the value of, for no good reason and not because you expect anything in return, but Mahan Tavakoli:
It is absolutely critical, John. And you, Linda, embody what Steve always talks about is give, give, give, help, help, help. And you did that with each other, you've done that with many people in the community, many leaders all across the globe.
So you rise up and you do become vice chairman of KPMG, and eventually, global chairman. But again, it happened at a time when the organization really needed leadership to guide it through crisis.
Yes, I was elected deputy. We have two elected positions in the firm, our chairman and deputy chairman. I was elected deputy chairman at a very tough time for the firm. We had kind of a perfect storm.
The chairman at that point in time had just found out, he’d just been diagnosed with brain cancer that was very aggressive and advanced. And he was going to have to step down at the exact same time as partners, we became aware of a pretty serious regulatory matter back in 2005 that the firm was facing, that had been pretty well kept in very small circles. And most of the firm didn't have much of a sense of how serious it was. And that all kind of came mushrooming into the public view.
At the exact same time, the firm had to take what is normally a six-month process of identifying new leadership, and having 2000 partners elect their new leaders, and did it in about three days. And I ended up in a position I never would have expected, never really wanted, frankly.
I mean, I was, I had the job of my dreams as the managing partner of the Washington office and could have finished my career in that role and been fully satisfied. But, and I remember talking to my wife, I called her from New York and said, you know: “I'll explain to you later why, but it looks like I'm going to get elected deputy chairman of the firm.”
And we talked about it and she said: “Would you want to do it?” And I said: “Well, that doesn't really matter. I think the firm needs me right now, at least they think they do. I don't, there's got to be people better for this than me, but they seem to think I'm needed in this role so I have to”, right?
And I think there's that sense, when you're part, whether it was, you know, St. John's, Notre Dame, KPMG, when you're part of an organization that you care deeply about, you're going to say yes when they ask, right? Whatever it is they ask. And so that was certainly the case then. It was a really rough ride for 3-6 months as we resolved the regulatory matter successfully. But in a way that had some pretty serious implications for the next couple of years for the firm.
But most of all, you know, at a time when you have 20,000 people in a firm and 10-15 have put the firm at risk through some really bad choices, bad behavior, and just outright wrong, you know, actions, it has a tremendously demoralizing effect on the rest of those 20,000 people who wake up every morning, intent on doing the right thing with integrity and a lot of trust.
So our biggest challenge, frankly, was, I mean, resolving the regulatory issue was certainly a challenge, but if we had done that and not been able to successfully build the morale, confidence, and regain trust in leadership in an organization where that had been broken because of some of those things that occurred, you know, I'm not sure where the firm would have gone, frankly.
So it was one of those moments and times, you know, where I certainly didn't feel ready for that kind of role, but it's amazing what you can do when you're forced to do it by following your gut and your instincts. And this is where some of the mentors that I had were so valuable for me, because without even knowing it, I think instinctually, my gut was telling me, do the hard right thing now, not the easy expedient thing that might feel good at the moment.
And I think that paid off time and time again. And frankly, asking people for help, getting good people around you, recognizing that my chairman and I weren’t going to solve this on our own, by any stretch. We didn't have any divine, you know, kind of wisdom on this. We were trying to do the best job we could and what we needed were a lot of good people around us who had complementary skills. And so we were very fortunate in many, many ways.
But I think that it's really interesting, once you go through that experience, you know, if I look at 2005 through 2017, when I retired as global chairman and that whole period of being deputy chairman, chairman of the US, and CEO of the US firm, and then global chairman, what I learned in that first nine months, in that leadership role, in a trial by fire, created, I think, a sense of resiliency that served me so well for the rest of my leadership journey.
That once you have kind of stared down the monster, walk through fire, it's amazing how many times over the next 12 years, I said to people who were pulling their hair out over whatever the issue might have been, to just say: “Listen, it's not as bad as you think. Let's take a breath and we work the problem. And, you know, don't jump ahead. It's going to take us 20 steps to fix this problem. Let's focus on the next one. And then we'll deal with the next one. Don't get ahead of yourself. Just, you know, calm down, we'll get through this.”
And I think that, you know, I think people talk about resilience in leadership today. And in a lot of ways, that worst experience I could have ever imagined, I think is, was the best thing that ever happened to me as a leader, because it forced me to develop in some ways and build some strength in certain areas that hadn't been tested before that I think enabled me to go on and do most of the other things I did with the firm.
It sounds like it was a great thing for you and your leadership, John, and the firm was fortunate to have you at that time. Now you mentioned that morale had taken a hit in the organization. How were you able to re-energize the workforce with your leadership as they realize that the organization was going through this crisis?
You know, I think it's not rocket science, frankly. I think it's, there are a couple of things that I think served me very well as a leader. And I think, were very helpful to us as we tried to lead the firm at that moment in time.
The main thing was for some very valid reasons, people had completely lost trust in the leadership of their firm. And that is such a demoralizing, you know, kind of dynamic in any organization. And so we had to rebuild trust. And how do you do that? It's not a silver bullet of one. You do it in a thousand different ways.
But there are some key elements, I think. And one is, I remember at the very first meeting, we brought all the partners together to describe for them how we were resolving this, you know, regulatory matter. And my chairman and I were on stage. And I remember, it was the first time we'd been in front of 2000 partners in that kind of role, in a very tough time.
People came into that meeting, angry, frustrated, you name any emotion, they were feeling it. And I remember getting a really tough question from the audience and saying, and the person began the question by saying: “I'm probably going to get fired for asking this, but…” And he asked a really tough question.
I said: “You know what, it's your responsibility to ask questions like that. You're a partner in this firm. It's your responsibility, frankly, to challenge leadership. And it's my responsibility to explain the rationale for how we're making decisions and why we're making decisions. I can't ask you to agree with me every time. You're not going to agree with me, but you should expect that I'm going to be able to stand here and at least explain to you why and how I made whatever decision I'm making. So let's have at it.”
And it kind of changed, that moment is kind of emblazoned in my mind because there was this collective cloud that kind of lifted in a really demoralized partner group where I think they believed maybe things will be different. Maybe, we're going to have conversations. It's not going to be one way. It's not going to be “I'm smart, I’m the chairman, I'm right. You're wrong. Go back to work. I don't want to hear it”, which is how a lot of people were feeling.
So I think, you know, any way you can do that one-on-one is critical, but I think just setting the tone for, I want people to hold me to account. I want, you know, that's, organizations get in trouble, frankly. And our firm got in trouble. Partners saw things going on that troubled them. They didn't have all the details. They didn't know. And they were too afraid to raise their hand because they thought something bad would happen to them.
So it's horrendous for an organization to have people not feeling like they can raise their hand, call you out, challenge you. And I think demonstrating that that's the kind of leader you want to be, frees people in a lot of different ways. And I think that was a big part of it.
And then again, I think just getting out with our people as much as we could. It seemed like every group of 10 people that I would go and meet with in a particular office, you know, tell 10 other people about what their perception was in that meeting and pretty shortly, a large number of people in the firm feel like they've heard what you're like one-on-one. And if you came across in a way that engendered trust, that was a really good thing. If you came across in a way that didn't, that can be really damaging.
So I think taking advantage of those opportunities to spend as much, at that time in our history, it was really important that as leaders, we spent as much time with our people in small groups, taking every question, and just demonstrating that we didn't have all the answers, but here's what we were thinking, here's why we made that decision, and we need your input. So I'm here to get your input and again, there are a lot of elements to it, but it's all about regaining trust and treating them with respect. And it's amazing when you treat the people in your organization with respect, that usually comes back to you, five-fold.
John, in that story, you capture what I also see in my own consulting work as two of the most critical aspects of great leaders and great leadership. One is encouraging descent. People are looking at the leader, the second someone disagrees, how that leader behaves, what the follow-up to that is, and that either encourages other people to open up and have conversations. We don't always have to agree. Either encourages it, or in many instances, even the most subtle reactions by the leader, shut it down. So that's one aspect of it.
The other one is, lead by example, that's leadership by example. Showing that we are willing to embrace these ideas and having conversations. When you have it, whether in front of 2000 people or with five, each one of those partners or each one of those individuals, you have conversations with, go on and tell the story. So I would underline, and emphasize, and have people listen to this over and over again, and urge the leaders that are listening to this to recognize that most of us have a real hard time doing that.
Once we're told we are the presidency, you're chairman, vice chairman, we start believing that maybe we know better than others. We start getting defensive when other people challenge us. So encouraging it and sincerely being open to that dialogue is a critical aspect of leadership.
Well, I couldn't agree with you more. I mean, in any speech I've ever given for the last 15 years, whether on college campuses or wherever, and people say: “What are the most important leadership traits?” I have always, for the last 15 years, said two things: empathy and self-awareness. And people get surprised because those aren't, I think, typical things that people talk about.
And everything you just said has embodied why I give those two answers. Because self-awareness, I think, is that ability of a leader to recognize ‘What are my instincts? What are my, you know, fundamental ways I'm likely to react in a certain situation? And what are my weaknesses? What are my strengths?’
And my goal when I became CEO, was to build a team around me that complemented my strengths. And I knew, you know, I needed someone who had this kind of trait next to me, if my tendency was to analyze, think thoughtfully, consider, then decide, which is great in some situations, but you know what, sometimes you need to move more quickly than that. I knew that was my nature.
So I went and got, you know, a deputy chairman whose instinct was exactly the opposite. It was kind of, you know, shoot first, aim later. But together, we were better, right? Because I slowed him down, and he actually, in a number of cases, so my point is, you know, helped me to move more quickly when my instinct might've been telling me: ‘You know what, let me talk to somebody else and get one more, you know, set of facts or input on that.’
And that's just one example. But my point is that self-awareness, it allows you to say: “This is all about the team.” I'm not a big believer in superstar CEOs. Yes, there are a few out there and we all know their names and they are. My experience, they're few and far between, and I certainly didn't think I was one.
So the key to me, was putting a team in place that together, could do what we needed done from a leadership standpoint. And I've seen a lot of people who are really talented, but lack the kind of self-awareness to admit to themselves what they may not be great at, and therefore, they never went and found somebody who could build that up for them on their team.
And then the empathy piece, I think, is that ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes. And the number, well, I always tried, I'm not going to sit here and tell you I always succeeded, but I always tried, when someone was expressing a very different point of view, our tendency, and I see people, it happens all the time.
Can you even watch people physically, on opposite sides of a conference table, somebody’s challenging, before they're even speaking, they're rising to the fan, physical, right? They're straightening knots. And then, you know, it's just banging heads. And my experience has been, at least with me, is even when somebody feels very strongly in an opposite view, there's always a kernel of something in what they're saying that helps me get to a better answer if I don't ignore it.
And I think that empathy of putting yourself in somebody else's shoes and saying: “I know they're not screaming at me because they just want to do it. They obviously feel strongly. They're a smart person. So why have they come to that view? What is there?” And sometimes, the way they're delivering the message makes it really hard to have that kind of patience, because people can get aggressive.
They can, you know, and it's very easy to rise, defend, and attack. Those are the moments when you have to really practice patience, sit there with your mouth closed, listen. And when every part of you wants to attack, say instead: “Joe, I need to understand why you feel that way, because obviously it's different than the way I'm thinking about this, and I'm not getting it, I'm not understanding. Tell me why do you feel that way?”
And number one, it completely disarms the other person because they're expecting you to rise, defend, attack. But again, as I said a minute ago, my experience is, I have made better decisions because of something, it might've been three layers deep, right? And it took a little bit of time for me to get to what was really the key issue, but it helped me make better decisions.
I think I mentioned to you once before, when I became CEO, one of the things I did, you know, in a partnership, it's wonderful, I wouldn't trade it for anything, but you got 2000 bosses, right? Because every partner thinks you work for them, which you do. And that was maybe one of the things that helped me as I actually felt that way. So I think the way I treated the partners was maybe different than what they had experienced in some cases, but there were three or four partners who were a thorn in every CEO’s side. Stand up, ask the toughest question, challenge everything.
I went to them when I became CEO, individually, and said: “Listen, I know you're always going to tell me exactly what you think. And the thing I'm worried most about is everybody around me telling me what they think I want to hear as opposed to what they really believe. So I hope you'll be willing, when I come to you periodically and either ask you to look at a memo I’m about to send out or look at something describing a decision we're going to make, just read it and give me your reaction.”
And it was one of the smartest things I ever did because, you know, they would see things from a different perspective. And as carefully as I had tried to read that memo, explaining why we were going down a certain path, they would come back and, not in a aggressive way, I mean, they’re appreciative of being included, right? So they're trying to be helpful.
But, they're not backing off one iota on: “Hey, I disagree with this decision, but if that's the decision you've made, here's how half the people are going to read what you just wrote.” And I would say: “Well, that's not what we intend at all.” And he would say: “That's how it's going to be read.” And they helped me immeasurably in the way I was articulating or going to articulate a position.
So it's back to your point of surround yourself with people that don't think the same way as you do and are going to be willing to disagree with you, that helped me, maybe more than anything I did, as a leader. And the number of times people would say, you know: “We don't like that answer, but we understand how you got there. We understand why that's probably the right thing, even though not good for me personally, but at least you addressed it in a way that I could.” And I wouldn't have, if I hadn't gotten that kind of input.
So any little trick you can do as a leader that gets you, not just dealing with, listening to people that see the world the same way you do, I think makes you a better leader.
These are great leadership perspectives. And in addition, John, you were an early advocate of purpose and focus on culture which now, over the past couple of years, we have heard a lot more about. Why were you so focused on purpose and culture in the organization?
You know, this was probably back, I became CEO in 2010, it was shortly after that, probably 2011, and nobody was talking about purpose at that time or culture, frankly. Those were two words you never heard out of the mouths of CEOs.
And I began talking to some of my team about my perception, and it was really born out of my experience coming up in the firm. We work our people really hard. They go really deep in expertise and specialization. And it's very easy to develop this kind of ‘I work with blinders on’ kind of mindset of ‘what do you do for KPMG?’ ‘You know, I do this kind of tax return for this kind of client in this kind of industry.’
And so my real goal, which turned out to be a purpose initiative, I didn't start off by saying: “I want to emphasize purpose in the firm.” What I started off saying is: “We need to engage with our people in a different kind of way and I need some help figuring out how to do that, talk with my team about.”
And I put it this way, I said: “If you're a third year accountant at our firm and you're working on fortune 50 audit, one of our clients. And you're working in a cash receivable, auditing cash receivable. You're working 7 days a week, 14 hour days, and your spouse asks: ‘Why are you working this hard? What's it?’ And you say: ‘Well, I don't know. It's, you know, I guess I'm making sure accounts receivable are right.’”
And I remembered a big talk when I was rolling this out with the firm, I said: “We need to help our people see what they do differently. There's some family in Ohio sitting at their kitchen table trying to decide which company they're going to invest their 401k savings in and what you're doing, helping the company you're, you know, working on auditing their financial statements. You're doing your part to make sure that that family can rely on those financial statements, can trust the information they're getting, and can make a better decision.”
So it's that, it's what's your perspective, right? Are you a brick layer or are you building a cathedral? And I think the more I felt we needed to have a different kind of conversation with our people, which turned into a purpose initiative of trying to have people focus more on why they're doing what they're doing, why what they do matters. It's not about just making somebody I work for look good.
No, I'm a critical part of the capital market system in the US, the best capital market system in the world. And I'm a part of that. That's something you can puff your chest out about, be proud of and feel good about, why I'm putting in these long hours as opposed to feeling like I'm just laying bricks every day.
No, I'm going to be part of building, in 20 years, when this cathedral's done, I'm going to be able to tell my kids, I helped build that cathedral. As opposed to coming home every day and your kids say: “What'd you do today?” “I laid 300 bricks.” And that's exactly, I think the mindset shift I was trying to create, which led to a, you know, a process of trying to get people focused on purpose.
And that allowed me, I think, to really spend the rest of my time in a leadership role at the firm, frankly, focused on culture, building culture, and making sure that across 150 countries, in all kinds of different geographies and small seed cultures, we could build one consistent culture for our firm. And, you know, I had a lot of fun doing it over those years.
And you did that while also promoting social responsibility, sustainability, things we hear a lot about now, you were doing that. And you were quoted even back in 2015 in a Notre Dame article on those issues. What was it in you that got focused on social responsibility, sustainability, even pushing diversity in the organization?
You know, there again, it just seemed natural and I almost sound glib about that. But it was almost like well, you couldn't be an effective leader, if you didn't care about those things, at least the way I thought about it. it wasn't because, this was long before culture was cool, diversity was just starting to be talked about.
Maybe it's because I grew up with five sisters and actually saw, you know, my sister raise a child, go back to law school after raising a child, finish number two in her class, but be 15 years older than everybody else graduating. And she had a tough time getting a job coming out of law school.
And so maybe I was, you know, formed by some of those experiences, I don't know. But I certainly believe that if we were going to be the best firm in the world, we needed to have the best talent. And if we wanted to have the best talent, we needed to be someplace that every single person, I don't care what color you were, what gender you were, what your sexual orientation was, or anything else. Every talented person felt like they could achieve everything they wanted to achieve at our firm.
And that was not my perception of how every one of our 20,000 people felt at that point in time. So, and again, I don't want to make it sound at all, at least on this diversity issue, I didn't invent it for KPMG at all. There were a lot of good things happening. I mean, certainly KPMG, long before I became CEO, was committed to diversity, had a number of really good things happening.
Like most organizations, you can be very proud, I think, of what you have achieved, but recognize at the same time, that you're a long way from your aspiration of where you'd like to be. And that's where I found myself. So I certainly don't want to make it sound like I invented it by any stretch. But I thought it needed a different type of accountability around it, a different type of awareness of why this was not a nice thing to do, a good thing to do.
It was a critical dimension of our business strategy. And helping people see that, I think, took some effort and some work, and doing some very visible things that began to convince people that as, you know, while we had done some nice things, we could be better. We ought to challenge ourselves to be better. And it's that constant.
I didn't feel like I was criticizing or tearing down anything that had been done before me. I felt like as a leader, it was my job to be very clear about what my aspiration was, what I thought our collective aspiration could be, and then try and motivate and inspire people to chase that aspiration. So I think that's what we tried to do from diversity standpoint.
And you put a lot of emphasis on it and part of what's important for most organizations, John, is that the way leadership behaves and what leadership prioritizes matters most. So as the global chairman, you built on what people had done before you, but made these issues a priority, which is part of what helped move the entire global organization forward.
Now you also, while you were there, launched the KPMG Family For Literacy Program, which has provided more than 5 million books to children in need in the US, now in 17+ countries. What brought that about?
Well, that's a great story, actually. And it was while I was deputy chairman. My chairman and I, working together at a time, again, back when we were trying to really move the firm in a different direction. And my wife and our chairman's wife had a real passion around an unexplored resource in our firm, which was the spouses of our people.
At the same time that I think, I was certainly trying, and my chairman and I are certainly trying to engage our people in a different way. And it all kind of came together with our two spouses coming to the two of us with an idea of doing something that could be spouse led, engage the whole KPMG family, our people, their families, their spouses.
And we said: “That's fantastic. We love it. What do you want to, you know, what's the issue?” And my wife had just walked through the terminal in LaGuardia and saw a sign that indicated that in California, they use third grade reading levels as the predictor of how many jail cells they were going to need in 10 years. And this whole issue of literacy became, I think that was a catalyst moment, catalytic moment, when we decided to tackle literacy, which we thought was very consistent with kind of our theme of education as a firm.
Long story short, my wife, Beth and her cohort, Susan Flynn built this with spouses of our people, leading it in every office of the firm. They went around from office to office, rallying spouses of our people. And of course, everybody got engaged, but I was really proud of the fact that we were then, and to my knowledge still are, unique in corporate America in having what has become the signature community service program for the organization that is spouse led.
And the net result is, as you say, we've distributed over 5 million books in the US. When I became global chairman, my wife Beth began taking the program outside the US and it's now up in over 20 countries around the world where our people raise money, buy books through a relationship we have with an organization called First Book, which is based here in Washington, coincidentally.
Brand new books for $3 apiece, and then go distribute them, and read to kids at title IX schools across the world, frankly. And you know, if you want to talk about something that has done more to bind people in an emotional way to being part of KPMG, I'm not sure there's anything I did as a leader that had the kind of impact that that program did.
And it became clear to me one day, I was at, every year, we would have a big global meeting where all of our brand new partners would come together and we'd celebrate a significant milestone in their careers. A young partner and his wife came up to introduce themselves to me. And the partner said: “I probably shouldn't tell you this, but you know, I was going to leave the firm two years ago” and I said: “Well, I'm really glad you didn't, congratulations. Thank God you stayed.”
And he said: “Well, you probably want to hear the reason why I didn't leave.” And his wife immediately pipes in with: “I'm involved with KFFL and he came home and told me he had gotten a big job offer to go do something else. And I told him, there is no way in the world you're leaving KPMG because I like, I'm too involved in, and I love too much what I'm doing with this literacy program and you're not going anywhere.” And he said: “It probably is why I stayed, I'm not kidding you, it's probably why I stayed.” And I said: “All right, it's working.”
When we get people's family feeling a part of what they're doing with us and being patient with the hours we ask our people to put in because they see that we care about more than just making money for our people and our partners, but we actually care about our communities and doing some things to enhance people's lives around us. I think that, which goes right back to purpose, it's all tied together, it takes a good organization and allows it to become, I think, a great organization.
What a magnificent way to build the culture of the organization and contribute back to the many communities that the members of the organization are involved with. Now, John, you've shared lots of your own brilliant leadership insights. Are there any leadership resources that you typically find yourself recommending to aspiring leaders as they want to become more effective and impactful as you have been in your leadership?
You know, I tell everybody to read 7 Habits of Highly (Effective) People, Stephen Covey's book. And there's one reason. If you're really, if you don't love reading, just read the first chapter because there's a story that Covey almost starts the book off with that I think became such a core part of my approach to being a leader, I think. Because it ties right to this empathy issue of being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes.
And it's a wonderful story of a man riding a subway, two young kids, they're running around out of control in the subway car. And a woman is getting really upset that they're making so much noise and running around and says to them: “Can't you please control your kids?” And he says “I'm really sorry. We've just come to the hospital and they've said goodbye to their mother, who is passing away, and I'm sorry. I’ve just, I haven't been focused.”
And the moral is, everybody has a story. And the number it gets back to, what you and I talked about earlier in this conversation, about the number of times I've said to myself, as I'm in a meeting with someone: ‘She has a story, he has a story. You don't know what it is. So be patient, don't jump all over them.’ Maybe the first thing you ought to do when they finished, as opposed to attacking them, criticizing them, ask them a question because I've always found, asking a question is a great way to begin to understand, you know, maybe there is something else going on, right? Maybe there's, you know, why do you feel that way? You know, what's really at the root of how you came to that view?
What great recommendation, John. And another recommendation that I would share is for people to listen to this episode repeatedly, because you shared with humility, that is a big part of who you are. A lot of the most critical aspects of what helps leaders truly succeed. Not those few outliers that are often named in the media for having breakthrough ideas, but true empathic leadership that can have an impact.
So I really appreciate you, John, for your leadership and taking this to time to share it with the Partnering Leadership community. Thank you very much, John Veihmeyer.
Well, thanks, Mahan, it’s been great being on with you and thank you for creating this platform for people to share ideas. I don't have all the answers. There's not one definition of a great leader. And I think the more your listeners can hear different perspectives, and take tidbits from different folks, the better off they are. So kudos to you for what you're doing, and thanks for having me on.
Thank you, John.
Former global chairman of KPMG
John is the retired Chairman of KPMG International. John spent 40 years with KPMG, holding numerous leadership roles, including US Chairman and CEO, US Deputy Chairman, and managing partner of the Washington, DC office.
John has been consistently named as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting” by Accounting Today magazine, and one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Corporate Governance by Directorship Magazine. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Notre Dame, from which he graduated, and the Financial Accounting Foundation (FAF), and previously served as a member of the Business Roundtable, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, the British American Business International Advisory Board and served on the board of the U.S.-India Business Council, the Board of Trustees for both the U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB) and, and the Executive Committee of the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF).
Throughout his career, John has championed the importance of business leaders building strong cultures within their organizations, emphasizing inclusion and diversity. He previously served as a member of the board of Catalyst, and in 2011 he received the CEO Leadership Award from Diversity Best Practices.
John is deeply committed to philanthropy and corporate citizenship, with a focus on lifelong learning. Along with his wife Beth, he has been a driving force behind KPMG’s Family for Literacy (KFFL) program, which has provided more than 3 million books to children in need in the US and has expanded to 17 countries around the KPMG network. He served as a Board member of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) and is a Board member of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. In 2013, he was honored as “Responsible CEO of the Year” by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.