Growing up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, Jennifer Leary always knew she wanted a profession that would provide financial security. So, when her father told her that having unique skills like accounting would ensure she would never have to worry about finding a job, Leary decided that exploring the field would be the occasion to apply her work ethic in a discipline that held a lot of promise for her future.
It was that recommendation that finally led her to work at Top 10 Firm CLA, following a professional path that gave her the opportunity to live and work overseas, lead several offices, assist hundreds of clients across multiple practices, move her family from Baltimore to Charlotte, North Carolina, and gain experience in mergers and acquisitions strategy.
And as she enters her third year as CLA CEO, Leary believes there are several skills to cultivate in order to succeed in such a role, depending on one’s ebb and flow and which results an executive is trying to achieve. But to her, the most important quality is definitely empathy.
“Empathy is the first one for a reason, and by that I mean meeting people where they are, truly understanding what’s important to the teams that you lead and how to get them where they need to be,” said Leary. “The second one is authenticity, which is something I wished I realized earlier in my career, which means being true to yourself and not preventing yourself from sharing your opinion and making sure your voice is heard.”
According to Leary, the third one is drive, which she said has always been a part of her and allowed her to do impactful work at CLA alongside her team. She believes this kind of determination doesn’t only allow a leader to hit goals, but also to maintain focused efforts to fulfill their responsibilities.
Another trait that she believes is essential to inspire employees is the ability to be vulnerable and show where you stand on important issues. Employees can feel when their supervisor leads from the heart, in a way that’s authentic to them and differs from past executives. Leary said that the effort to stand out, to create one’s own brand, and to connect with people is what allows a message to truly resonate.
“I don’t know if there was a moment in time where I absolutely knew I had my place, but after having my two amazing girls, I thought a lot about what was important in life and in work, and I found an inner strength that maybe was always there,” she said. “I didn’t realize having children would help me understand I had more than I originally gave myself credit for, and I really became passionate about driving the culture here at CLA so other people can feel the same way from day one.”
And it seems that Leary has been successful in doing so. In 2023, CLA ranked No. 8 on Accounting Today’s Top 100 Firms for the sixth year in a row, and registered a 15% growth. The firm first hit the billion dollar mark in 2019 and this year, Leary is confident it will hit the $2 billion mark as a result of strategic partnerships and the expansion of its outlook overseas through the CLA global network, which ranks among the top 10 global networks despite being created just last year.
According to her, it’s the firm’s culture that has allowed CLA to attain such results and to have a competitive advantage over other groups. When looking at those numbers, Leary said it’s important to know that the firm follows a succession-minded partnership model, which relates to the belief that leaders must leave the firm better than they found it for the next generation. Furthermore, executives take inspiration from their predecessors to create more opportunities and lead CLA into the future.
To show how they care for their workforce, she said a leader should connect with and celebrate like-minded individuals across the country. CLA notably developed nine virtual belonging communities to answer the needs of employees who may not be in the office every day. This idea emerged two-and-a-half years ago, from a group of leaders who wanted to drive retention and belonging within the firm by strengthening ties between employees.
Additionally, CLA launched a high school internship program this year to address the pipeline issue in the accounting world and learn what younger generations know about agility and technology. As a result, 60 students are now involved with the firm across 15 markets to gain exposure to careers in accounting, finance, and wealth management.
“Another group that we are passionate about is the National Association of Black Accountants, which is personally very important to me and with which we’ve been partnering on some impactful work as we drive the accounting pipeline,” said Leary. “So whether it’s in North Carolina or nationwide, the ability to work with dynamic teams, grow careers and build the pipeline is certainly a priority.”
Despite its successes, the firm hasn’t always known peaceful times, and the pandemic hit CLA staff particularly hard. Leary said it was a chapter that forced her to make decisions that she didn’t have any roadmap for, and the fear of COVID-19 affected her team’s ability to serve their clients the way they wanted to. Over a period of 12-18 months, Leary and her leadership team spent long nights and weekends trying to figure out how to keep everyone safe.
The support of her staff, however, allowed her to pull through the unprecedented crisis, and taught her that a leader’s difficult decisions always need to be tied to the firm’s values. They should accomplish what needs to be done while continuing to lead with empathy and with unfaltering rigor under the rule of federal and state law.
“I would say that the bonding our teams did during the pandemic was remarkable, and the work our people did for our clients was second to none,” said Leary. “The tough decisions that you’ll have to make are plentiful when you’re in a leadership role, but when you surround yourself with people who give you honest feedback and commit themselves to what they need to execute, that’s how you’re going to overcome challenges.”
Being supported by role models is also important for an executive to take their organization to the top. Leary said that all CLA leaders stand on “the shoulders of giants,” and she often refers to her mentors as “icons” in the industry, such as former CEO Dennis Schleper. She added that relying on their guidance allowed her to watch different leadership styles over the years and pick the traits that best reflected her true self, notably the idea that she should always help people realize their true worth.
Former CLA principal John Richter played that role for Leary, and he remembers her as someone who loved to give credit to people for their efforts. As a result, he said that people tend to give more than expected because they know Leary is truly appreciative, and that it soon became a habit for everyone to say “thank you” for every little thing under her leadership. It was all about creating a caring environment.
“I have never heard Jen say, ‘It can’t be done,'” said Richter. “Matter of fact, I never heard her accept that as a response from one of our team members. Instead, when told it’s not possible she asked, ‘Well, what would we need to do or change to accomplish our objective?’ Most leaders are satisfied with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’… not Jen. To Jen, it’s all in the shaping: ‘What will it take?'”
Despite her many professional accomplishments, Leary’s main source of pride comes from her 15- and 17-year-old daughters. She said she seeks to bring that level of dependability and warmth to CLA offices, as well as to client relationships. Leary also feels very satisfied in the decades she spent getting closer to those clients, which often are privately held businesses or state and local governments.
When she walks through the halls and sees business owners being supported with their goals, that’s when Leary feels that leadership managed to create an organization that truly benefits society.
When it comes to the future and perpetuating CLA’s legacy, Leary said the firm will focus most of its efforts on growing its global network as well as expanding to underserved markets in the US, which she said allowed the group to connect with firms from all around the world and create a lot of mobility for CLA staff members.
“I personally believe that if you want to do something different, you have to see something different, and I think we can do fantastic things for the world if we give people a global experience,” she said. “CLA is a firm that’s built to last, and we believe in passing it on just like it was passed to us, and this is why making the firm better is always going to be a focus of mine.”
At a glance: Jennifer Leary
Where did you go to college? University of Delaware – BS in Accounting and Management Information Systems
Where did you grow up? Baltimore
Where did you begin your career in accounting? Ernst & Young
Where and when did you first make partner? SB & Co., 2006
What is something that people may not know about you? I’m a huge Disney fan and I try to be a “Swiftie” but likely not cool enough … maybe a “Taylor Swift enthusiast”
Who is someone you admire? My 100-year-old grandmother