Lessons from John Veihmeyer

Author: Christine Cox

Straight off a three-week international trip that typifies his career, John Veihmeyer, global chairman for KPMG, said he was glad to be home in the United States and glad to be home at Notre Dame.

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Not that he’s complaining about the travel that comes with leading one of the world’s “Big Four” accounting firms — working abroad 90 percent of the time in 155 countries.

“I tell people I’ve got one of the great jobs out there, which I really believe,” he said during an Oct. 30 Boardroom Insights lecture in the Jordan Auditorium at the Mendoza College of Business. “I get to spend a lot of time with key influencers, politicians, global leaders,” he added, mentioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jinping of China specifically.

This role — which includes overseeing 155,000 employees in a global network of audit, tax and advisory firms — is not something Veihmeyer ever imagined as an accounting student at Notre Dame, where he graduated in 1977. In fact, the chain of events that launched his rise to KPMG’s top position were also largely unexpected.

In 2005, Veihmeyer was managing partner of KPMG’s Washington, D.C., office when the company chairman and CEO had to step down immediately for health reasons. “I went to New York for a meeting and came home as deputy chairman,” he recounted. “And that was a little bit of a surprise to me and my family, frankly.”

Nonetheless, Veihmeyer had become accustomed to change over the course of his career — all of it spent at KPMG — and had learned to be open to even extreme possibilities that came his way. These opportunities included assuming the chair and CEO position in 2010, positions he continues to serve along with the global chairman position he assumed in February 2014.

And though he vowed not to preach or give advice to the capacity crowd of mostly students, Veihmeyer urged them to adopt the same attitude toward change and unexpected opportunities. True to his goal, he didn’t preach. But he did offer insight and inspiration for students preparing to make their own way in business. Here are some of the best practices, philosophies and leadership lessons he shared.

He delegates: As global chairman, Veihmeyer is charged with managing and leading a $27 billion organization. He said he delegates whatever and whenever possible. “My highest and best use is to be  out with our clients and with our people,” he said. “I’ve got some very talented people . . . who I rely on heavily in terms of a lot of the operating and management of our firm.”

He stays open to possibilities, even if he doesn’t initially understand their value: Early in his career, Veihmeyer almost turned down several opportunities that he wasn’t initially interested in, especially because he felt they might lead his career off-track. But then he received valuable advice from mentors and took a second look. “It's really important to listen and be really open to the opportunities that get offered to you along the way,” he said. “Because sometimes the people are offering the opportunity have a better perspective and a clearer vision of why that might be good for you than you can envision.”

Many of the opportunities put him in challenging, uncomfortable situations, especially with angry clients, which taught him skills he relies on in his current position. “I was not born with the ability to walk into a tough situation and navigate my way through,” he said. “[Challenging jobs] actually prepared me for the kinds of things that I do now — walking into meetings with people I never thought I'd be meeting with in my career and being able to handle that situation.”

He anticipates disruption: The business world has changed more in the past three years than the last 20, Veihmeyer said. For instance, a recent KPMG survey of 1,200 CEOs asked about their biggest concern in the next three years. They consistently answered that they feared their businesses wouldn’t be relevant in three years, largely because of disruptors that have become an inevitable threat.

“There are disruptors out there today that are coming at CEOs at light speed that you don’t have time to analyze fully, you don’t have time to spend a couple of years deciding if that's a good path or not,” Veihmeyer said. “You've got be willing to take some risks that you may not be comfortable with and you've got to figure out how do you maintain an innovative culture in your organization that allows you to see around the corners, anticipate where some of this disruption is headed.”

For instance, KPMG spends hundreds of millions of dollars in new technologies and predictive analytic capabilities. This is crucial, Veihmeyer said, because “the audit that we see five years from now is the audit that is completely different than the audit we’ve done for the last 100 years.” The difference lies with technology. In the past audits were based on sampling. Now, technology allows KPMG to look at entire population records to provide more precise information and valuable insight.

He is committed to social responsibility: “I think it’s really hard to come out of Notre Dame without a sense of to those to whom much is given, much is expected,” Veihmeyer said. “You’ve got a responsibility to do something more with yourself than just be personally successful or help the company you’re working for be successful.”

With that in mind, Veihmeyer fostered efforts to mobilize not only KPMG employees, but their families, retirees and interns to support social responsibility. The result was Families for Literacy, which is run by spouses of KPMG employees and which has put nearly 3 million books into the hands of children. And the program has changed KPMG significantly, because people know they are making a difference in the world, Veihmeyer said.

He focuses on culture: In recent years, KPMG has been the fastest growing firms among its U.S. competitors when it formerly had been the slowest. Veihmeyer attributes much of this to the firm’s attention to culture, which he calls the most important corporate element to focus on. “If we get our culture right, we’ll never have to worry about financial results, we won’t have to worry about growing the way we need to grow,” he explained.

“We spent a lot of time and a lot of effort over the years at KPMG having a very different kind of conversation with our people — a conversation that says, why are you proud to be at KPMG? Why does your work here matter?” He referenced a Wall Street Journal interview from February in which he spoke about employees viewing the high purpose of their jobs. “If you’re a bricklayer building a cathedral, you can answer, either ‘I lay bricks’ or you can say ‘I build cathedrals.’”

He values family time: Veihmeyer stressed work/life balance looks different to every one of KPMG’s 27,000 U.S. employees. “What we’ve got to be as an organization is flexible enough that our people can feel very comfortable coming to us and saying, ‘I need some greater flexibility right now,’” he said. “I want them to come have that conversation with us, so we’ll figure that out together. And the most frustrating thing for me is when people leave the firm or decide to make a choice about a change in career because they don’t believe that we can be that kind of flexible for them. . . . You can’t be happy with your work unless you’re happy with your personal life.”

He supports sustainability efforts: “We can’t just take from our world,” Veihmeyer said, pointing out that KPMG’s carbon footprint is 24 percent smaller than four years ago. And the company’s sustainability efforts are saving money, he said: “There’s an awful lot you can do that contributes to your sustainability goals, that you can actually do in a way that’s cost effective as well.”