The Accounting Firm’s Most Valuable Resource: An Invested Team – Newest Principal at DS&B, Ltd. (Minneapolis) Earns Trust and Builds Confidence One Team Member at a Time

Published on December 01, 2019

The average one-way commute in the U.S. is about 26 minutes long, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This equals about four hours a week. 

Rather than wishing she could get that time back, Elaine Nelson makes the most of it. She calls it Traffic University. Her two-hour daily commute is an educational investment that includes learning from podcasts and audiobooks on a variety of topics.

The topics usually aren’t about her job in public accounting. In fact, part of her role as a leader at DS+B involves being present with her team and clients. Unwind that completely, as she says, and her work begins with being her best, most invested self. Whether she is learning, exercising or meditating, she is priming her attitude to build productive and positive relationships and results. 

Engaged Teams Propel Client Service 

“The more knowledgeable and cohesive and empowered your team feels and can interact with the client, client service just happens,” Nelson says. “The client is served because happy people create more happy people.”

Nelson devotes many hours to building a highly capable and invested team — one person at a time. This devotion has transformed her audit team and is spreading across the firm culture. It’s just one reason why she was named a Principal at DS+B after three years of serving as an Audit Director and more than 10 years in public accounting. She has also spent time in private industry as a director of corporate accounting, focusing on health care.

Before you hear about Nelson’s leadership approach, here is a recent result. Consider the dynamics of a weekly team meeting. Nelson noticed that one of her team members appeared reluctant to contribute ideas. Not only that, but also this person claimed too much responsibility for common team mistakes — apologizing frequently. The concern: this individual was highly articulate and bright in one-on-one coaching sessions, but became quiet and apologetic in a group.

It took several coaching sessions to bring this behavior into the person’s conscious awareness in order to change it. Not only has this professional’s confidence and engagement improved, but also a recent promising offer from an outside recruiter was no match for the value of career development happening at DS+B. This professional actively chose to stay at DS+B and keep working with Nelson and the audit team.

What’s The Secret to Team Engagement?

For too long, work culture has separated the employee from every other aspect of life, Nelson says. You were supposed to leave your personal life at home and focus 100 percent on work, but that’s not realistic for human beings, she adds. Personal areas including financial, physical, intellectual and spiritual can disrupt focus and productivity even if an employee tries to ignore them. Instead, Nelson encourages employees to identify the relative health of each area of life and coaches them on making each area healthier. The goal: a whole person arriving at work with energy and drive to succeed.

Of course, Nelson determines to what extent each employee wants to delve into personal areas and receive coaching. She can tell if individuals are eager to learn or if they want to pace themselves. She decides when to throw a lot of ideas at them or maybe just one. Part of this knowledge comes from conducting strength and personality assessments of each employee, and part of it comes through spending real time with them. 

“Each month, my team members have homework, which includes assigning a number of relative health to each area of their lives. I will take time in our conversations, based on their interests, to discuss the areas where they don’t feel as healthy, and then we look at ways to improve that over time.”

For example, if someone is lacking sleep due to family or other obligations, perhaps a short-term change in schedule is helpful: coming in later and staying later. If a debt is weighing on someone’s mind, then discussions around cash flow and money management can reduce the employee’s stress. Nelson makes a point to show that she is invested in the employee’s entire life as much as they are comfortable sharing with her.

With that trust and level of comfort, Nelson can challenge each employee to take on new projects and more responsibility. By meeting with her team members regularly, she remembers to look at her project load and delegate!

“If I’m not regularly meeting with them, I’m not thinking of ways to further develop skills with them. Often, these discussions result in team members getting work that is a little more advanced or challenging. I give them a chance, and then we review and I address training where necessary.”

What’s the Return on Investment?

Just as Nelson is unapologetic about her own approach to self-improvement, she stands by this personalized approach to team development. “You have time for what you prioritize. I block team development and coaching off on my calendar just like I do for daily exercise, and it’s non-negotiable.”

Besides, she says, how can you not invest in your people when they are the ones doing the client work and will be the future of the firm? It’s an investment.

Success with this approach is spreading at DS+B, in particular the idea that each person is “the CEO of you,” Nelson says. For example, a team member recently shared a personal passion for volunteering. Nelson encouraged that person to meet with other interested employees individually, create a plan and present it to the firm’s whole leadership team rather than just to Nelson. The team member ran with the suggestion and found a group of like-minded colleagues to pursue a broader plan for volunteering and philanthropy at DS+B.

Sometimes you have to give the person permission to think bigger, she says. She does this internally with her team and also with her clients. Nelson is known for taking a complex idea and breaking it down into smaller, concrete steps for action. It’s a mindset and a methodology that strengthens each relationship.

After her time in both private industry and public accounting, Nelson knows one thing for sure. Positive change in any organization begins with one person at a time. Every morning, she starts with that person in the mirror.


About Elaine Nelson, CPA, Principal

In her three years at DS+B, Elaine Nelson, CPA, has shown a rare talent for recruiting and developing exceptional professionals in a manner that aligns their strengths to each client service engagement. Of eight partners, she is one of three female partners at the firm. Before joining DS+B, Elaine was a Manager at a large international accounting firm and Associate Director of Corporate Accounting while working at the largest healthcare organization in Minnesota. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Winona State University, and is a Certified Public Accountant. In addition to memberships in state and national CPA organizations, she is a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).