“I suddenly realised that I could control my own destiny”

How Emma Roberts rose from office junior to CEO of Creaseys, and what she learned along the way

Emma Roberts’ perspective changed in an instant during an audit job 22 years ago. She still remembers that Eureka moment – it was during an innocuous chat with a colleague. Her workmate said in passing: “If we can’t make this firm a place where we want to work, that’s our problem, and no one else’s.” And that was it. The scales fell away. Emma – who joined Creaseys Accountants of Kent as an office junior in 1991 – started looking at things entirely differently. She had previously seen herself as a passenger, being piloted by others and buffeted by her surroundings, but suddenly she understood it was her choice to see the world in those passive terms. The alternative and much bolder view was to see herself as someone at the controls with the power to shape the future and the ability to work towards a vision of her own choosing. “I suddenly realised that I could control my own destiny”. This new attitude – combined with her talent – took the former office junior all the way to the top.

A few years after this initial moment of awakening, Emma was invited to become a partner. “I had put lots of hard, hard work in over the years” she says. “In the back of my mind I wondered if I would, one day, get a tap on the shoulder and an invitation to become a partner.”

But when the tap eventually came, doubts set in immediately. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this actually what I want?’ And when I analysed my hesitation, it was because I was worried I would become part of the establishment. I didn’t see myself as a besuited, golf-club toting, red-wine quaffing accountant and feared I might very quickly morph into one without realising.”

What convinced Emma to say yes was the intriguing project she was offered. She was given the opportunity to lead a group who would plot the firm’s reinvention. “That excited me,” she says, “so after agreeing to the partnership role, I put together a group of people from all levels and began with a blank sheet of paper which we called ‘the vision board’. We tried to imagine what the firm might look like in 10 years’ time and we began to think about how we would like it to look.”

After 12 demanding months, Emma had formulated a plan to modernise the 150-year-old firm by moving away from a partnership culture towards a more corporate structure, headed by a CEO.

It was while driving to a meeting to present the plan to her fellow partners that she experienced a second light-bulb moment. Emma explains: “In the car it dawned on me that I would have to put my name in the hat for the CEO role, otherwise no one would think I believed in the plan. I was still the new kid on the block partner-wise, but not putting myself forward would show a lack of conviction, which was at odds with how strongly I felt about the plan.”

Showing the courage of her convictions, Emma put herself forward and, to her genuine shock and surprise, she was voted in as CEO. The woman who had started on the very bottom rung had climbed all the way to the top.

Emma’s journey to CEO is a fantastic tale but it is only half the story because during her years as Creaseys’ leader she has overcome many challenges and learned a huge amount. Three lessons stand out; all of which, she believes, are fundamental to the firm’s success.

First, a corporate structure leads to bolder, more effective decision making. “When yourun a firm by committee – which often happens in partnerships – all decisions tend to get reduced to something everyone can tolerate,” Emma says. “When that happens nobody loves the final decision and there’s no passion for it – the only reason it stands is because nobody hates it enough to kick off. That leads to blandness, which is not compatible with success.”

Second, crystal clarity around a firm’s purpose and values results in faster forward momentum. “We’ve evolved the firm again since I became CEO and we now have complete clarity as to who we are and where we’re going,” says Emma. “Everyone knows their role and is confident about where they’re heading. And actually, how they reach that destination is down to each individual. They have the power to decide. You can’t achieve that without a clear structure and a lucid vision of what you want the firm to be like. Once everyone knows the rules of the game, they can concentrate on playing their best game every day.” And, with the firm set to celebrate a milestone birthday this year, Emma has used this to gain even more clarity about what’s next. “We’re really excited about celebrating our first 150 years, yet we are always conscious about looking forward. It’s wonderful to have this incredible legacy to celebrate, but what really excites us is what comes next. What’s next for the firm, next for our clients and next for the team.”

Third, complete honesty between partners and colleagues should be embraced because it leads to a healthier, more effective workplace. “There has to be complete honesty in the partnership,” says Emma. “That sounds easy but it takes courage and hard work. It’s simple to say we’ll all be honest with each other, starting now. But there’s paying lip service to honesty and then there’s being genuinely honest. When we introduced partner appraisals, we initially asked for anonymous peer feedback, but we soon found that partners spent the whole year trying to work out who had written challenging comments so they could then justify ignoring them. So we changed the system: we decided to put our names to our peer feedback. The result has been amazingly positive. The feedback became more balanced – people pulled out the positives to balance the negatives, and this allowed everyone to see the differences between each individual and, over time, to celebrate those differences. Honesty builds trust, and trust enables people to let others get on with doing what they do best.”

Emma’s third and final nugget is entirely in keeping with her incredible career journey, which has been fuelled by honesty and courage at every turn. More than 20 years ago, she was honest enough with herself to recognise she had the power to influence her destiny, and that of her firm. She then had the courage to act on that revelation. A few years later, a similar moment of clarity propelled her to the top job. Having created a new vision for the firm, she was honest with herself again, bravely saying: “If I truly believe in this plan – and I do – then I will put my hand up to carry it out.” Her colleagues recognised both the incisive logic of her statement and her innate ability to carry it out. They, and Emma, have never looked back.