Embracing volatility and leading with tech, with Ohran Gobrin from Fuller Landau

  • The only constant thing business leaders can rely on is change. With volatility as the new normal, executives should be adaptable and responsive to challenges. 

  • Younger generations expect more give-and-take from their employers. Approaching leadership with an employee-centric lens is an exercise worth exploring. 

  • The role of technology in business is unavoidable. C-suites must include experts who can speak directly to digital capabilities and advancements. 

Two expats walk into a Canadian breakfast spot: one Australian, the other South African.

It’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the last time Ohran Gobrin, COO of Fuller Landau in Toronto, and Accounting Leaders Podcast host and Karbon CEO, Stuart McLeod, got together face-to-face to share a maple-glazed donut or two. Neither had a clue that a catastrophic pandemic was on the horizon. 

A lot has changed in the accounting space over the last two years, and both Ohran and Stuart have thoughts about how their adopted countries can grow in the aftermath of COVID-19. 

Ohran joins Stuart for a candid conversation about the future of accounting, where tech fits into the big picture, and how business leaders should shift their thinking to adopt an employee-centric mindset in the new normal. 

Embrace the volatility 

According to Ohran, our constant state of adaptation is something we need to accept. “It’s the new normal,” he explains. He believes that when leaders embrace the volatility, they’ll set themselves up to better weather the storm.

One case in point: how Canada has managed its response to COVID-19 with care and thoughtfulness. While the region has moved slower than some other areas, Ohran credits that slow and steady strategy with his company’s continued success and many of his client’s successes. 

But he’s also quick to admit that there’s still much to be revealed as the situation continues—for example, whether or not stimulus efforts are artificially inflating the economy.

“Across so many verticals, whether it’s economic, medical, social, the responses have been reactive and necessarily so,” Ohran says on the podcast. “The ability to really forecast longer term and try and understand where this all goes is limited.” 

How this all plays out remains to be seen, but Ohran believes that this transition period requires ongoing attention and adaptation—with the acknowledgement that things may yet change further. 

“There’s a sort of language out there as if we’re going through something and there’s sunshine on the other side. And I think it’s important as humans to live with that element of hope,” Ohran explains. “But there’s also the reality that the level of volatility is just a lot higher... [So] we need to be open to acknowledging and then be responsibly responsive to a changing environment.”

Perhaps the merging of eternal optimism with pragmatism speaks to Ohran’s roots: a South African mechanical engineer turned Canadian accounting firm COO. Adaptation has long been a practice throughout his career. 

A case for employee-centricity

What will work life look like moving forward? It’s a question that Fuller Landau is exploring, with its team currently committed to a hybrid model through the end of 2021. 

“We’ve declared a hybrid model as a functional operational model. And we’re not assuming anything. We’re now pushing it down to the individual groups to explore that idea among themselves and start gathering ideas and see what that means,” Ohran shares. 

“As we’ve rolled it out, at the launch, I said to the firm, ‘First of all, we have to realize that this is net-new.’ There are holy cows that are going to get slaughtered, but you have to make sure that we’re replacing it with something.”

He made sure to be upfront with his firm about the process, explaining that the team probably wouldn’t get it right the first time—finding a new model would likely need a few iterations. 

The strategy reflects not just Fuller Landau’s culture but also the Canadian mindset. Ohran believes Canadian companies tend to be more employee-centric than other cultures, citing this employee vs. corporate focus as one of the biggest divides between Canadian and U.S. cultures. 

Stuart chimes in, adding that even big Silicon Valley tech companies with employee-centric reputations like Apple and Google have struggled to maintain that approach during these volatile times.

This shift, however, is not unique to Canadian companies; both Stuart and Ohran believe that a seismic shift is happening in workforces around the world. And it’s bigger than the return-to-the-office debate. 

As Stuart explains, “There’s the rise of the B Corp and all kinds of things where, well, perhaps the younger generation (or at least, the more open-minded generation) is going to ask us for more and expect more of their employers.” 

Recommended reading: Are accountants more likely to return to offices? Here are the latest statistics.

A new kind of merger: when tech meets accounting

As the debate about employee-centric planning continues, another need has also emerged in Ohran’s company and many of the companies that Fuller Landau serves: the infiltration of technology in corporate culture. 

Ohran’s latest project is designed to directly address this client need. He serves at the helm of Fuller Digital, an offshoot of Fuller Landau that supports clients navigating digital transformations. 

As tech grows more important in day-to-day life, the need for companies to develop digital strategies becomes more urgent. As a result, more companies are asking essential questions about how technology tools can support growth. Yet simultaneously, companies also seek to preserve human connections.

It’s a question that many clients are asking internally, but they’re also asking for guidance from their trusted accountants and financial advisors. Ohran believes it’s a grossly under-addressed concern. 

The line between technology and business has disappeared. Technology is a C-level function that needs to be at the strategy table.
Ohran Gobrin, Fuller Landau

How do accounting firms support this shift in the global business culture? 

In the short term, firms may look to hire through a skills-based lens, bringing in more tech-savvy people with computer science backgrounds who can better speak to these issues. 

But Ohran suggests this isn’t the only solution, explaining that this issue should be addressed when educating and training accountants.

He hopes that in the long run, accountants will emerge from their schooling with a more profound knowledge of finances, but also how technology and computer science impact a company’s financial future. 

Bask in the (traditional) “awesomeness” of it all 

Before the end of his conversation with Stuart, Ohran talks about being cross-examined in the courtroom. His experience of providing legal expertise in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice is one he won’t forget—even a “privilege” for developing business leadership skills.

It’s a life passage that he believes every leader should go through. “The awesomeness of the experience is palpable,” says Ohran. 

He’s not just referring to the revered halls and hallowed courtrooms, but to the exercise in precision and professionalism that comes with a cross-examination. 

“It sensitizes you to a level of exactitude,” he explains. And while business leaders are used to having their decisions challenged, the formal, structured format of the courts takes this questioning to different heights. 

It’s an opportunity that he hopes all leaders get to experience. “It’s grounding, and it’s humbling. You suddenly realize you’re in an institution that’s larger than you.” 

And if there’s one thing these past two volatile years have taught us, it’s that we’re all part of something bigger.

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