An Interview with David Costello
For 17 years, David A. Costello, CPA, served as president and chief executive officer of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Currently a retiree, Mr. Costello serves on the Management Accounting Advisory Council for Vanderbilt and Lipscomb Universities and as Executive-in-Residence for Lipscomb University.
In addition, Mr. Costello is a distinguished member of his community, in Nashville, TN, and serves as chairman of the board of directors of NASBA’s Center for the Public Trust. To become better acquainted with Mr. Costello, and his journey to becoming the leader that he is today, he was interviewed for the CPT’s Board Spotlight series. The full interview can be found below.
1. What was your first position after graduating from college?
I started my career as a staff auditor for the Nashville office of Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young).
2. If you could go back in time and give some advice to yourself at 25, what would you say?
Have a better balance on relationship building. I, as many others early in their career, was overly concerned with how many hours I could work, how much I could do, learn and impress the supervisors. Relationship building was often secondary to the urgency of the tasks at hand.
3. Having served in leadership roles, how have you determined what the “right thing” was for you and your team in a difficult situation?
A critical time in my career occurred when I was in the specialty chemical business. I, as recently appointed president, learned of significant improper disposal of some of our toxic waste. Knowing that reporting such would subject our division and parent company to millions of dollars of remediation, and cost several people their jobs and reputations, caused much internal assessment for me as to right vs wrong. Or doing nothing vs wrong. I chose immediately to report the incidents. And in having done so, the improper disposal was remediated, the community was protected, and home values maintained. Probably my toughest decision as a leader, and one that I’m grateful for having made.
4. Can you share a valuable leadership or life lessons you learned after having made a mistake?
Once you realize a mistake has been made, and particularly one that affects others in a negative way, you need to own it, confess to it, and do what you can to resolve it. A complement to that approach is to resist the temptation to share the blame with others. Simply own your mistake and move on. Now, all mistakes are not the same. Ruining someone’s reputation with gossip and lies, is not the same kind of mistake as exaggerating your golf game!
5. Accounting Today named you one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting” 15 different times. In your opinion, what is the key to be a good leader?
The key, in my opinion, is simply giving your life away. And it’s tough to do, since it’s not a one- time thing but an all-the-time thing. Another way to express it is, “to love your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know of a great leader who didn’t love people. Oh, there are many famous people who led armies, companies and institutions but failed the true leadership test because their command posts were based on satisfying their own needs and wants. Hitler, Stalin and many others would fit that type of what I call “failed leadership.” You must love people, be passionate about helping others, and recognize that the more you help others get what they want or need, the less concern you’ll have about your own wants and needs.
6. Thus far in your career, what has made you the proudest?
NASBA is the crown jewel of my career. I’ve had the splendid privilege of serving in public accounting, as corporate auditor of a Fortune 500 company, as president of a specialty chemical company, having my own consulting company and as executive director of the Tennessee Board of Accountancy. But the apex, the fulfillment of my career mission, is NASBA. And it’s because of the tremendous pride (and I use that word in its most positive sense) I have in the people of NASBA. I’ve witnessed people’s lives transformed, refocused and redirected because of relationships formed in NASBA. I love the low turnover rate at NASBA, as it shows we’ve fostered a real sense of family…and you don’t leave family. And, I’ve seen so many grow professionally in our business and look forward to retiring with NASBA. People make me proud, from Ken Bishop, Alfonzo Alexander and all the way through each department, division, and function. People Pride!
7. What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
I believe everyone should have a genuine concern for others.
8. Which book would you recommend every leader read?
In my opinion, the best management book ever written is the Bible. However, there are many other books which would be consistent with the leadership principles I hold dear, including: Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin); 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey) and Good to Great (Jim Collins).
9. What is the key to developing the next generation of leaders?
Keep our young developing talent focused principally on relationships. There is, I perceive, a tendency for talented people to default to technology to an extent that quality time is expended disproportionately to social media, internet searches and other forms of fast-paced media. No matter the efficiency of communication, we must not forget that ultimately it is people with whom we communicate. And that communication must be grounded in integrity.
10. What are some of your biggest motivators?
Optimism, enthusiasm, laughter, experiencing the success of “underdogs,” and yes, even money for jobs and functions done well.
11. How has your partnership with the CPT influenced you?
We all need reminding of the right courses of decisions and actions. In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely cites research that people who are constantly exposed to lessons on doing the right things are much more inclined to make good decisions, and do the right thing. Ariely underscores that ethics can indeed be taught in the sense that awareness is critical to that teaching. The CPT is an influencer, in that it serves a critical role in constant awareness of the ethical and the right.
12. Why should every leader enroll in the CPT’s programming?
An effective leader is the organization’s model and cheerleader for values grounded in ethics. A leader must be “hands on,” a “boots-on-the-ground” influencer, which simply means he/she must be out front encouraging others in the organization to follow the lead of the leader. While the leader of an organization may very well be the most ethical person in the organization, responsibility for ethics culture begins at the top. One effective way to share a leader’s passion for ethics, honesty and integrity, is not only to model such, but be involved in exposing ethics resources to all the organization.