Alumnus Steven Harris promoted to managing partner at RubinBrown LLP
“It checked off all the boxes that I needed: great culture, great people, great learning environment and overall great experience,” Harris said. “It led me to believe, ‘I could make it here.’ I saw a lot of good people overall who wanted to see me be successful, and that was enough for me to really anchor in this organization.”
He did just that.
After graduating from UMSL with a degree in accounting in 2000, Harris went to work for the Clayton-based accounting and professional consulting firm. Over the past 20 years, he has steadily climbed the executive ladder and become a leader in the organization.
In 2010, the firm named Harris a partner in Entrepreneurial and Assurance Services groups. Around 2016, he also became chairman of the board of the National Association of Black Accountants. In May, RubinBrown promoted him to managing partner, only the fourth in the firm’s 70-year history.
“I always knew I wanted to be a partner,” he said. “I never imagined I would be managing partner. It’s still surreal as I sit here in the role and can’t believe that I’m doing it.”
His ascent to the top of the organization began with the lessons he learned working with his father, E.C., as a kid and the opportunities he found at UMSL.
E.C. owned and operated a drapery installment business in north St. Louis County, and Harris watched his father – his first mentor and best friend – build the business while working with him on weekends and during summer vacation. To this day, he remembers his father’s commitment to service.
“It really started with learning from him on how to treat people like people, build a great network, try to do a quality job and good things happen,” he said. “I spent a lot of summers working with him. He’s gone now, so I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world.”
Harris had several options after graduating from Normandy High School. He could have gone to the University of Missouri–Columbia or out of state to the University of Michigan, but he decided to stay close to home and attend UMSL. It’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
Initially, Harris intended to study engineering but changed course after taking several accounting classes with Dave Ganz, then associate dean and director of undergraduate studies in the College of Business Administration.
“The way Dave would explain it, he would take real-life scenarios and just bring them to life,” Harris recounted. “You’re working on math, but you’re really working through a real-life scenario, which is really, really special.”
While Harris had a talent for the mathematics involved in engineering, he was drawn to the team dynamic of businesses and the problem-solving he encountered in Ganz’s classes. It led him to a profession he never knew he would enjoy so much.
In addition to his studies, Harris worked full-time in catering and banquet set-up at the Marriott St. Louis Airport, a flexible job perfect for a college student. While Harris juggled school and work, he still made the most of his time at UMSL. He credits his positive experience to UMSL’s devoted academic advisors and the lifelong friends he made in the College of Business Administration.
“I got everything I could out of those years of my life,” he said. “I did everything and had no regrets because that whole experience was great. I would tell anybody, ‘If you want a team member in your organization who’s willing to work hard and give you 150% – not only in what they do for the organization but what they do for the communities they live in – hire an UMSL student.’”
RubinBrown hired Harris as a staff accountant after he interned with the firm through INROADS, a program that aims to place underserved youth in corporate and community leadership roles. Early on at the firm, he benefitted from several mentors such as Steve Hays and John Herber, who showed him the ropes of the profession. At first, he received a lot of tough love and frank feedback, but it helped him grow into the leader he’s now become.
“The mentors that I had the pleasure, and privilege, of working with at this organization transformed my life in so many ways on both the professional and personal side,” he said. “My mentors taught me how to be a professional. Watching them also taught me how to be, not just a great professional, but be a professional that’s also a father, husband and all those things.”
However, the learning process has been ongoing over the course of his career. When Harris became a partner in 2010, there were aspects of the senior leadership position he had to master.
“No. 1, I had to learn I had to be vulnerable,” he said. “There’s a significant level of leadership trust that goes into growing an organization, and leadership trust, to me, is when people trust you to make good decisions that are in the best interest of the firm. That starts with you being vulnerable and being transparent about who you are and what you do.”
The concept of servant leadership has been valuable as a leader at RubinBrown. Harris believes humility and empathy are the keys to putting that philosophy into practice. To build a collaborative organization poised for growth, it’s important to make sure the needs of others are met first before thinking about yourself.
“I thank my mother for that,” Harris said. “She instills that into me even to this day. I just understand the value of being humble about what you do.”
Harris is currently transitioning into his role as managing partner. The person who held the seat before him is still involved in the firm, so he’s had the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and receive guidance.
One of the major challenges has been adjusting to the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. The issues the managing partners faced three years ago have changed, and now Harris is examining how to engage team members, compete in the marketplace and attract talented new people to the profession in the aftermath. He’s also concerned with continuing to grow an organization that now has 750 employees and offices in Chicago, Denver, Nashville, Kansas City and Las Vegas.
Though at the end of the day, these are good problems to have for Harris, who strives to enjoy each and every turn his career path has taken.
“The most important thing I had to learn is you must fun along the way,” Harris said. “You have to put energy into everything that you do and own it. Have fun and leave everything you touch better than the way you found it.”
Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=94500