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Rebecca Thompson’s son was just four weeks old when she started college at the University of Tulsa. She had her baby shortly after graduating from high school, and plenty of people Thompson knew assumed her plans would change—they thought she wouldn’t attend college now that she had an infant. But Thompson saw the situation differently.
“Why wouldn’t I go to school?” she says. “I knew in order to get a job and provide for myself and provide for my kid, I needed to go to college.” That blend of practicality and tenacity would prove to be an asset for Thompson and a common thread through her career.
After earning her bachelor’s degree and then her master’s degree from the University of Tulsa—no easy feat while having a child to care for—she worked for accounting firm Grant Thornton for about a decade. Today, as chief accounting officer and treasurer at Tulsa-based AAON, which develops customized commercial HVAC units, Thompson has overhauled a number of the company’s back-office functions and done crucial work to remedy problems the business had with its internal controls.
Thompson’s passion for accounting started in high school, when she took an accounting class during her senior year. It was one of those things that “just clicked” for her, she says—a language that made sense. She started her first full-time job in 2001 right after earning her degrees, working at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the audit division in Tulsa. Her timing landed her at the firm just as the Enron scandal—which Arthur Andersen was involved with—began to unfold.
“My first year on the job was very interesting because all these scandals were popping up,” she says. People were worried they might soon be out of a job, so some quit preemptively to find work elsewhere, Thompson says. But there were still clients to serve, so she was one of the people who stepped in to pick up the work. “I learned a lot that way.”
The Tulsa office of Arthur Andersen ultimately became the Tulsa office of Grant Thornton, where Thompson worked through 2012. That’s when she decided she wanted a change of pace. As a single parent, she wanted more time with her son after years of working a job with taxing hours and plenty of travel. At the time, he was around sixteen, and Thompson didn’t want to miss out on any experiences with him before he went off to college. When an opportunity came up at AAON, it seemed to be the perfect fit.
Thompson joined the company in 2012, and her first several months were intense. She spent much of her time remediating past issues AAON had with its internal controls. Once she addressed those, she took a step back to evaluate what else needed fixing in her department. There was plenty to keep her busy: she shifted her team from working with paper records to going digital; streamlined a system for reconciling accounts; set up a clear process to identify errors in reports; and, perhaps most importantly, improved communication among employees.
Leading by Example
Rebecca Thompson’s leadership style is about taking action.
“I like to lead by example,” she says. “Words are nice, but they don’t mean a whole lot if you don’t show them.” She also describes herself as direct and honest—one of her pet peeves is when managers are afraid to give negative feedback, she says.
“I realize it’s never easy to give negative feedback, but if people don’t know about it, then they can’t fix it,” Thompson says. “We’re all human and we make mistakes. But taking responsibility for it, finding ways to work through it and move forward and improve ourselves, is the most important thing.”
“Things were falling through the cracks because no one knew what anyone else was doing,” Thompson says. But she has changed that. In her role leading a team of about fifteen people as chief accounting officer and treasurer, Thompson has overhauled systems and workflow, and she makes sure the company has clean audits. Much of her work has revolved around getting AAON’s back-office functions caught up with the rest of the company after it experienced years of rapid growth, she says.
She’s a leader when it comes to breaking down silos at AAON. Thompson was part of the team that helped put a new focus on the importance of senior leadership meeting and reporting to each other regularly. That isn’t just crucial for day-to-day operations and things such as quarterly earnings reports, she says: it’s also essential for the long-term health of the business.
When Thompson started at AAON, much of the institutional knowledge existed only in people’s heads and wasn’t written down anywhere for others to learn it. That’s not sustainable once people retire and take that knowledge with them.
“One of the biggest things I learned from Grant Thornton to AAON is just being curious and having some level of professional skepticism,” Thompson says. That doesn’t mean micromanaging or not trusting that people are fulfilling their roles, she says, but it does mean following up when necessary.
When team members check in with each other, it also helps everyone understand the bigger picture of how their work fits together. “The way you learn is by asking questions. So I always ask a lot of questions, which sometimes can make people really defensive, so I have to warn people, ‘No, don’t get agitated, I’m just trying to understand,’” she explains. ”Because if I don’t really understand, then it’s hard for me to know if something went wrong.”