Leadership Tips for Managing a Successful AP Team

August 2, 2021

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Podcast Series – The IOFM Ask the Expert Team

The IOFM Ask the Expert panelists are the folks who offer up their industry knowledge and experience to answer member questions. For our podcast series, we’re speaking to them one-on-one about topics that are of particular interest to them, sharing their insight, experience and stories. Join us—have a listen!

Hosted by Royce Morse, IOFM Managing Editor


Accounts payable director Bethany Mezzadra offers insight into her techniques for developing a highly productive and engaged AP team. She candidly discusses her strategies for problem-solving and improvement during the pandemic, which coincided with a major system implementation earlier this year, and balancing performance with compassion during this difficult time.


Bethany M. Mezzadra, APM-D, APPM, MBA
Director of Disbursements, University of Maryland Medical System

A thirty-year veteran, Bethany Mezzadra specializes in healthcare and shared services environments, most recently leading the renovation of the University of Maryland Medical System’s Accounts Payable Department.

In this podcast, Ms. Mezzadra offers in-the-trenches suggestions for AP leaders. She discusses her leadership approach, which is designed to elevate both productivity and morale, sharing tips, strategies and personal experiences.

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Transcription

Interviewer:  Hello. Today we're speaking with Bethany Mezzadra, the director of dispersements at the University of Maryland Medical System. Bethany has been in finance for nearly 40 years, and in healthcare in Baltimore for 22 years. She current leads the accounts payable team at the University of Maryland Medical System, which has 36 AP team members and 25,000 employees, 6 different systems, and $2.5 billion in annual AP spend. Welcome, Bethany.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Thank you.

Interviewer:  So, today, we're going to talk about leadership and specifically leadership in accounts payable, which is a little bit different than typical leadership experiences, I think. How do you differentiate your experience in being an AP leader with other types of leadership?

00:00:56.7                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  I think that the other teams in our finance arena are very often exempt positions and the employees hold college degrees, perhaps CPA certifications, that type of thing, and that's not typically a requirement for AP jobs, which leaves us with a typically younger, less-experienced talent pool. It is a fabulous opportunity for self-starters to move through the organization and using AP as a springboard, so I think it's very important for AP leaders to educate their team members, encourage them to use tuition-reimbursement opportunities, to take advantage of seminars, getting their APS certifications, that sort of thing. I also like to provide brown-bag lunches and help these individuals to build a résumé, along with their confidence, quite frankly.

00:02:05.7

So, as a leader, I think it's important that we groom our talent to leave our nest, while trying to keep then within the organization, therefore maintaining the investment that we've put in them. Additionally, lately, I have been developing a mentorship program for leaders, and we are piloting it right now. I think that learning from the other leaders in the trenches is a great way to groom the future leaders in the AP arena.

Interviewer:  Absolutely. I do have a question, though. So, from a leadership standpoint, don't you feel a bit as though you're shooting yourself in your foot by trying to move AP people up in the organization, and have them leave?

00:02:58.2                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  Yes. And of course, only the best talent will leave. [chuckles]

Interviewer:  Of course.

Bethany Mezzadra:  However, I think leadership is not for everyone, and some people fully understand that. For example, I have an individual on my team today who was a leader and no longer wants to embrace the stress and administrative paperwork that goes along with that, so she has stepped down for it, which, of course, allows other people to move into those new positions.

Interviewer:  Interesting. One thing that strikes me is that being a leader—back up a minute. Being a subject matter expert in accounts payable doesn't necessarily make a good leader. There's a different skillset there.

00:03:55.8                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  There is a completely different skillset there. I think good leaders make leading look very, very easy, and it is not. It is sweat and determination. It's long hours. It's learning from mistakes and often the mistakes of others. It is putting others before yourself always, yet not worrying about who gets the credit. I think leadership is a gift. Some people are born with that gift and some people don't have that gift, yet they still try to be leaders, and that's where we find—usually—a little bit of failure. So, I think it's important that individuals know when they want to lead and have that knack, and when it's just not for you.

Interviewer:  Yeah, absolutely. It's not for everyone.

Bethany Mezzadra:  No.

00:04:56.0                  

Interviewer:  And as you say, it can be very stressful. You're trying to balance the work and you're trying to balance the people management side of things.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Right. And remember what we were saying about grooming someone to move up in the organization and out of the AP nest. It's important to remember that people don't leave bad jobs. They leave bad bosses. So, we want to try to avoid that where possible because they'll exit the organization.

Interviewer:  Right. And they have subject matter knowledge. They understand the business, presumably, and you don't want them to go because it's a big investment in time and money to retrain people that are brand new, so I understand you want to keep them in the organization. That takes into account the fact that you're looking at the organization as a leader of it, not just a leader of your department, so you're not just all about accounts payable and keeping your people close to you, because not only does that not do them a service, but it doesn't do the organization a service if they have skills that can be employed elsewhere in the organization.

00:06:05.7                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  Yes, that's right. An interesting thing about accounts payable is that we touch every aspect of any organization, so we touch legal. We touch tax. Of course we're a part of finance. We're involved in transferring garnishments to payroll. We touch every single part of the organization. So, when I have excellent individuals who are exhibiting outstanding customer service skills, there are other managers who are trying to pull them away all the time. [laughter]

Interviewer:  I guess if they do that, that shows that you succeeded on your side of things.

Bethany Mezzadra:  It does make me happy for the individual who has an opportunity to move on and experience other aspects of, in our case, healthcare. I think it's fabulous, yes.

00:06:57.4                  

Interviewer:  That's wonderful to hear. That's the kind of boss that everyone wants to work for is somebody who has their best interests at heart. So, what's your specific recipe for leadership success?

Bethany Mezzadra:  [chuckles] Very good question. I think in the AP world we know that things can change on a dime, and the ability to change gears very quickly and juggle many priorities at one time is imperative. I think, in the healthcare organizations, we also have patient safety at the forefront at all times, so, for example, if we hear that there's a vendor credit hold and they're refusing to ship some sort of important item that could be for a surgery the next day, we are on it. I need to make sure, as a good director, that I have this person and that person on point to be resolving the issue immediately and talking with the vendor to accommodate a shipment of what we need.

00:08:10.3 

So, it's important. There are lives in the mix here. That's important, the ability to quickly change gears. Also, in my world, I think over the years I have developed a particularly thick skin. It's easy to blame AP when the bill is not paid, which results in an issue. However, we all know full well that everything needs to be aligned on the front end for us to issue the payment on the back end, and I think to be able to gracefully handle insulting comments and/or kind of bullying at the hands of collectors, it's a very learned skillset. Being able to stay calm and look at the facts and explain what's going on, I think is super, super important.

00:09:08.7                  

Interviewer:  Yeah, you need to be able to rise above and see the big picture and recognize that even though you are the obvious target, if something doesn't get paid, you may not be the person responsible. But there are probably things that you can do to mitigate that, too, on your process side.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Absolutely, always. I think, in that instance, we're making sure we're looking at statements for missed invoices, all of that type of thing, as well as training and explaining to our endusers, and technically our stakeholders, the importance of their participation in the role and accountability for their approvals and so forth so that we don't have any hiccups along the way.

Interviewer:  Absolutely. So, tell me a little bit about your own personality traits that have enabled you to assume a leadership role with confidence and capability. What do you think is a skillset that you need to be able to do that?

00:10:17.8                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  I have what I call the three Ls of leadership. They are, specifically, learning, listening and laughing. I would add "like" in there. I don't want to say "love," but you need to like your job. I think some days I really love my job, but every day I really like my job.

First, learning. Learning means not just developing my skillset as far as staying up-to-date on new technology or whatever in the AP world, but in all of the finance arena and healthcare, and helping my team to enjoy that knowledge as well. I think that's important.

00:11:07.8   

Listening, as a leader, is super important, and watching your body language, leaning into people to make them see that you're really interested in what they're saying. When you're listening to your team members, you're learning right then and there. You're hearing things that they are challenged with, and that could be in their personal life or in their work life. And when you're listening to what challenges they face in work, you're helping probably to guide a solution, and that's what a leader does. And when you're listening to them maybe explain a hardship in their current situation personally, it may help to explain why their production numbers might not be as good as they are, and you need to be empathetic at that point. What can you do to help? Employee assistance program, that type of thing. Not to get in anyone's business, but it's nice to know what's going on very often.

00:12:09.6   

And, lately, I'll be the first one to tell you that I'm hilarious [laughter] and I try to keep people laughing. I find that, during the toughest times, if a good leader can crack a joke, you can literally feel the air soften. People then can take a breath. They know you're not angry at them because such and such happened, but together, we're gonna band together to fix this. So, those are my go-tos.

00:12:46.1                  

Interviewer:  Yeah, those sound like wonderful strategies for someone. I think it's really important. You made a vitally important comment, which is something to the nature of you don't assume that people are trying not to work. You don't assume the worst about people. You assume that they want to do a good job, and I really do think that most people do.

Bethany Mezzadra:  I believe that.

Interviewer:  You just need to clear a path for them. As you say, they may be having personal issues. Who knows? Especially in this situation right now with the pandemic and everything. There's an awful lot of personal disruption going on and problems that people are experiencing. Who knows what they're going through? So, I think it's really important and will definitely built team loyalty if you assume that they are trying to do a good job, and that all you need to do is basically clear a path for them to do that.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Yes. I think that's how a leader earns trust.

Interviewer:  Yeah, absolutely agree. So, who's your leadership mentor? Who do you look up to?

00:13:59.8                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  That's funny. There was a meeting here last week and some folks were asked to pick maybe which cartoon character or whatever describes them. Unfortunately, I don't think my leadership mentor would've been in the pile. It would be General Colin Powell. I think he has so much wisdom to share about leadership. I say we may have been in different types of trenches, but they're trenches just the same. [laughter]

Interviewer:  Good point.

Bethany Mezzadra:  One of the things that General Powell says [is] leadership is all about people. It's not about organizations. It's not about plans. It's not about strategies. It's all about the people, motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people centered. And as you probably can tell, that's absolutely what I live by.

00:14:58.7                  

Interviewer:  Yeah. I can tell. And I think your staff knows that, too.

Bethany Mezzadra:  I think so. I hope so.

Interviewer:  So, from a leadership standpoint, where have your biggest challenges been? What place in your career did you find to be the most difficult and challenging for you?

Bethany Mezzadra:  Well, I tell you. I have lots of war stories, but I don't think that anything comes close to what everyone has gone through during the pandemic. It's not something any of us expected to see in our lifetime certainly, and it's not anything we read about in a textbook. So, I think measuring productivity—again, while considering that we've got team members who are being expected to virtually teach their children and their grandchildren in some cases, dealing with friends and family who are infected and potentially in an ICU, or, worse yet, losing their lives.

00:16:09.6                  

This was a very tough time. Ironically, [UMS] went through a major system implementation go-live February 20th. And in March is when the pandemic hit. So, not only do I have a team suddenly virtual, [but] our elbow support was not beside us—our consultants who were helping us with the go-live. It ended up being a crazy game of whack-a-mole, where we would fix one issue and another would pop up, and you were throwing your hands up in the air, not quite sure where to turn next.

00:16:50.4                  

So, of course, this ended up with quite a bit of negative feedback from vendors and endusers, which required the ability to use some very strong customer service skills to dance around our shortcomings, if you will. But, additionally, the employees' morale was absolutely tanked. They were away from their colleagues, who they usually would partner with in learning, away from their leaders, and it was a very difficult time. Now we are—hopefully—through the hardest part of that transition, which, of course, was 18 months ago, and we're working very, very hard to rebuild our reputation as a team. I guess that's another conversation we can enjoy another day. I'll tell you how we made out.

00:17:47.1                  

Interviewer:  Yeah, I'd love to hear more about that. And I think you made a really key point at the beginning of our conversation, which is, in the business that you are in, it can be life and death. People assume—well, I remember a long time ago when I was in business, I had an accounts payable person call me up and say, "We have an emergency," and I said, "There's no such thing as an accounts payable emergency," but there is. [laughter] But there is.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Oh, yes.

Interviewer:  And you've experienced them, so I have a lot of respect for you, and especially now, when everything is kind of chaotic and you have the Delta variant now and probably going to see more admittances of people in serious health situations. You've got your work cut out for you.

Bethany Mezzadra:  Indeed.

Interviewer:  I truly appreciate your taking the time to talk to me, and I'm looking forward to our next conversation. Thank you so much, Bethany.

00:18:53.8                  

Bethany Mezzadra:  You are very welcome. Thank you.

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