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Episode 18:

Looking Back – Moving Forward

Jeremy Clopton and Heath Alloway

Description

On Episode 18 of The Upstream Leader, Jeremy Clopton and Heath Alloway come together to discuss the podcast’s first year. They look back at key insights they’ve gleaned from their guests, and their own work in the profession, while discussing strategies and mindsets to aid firms and accountants in forging their futures.
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About the Guest

Jeremy Clopton and Heath Alloway are your hosts for The Upstream Leader Podcast.
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Highlights

Welcome to The Upstream Leader. My name is Jeremy Clopton. Glad to be with you here today. I’m joined in the studio today by Heath Alloway, and we are really excited about this episode. It’s a bit of a different one, as it is one of our quarterly recaps, but we’re right at the end of the year as we’re recording this—when it goes live, we will be into the beginning of 2022.

So we’re really looking at, how do we look back and move forward at the same time? We’re at that end-of-year process, and it’s such an interesting time for everybody where it seems that everyone is trying to reflect on the last year, they’re trying to figure out how do we forget about the last year, maybe, how do we think about the next year? And there’s probably some type of a blend in the middle there where we want to have some reflection, we want to have some looking forward.

And Heath, I know this is something that you talk about quite a bit, and you and I have talked about quite a bit is the importance of reflection. I’d like to get your thoughts: What do you see is the value of reflecting on the last year as you get ready for 2022?

Jeremy, there’s a lot of value. But just kind of starting, when it happens and how it happens for me, I’ll just share kind of how I approach it. Many times it’s unexpected times where maybe I’m driving into the office or on the highway, you know, just some of that, what I’d call alone time, when there’s no other distractions around. And really just, it’s that power of mental time travel. You can go a lot of places in a short amount of time.

And part of the reason why I think reflection is so critical, is this kind of approach to constant learning. You’re always trying to learn, and whenever I reflect, it puts me in a position to have an honest conversation with myself: what’s went well, what has not went well. And I think one of the most important things for people to think about, especially as you know, as everyone listening knows, the last 12 to 24 months, it’s been a little unique. And you and I have talked about sometimes when we’re out of our comfort zone, we start operating out of emotion and fear.

And in the very beginning, we heard the terminology about “normal” or “getting back to normal.” I see it as a constant learning. And let’s not forget about the good things. Let’s not forget about the blessings that came along with this, and some of the various changes that we’re seeing in our profession. And so if we forget about the positives, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negatives, and that can kind of consume you.

So not only that, I think it gives you a path for moving forward. Jeremy, one of the big things we’ve talked a lot about is the power of goal setting. And one thing since I’ve joined from Upstream, I was always one of those who was very big on like, the year end goals and not really the micro goals or the small things. And I’ve heard you and Sam talk about just the small things or honing in on one or two or three things. Give us a little bit of insight on you know, we talked about reflection, but then how does goal setting play into that process?

To me goal setting is really the transition. Because reflection for me is all about what can I look back on and not dwell on what went poorly. I’ll tell you early in my career, that was the easier side of that is, well, “Here’s everything that I did wrong that I needed to do better.” But for me, it’s figuring out okay, what was working that I need to do more of? And that is where the goal setting comes in. And one of the things that we talked about early on in this podcast, right, was what is the goal for this podcast? And it was really easy to say up front, “Oh, well, the goal is to make a difference in the lives of leaders in our profession or otherwise.” And if we just said that, at the very start, it would have been easy to kind of lose sight of that. But to your point of goal setting being, how do you consistently get better, it was every episode, it was asking that question. And to me, that’s what goal setting is.

As I go into 2022 it’s not waiting for necessarily the calendar to turn, but how do I get better each day? And it’s interesting, I was actually speaking to another company that’s here in the building that our office is in about a week and a half ago about goal setting. And as I was thinking about that, and you know, when you have somebody to ask, “Well, how do you come talk to our team about goal setting?” And I’m sitting here thinking, how how do I wrap that up into five to ten minutes because it’s just so hard to do.

But what I came back to when I think about goal setting is, I want to look back on the year and say, “Okay, is there anything that was holding me back then I need to improve? But what do I need to keep doing more of?” And when I think about it, it does go back to a James Clear idea of how do you get 1% better? How do you get 1% better every single day? And he says, and I checked the math as any good accountant would, right? I checked the math on this that you get one 1% better every single day, at the end of the year, you’re 37 times better.

I like it.

But it isn’t like you’re gonna start January 1 with, how do I get 37 times better this year? That’s just outlandish and hard to think about.

So Jeremy, with that, do you believe in New Year’s resolutions?

I believe they’re kind of fun. I don’t know that I really do. Because I am definitely more of, what do I want to focus on getting better in? It’s funny, my wife and I were just having that conversation over the weekend, as we were driving out to see some family, is how do we just keep getting better and different areas that we want to focus in on? And it’s not like we’re waiting until January 1, and it’s not like, you know, January 1’s gonna be that magic starting point. But it’s just something to keep top of mind, and how do you get a little bit better every single day?

That’s my thoughts on goal setting. I know you have a lot of goal setting ideas as well, and it’s transitioned probably from, you know, like you said, the annual goals to smaller goals. But what are your thoughts on goal setting and how that fits in?

Yeah, one thing that’s been very helpful for me, it’s I think there’s a stat out there that shows what, 75 to 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. And you know, we do talk about this in some of our different sessions. But you know, sometimes we have that annual goal, you’ll wait till October or November. But instead of goal setting, and this is probably more personally—I say that but it applies to all areas of my life. But several years ago, our chief marketing officer that I worked with used the Jon Gordon concept of the One Word Challenge, and that’s honing in on one word for the year.

And for whatever reason, when I started that, it allowed me throughout the year to focus in on that one [word]. And I’ve had different words from service, ethos, you know, keeping [myself] aligned and on track. So those type of words, I write those down, I have them where I can see them. And it reminds me that I have every day and try to take that in what I do every day. And that’s that’s been very helpful for me. And for those that didn’t have a chance to write it down, it’s Jon Gordon, The Power of Positive Leadership, some really good resources around that. So that’s been very helpful for me.

Well, I think one of the things that you just said, that’s so important for leaders and where it applies, whether it’s personal or professional, right now it’s all a blend really, anyway, I think—we’ve all come to that realization over the past couple years—is you write it down and keep it in front of you. There is so much power in having your goal, having your focus, in front of you.

And I’ve seen that, in my experience recently with productivity. That’s a topic that everybody’s been talking about, and I’ve long enjoyed studying productivity, and I’ve realized that you can study so much that you’re unproductive, right? That kind of goes without saying. But I’ve adopted the Full Focus Planner, which is a Michael Hyatt concept and a product as well. (And we don’t get anything for other people using that.) But for me, what it does, is it lays out every single day, what are the three most important things that I need to do today? And to me, that’s both professional and personal, right? My kids’ stuff shows up on my three most important things, just the same as a presentation or a webinar or a conference.

Yeah, I love that thought.

Having it in front of you, it’s amazing how much of an impact that has just on a daily basis toward reaching your goals, and then stepping back periodically and saying, “Okay, what am I doing to get closer to my big picture goal?” Am I in line in your example with that one word?

So Jeremy, we’ve talked a lot about success. You know, what about from a failure standpoint? Because I think some goals are made not to be hit, and you know, I think people deal with failure in different ways, too. So just curious, one, if you want if you’ve had those situations, and then two, how have you responded to those?

There’s a delicate balance there, right? I think that some of the goals setting where it’s remarkably ambitious, right, you’ve got two different types of goals that you can fail on. Ones that you simply don’t want to do, right? “I want to stop doing this. And my goal is to fail at that habit.” Others are so ambitious, that they’re just hard to hit. And it’s funny, I’ve been having this conversation a lot with my nine year old. She’s getting into art, and she’s, you know, I mean, studying a lot of art. She has a ton of books, and I’m still sitting here trying to draw a stick figure and she’s got, you know, action shots, and she’s trying to ask, you know, where does the collarbone line up, and getting proportions and everything.

To me, when you set an ambitious goal, it’s recognizing that progress is still good. And you may not have hit the goal, it may not have been as resounding a success as you wanted, but I go back to what I keep telling her which is, a page with a drawing on it is better than a blank page, because you tried.

I like that.

And man, that’s so important. And it reminds me of a quote that I actually got a couple months ago from an individual that has a it’s actually an apparel line that I’m a fan of, and it said, “Imperfect action stops incessant overthinking.” That’s really hard for those of us that like to hit our goals and be successful, because by definition, imperfect action means you didn’t hit it. But it’s the fact that you were in action, not motion. You were taking a step toward it, rather than just thinking about how to do that. That, for me, is so important, and it makes a big difference.

Yeah, I need to write that down, as we’re talking through that, because that’s something I think I personally struggle with from time to time. So for those of you I have not spent a ton of time with, on the personality test, one of my strongest traits is “Futuristic.” So I’m thinking, you know, three years, five years, ten years, fifteen years down the road. And sometimes I catch myself being my own worst critic. And to find balance, because sometimes that can be fueled to motivate, and motivation. Other times it can more of that negative impact of, especially, I think, in today’s world of comparison—or if you start thinking, “Oh, this person’s done that or this firm has done that,” and starting to compare that—to remove that constant motion or constant change in success. So I think that’s important to think about.

Well Jeremy, let’s transition a little bit. You and I, we, you know, not only just the two of us, but we’ve had many conversations. It’s been a bit of a unique year, and I think there’s been some challenges, but I think also our profession has really, when I look back, there’s been a lot of grit. And firms have stepped up. They’ve maybe found out they’re better at change than what they initially thought.

But let’s take a look at this last year, and then maybe look forward. So I’d love to get your thoughts on kind of where we’re at today. We continue to hear about capacity—the profession is changing. But also, sometimes it’s easy to get honed in on that doom and gloom and not see the positive things that are changing. So one, I guess it’s kind of a two pronged question, one, what are you seeing today, what are the positives? One of the things I think will come out a year from now, three years from now, five years from now, I think our profession comes out stronger for it.

Yeah.

Yes, it’s hard. But I think we come out stronger.

It’s definitely hard. And it goes back to that idea that we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in five. And I think we overestimate the negativity in the moment, and sometimes lose sight of some of the positive changes it’s going to drive.

So as we thought about, as I think back over this year, one of the one of the things that really strikes me is at the beginning of the year, everybody was thinking, “Okay, we’re gonna get out of this thing that we’re in, whatever it is,” and everybody was trying to figure out how do we get back to normal? My biggest observation is we’ve all hopefully, it seems, have come to the realization, we’re not trying to find normal, we’re trying to find where are we at, and recognizing we’ve got change and change is going to keep happening.

I would never want to downplay the severity of the pandemic, and all of the negative that has happened worldwide by any stretch. But within our profession, and individually, there have been some positives that have come out of it, some awareness. And my big observation is, it has really started a lot of hard conversations in firms.

A lot of the doom and gloom that everybody’s talking about with capacity and retention and people leaving and the difficulty in recruiting—those are all bad things. Don’t get me wrong. But what all of that has now spurred is a level of conversation and candor within firms that we didn’t really see before.

People are raising issues that are important to them. They’re having conversations about what an ideal workplace seems like. That has been really important for firms. It’s interesting, the biggest challenge that I would say our profession has faced in the last year is actually uncertainty. We don’t know if we’re coming out of a pandemic, we don’t know what it looks like to move back to the office. I heard somebody recently called this move back to in person as “The Big Awkward.”

And Jeremy, some of that, though, you know, I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer to that.

No.

I think everyone’s learning as we go. And it’s kind of that infinite mindset of, you know, we don’t win or lose if a firm closes or we don’t win or lose if someone leaves the profession. But the game is changing. And I think it’s changed for at least the foreseeable future, honestly, if not for a very long time.

And one of the big changes is we’ve got to have more conversations, more candor about what’s important to people. And that is really one of the biggest learnings coming out of the last year is that people want to have conversations. And we were really good as a profession, and I would say probably across all industries, about communicating immediately when all this happened at the very beginning of the pandemic. Everybody communicated, communicated, communicated. We were very intentional about creating connection.

And then as time wore on, we kind of stopped the intentionality. And we thought, “Oh, well, it will just naturally happen.” To remove uncertainty, because uncertainty leads to fear, we’ve got to communicate. And we’ve got to let people talk about what are their concerns? Is that mental health? Is it diversity, equity and inclusion? What is important to them? Is it work-life balance? As much as everybody’s probably tired of that topic, it’s not going anywhere. And more and more people have realized that, that is important to them, and it’s important to their people, and they’ve got to come up with how are we to really how are we going to address that.

Jeremy, one thing you hit on too, the emotional side of it, that’s one thing that I’ve learned more about the past year. It was a topic that I tackled, and read and studied, and then actually doing more of that in the future. But the one thing that’s really stuck with me about when some of the negative emotions can come in, is when your expectations don’t meet the reality of the situation.

And I’m not saying lose hope of where you’re trying to go, but sometimes our expectations are here, and the reality is not there, and then when we see that, you know, that’s when some of those negative emotions—and I have some examples of one, sometimes, you know, I’ve heard the story about someone’s taken a new job or a new role, and they’ve been promised all these things, and then they get there, and maybe they’re facing some of the exact same issues that they were running from. And those expectations don’t meet the reality of the situation.

I’ve used my own personal example, and you went through this maybe a little bit as well, although you got moved in a lot quicker than I did. Just like, buying a house. It’s so exciting on the front end. And there’s that level of excitement, and the expectation, and then you get there, and then you have all your boxes you have to unpack. I shared the story that we actually had bats that we had to have removed. That was that was a complete, you know, unknown. We had recently in our master bathroom, there was a huge leak that we had. So it’s things like that and expectations not meeting the reality of the situation. I think sometimes we have to step back and think about it, especially in those high emotion type situations.

And I think that can play a big role in our firm cultures right now. I think it can play a big role in retention, recruiting. And some of us just being empathetic and in perspective and having some of those conversations of, “Hey, are you doing okay,” or “What’s going on?” You know, that’s, I think, more important now than ever.

Yeah. And a lot of those conversations, you know, historically have kind of been off the table, right? It’s been “Let’s talk business, let’s talk transactional, let’s focus on that.” And it’s becoming more normalized to talk about what are people’s concerns. And retention is a huge issue in our profession right now. It’s gotten worse as the year’s progressed, it’s likely going to continue to be challenging as the next year goes on, and I got an email this morning, actually, as we’re talking right now that has a headline in there, “over 70% of accounting profession eyeing opportunities elsewhere.” I haven’t gone into that.

But I mean, when you’re seeing headlines like that, there’s a problem. And is the grass greener on the other side? It could be—that is a reality. But what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to start having conversations about why are you looking elsewhere? What is important? What is it that we could change? And I hear a lot of firms that have said, “Oh, well, we can’t change the way that we’ve done things just to keep people, but we’re willing to change it once we lose them.” So why can’t we?

Right.

And that, to me is such an important thing for firms to consider right now for leaders to consider now as if you find yourself saying, “Well, we can’t make that change just to keep somebody,” would you be willing to make the change after the fact once you lose them, so that you don’t lose future people? And if so, why don’t you just make the change now?

Understand—as leaders, we’ve got to understand, what do we have control over? What’s a business decision? What’s a personal preference? And do we have the ability to change things, to make it a better place, to make it a better firm to keep people down to improve that retention? We’ve learned over the past two years, we can change.

100%. And Jeremy, something just said there that sparked the thought of—just even the grassroots efforts of even earlier in people’s lives of—it seems like there’s a misconception of what our profession does. And I don’t know if that’s going away anytime soon, but you think about—I share the story of whenever I was in high school growing up, that’s one of my dad’s, great friends, great family friend was a CPA. And I remember him telling the story of whenever his youngest daughter was born. It was during tax season and he took tax returns into the hospital when she was being born. And I think there’s still some of that perception of what that is.

But that recent panel discussion, there was a managing partner that was sharing that “If I would’ve left the profession whenever I had this thought when I was a senior manager, he shared that “I don’t think I would have grown my career.” He said “I would not have had my client relationships. I wouldn’t have I’ve been in a position to potentially develop others, and help them in their career path, and being that trusted advisor.”

And you look at the last couple years to people who are in a position to truly help their clients and you know that job satisfaction or career satisfaction. If you’re part of something bigger than just yourself, that can help with that. And I think it’s almost like the grassroots effort, starting in high school, maybe in middle school, or just in your communities, educating people what it means to be in our profession. And I do—I think it’s—you and I’ve joked about it, but I’m still, I love our profession, I would tell you, there’s a heck of a lot of opportunity, and embrace it.

Yeah.

So, you know, how can we change that? And I think that’s on everyone listening, I think it’s on everyone in our profession to get there. It’s not gonna happen overnight. But over time, it can equal something pretty big.

It really can. And there’s a reason that we both chose to work with accounting firms. I mean, if we didn’t love the profession, we wouldn’t be doing it. And there are so many people that work with accounting firms, so many people in firms, we have so much opportunity in the profession. Yes, technology is playing a role. No, it’s not going to render us useless. There is always going to be, in my view, a desire and a need to work with a financial expert. And that’s exactly what we are.

So Jeremy, where do you see our profession five years from now?

Five years from now, I think we’re going to have to be better advisors. That’s really where I see it, is we’re going to be more focused on problem solving than we are today. Will we be 100% advisory, no compliance? I don’t know that we will. There’s still going to be some compliance work out there. You know, I think the bigger firms are—it seems there’s a trend that they’re moving a little bit away from the compliance more to the advisory side, which for mid, you know, mid-sized, smaller firms, it gives a lot of opportunity on the compliance.

And it’s gonna shift. We’re going to be more problem solvers, we’re going to be more helpful, we’re going to be more attuned to the non-financial statement, non-tax return needs of our clients. I still think there’s going to be plenty of firms that are out there doing compliance work. It’s not going to go away overnight. I mean, technology’s been coming on board for the last—I know, I’ve been working in, and worked in analytics and AI, it’s been almost nine years now. And it still hasn’t taken over anything that I was doing at the time. It’s got opportunity.

But we’re going to be more advisory, we’re gonna probably have some, you know, a higher mix of non-accountants in the profession. We’re really going to be focused on our clients and solving their problems. What are your thoughts?

Well, something you said too. And, you know, this goes back to a recent presentation that I reviewed the same data about—you know, that thought of, will the most successful firms five or 10 years from now, will they look the most different than what they are today? And I don’t know if this is telling people where we’ll be. But I think the firm’s that are embracing change, see it as an opportunity. They actively search out those types of opportunities, they’re more proactive in that area.

I know that hard to say right now, whenever we’re focused on getting the work done for our clients. But it can either be a hindrance to a firm, or it can be pretty powerful. And I think those firms that embrace change—and please know, whenever you do, it’s not easy. You know, it goes back to a lot of times, it’s more of a people problem. I shouldn’t say problem, because sometimes there’s very valid reasons why we’re against change. But then again, I’m also not saying forget the history, because I’m big on history on how do we get to where we’re at today. But if firms can look for ways to embrace change.

And there’s a lovely—one last thought, there’s a Simon Sinek video that I watched on innovation. And he talked about how a lot of organizations, and how they approach innovation is they have this vision for whether it’s a product, a service, or whatever they’re trying to do. And then they work towards that vision. And then he said it never quite gets to exactly how they envisioned it, so they keep investing more and more time to try to get it to where they envisioned it. He shared other stories of organizations that have, I’ll call it “over innovated,” maybe went past what their original vision was, which was find the most simplistic thing you can do with the highest probability of success, and just keep on doing that, and eventually bypasses you work with that original vision. So I don’t know if that’s necessarily where we’re going, but maybe thoughts on how to get there.

Yeah, it definitely means that we’re going to be more innovative.

So as we wrap up, this episode as 2021’s coming to a close and you’re going to be listening to this kicking it off in 2022, I’ll just give a couple thoughts for leaders out there and then, Heath I’ll ask you to do the same.

What I would say is this: As you’re looking into 2022 and building on what Heath just said, have an idea as to where you’re where you’re wanting to go. Because to me that vision for yourself individually as a leader is so important. Where is it that you want to be one year, three years, five years down the road. But I would encourage you to focus on progress, focus on getting better. Don’t focus on being perfect, don’t focus on being the best. Because both of those—perfection and being the best—to me, have an indication that there’s a finish line. And as a leader, there is no finish line. As a leader, you are always striving to get better. So embracing that idea of, how do I get 1% better every day, and maybe it’s not 1% in the same area every day, but it’s 1% here, it’s 1% in that area, but a consistent drive to get better.  As you look at your goal setting breaking it down into smaller goals, maybe it’s monthly, maybe it’s quarterly, what can you do to end the year better? And whatever key areas of focus that you want, than you began the year.

And I’ll add one thing, and it goes back to something that Heath mentioned earlier, which was around this concept of comparison, I want you to get better for you. Don’t get better so that you’re going to compare better to somebody else. I heard somebody a couple weeks ago shared with me, we were talking about the idea of comparison is that comparison is the thief of joy. And that really stuck with me, because as a competitive individual, one of my strengths, finder traits, is competition. I can easily find myself comparing, and it really does, it really does have that impact. So don’t get better, so that you stack up against others in a more favorable light. That goes back to that idea of you know, not an absolute mindset, but more of a mindset of abundance. How can you get better? And how does that contribute to everyone in the firm getting better as well? And work on that each and every day. Heath, your thoughts?

Well, Jeremy, before I get my thoughts—for those, you will not see us on videos, you’ll just hear our voice—Jeremy talked about competitive. He has a shirt on that says “Compete every day, your life is worth it.” So I trust that he’s telling us the truth, that that’s one of his strongest skill sets.

So Jeremy, I wanna take a little different approach. Just it’s more top of mind on the emotional intelligence side. This is something that I think has made a difference in how I interact. And you think of what’s going on, you just never know what’s going on with someone. So that emotional side, we’ve heard it referred to as “soft skills.” I think you’ve mentioned core leadership skills, I think they’re just core people skills. And one of the things that really stuck out to me was emotions are contagious—you can see it, you can feel it across our profession. So thinking about the intentionality of your emotions, how you impact others.

So during peak season, if it’s just even a walk of gratitude, or shooting a note to someone to uplift them in their day, or maybe it’s an interaction with a client. And understand that we will get through this, we will figure out a way to do it. So those emotions, typically in a situation where maybe even negative emotion or high emotion—usually the person with the highest emotion is the one that dominates, you know, the other person will follow.

So just think about that and how it can be contagious throughout those you work with, your team members, your clients. And who knows, you know? You do some of that throughout the year, maybe it can make a big difference.

So those are my final thoughts, Jeremy. I appreciate everyone listening in. I hope you had a good takeaway or two from our conversation, and we look forward to talking to you soon. Thank you.

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