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Episode 22:

Leveraging Client Needs to Become a Recognized Expert

Pete Miller

Description

On Episode 22 of The Upstream Leader, Jeremy Clopton hosts Pete Miller, Shareholder at Clark Nuber, an accounting firm in Bellevue, Washington. Pete is what Jeremy calls “an expert at becoming an expert,” having established three different practices within the firm. Pete reveals that it was his passion and courage that were vital in helping him establish these initiatives within the firm and mold his career.
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About the Guest

Pete Miller, CPA, CFE is an innovative leader at Clark Nuber, an accounting firm headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. He is a Shareholder in the audit and assurance practice and serves privately-held and closely-held businesses with traditional compliance services. In addition to these duties, Pete has started several practices within the firm, including the firm’s Microsoft SSPA attestation practice which he directs, the forensic accounting and fraud investigation practice, as well as the firm’s Quality of Earnings reporting practice. Pete has been a practicing CPA (Certified Public Accountant) since 2000 and a practicing CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) since 2006. In his free time, Pete and his family enjoy the outdoors. As an avid music lover, Pete can be found drumming in the company rock band or expanding his extensive music library.

Highlights

Welcome to The Upstream Leader. Today’s episode focuses on using expertise to take your career to the next level. Many of the accounting profession are uncomfortable when talking about specialization, innovation and new service. However, embracing that discomfort and the resulting growth can lead to significant career rewards.

Pete Miller joins me today to help us figure out how to do this. Pete is an innovative leader at Clark Nuber, an accounting firm headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. He’s a shareholder in the audit and assurance practice, and serves privately held and closely held businesses with traditional compliance services. However, his expertise goes beyond compliance. Pete has started several practices within the firm, which is the basis for today’s conversation. Pete has been a practicing CPA since 2000, and a practicing Certified Fraud Examiner since 2006. In his free time, Pete and his family enjoy the outdoors, and as an avid music lover, Pete is a drummer in the company rock band, and continually expands his extensive music library. 

Today, our conversation focuses on how Pete built his expertise, has taken his career to the next level and created a practice that moves the firm forward in advisory services. Pete, welcome to The Upstream Leader.

Thank you, Jeremy, I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Yeah! I’m looking forward to the conversation. And expertise is something that we talk a lot about at Upstream Academy. And it’s important for people to understand how to become a specialist and how to build expertise. But before we do that, I want to start off the conversation the way we do all on The Upstream Leader: Briefly tell us, how did you become the leader that you are today?

Yeah, you know, I’m thankful to have had a number of wonderful mentors and support coming up through my time at the firm. And it was about five years into my career that I wanted to go find another credential and expand my learning. And I saw an opportunity actually in the forensic accounting space, to build out a practice at the firm in that area. It was something that the firm had done in the past, but not something that was really what I would call an organized practice. And as I looked around our local geography, I didn’t see any other firms really screaming that they were doing this in a big way either. So it felt like an opportunity, it was an interest area of mine. So I built a business plan and pitched that to my partners, and they said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s go for it,” and then they supported me as I grew that practice. 

And so really, I’d say that it was through some curiosity and courage on my part, to take on some of those challenges. But then also with a great deal of support from my, you know, now fellow partners at the firm, to support a new practice area, and being willing to take that on. And so that has been a formula that I’ve repeated a handful of times throughout my career, and something that has brought a lot of opportunity for me to flex some new muscles and try out some new leadership skills, and all of those things have really benefited my career.

Pete, that’s outstanding. And “career,” “courage,” and “passion” are three words that I heard you use there. You find your area of passion, then it takes a little bit of curiosity to figure out what you can do with it, and then the courage to ask for that.

And we’ve talked previously to this conversation, about some of the expertise that you’ve built, and that’s the direction that I want to go is—these new practices that you’ve built, how you have determined what’s the right expertise to get. And let’s go with the forensics practice, first and foremost. It sounds like you looked to see what is not in the marketplace, in your local area and said, “How can I build that?” That’s contrary to what a lot would do? I feel like because if there’s nobody else doing it, how do you figure out how to be successful? How did you overcome that?

Yeah, well, it’s interesting, you know, and I’ll back up just a second and say that it was even before I really knew the concept—but the idea of the the “hedgehog” that Jim Collins talks about in Good to Great. It’s something that as I look back over my career, I’ve practiced quite a bit, and now that I’m, you know, more fully aware of it, something that I search out. So those things that the market needs, that you’re good at, and that you’re passionate about—those are starting points for me when I’m looking at new opportunities.

The forensic accounting area was definitely one, and it was something that I’d been very interested in. And the very first step that I took was well, I’m going to educate myself I’m going to I’m going to build some expertise—and I went and got the Certified Fraud Examiner credential, searched that out, and learned a lot about the practice and kind of honed the craft of it.

Beyond that, I started to build a résumé—taking on projects where we could, just kind of slow and methodical at first to make sure that we were doing it the right way. But then at some point, we had a, you know, a really good résumé that we could take out to the marketplace. And at that point, we started to do what I’ll call research calls. We went out and spoke with other participants in the forensic accounting ecosystem to understand, how do you interact with forensic accounting professionals? When do you need them? What types of services are they providing? And who are you using right now? Are there opportunities out there? 

So we learned a lot about the place—the space rather—that we would be playing in, and that helped us understand what the opportunities were, where we needed to build skills, and how we could apply those skills in, you know, an engagement setting. That was a way that we built out that practice.

Let me ask a little bit about the résumé building. And my background is in the forensic space, as well, also a CFE, and actually a faculty with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiner. So I love the fact that’s one of the places you started.

How did you, as you were building a résumé, you went to go get projects to build the résumé, you just said? How did you overcome the fear of the other partners in the firm, that, we’re going to do something that’s incredibly high risk in forensics, you know, you can’t necessarily go out and just say, “Hey, this is fraud. That’s not a good thing.” You run a higher risk, you’re probably going to litigation if you take on a forensics project. How did you overcome the fears of others, that the expertise you were building could be a benefit for the firm, not just a risk?

Yeah, so a couple of things come to mind. One, it wasn’t as though that this work was new to the firm. The firm had done this kind of work in the past, but it wasn’t really well organized. If a client had an issue, the partner that had the relationship with that client would work with them and kind of figure out a way to solve the problem or help them find the solution they were looking for.

What my idea really was is well, you know, we’ve got these things kind of scattershot throughout the firm—if we funneled it down to one desk, then we could start to build some best practices, we could really start to see some efficiencies and patterns in the work, and build out a, you know, a more thorough practice that we could really take to market.

So that was the opportunity. So I had resources within the firm that were open and willing to collaborate when projects came in. And I was willing to communicate about the projects that were in place, the work that we were doing, the risk that we were taking on, and where that intersection between the experience we have, and our abilities relative to the size, the risks, the complexity of the project we were working on.
So I was pretty methodical about what we would take on, and the resources that I brought to bear within the firm to take on those projects. And because of that, the partners I was working with, we’re pretty comfortable that, yeah, this is something we can do. This is something that you know, Pete’s been trained—he has the skills to be able to serve this client in an appropriate way.

So relative to that, overcoming the fear of my partners, and other stakeholders, those are some some things that come to mind. In the world of forensics, the other piece that’s a little bit nerve wracking, is testifying if you get to that point. And that was something that you can’t model, you can’t really mimic it, until you’ve done it. And so that was personal courage—I just needed to kind of gather up some gumption and be able to take that on and just know that I know the work that I did.

Yeah.

And I know that the work that I did is supported. And I’m just gonna answer questions as they come and do my best to support the work that we did. And you know, so far that formula has worked out when I’ve needed to do that.

Definitely. Where were you in your career, when you decided to consolidate the forensics practice from something that was scattershot across the firm, into a single, going across one desk? Were you a shareholder? Were you earlier in your career? Where were you at?

I was about five years into my career. I was an early manager in our audit practice, so pretty young, honestly.

How’d you get that seat at the table?

Well, just in reaching out, doing good work, growing up through the audit department, coming with ideas, being willing to quarterback something, but also being willing to be a role player where needed. But just, you know, being in the mix and helping out. I’m a problem solver, as are many people in the accounting profession. And so long as the problem gets solved, I’m not really too worried about my role in the problem solving process. I just want to make sure that you know, a client or a colleague or whatever gets taken care of. And if I can play a part in that, then great, I’m happy to help.

Let’s build on that, and then I want to shift gears just a little bit to another practice that you started. 

But let’s say that I’m a senior, or I’m a manager—five, six years into my career, you know, sitting in my firm right now listening to this podcast. And I see something that we are doing across the firm, but it’s not centralized, and it has the potential to be leveraged, but it isn’t currently. What is your advice for that experienced senior, or that inexperienced manager—what is your advice for them, if they’re looking at that and saying, I see how we could build this new practice, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m the one to do it, because I’m not at the partner table. What’s your advice to them?

First, get yourself organized, and really build out what the idea is—what benefits will come to the firm as a result of this, what barriers or obstacles are we taking away by doing this, what’s the opportunity for you, as the senior or the manager, to build out leadership skills.

Beyond that, you know, once you’re organized, and you have a kind of a well laid out conversation piece, then it’s time to have the courageous conversation and get some support. And that might be in the form of a partner or a shareholder. It might be, you know, in the form of people that are already perhaps participating in that practice, and you’re coming up with an idea to help them improve it, or organize it or whatever—and just find some support along the way. 

And then if it’s something that you really, really are passionate about, then take it to the next level and talk about what’s the work plan? How am I going to train myself, if it’s a new practice area, or a new subject matter that you need to be an expert in? How are you going to get there and start the work of building that out?

And then also, I would say that patience is another important thing. Whenever you’re building something new like this, patience and persistence is something that’s really valuable—it takes time. It’s not something that generally happens overnight. And if you believe in it, and you see the value, and you’re committed and passionate about it, it’ll come to pass. It’s just a matter of taking the time and helping others understand the value and what you see—having them see the vision that you see.

Yeah, and patience and persistence are not mutually exclusive. 

Right.

I think sometimes, when people are talking about it, they feel like it is a well, I’ve either got to be patient, or I’ve got to be persistent. You can be both. You don’t want to lose sight of it, you don’t want to let it go. So you’ve got to be persistent in that fact. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it happens overnight. You’ve really got to embrace both of those which can feel like sometimes quite a bit of “hurry up and wait,” but it’s, you’ve got to be ready for when that time comes, you’ve got to be knocking on that door. And I love your idea there about being organized and focusing on the benefits, the barriers, the opportunities—you’re really making the business case for it, to be an entrepreneur within a firm. And that works really well when you can—it’s easy to make the business case or easier, I should say, when you see everything that’s happening in the firm where the services already being provided.

So let’s pivot to one of your other services that you’ve launched within Clark Nuber. And that is a technology-related practice, where you’ve really embraced the hedgehog concept here from Collins that says, you know, being the best in the world at it, as I understand it, you are one of, we’ll call it less than ten individuals in the world that are pre-approved to provide a very specific type of service on behalf of, or for Microsoft clients.

When you launched that service, it isn’t like the firm was already doing it—somebody asked about it and you thought, “I don’t know how, but I know we can, so I’m gonna say yes.” Talk about that courage, because to me, that’s next level courage. That’s not “I’m gonna go have a hard conversation,” that’s, “We’re gonna say we can do something we’ve never done before.”

Yeah, that was about 15 years ago. We had a company call us up and say Microsoft has asked us to perform this, what is, you know, I now know, is really an attestation process over their security and privacy practices, relative to information that they come into contact with that belongs to Microsoft. So you know, they were asked to do this, and the question they asked me was, “Do you know what this is, and can you help us?” And my answer was, “No, I don’t know what it is, but yes, we can help you.”

It’s something that fit inside of the CPA sandbox. There’s AICPA rules around the type of work that we were doing, and so I knew that we would be able to understand what those rules were and be able to engage, and ultimately, it comes down to an internal control question. Do you have an internal control in place to deal with a specific risk? It just so happens that that risk is more about security and privacy than it is about financial reporting controls, which to that point had been my bailiwick.

So I felt as though yes, we can help you. But I also was really open and honest with them and said, “No, we have not done this before, so you’re going to need to come along this journey with us, as we start to really engage with this literature and understand what the ‘ask’ is,” and they said, “Yes, that sounds fine.”

So we went about that work. We spent about four times as much time as we do today on one of these things, just getting it figured out. And then as time rolled along, they told their friends that they had found a firm that could do this thing that Microsoft was asking for, and we got some referrals that way, and then it snowballed from there.

What research had you done previously, before they even asked you that question that provided you the courage to say “No, we haven’t done this and don’t necessarily know exactly what it is, but yes, we can help you with it?” Because that’s a stretch, I would say, for a lot of accountants.

Yeah! Well, honestly, I’m going to build on my experience with the forensics practice, that I had a similar conversation, you know, four or five years earlier with my partners saying, “Here’s an idea for how we can organize the forensic work that we do. We’ve never done that before, but I think it would be successful.” And I received the support from the partners in doing that work. We had at that point, built out some nice projects and moved that practice area along, and so I was able to draw on that experience.

And I didn’t just go into it blindly and start doing the work. I said that to our client on the phone when they asked the question, and then I went to my partners that would be interested in that kind of work, or help out in that area. At the time I was a partner in training—we call it a principal. So I wasn’t yet signing reports or anything like that. So I definitely needed some support around me to be able to do something like that, and got the green light from them as well. And so we kind of marched in, arm in arm, to do those first few. And that’s how it all got started.

So you didn’t just go to any partner, you went to partners that you had intentionally identified as would understand the service and how it could benefit clients first, rather than just the nearest partner’s office.

That’s right. Yeah, I had two in mind.

Is that consistent across all the practices that you started—because you have three, if I recall, you also have the firm’s quality of earnings reporting practice that you’ve helped launch as well. In all three of those instances, were you intentional about the partners that you proposed it to first, rather than just the first one?

I was, yeah. I absolutely was.

You know, finding the support, and honestly, the kind of the cheerleaders that you need to  launch a practice as a young professional, and to build expertise as a young professional—you know, having that talking partner is really helpful in building out that expertise, in supporting you in the work that you’re doing and, and helping reinforce the fact that it’s valuable, and it’s important to what the firm is doing. That’s extremely helpful.

Were you to find a partner that isn’t involved in a practice like that, then really, that person is educating themselves right alongside you. And it just becomes a little bit more challenging when you’re both trying to figure it out, you know, so I went to somebody that had some tangential involvement in that practice area and leaned into them.

So really looking for that individual that could be an advocate along ahead of you a little bit rather than just learning alongside you.

Right. 

As we think about building expertise, and it’s probably not a stretch to say that a lot of individuals, when they think about building expertise, it’s kind of a one time thing: “I’m going to become an expert in this and then I’m that expert forever.”

You’ve become an expert three different times, at least—quite possibly more, it seems with the three different practices. Because if you’re going to successfully start a practice, you’ve got to have expertise in that area. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle mightily.

Right.

Your expertise, if I were to go out on a limb and say is, you’re a bit of an expert at becoming an expert, what’s your process?

Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, really just passion that I spoke about earlier, with the hedgehog concept—that passion drives lifelong learning, and when you’ve got a new focus area, you just really lean in and learn as much as you can. And that is not just book learning, but taking every engagement and every kind of real world experience, and soaking as much out of that as you can, and treating each one as a learning experience. And through the forensic work that we did—every forensic engagement is unique, every quality of earnings report is unique in some way—and so they’re all learning opportunities. Even though we’re applying expertise, valuable expertise to those client situations, we’re still learning. It’s a reciprocal process. We’re still learning through that I’m going to take something away from every single engagement that I can put in my toolbox, and be able to take with me to the next one.

So just really taking that attitude and that approach to each engagement that while I do have expertise, and I’m an expert, I also have an opportunity to learn. And if I’m not open to that, then I’m missing something I’m missing a chance to, to learn and grow and become even better at what I’m doing. So that’s a big part of it, is just being open to it.

For the leaders that are out there that are thinking, “I love the idea—I’d really like to get a team that understands how to become an expert”—from a leader’s standpoint, how do you instill that lifelong learning in those that you lead? What are some steps that you’ve taken to get others to embrace the willingness to become an expert?

Yeah. So one of my goals with any practice area that I start, is to some degree, have an apprenticeship program and get to the point where I can hand it off. The forensics practice, I started fifteen years ago, but is now largely led by others in the firm. The Microsoft practice that we talked about, I’ve got other leaders in the firm that will take it over for me at some point, I’m certain of that.

So part of it is, you can hear my enthusiasm and my passion for those areas, and I exude that when I’m speaking with other professionals—just the excitement that I have for the work and the opportunity that it brings to the firm is something that’s infectious. And so, that is something that is attractive and appealing for others that want to play in that space.

The other is to, as I said, find some people that are also interested and perhaps passionate about that particular area, and go back to them. Use them on a project, have them help you out, insert them in somehow. And then when the next one comes along, “You know what, we’re going to do that again? You did a great job, and I really want to come back to you and have you help out on the next one. It’s coming next week, you know, let’s get together and figure out how we can have you be involved.” Have them have some kind of ownership in the development of the practice, even if it’s, you know, somewhat of a mature practice. Bring them along, and then that makes them hungry for more. And so building out that practice area and having them share your passion as you build it kind of together, is a great way to bring along other leaders.

And you’ve launched at least two, if not all three of these, prior to becoming a shareholder as you were maturing in the firm, and moving up the ranks. Is it fair to say that there’s probably not a time in your career where you’re too young to embrace the passion for becoming an expert?

I wholeheartedly agree with that. Sometimes at our firm, I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to explore the wide variety of clients and services that we provide—to really understand, where is my passion? And the idea that I had coming out of college and starting at Clark Nuber, where my practice would be and the types of things I would be doing, was vastly different three years into my career, than it was on day one. And I found my passion, I found my lane and really leaned in.

And so that was you know, very early in my career, did I decide that. But people certainly can find that passion. And it may be that they have it coming into the firm on day one, but it may be that they find it along the way. But when they do, boy, they love doing that work. And if it’s a novel service area, like we’ve been talking about today, or whether it’s something that’s really well established that you just rather enjoy and want to do more of, you can take the steps to train yourself and learn more, and have more opportunities, and that passion can come through, and take you where you want to go.

I certainly have experienced that several times in my career and love it when I see that coming through in other professionals, too

Definitely!

Pete, thank you so much for telling the story of how you have become an expert in a variety of ways throughout your career. And knowing you’re a lifelong learner—I am as well—I love books, podcasts, Ted Talks, all kinds of things. Do you have a resource out there, whether it’s a book, a certain talk, a certain podcast that you believe, is just a great resource that every leader should check out?

Oh boy. Well, you know, one thing that Clark Nuber does, we have an internal training program called the Leadership Development Institute, where we develop professionals that have been very good technicians throughout their career, but they’re moving onto areas where they’re going to need some soft skills, and building out some leadership skills that are difficult to learn on the job perhaps.

And one of the things that was a cornerstone of that work and something that I always reference is Steve Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I intentionally practice many of those habits every single day, and that is an area where that’s really benefited my career and something that I’ve found to be just so valuable. Jim Collins’ books are also something that I reference quite frequently: Good to Great and Great by Choice. A lot of great learning in there about how to take things to the next level. Those are staples for me—things that I reference quite a bit.

I appreciate that Pete, and I think what you said there is such an important thing is what you learn, you then have to intentionally practice it’s one thing to read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s another thing to then intentionally practice those habits on a daily basis. It sounds like you have clearly made a habit of doing so and have had a spectacular and continue to have a spectacular career as a result.

I just want to say thank you for joining me on The Upstream Leader. It’s been wonderful talking to you about this, I think there’s a lot of great takeaways for the listeners.

Being prepared—not waiting to be in an ownership role to propose new ideas, but taking the time when you’ve got the passion, when you see the opportunity, organize yourself, be ready to present that. Be courageous. You know, that idea of being both patient and persistent at the same time can be so, so valuable.

One thing that I know I’ve found over the course of my career and working with firms in our profession, if you’re looking to become an expert, having a career map can be one of the most impactful tools out there. And what it does is it essentially lays out where you’re at, where you want to be, and how to get there.

I’ll throw this out there for any listener—if you reach out to me on LinkedIn or by email, you can get all my contact information on our page, I’ll be happy to send you a template or a tool that can they can help you with that with that career mapping to really make it even more intentional. Definitely encourage you to check out all the books that Pete’s mentioned—I’ve read each of them. They’re all wonderful resources.

But Pete Miller again, thank you so much for joining us on The Upstream Leader. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, Jeremy. Really appreciate the opportunity. It’s been great.

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