Welcome to The Upstream Leader. Today’s topic is likely to strike a nerve with many across the profession. We’re talking about “Same as Last Year.” More than an approach to client service, it is a mindset that creates complacency and limits professional growth. Bethmara Kessler joins us today to help talk us through what this means for leaders. Most recently, Bethmara served as the chair of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ Board of Regents and head of global integrated services for Campbell Soup company. Her career, however, includes a variety of executive roles in companies such as EY, Nabisco, EMI Group, Elle Brands and Warner Music Group.
Bethmara was named a Financial Times Top 100 leading LGBT executive for three years, and one of Pennsylvania Diversity Council’s “most powerful and influential women of Pennsylvania. Bethmara’s journey from a staff auditor to a transformational C-Suite executive is what brings her here today. She believes in differentiated perspectives, the power of taking control of your career and challenging the “Same as Last Year” mentality. Bethmara, it’s great to have you on The Upstream Leader.
Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy.
All right. So we’ve got a lot that I think we want to talk about. In fact, we’ve had a really good conversation before we even hit record. And before we get into the conversation around “Same as Last Year,” which I know you and I both have very strong feelings about, I’d like to learn a little bit about how you became the leader you are today.
That’s a great question, Jeremy. “The Accidental Leader” is kind of the way I would probably describe it. Although what I’ve learned through that accidental journey is that being more deliberate—I was a little more deliberate than I thought I was in the journey.
It’s actually been really interesting and fun. The simple answer is really by staying curious, and being a perpetual student. You know, I’m always kind of in the mindset of being curious. I learned early on that if I didn’t take complete ownership, every aspect of my learning in my career, and doing it my way, there was no way I was going to be successful. I made a lot of choices early in my career that people thought were crazy, but they were ones that were great for me.
And just to give you a little sense: I started my career in public accounting as you mentioned, it was back when Ernst and Whinney—it was Ernst and Whinney, not Ernst and Young back in the day, so big eight instead of where we are today. But I learned really quickly at that time, and I’m going to qualify this, because this is—I’m going to reflect back on when I was in public accounting, because I know that things have meaningfully changed over time but back then, success was really tied to conformity. And I think that, you know, kind of goes along with the Same as Last Year kind of thing we’re going to talk about, but everybody was trying their best to fit in and not stand out. And that was really what was being encouraged.
So you know, while I wore the requisite pantyhose and skirt suits, which were kind of required for conformity back in the day, fitting in just wasn’t a natural state of being for me. And it was really, really hard, to be quite honest. One of my early assignments I’ll never forget, I was put in a room with a stack of ledgers and ten key calculator with a box of tape that was supposed to go into the ten key calculator. And I asked the senior, “What am I supposed to do?” And they said to me, “foot it.” And I said “What does that mean? What am I supposed to do?” And they said, “Add all the numbers that are here in this computer report and make sure it ties to what you’ve just, you know, kind of added on this calculator.” And I said, “That’s crazy. If this came from a computer, can’t we just make sure that the computer actually works, instead of wasting all those billable hours having me sit there kind of with my fat fingers kind of messing up, you know, this ten key thing?”
I was being, you know, kind of innocent and curious, which was my natural state of being as a staff. And very, very quickly, I got labeled a “problem child” because I wasn’t supposed to question—the audit program told me to do this, and this is what I was supposed to do.
What ended up happening was the senior ended up going to the manager and eventually they actually pulled me off the job very, very quickly, and brought me to—it was the EDP audit partner, so the IT audit partner. And what ended up happening was something that was kind of sort of miraculous to me. Instead of just being labeled the problem child and being you know, having somebody be dismissive, I actually got afforded an opportunity that other folks in my starting group didn’t get: I got trained in data analytics, which ended up being a critical part of my toolkit.
That early lesson taught me that not always conforming, while it came with big risks, it also came with big rewards, and it taught me the real value of finding meaningful learning opportunities to build skillsets that I could add to my toolkit and leverage and progress, you know, kind of progress with in my career. But it also kind of forced me to seek out the right learning opportunities that would allow me to differentiate myself from my peers. So I learned, you know, kind of early on, the idea of not fitting in was kind of my superpower, and that really helped, you know, kind of propel me to, you know, kind of through leadership throughout my career, and I was really appreciative for that experience.
Definitely. Let’s talk a little bit more about that. Because you mentioned a couple times there, you know, that conformity really was the definition of success, then. And we should caveat, or we should qualify this conversation with, we’re not at all saying that the profession is broken, or that it’s inherently flawed—there’s so much good in our profession. That said, this is something that’s important to talk about, because I think that success and conformity are still a little bit tied together, even today—not as much as they were. But there is still some level of, especially in those first few years, conformity and doing what we did last year is what’s expected. And that’s the definition of success.
So you talked about being curious and a perpetual student. I want to get your feedback for our up-and-coming leaders that are listening to this, because they may say, “Well, that sounds great. You can say that now, in hindsight, that that was the right thing to do. It’s a lot harder in the moment, especially if you’re in your first two or three years of your career.” How would you encourage a young leader to stay curious and be a perpetual student push for those opportunities without perhaps damaging their credibility or that relationship as they’re just starting out with a firm? What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, you know, it’s an interesting conundrum. Because, you know, I think, when we’re early in our career, sometimes we have a naivete, that plays to our benefit, but it can also be detrimental. You know, we used to refer to them as “career-limiting moves,” I think they still are, you know, when you do something, and you take a risk that by doing it, you’re actually, you know, kind of labeling yourself in a way that that others wouldn’t want to touch you, you know, kind of from a development standpoint.
I think it’s important, you know, look: my thinking has always been that—and I struggled with this a lot through my career. Let me kind of just back up into this. So while I took risks, early on, it was out of naivete that I took those risks, not realizing what the repercussions could potentially be. I got very, very lucky. As I continued to traverse through my career, there were times where I took risks, where, you know, the result didn’t feel as good as the result felt that first time. And, you know, it’s like a child touching a stove for the first time and realizing that they’re going to get burnt. You have to learn to calibrate what you’re doing, but being curious, staying curious, asking questions—as long as they don’t, you know, kind of border—being choiceful about the questions and challenges you give is really the best way to think about it.
I think a lot of times, you know, we can get caught up in being so curious, where you know, we become annoying, and we’re asking questions—not all questions that we’re going to ask and things that we challenge are going to have the same value. You need to be choiceful in really thinking about thinking about purpose—“what is it that I’m trying to achieve by asking the question?”
So in my example, I really truly did not understand the, you know, kind of why the choice was being made to have me sit and bill hours for adding numbers on a machine versus, you know, kind of testing a computer. I didn’t realize at the time how, you know, how challenging it was to actually test computers, and you know, to understand, you know, and how that was a completely different discipline than a financial auditor, who’s really trying to, you know, kind of had a different purpose than somebody who was on the IT side.
So I think the answer to it is, you always have to be curious, but you have to also be able to calibrate and you know, kind of calibrate the questions you’re asking, make sure that you’re picking and choosing the ones and picking the challenge areas that have a purpose for what you’re trying to achieve.
As I think about that, and not to oversimplify, but what I’m hearing you say is, we need to be curious and calibrate and do all of that with intention.
Don’t simply ask the questions because you just want to ask questions.
I’ve got three young children. I get questions all the time. Some of them have an intention. And sometimes the intention is well, I’m just going to see how many times I can ask this before Dad gets frustrated with me asking the same question 52 times.
It’s similar, but if we are curious, we calibrate when to be curious, and we do all of that with an intention. And the intention is either to learn; better the firm, better the client, better the team, better ourselves. Those are the right questions to ask. It’s not a guarantee that they’re going to be well received—we should probably point that out. It’s not always going to be well received. Even if you’ve calibrated and you have the right intentions, there’s a good chance you ask the wrong person, and they simply don’t care. That doesn’t mean you should stop. It means you should—you then calibrate again? Is that fair?
Yeah. It’s actually believe it or not, the idea of asking the questions is a learning experience in itself. Here. Here’s kind of another way to think about it: When you have a question, I think the reason you use the example of being a parent is because the curiosity is something that’s innate in us. When we are little, learning and curiosity—the way we look at the world with just, you know, kind of such awesomeness and amazement—is something that is inherent in us. And when you have a two-year-old, or a three-year-old, they are—their first words, and their first questions are always “but why?” Anything you tell them, they want to know about why that’s the train, “but why?” You know, that train is gonna go down the track, “but why?” And everything is “but why.” So that is part of our innate state of being, that curiosity. And over time, we become less curious because people chide us for asking the wrong questions, being, you know, too curious and things like that. So we’ve learned in life, how to calibrate.
It’s a similar type of thing, when you’re in a work environment. If you go at being curious with intent. The intent part of the purpose, your point should also be understanding, “Where are my trusted folks? Who are the folks that I can look to for advice and guidance? Who are the people that I know, you know, that I can influence with my question? Who are the people that I need to, you know, kind of check me on whether my questions are appropriate?” You know, so that whole process has a learning component to it.
So yeah, the recalibration and the constant kind of thinking about “What am I asking? Why am I asking it? What purpose is it trying to serve? What do I want the outcomes to be?” And also anticipating what the outcomes could be, is also a key component of that.
Let’s stay with that a little bit. But I want to, just a slight turn and take this a little bit different direction. From the young professional’s perspective, let’s stay with that perspective, then I’m going to take it the other direction, because I do want to make sure that we talk about this from a leaders and you know, the senior leaders perspective. But staying with the young professionals. What do you see as the biggest barrier for learning in the profession today? I could go out on a limb and say that it is that mindset of “Same as Last Year,” because I know you and I have talked about that in the past, that could be part of it. But as you think about the biggest barrier to learning for accountants and young professionals today, what do you see as the biggest barrier?
I think it’s really expecting others to provide us with the training and roadmap for success. I think early on, a barrier to learning is when you give up all power to control your learning, and turn it over to others. So many times I’ve seen young folks talk about, “My manager doesn’t give me training or development, I can’t learn.” And the thing is, hey, you’re limiting yourself, and that’s not where it should come.
It’s easy to be quickly convinced that others are better shepherds of your learning journey and development than you are. It’s just really easy, and the reality is they’re not. So supervisors and managers, they try to be helpful, but they’re constrained by the resources available to them in terms of the amount of training and development and learning they can, you know, kind of help you with.
And also—that I think sometimes the goals of managers and supervisors, because they want to get work done, is to give us training and learning that’s going to help us build skills and a level of competency that everybody at our level is expected to have. So it actually enforces some of that conformity, instead of really more of a holistic learning journey that supports skills and development that we need individually to really reach our professional and personal goals, aspirationally. So I think that a barrier is that a lot of people, because they give up this control to others to define their learning journey, they don’t get creative about building their skillset.
Not all of our learning has to come from our employers, and actually in many cases, a lot of our learning doesn’t come from our employers or even In your employer, your day-to-day work job. So there are a lot of opportunities that we can get by volunteering to do things, either at work or in our communities that will give us new experiences and skills that we don’t always take advantage of. So for example, you know, volunteering to be on a special project on something at work, or getting involved in an employee resource group, or passion project in your neighborhood—those are all learning opportunities that can help you build skills that are missing from your skill toolkit. And your manager or supervisor isn’t going to be the one necessarily to push you in that space. So I think the barrier is really about the fact that we’re so easy to give up control to others to define what our journey should be for us.
That’s a really important point for young professionals, and maybe even some experienced professionals to remember: it’s easy, you’re right to say, you know, “I’m in this company, I’m in this role, I’m in this firm, and therefore they are responsible for training me”—it’s not true. They’re responsible for making you technically competent in what they hired you to do, yes. But technical competence is not always the learning that you need, or even frankly, the learning that you want.
I know I started off as an auditor, I fell in love with data analytics right out of the gate, even as an intern, and then I always get the question, “Well, where do you learn to do data analytics?” I don’t have a computer science background. I can’t build a computer. I’m not a I’m not that type of an IT person. But I taught myself; I looked for resources.
In order for me to do that I did have to take ownership of that. I think it’s important that you point that out. It’s easy to overlook the fact that we’re giving someone else that responsibility or projecting that power onto someone else. And arguably, in 2021, we’ve got more resources available to us for individualized learning, on whatever topic you want.
We were talking before we started recording about Master Class. And that can be personal, that can be professional. It’s such a, you know, it’s a resource that I use on a recurring basis. I know, you’ve mentioned you do. TED talks are one of my personal favorites. Books. And you know, I’m constantly reading because it’s a great opportunity to learn new perspectives, but it doesn’t require anybody else to provide that to me. I take the responsibility, and I can go get that.
So it’s important for everyone listening, regardless of level, but especially for young professionals: don’t wait for someone to provide you the training you want. Go get the training that you desire, right? Go find a way to get some of that training and that learning, no matter where it can be found, because it may not just be in a course.
I’d even take your data analytics example to another level, because I fell into it exactly the same way you did, and have the same level of passion for it that you do. Data Analytics is a skillset that I think nowadays is an incredibly important skill and an auditor’s toolkit and accountant’s toolkit. And in a business person’s toolkit in general. But we think about it as a technical skill, something where somebody can train us how to do analytics. And analytics—there’s multiple facets to it, learning how to use a tool, which somebody can train you to do, and that doesn’t give you the knowledge you need to learn how to do great analytics. In the end, you’re trying to influence people’s thinking. And there’s as much soft skill and presentation skill and other types of skills that are necessary to be a successful data analytics person, a successful auditor.
You know, I’ll give you another example. When I started my career—I’m an introvert, which a lot of people these days don’t believe—but I would rather sit behind a computer and crunch data for days and hours with, you know, it’s just, it’s a passion of mine. I don’t love talking to people, but I’ve learned over time how to do it. And early in my career, somebody had said to me, and it wasn’t a manager, it was somebody that I was I was serving, said, “You know, one of the things you might want to consider is, as you’re going to continue to advance in your career, you’re going to need to really get comfortable with presenting to groups, you know, being able to get your point across, influence thinking, things like that. You should actually find ways to practice public speaking.”
And everybody thinks about, “Okay, where can I go for a course for public speaking?” and I read about it and what ended up happening is I realized that experiential learning is sometimes the best way to kind of focus. And I realized that this soft skill that I needed, while there were courses and things that were going to teach me how to do it, it wasn’t going to give me the same opportunity as practicing and learning. So I found places to go speak publicly that were outside the eye of my employer, so if I embarrassed myself, nobody would know. So I go to, you know, community events and things like that. And then when I got the confidence up, I’d start volunteering to speak at chapters of whether it was an audit chapter or [indeterminate] at the time, you know, different chapters.
And I’ll be honest with you: some of the initial reviews that I got about my speaking broke my heart. They were terrible. I was so focused on providing people with so much information that I never really thought about how I was providing that information. And I was like, “Oh my God, how do I get better at this?” So then I started watching people. Every opportunity where I could see somebody speak, whether it was on TV, whether it was, you know, in my personal life, in my professional life. I started taking notes about the things that I thought were really great traits and things that were, you know, traits that I didn’t want to emulate. And by doing that, I ended up in crafting kind of my own style, that ended up becoming really successful.
And now I speak professionally, as you know, kind of my retirement chapter in my career. But the idea is that you have to get creative about how you build your skill set. And understand that technical training is not the only learning you need to focus on. It’s also the soft skills and the things that you know, that kind of make that technical training successful, that have to be part of your learning journey.
Those technical skills lead to the conformity—it’s the soft skills and everything else that complements those technical skills that allow you to stand out and make a name for yourself in the profession and within your firm, really.
Because if everybody has the technical competence, by definition, you’re just one of the one of the group. But when you can take that and enhance it with the soft skills, the communication, the different opportunities, the other avenues, that’s where you can really go.
So let’s shift just a little bit here to the leader’s perspective—so we’re talking more senior leaders. We’ve talked a lot about young professionals, we’ve talked about what you can do for yourself. And that again, that’s not just for young professionals, that’s for every leader, I mean, can do that. But for those that are thinking, “You know what, I feel pretty comfortable in my ability to learn, but what I’m trying to figure out is how do I cultivate this learning mindset in those that I lead? I’m trying to break the ‘Same as Last Year’ mentality in those that I lead, what should they be doing? What steps can they take to really overcome the barriers of learning for their team?
I think the place to start is “What are the barriers?” Because I don’t think that there are leaders that don’t want to foster learning and don’t want to develop great talent and create future leaders. I think the biggest challenge is the confluence of time and money. You know, kind of being the intersection. Particularly in firms where billable hours is a measure of success, you know, staff utilization is a key metric that you measure, making the time and carving out the time to give people the space to learn is not always an easy thing to do.
I’ve seen some firms do some very, very interesting things, where they create new spaces, like workspaces, that encourage more collaboration, and kind of more creative thinking, depending on the engagement, and depending on what they’re trying to do. What they can also do is consider, what are the things beyond the assignments that you know, the client assignments that they can carve into, where they can get some of the folks that are earlier in their career, engaged in driving some kind of transformation in the firm, or some kind of, you know, kind of new thinking and new idea, and give them the space to do it in a way that’s different. Don’t bring people into a conference room, don’t make it feel very old school, you know, kind of bring people into a really good collaboration space, and figure out, how do you, you know, kind of really, really open up the thinking and the curiosity of the group? You know, how do you actually do that? And then, you know, the other piece of it, too, is finding ways to ask the right questions during an audit engagement or, you know, client engagement, where you say to somebody, “Hey, you know, if we were to do this differently, or, you know, would there be another approach, you would think? Or was there something that you were asked to do on this assignment, that felt silly to you?” You know, really, really getting that feedback from folks in terms of what they’re thinking, and being truly open to shifting your thinking to accommodate and open up those opportunities to create those experiences.
The other thing I would do also is really, really be deliberate about encouraging people to get involved in things beyond their day-to-day job. So you have to give them the time and the space to do that, whether it’s the projects, whether it’s resource groups, whether it’s stuff in their community—kind of making that space and thinking more holistically about folks’ learning journeys, beyond the skills and the things that you think are going to benefit you in the short term, what’s going to benefit them in the long term. Those are the ways that I think you need to approach it. But you do have that time and money thing that has to be overcome.
Do you think that as senior leaders or executives and firms, do they need to give people the permission to learn? Do they need to let them know “Look, we expect that there will be a learning time on this, and that’s okay?” Does that help? Do we need to call it out and actually point out that we do have an expectation? “Yes, it’s going to take more time, but that’s okay, because you’re learning from it?” Or is that almost taking away some responsibility? What are your thoughts on there?
I think there’s two pieces to that. You can’t just do it open-ended and say, “Hey, we expect you to learn.” “What do you expect me to learn?” So having some kind of contract with the junior person and say, “Look, we’re giving you this area, or we’re giving you this opportunity on this job, because we want you to apply, you know, the skills we taught you in this, but we think there’s a learning opportunity for you here, and this is what we think the opportunity is.” Create the space, again, with purpose. I think that the thing that’s very important to focus on is if you constrain it too much, and put too much of a ring fence around it, you’re going to constrain the thinking and the learning. But if you establish a purpose and have a goal, then you have a better chance of the learning kind of taking root and the journey happening.
That makes sense.
We talk a lot about in our profession, giving people time to do things. And I don’t always know that giving people time isn’t enough. Not only creating the space to learn, but also giving the permission: it’s okay to take the time to learn and being intentional about, “Here’s what we would like you to learn, or learn in this area.” For individuals to hear that from their leaders, helps give them the confidence that they’re doing the right thing, that it’s taking that extra hour to learn something and drive home a point or maybe get a new experience is really beneficial in that regard, is helpful.
Yeah, and I think the other thing that’s hard for leaders is when the output doesn’t end up being exactly what you hoped it would be based on the extra time that you gave. And it’s very, very tempting to then criticize, challenge, knock down or shut down: “No, you didn’t achieve what what we wanted you to achieve during that point.” You need to actually understand if you’re going to give people permission, you have to be willing to then you know, kind of accept it, you’re not always going to hit the mark, there are going to be times where you don’t achieve the goals that you need to achieve, you may end up going over hours on an engagement—there may be different things that kind of play into it.
Permission is one thing. I think also emulating the kind of behaviors that you want folks to learn from. So for example, if you want somebody to spend time to learn something on an engagement that’s beyond kind of a technical skill set, or maybe it is a technical skill set, give them an example or show them you know, “Hey, when I did this, this is how I learned, or this was, you know, kind of my experience.” Storytelling, being able to connect and really help folks. So give them the permission, but also give them the assurance that if they don’t end up with the you know, at a level of success that they’ve been historically judged at, or they think they’re going to be judged at, that you’re not going to, you know, kind of chop their head off, or fire them, or something like that.
So it’s more than permission—it’s also the space to fail. You know, learning failure is actually a key component of learning. And a lot of times the reason why people don’t deviate from that conformity is because they’re afraid to fail. And they’re afraid of what the consequences are going to be if they do fail. So giving that permission really requires us to think about how we treat failure as well.
That’s a really good point, and it kind of brings your story back full circle to where you started: you took a lot of risks, and you knew that there was a downside risk to that as well. It may not have ended as well as you thought, and you even shared that some didn’t have the great feeling that first risk did. So I think that’s really important. I appreciate you sharing that.
Do you have time for three quick questions for us as we wrap up our interview?
So the very first question: what is the one book you believe every leader should read?
Well, you are an avid reader. I am not. I am an intentional reader.
Well, maybe the question is, is there something that you believe leaders may not have seen or heard that you would encourage a leader to go get? It doesn’t have to be a leadership perspective. But is there a podcast, a TED talk, one of those master classes that you think is beneficial to leaders no matter where they’re at, just because of what it teaches?
I think that these days, the things that are most interesting for leaders to really seek their learning about, are things about inclusion and belonging. And the reason that I say that is because for so long, I think from a leadership perspective, we designed our organizations for folks to fit into our culture—and again, it’s that conformity discussion—without really understanding the implications of what that conformity would mean for the people on our team. And over the years, as things have changed, in terms of generations in the workforce, in terms of—it’s everything from gender, you know, kind of mix in the workforce to generations, to ethnic and racial diversity in the workforce. There’s so many things that I think as leaders, we take for granted and expecting people to conform to the work environments that we have. So one of the things that probably was most impactful for me was a conversation had been, you know, kind of milling about, and I’m sure a lot of folks have heard this, and when a lot of the racial injustice conversations were happening, where we heard a lot about the concept of privilege. And you know, kind of privilege being one of those things, you know, that has a very, very heavy impact on our society, and how our society operates. And I push it to say, how our organizations operate—how the cultures within our organizations operate.
And I, for a long time, had a really hard time kind of understanding the concept of privilege, primarily because I felt like I’ve worked really, really hard. My parents were not rich, you know, there were things like I was scrappy, I did what I could, I paid my way through college, and I did all those things. So I was always offended when you know, kind of out the gate, people would talk about that being, you know, that I had privilege in the workplace or that was something that was important.
And there’s a thing called the Privilege Walk, you can look it up on YouTube and things like that, that actually started piquing my interest in terms of, or at least my understanding of, you know, kind of what privilege is. And what the Privilege Walk does is, it has a bunch of people that are out in the field, they’re trying to get to a goal, and the person is asking questions, you know, ”If you’ve ever had this, you know, take a step forward, if you’ve ever had this, take a step forward.” And once the questions are asked, and you see where people are left on the field, it really helps you understand, you know, how people had advanced because of things that had happened.
And I took for granted, you know, I had some challenges in the workplace over the years, because I am a lesbian—I was not always out in the workplace—it was something that was really, really difficult over the years, in terms of covering and not being my authentic self. And what was really interesting was, when I started doing a lot of work with others, putting together panels and discussions on this whole idea of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And when I started to get into conversation with people who were Black, or had a different ethnicity, or, you know, like, the different things that were visible on who they were—I realized very, very quickly, it connected back to that privilege walk where I saw that I had spent my career with the privilege of being able to cover who I was in the workplace, because I chose to do that. They didn’t have the ability, the privilege of being able to cover.
And I think it’s important for leaders to understand that the people on their team are individuals, each with their own challenge and their own journey. And you know, we are in positions of privilege, regardless of who you are by being in leadership positions, but understanding the fact that everybody has a different journey to get there, and different things that they’re working through, is really, really important, I think, from a leadership perspective, to create a culture and environment where folks can learn where folks can thrive, and folks can grow.
That’s very powerful. Yeah. No, I appreciate that. I think that’s a video that I would encourage everyone to look up, the concept of those Privileged Walks. I know I recently participated in an online experience called Factuality. Natalie Gillard puts those on, and it was facilitated, and I think that is very important for leaders. I appreciate you sharing that. Thank you.
You know, as you’re trying to think about, how do you help folks in your organization really explore their learning journeys, and you know, kind of get into it—role playing, any type of experiential learning, can be very beneficial. Having some of the junior folks play the roles of the leaders and partners and the senior folks, having the senior folks, you know, kind of in your situation, play the roles of the staff and, and actually, it’s kind of the “walk in someone else’s shoes”—understanding that so that you can open your mind to the perspectives of how others think and dilemmas they may face.
That’s really good. I like how you tied that back together. Thank you.
So our second question, “the way we’ve always done things” tends to be in our profession, and frankly, all professions, a bit of a barrier to change. Because the reason why we do it is because it’s the way we’ve always done it. As you think about the various ways that we’ve always done things, what is one of those that you would encourage leaders to maybe abandon going forward?
There’s the kneejerk reaction, which is the “Same as Last Year” attitude! You know, it’s one that’s really been a passion of mine only because I’ve seen the manifestation of it, in terms of the approach really shutting down really talented folks from really reaching their potential and development. I’ve seen it hurt organizations, like the one that I think kind of shows the saddest manifestation of it was the Koss Headphones, the Koss Corp case, which was a fraud. It was a fraud that was perpetrated by a woman who was the principal accounting person in the organization, Sue Sachdeva, and she ended up fleecing them out of $34 million. And they weren’t a big company. I mean, this was meaningful money, which had, you know, completely tanked the stock and kept it tanked for a long time, and also really harmed, you know, kind of folks in the organization.
But one of the questions that was asked right out the gate was, “Where were the auditors?” And in the very few words that Sue had shared and, you know, kind of the hindsight on it, the audit firm used Koss as a training ground for junior folks, that was a client for a long time. And they believed that it was, you know, kind of a low risk client, because they had had them for a while, and they kind of trusted them. Trust is not a control. So the junior folks are brought on to the engagement, and they were told to follow the work papers from last year. And they were taken so literally, that—and you know, usually I mean, I’ve seen teams that were given that instruction that will be creative, and following the work papers would mean, “Okay, I’m supposed to do fifty Bank confirms I’ll do you know, fifty different bank confirms,” or “I’m supposed to do a cash reconciliation. I’ll pick a random, you know, random cash reconciliations.” But this team followed the work paper, followed that instruction so literally, that they were predictable in terms of which accounts they were going to confirm, which bank reconciliations they were going to look at, down to the bank and the month, and it gave basically, the fraudster, Sue, a playbook in terms of where the evidence of her fraud could not be, lest the auditors would find it.
One of the things they found was that there were a bunch of topside journal entries that were being made that were illogical: reductions of sales, reduction of cash, things that were just, you know, “why would you be doing that?” And the evidence for those topside journal entries that was presented to the auditors—the printout from the computer that shows that the entry was made for the journal entry—that topside journal entry—somebody had a rubber stamp that said, you know, kind of “approved,” that they put on it, so it looked official, and then they initialed it. So it wasn’t really adequate backup for a journal entry or documentation for journal entry, but it looked official, and the auditors didn’t, you know, weren’t curious enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute, isn’t this just evidence?” and instead, they took that as the documentation—as legitimate documentation—for journal entries.
And I think it’s so hard to really do great work, when that level of conformity, “the Same as Last Year,” is taken so literally. So I think that the answer, the long answer is that I think leaders have to, you know, really think about what is the objective they’re trying to achieve, and then what is, you know, kind of the direction that they give, or the information that they provide, what’s going to be the impact of that on the achievement of the objective.
So I think we do have to, you know, kind of think about changing things up. You know, it’s not going to be practical to approach every single audit differently and not have the leverage of following work papers from last year. But there should be training that says, “Look, they’re meant to be a guide in terms of how to do something. They’re not to eradicate your individualize thinking. It’s about taking that training of how to follow work papers from last year, and actually pushing people, showing people how they can challenge you know, a question that comes up or challenge the thinking when they see something that doesn’t make sense or is illogical.” So, you know, kind of, don’t shut down the intellectual capacity or capabilities of your team by giving them direction that could be perceived as very limiting.
Very helpful. That’s very helpful. And it leads to my final question for you: For leaders, regardless of level of experience, they’re looking to take more charge over their—and more control—over their learning journey. What do you recommend as their best next step?
The thing that I always found really useful is looking at my skillset. I feel like my skills are a toolkit that I carry with me, you know? That I just keep adding different, you know, kinds of skills and learning, to soft skills, technical skills, all different types of things. And what I’ve found to be really useful is establishing a destination. Where is it that I’m trying to get to, in my career? Do I want to be a partner? Am I trying to be a board member if you’re partner or you know, or a leader and you’re trying to do something else. What is that destination? And oh, by the way, it could be like picking a college major—you can change it a million times over, you don’t have to stick with it once you choose it.
But having a destination gives you kind of a frame in terms of “what are the skills that I’m going to need to achieve that?” You know, the soft skills, the hard skills, what’s the learning that I’m going to need to achieve that? Then take stock of what’s in your toolkit, your skillset, and identify the gaps and think about how maybe some skills that you got early on can actually be further, you know, kind of leveraged and enhanced in ways that you didn’t think. Again, like that data analytics example that I gave you—where you might have learned how to do it, but if you’re going to be a partner, or you’re going to be a board member, or you’re going to be somebody in a different position, you’re going to need a different set of skills in order to bring that to life in an effective way.
By doing that, then you pick the two or three things in your toolkit that you really want to be able to continue to evolve and master, and then pick the one that’s missing, that you want to go at. And then look at different ways to learn and don’t always fall back on, “I need a training course.” It could be reading the book, it could be getting an experiential opportunity, it could be something very, very different than a normal approach. But I think that that whole idea of having purpose for your learning is really, really great.
And the other thing that I also do like to do as a habit is, no matter what interactions I have personally and professionally, I always look to try to get one or two things out of it—either something that inspires me: a new idea, something that I haven’t thought of, a recommendation; or a takeaway, something that I’m willing to take him and put into action. And I deliberately kind of do that so that I’m learning as much as I can from every interaction that I have. And I’ve done that throughout my career, and it’s been something that’s been fun, and it’s been great. But purpose, you know, purpose to the learning is the key.
Bethmara, that’s absolutely wonderful. And what I’d like to do is I’m just going to recap some key takeaways from our conversation today. Some of the ones that really stuck out to me are the fact that you said you were innately curious—a perpetual student—even though you recognize that success meant conformity, at the time, you were still willing to be curious, take those risks and be willing to stand out, and that clearly benefited you throughout the course of your career. And in staying curious, you were very intentional about calibrating as you went through that process. You looked back to say, “Okay, I’ve got to calibrate how I’m curious, where I ask the questions, who I asked questions of, how I use these, to benefit myself and my career, benefit my firm.”
You also mentioned to us—I think it’s so important—we can’t give up power and control over our learning to others. We’ve got to own that. We’ve got to take control over that learning. And as you mentioned, the destination of the journey—one of my favorite exercises is career mapping, where you simply step back and you say, “Where do I want to go and what do I need to get there?” I’m a huge proponent of career mapping. It doesn’t mean that the destination has to stay the same throughout the course of your career. Mine has changed numerous times over the course of my career. But you always update that so you know “What is it that I need to learn? What is it that I need to go get?”
And then as you as you wrapped up, I liked what you said there about stepping back from every experience and saying “What did I learn?” To me, that’s something that I like to do at the end of every single day is, “What did I learn today?” And just simply write it down. “What did I learn?” I’m not always the best about writing it down every day, but I know that when I do go through that process, and I go through that habit, you get such an amazing list of what you learned over the course of say, a month or two months, and you can step back and say, “You know even those days where I don’t necessarily feel like I was overly productive, man I sure learned a lot—I got a lot out of that. I can see that.”
So, Bethmara, thank you so much for joining us on The Upstream Leader podcast. It’s been such a wonderful time talking to you, and I appreciate your time very much.
Thank you for having me, Jeremy.