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The Upstream Leader Podcast: Episode 09: Growing through the Power of Connection


Grace Horvath, Vice President at CPAmerica, joins Jeremy Clopton for Episode 9 of The Upstream Leader to talk about networking, community, connections, and the power they hold. They discuss surrounding oneself with inspiring people, the benefits of collaboration, how to escape the “win at all costs”, “zero sum game” mindset, and more.

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Upstream Leader. Today we're talking about the power of connections and community. For this conversation, we're going to focus on the power of professional networks and associations. Our guest is one of the best in the industry: Grace Horvath of CPAmerica, an association serving independent accounting firms. Grace works to provide services and resources to member firms that help drive growth, profitability and sustainability. In addition, Grace is an active member of the Gainesville, Florida community, where she serves in numerous volunteer and charitable organizations.

I've worked with Grace many times over the past few years, and she is incredibly skilled at creating connections and community, which is why she is here with us today. Grace, welcome to The Upstream Leader.

Jeremy, thanks. I'm thrilled to be here with you today. Thank you for inviting me.

Welcome! I'm looking forward to our conversation, and talking about the power of connections. But before we do that, I want to start off the way I start off every conversation, which is: can you tell us a little bit about how you became the leader you are today?

Sure! That is a good question. As we have been laughing about this before, I mean, I suppose you could go all the way back to elementary school—or we could clip it and make it quick. But I did have a childhood in which my independence was really kind of a requirement. And so I learned to be very self-sufficient early on, and how to become a decision maker and how to use discernment and judgment. And then moving on as I got older, and as I started working, I really just surrounded myself with people that I saw that were well respected: People who inspired me, who were very clear when they spoke, and who you witnessed were people that were behind the scenes making things happen—making good things happen. And I would seek these people out, and whether it was through volunteer work or participating in different activities, or actually calling and asking them, “Can I spend some time with you, just to talk to you about what you do, and tell me a little bit about yourself?”

And so I've just always tried to be around people who I would hope that I can someday achieve what they have, and inspire in the way that they do. And I guess it goes back to that saying about, you know, surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you and better than you, where water seeks its own level. And so that has always fostered in me a desire to be a leader, which I think also means very much looking around behind me, and bringing people along the way.

I love that quote, and I also, it reminds me of another one that I've heard a lot recently, and that is you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, right?

Right.

It's that power of connection. It's that power of community. And it sounds like connections and community really played a key role in you becoming the leader you are today, so it's really probably no surprise, that's what you're now helping other leaders do in our profession. So let's talk a little bit about that.

And before we do, I do want to make sure that we do point out, you’re with CPAmerica, which is an association that serves independent accounting firms. We'll use two terms during our conversation today: “Assocation,” and we'll use “Network.” And it's worth pointing out when we talk about networks—and this is for all the listeners—we're talking about professional networks, we're talking about personal networks. When we talk about an association, like CPAmerica—we're going to try to use that term, but just to make sure that that clarification is out there.

And I do want to start with that, because I think an organization that serves as an association, that brings independent accounting firms together—that's that broader level of view, right? We're not to the personal level yet but the broader level. I've worked with your association, I've worked with other associations, and there is a lot of power in the connections that you see within those. There's a willingness to share, there's a willingness to help others. How do you, as a leader, really drive connection between firms?

So, members that join CPAmerica come to the Association because they want to improve their firm: They want to see the firm grow, they want to see the firm become sustainable, they want to remain independent. These are firms who are not looking for an exit plan, they're looking for a way to, you know, leave a legacy for the next generation behind them.

So when they join, there's a mindset that they're looking to collaborate and learn from other people. So we're already sort of primed that our members are coming here with the specific intention of connecting with others. And that's what, you know, one of the things we always tell members—when we're speaking to prospective members, and when new firms join—we are very passionate about emphasizing to them that they're only going to get out of the association what they put into it. And what that really means is their willingness to communicate and share with others.

So when I think about some time, early in my career, I relocated from a very large corporate environment in Miami, Florida, which is where I'm from, and I moved to Gainesville, and was just working in much smaller environments at one point—even for a family owned business. And so the only way that I could learn was to get out and be around other people. And I see that it works very much the same way in CP America.

And I think about Next Gen in particular, Jeremy—which you've been involved deeply in that program with us. I realized that there's some of these young professionals that are coming to the Next Gen Conference, and it's maybe a seven, eight year manager, who's never met another professional outside their firm. They started there, you know, right out of college, they were an intern, and then they started working, and they're working their way up. And, you know, this is an individual that has a very focused career path for themselves, a firm supporting him in that, and Next Gen is there to get them out of that bubble that they've been in, if you will, and begin teaching them at an early age in their career, how important it is to connect with others.

There's the sharing of best practices. There is the contemplation of different perspectives. There are just hearing about other people's stories, as well as being inspired by others. And so as an association, everything we do is constructed in a way to encourage those connections between others. And whether we are actually picking up the phone and saying, “You know, Jeremy, you've been telling me that you have a need in this area, and I tell you, what, I've got two or three people that I think I can connect you with, that have been in where you are and can give you the information that you need.” And if you take that all the way to the other end of the spectrum, even when we are organizing our social and networking events, they are done in a way to minimize distraction from people being able to connect with one another.

You all do a great job of that—I can attest to that fact. I historically have not been as big a fan of networking events. I'm not, I guess, as extroverted as many people probably think that I would be. But I'll tell you, when you go to those, and they have that focus on just creating connection, creating community—it's so much easier, right?

Right.

It doesn't feel like this big “I've got to go meet as many people as possible,” it's “how can I go make meaningful relationships and they're orchestrated in that way.”

Right.

And one thing that you said that I I want to make sure that we highlight for everybody that's listening is that community and connection is the key to learning.

Right.

We can do a lot of learning on our own. But when we get those additional perspectives, we can get so much more learning if we have a larger community, if we have a larger connectedness.

And you talked about Next Gen, which again, is those folks that are, you know, earlier in their career, but still, arguably, they're pretty far along. They're a few years into their career. What are your thoughts about that even younger professional? When should—because we may have some listeners that are right out of college, in college still—and they're thinking about how do we, how do I do this? At what point should they start building connections? Should they start building community and getting outside their bubble, so to speak, as you said, and meeting folks from other firms and really interacting with us? Is there an age that's too young in your career? Or should this be something that we're encouraging much earlier than we already are?

I don't really think that there's any age that's too early. I mean, my kids might argue that. But you know, I would bring them to rotary meetings with me, and at very early age, you know, when they started thinking about, you know, who they wanted to be when they I grew up, I tried to teach them early on that the more people that they knew, the more opportunities they would have to get insight into the world outside of their own.

And I think some people might argue that that could sound sort of self serving, like, “Oh, I just want to know as many people as I can, so when I need something, I know somebody.” It's not that. It is, as you said, a way to develop and grow. And, you know, in the right relationships, where you get the most out of those, it goes both ways, and I think it's important for people to remember—you have something to offer as well.

I remember the first time I had to go into a Chamber mixer, here in Gainesville, a very long time ago, and I really didn't know anybody. And it was just terrifying, because, of course, everybody there—and the perspective of the newcomer looks like they've all known each other 100 years, and they're all best friends, and you're the only person in the room who doesn't know anybody. And it's not true. And I thought, “I look way more awkward standing here, than if I just kind of read body language, and go mingle around until I find somebody I can speak to.”

And what you realize when you're in this circumstance—and whether it's the Chamber, or whether it's a professional networking event, a conference in your own profession, you know—people are there to meet each other. So you have to get past that mindset about, “Oh, this is so awkward, who is gonna possibly want to talk to me?” That's really what everybody's there for, and most people, most people have that hesitancy, and it does feel awkward, but once you realize that the whole point of everyone being there is to make those connections, it gets a lot easier.

And I don't think there's an age that's too early for that. And the earlier you become comfortable in learning about others, and approaching people and asking them about themselves—people love to talk about themselves—the better you get at it, and the more comfortable you get at it, so it becomes second nature. And then you never know where you're going to widen your network, because you're sitting next to somebody on a plane, that you realize, “Wow, this is a person, I'm so glad I met you, and I'm sure we're gonna speak again in the future.” And lo and behold, you find that you will.

Yeah, and those skills of being able to get outside your comfort zone, interact with people, ask questions, listen, learn about them—that's gonna benefit you so much down the road. I know you have a background in business development, and we're not focused on that topic today, of course, but those are all the exact same skills you need to be a great business developer. You need to be able to care and want to help people and learn about people, learn about your clients, learn about opportunities, and then think about how do you help them?

Right.

Community seems to be a lot about that. If we can approach connectedness, approach community, approach creating connections with others, through that lens of just trying to help—it benefits everybody so much more. I think that's a bit of a misnomer that's out there really, is so many people seem to think that “If I'm going to go create connection”—and we see this a little bit with firms that view themselves as competitors. 

And I've heard this over the course of my career is, “Well, why would you go help a competitor? Why would you go teach them something? Why do you want to go speak at a conference where your biggest competitor is going to be? Because now you're going to be educating them.” And it took me a bit, but once I got there, my approach has essentially been, “If we can go help others, we're going to be seeing that someone that wants to help,” and when it comes to creating community with competitive forces between the firms—and I know that you've I'm sure dealt with this being in association, as well—”What if we might compete with each other?” We've got to get away from the zero sum game mindset. And we've got to get to that mindset of, you know, rising, what is it, rising tides rise all ships, right? Everybody can benefit from the community. So how do you overcome that? How do you help firms and individuals within firms overcome that competitive barrier to creating community?

It's interesting, and it is a dynamic that is a constant underlying risk in an association—especially as the business world is moving further and further, and very rapidly, in a direction where geographic lines are not playing as big of a role in defining your market. And so you know, all of our member firms in some sense could be considered competitors to each other. So when they join—and as I had said earlier, when we were speaking—they're joining for the very specific purpose of making those connections. And I think they do come with a mindset too, as you said, in sort of eliminating the zero sum game in that when they know when they all help each other, that everybody has the opportunity to improve.

You know, I think about this as well—sometimes even when we need to invite speakers—and, you know, we want the best. We want the best in the profession to come and speak to our members, and there are times when we'll invite in a speaker or a presenter who is from a competing association.

And, you know, I think that everybody has to agree, in the spirit of improvement, and the spirit of advancement, that you set aside the competitiveness to think “I'm trying to win the business in this room.” What you're trying to do is collaborate to improve the profession, or whatever it is that you're coming together for as a whole. And you go away and apply those things to your own strategies, and your own business, and the things that you're doing. And you're like, “Wow, I really learned a lot out of that,” which was, there's so much more to be had from learning and enrichment than there is from closing yourself off, because you're worried that your turf is going to be not protected, I guess, to put it in a simple term.

Yeah. And there's so much benefit there, that when we're—and the way you put it that I really liked—is when you're looking to help each other. You know, everyone has the opportunity to improve, when we remove a little bit of that competitiveness, and we replace it with collaboration.

Sure.

And then that's a lesson that it really can go into the firms as well—”Let's not compete with each other as partners within a firm, let's collaborate.” And it's that mindset that, how do we have a healthy mindset, not a “win at all costs” mindset, which is a little bit of a different mindset. I mean, don't get me wrong, at the end of the day, there are sales, there are clients, and yes, we do want that to remain independent, which requires revenue, and it requires clients.

Right.

But it doesn't mean that somebody else has to lose as a result.

No. We have—I think of a great example—an extremely successful firm that's in a highly competitive market. And in the area of recruiting, I mean, you can imagine how competitive that is. And the top three firms in that market said, “Look, we're all competing for the same people, we all have our own cultures, we all have our own things to offer. If we put our heads together, we'll pull the best recruits that the big four is pulling—well, now they're gonna pay attention to us.” And then, you know, as we always say, the market will decide for itself. But it ended up being, you know, the firm had one of their best years ever in recruiting, and they went about this in an environment with their most stringent competitors. But when they decided to work together, it ended up really benefiting all of them in the same direction.

The power of community and connections yet again, helping them out.

I want to shift gears just a little bit as we wind down here: Obviously, over the last year—year and a half I guess at this point—it has been difficult to create community, it's been difficult to create connection. We've not been in person. You and I have interacted at numerous conferences over the years. This past year wasn't one of those years. Everything was virtual. And one of the big challenges to come of that is, how do you create community? How do you create connection? I'd like to get your thoughts on how you've been working to continue to build the community—not just sustain—but hopefully build a stronger community, even in this virtual and remote world, and what changes have you seen and how people connect over the course of say, the last year, year and a half?

In the environment that we have been forced to endure, it has brought about a lot of learning, and a shift in mindset. And so I think one of the advantages—because I'm always the person who's looking for the silver lining—and one of the advantages is that people have gotten a lot more comfortable with the virtual technology that has allowed for a lot more conversations to take place than even would have when we were in person. I don't think there's anybody that's going to argue that the ability to be together in person is not always going to trump, you know, having to speak on a screen. But something that we have all learned in the last year, you know, in March and April, the attitude was kind of like, “Well, it's better than nothing.” But as we moved through the year, people were sort of getting used to it and found it to be very, very helpful.

And one thing that we noticed in our profession, that business is very seasonal, and that during traditional tax season, the skills and the comfort and the value that people began to see in maintaining the community and the network with these tools that they can now do, made it a lot easier for them to stay in touch at a time when they might have drifted away from each other.

I know it's very helpful when you can form, I'll just call it, say, “special interest groups.” And if you identify people, or if you let's say, for instance, just self-identify, if you're not necessarily in the Association, and you say, “You know, I really have a great interest in this particular subject or thing that I like to do, or area in which I want to grow, and I'm going to go find some other people who share that with me, and I'm going to find a way to communicate with them.” So you had to be very intentional about it.

I think that that has changed a lot over the last year, and that conversations have—I think people are so grateful to have conversations, and took for granted the ability to do that when we were just all moving about freely in big groups and just didn't really think twice about doing whatever we wanted. All of a sudden, we found ourselves 100% just grounded, and thinking, “Okay, well, what am I going to do now?” And community and your network becomes very important at that point, when you realize the power that it has. And especially when it's so apparent in the last year when we were physically prevented from engaging in that.

An interesting perspective, Grace, because what it reminds me of is the fact that community, before the pandemic, kind of happened spontaneously. And to an extent to what you just said, maybe didn't happen as well as maybe it could have, because we almost took that spontaneity for granted. Because we thought, “Well, I'll run into somebody, or I'll you know, catch him at a networking event or at a lunch or at a dinner, or breakfast, or at the coffee bar, or whatever. I'm going to see him at five other conferences this year.”

And this last year, what you said is that it really required being intentional—whether it's, you know, finding something you're interested in, but creating community, maintaining community, required us now to be much more intentional, because there wasn't that happenstance meeting at the conference, or in the hallway, or anything like that. It's my hope that continues—not that we're virtual, necessarily. Not that we're remote. Because I'm looking very forward to getting back in person and seeing people in conferences. It's my hope that we maintain the intentionality in creating community and connection when we get back to in-person, that we don't take for granted the spontaneity of being able to see someone, and that we're still as intentional to say, “You know what, the next time that I'm at a conference, I'm gonna go find Grace, and we're gonna have coffee, or we're gonna have a conversation and create that connection that we haven't had.”

Right.

This is what we've had to do now. And I'm similar to you, I guess, in the fact that I like the silver lining. There's some positives.

Oh, sure. 

And I'd say that that intentionality is one of them.

Sure. Well, it really forced our hand. I mean, here at the Association, obviously, we have services that are offered that, you know—our members can talk to each other 24 hours a day. But the networking community that I think you're focusing on in today's conversation, I think we took for granted that it was going to happen when we would come together during these set times of the year. And when that was taken away from us—when those opportunities were taken away from us—we needed to make sure that those relationships were not eroded. And they can deteriorate very quickly when you just stop communicating.

And so, being intentional, being intentional, you know, you finally taken a look at your calendar and saying, “You know what, I have an hour of free time here. You know, who haven't I spoken to in a long time? I mean, it's been a while since we've been out, and who's somebody that I want to find out how they're doing and what they have going on?” There's no real point to this communication other than, “I just want to stay in touch and hear what's going on in your world.” And those conversations have been immensely rich in this last year.

Yeah, I would agree. I know I've had to be more intentional in reaching out to individuals and maintaining that community, that connection. And you're right, those conversations have been even more meaningful than maybe the couple minutes just grabbing a coffee between sessions at a conference, because you know, you're gonna see them five other times, maybe that month or that, you know, during the year.

Well, Grace, I've really enjoyed our conversation. Do you have time for three quick questions to close this out?

Sure.

All right. What is the one book you believe every leader should read?

Wow, that's a lot of pressure! There's a lot of them! You know, I really like anything by Patrick Lencioni and the Table Group. But I would say, if you are in a leadership position, where you understand the power of team—it's on my desk here: The Ideal Team Player. And that, to me, has an incredible amount of power in formulating a team from the get go, that is set up for long term success and satisfaction.

That idea of humble, hungry and smart. 

Yes.

Such a great model that he's built on. I appreciate that recommendation.

Second question: One of the big barriers to change in our profession is that when we ask “Why do we do something?” we respond, “Because that's the way we've always done it.” So as a leader, if you could eliminate one of the ways that we've always done it, what would you eliminate?

I would eliminate the mindset that there is a fixed set of time that one must work before they are given opportunities to advance. And I think to say, “Well, it took me 25 years to make partner” is a mindset that has got to shift in order to attract people and keep people who are passionate about what they do, if they feel that they can set the pace to achieve the success in their career that they're looking for.

That's really good. I appreciate that. I would echo that sentiment, I think that was very well said.

Final question: For leaders that are looking to improve in the area of creating connection and community for themselves, what do you recommend as their best next step?

Like I was saying earlier, you know: Be intentional. If you wanted to do something really simple, go into your calendar, go into your Outlook, and find one hour a week to reach out to somebody and have a conversation. And it doesn't need to be on any particular topic—you don't need to be collaborating on anything with this person. It's just somebody you've met, or somebody you haven't seen in a long time. Take that time and say, “Hey, do you have 30 minutes or an hour? I just would love to have a chat.” And I guarantee you that you will find that time will be very, very well spent.

Wonderful advice, Grace. I appreciate that. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I think it's been a very productive conversation. I've thoroughly enjoyed it, and appreciate you being on The Upstream Leader.

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I've enjoyed the conversation, and I can't wait to hear the other episodes that you're recording! So I will look forward to the podcast.

I appreciate that, Grace. Thank you.

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About Grace

Grace Horvath imageGrace Horvath is Vice President of Services at CPAmerica, Inc., a national not-for-profit trade association serving independent CPA firms. Effective January 1, 2022, she will take over the role of president of the Association.

Grace drives the strategies for delivery of services and resources provided to member firms and ensures that both member firms and the association retain their competitive edge. She oversees the offerings that are designed to increase firm growth, profitability, and sustainability including educational and networking events, practice management tools, and domestic & international business development resources.

Grace has specialized in business development, marketing, and program & services development and implementation in a variety of industries.  She has dedicated her career to service and also personally making a difference at home and abroad through her affiliation with Rotary and other charitable and volunteer organizations. 

She serves as Chair of the Gainesville Alachua County Regional Airport Authority; and is a Past President of the Gainesville Women’s Forum.  She has been a member of the Rotary Club of Gainesville since 2001, serving as 2013-2014 president securing highest recognitions for the club for exceeding service and fundraising goals locally, nationally and internationally.  She was co-founding chair of the nationally recognized Rotary Reading Safari, a literacy program created in partnership with Santa Fe College and the School Board of Alachua County.  She has served twice as the only person, and woman, to serve two successive years as president of the Rotary Club of Gainesville Foundation Board and Feastmaster of the Wild Game Feast.  She was recognized as a 2016 Santa Fe College Woman of Distinction.  She served on both the operations and foundation boards of Girls Place, Inc. where she was recognized as 2007 Board Member of the Year, was president of the operations board and chair of Hats, Hearts & Handbags.