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The Upstream Leader Podcast: Episode 14: The Opportunity in Uncertainty


On episode 14 of The Upstream Leader, Heath Alloway talks to Joey Havens, Managing Partner for Strategic Growth at HORNE LLP. Joey’s recently published article in the Journal of Accountancy outlined the benefits and opportunities that have been presented by the Covid pandemic. He explains some of the details of his article, as well as touching on the potential pitfalls for accounting firms not just with Covid, but because of the profession’s tendency to be risk-averse.

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Full Episode Transcript

Hello, and welcome to The Upstream Leader podcast. I'm Heath Alloway, your host for today's episode, and I'm thrilled about today's guest. I'm a big advocate of really observing and learning from others, and really taking their unique perspectives and their experiences and learning from that. I'm also a big believer in the concept of the invisible teammate. And when I say that I think there are leaders out there that are really rooting for your success—they want you to do well, they want the profession to do well—and you may not even be aware of that. And whenever I think about today's guest, I think he is one of those leaders. He's someone that we have a lot to learn from.

When I read his bio—I'm just going to share the very first sentence out of this bio—it says, “I believe leadership is about serving others and helping those around you see and reach their full potential.” And when I read that, I believe Joey Havens is one of those invisible teammates, to our listeners.

Joey is also the current Managing Partner for Strategic Growth at HORNE LLP in Ridgeland, Mississippi. And earlier this year, Joey had an article published in the Journal of Accountancy, and it was really focused on the pandemic, and some of the really good things that came out of that, and some of those areas that maybe we struggled as a profession. And I'm not trying to downplay the negatives that come with a pandemic. But this is really focused on some of the good things that came out of that. So Joey, welcome to the show.

Oh, thank you so much Heath, and certainly appreciate those kind comments.

Well, Joey, I'm looking forward to our conversation. And Joey, this is a question that you and I, we could probably talk about for hours. It's something we ask every one of our guests, but in two minutes or less, what really molded you into the leader that you are today?

Well, let me start with the word “molded.” I think “molding” is a better word, because I want to always be growing and learning as a leader. And I think if leaders feel like they've arrived, then that's when we get in trouble. So I believe that we continue to grow and learn. And it's an easy question for me, it's my parents: Joe and Mary Havens. You know, the Christian home they raised me in, my personal faith in Jesus Christ, is the foundation of my leadership and my heartfelt desire to serve others.

Yeah Joey, I think in my discussions with you that that comes through and just that  servant leadership mentality of helping others. One thing you said too, about the journey of a leader, it's not a destination, it is truly a journey. And in my mind that never ends. And Joey, as I've read several of your blogs and some of your articles, and now I've had a handful of conversations with you, I've really started to gravitate towards your approach and some of your perspective around the accounting profession. And in some ways, I think it's unique.

And to help set the stage: One thing that we practice a lot in various trainings is that concept of mind travel and the mental time travel. You can go a lot of places in a really short period of time. So let's go back prior to the pandemic. What were some of the observations that you had around the profession? What was going well, what were some of the hurdles that we were facing?

All right, going back in time, and I'm going to—I'm talking about the profession as a whole, so I will make some generalizations here. Obviously, we've got some fantastic firms that are leading the way in a number of things. But as a profession as a whole, I think before the pandemic, we were in a strong position with a lot of opportunity in front of us, but we were pretty slow to respond to it. We really weren't changing how we were working. I don't know, I guess it's that legacy anchor that always gets you when something's working, and you're pretty successful.

In fact, you know, looking at our profession before the pandemic, we were successful by any standard, so you're always hesitant to mess with a winning formula. So for over a hundred-plus years, we've been successful with incremental change. And that's what I saw before the pandemic, is that we wanted to grab this opportunity, we were trying to do it with incremental change, we were dipping our toe in the water rather than diving in.

And Joey, I wholeheartedly agree with some of those comments. And one of my least favorite statements that I hear is, you know, “This is the way we've always done it.” But as you said, I don't ever say that as a negative because I don't blame firms, I don't blame partners, I don't blame professionals, but when you're successful, it's kind of that mindset of well, why should we change if if it's working?

One of the practices that we try to use at Upstream is the “Yes, And” concept. So yes, this is how we've been successful, but then and, how can we continue to get better? And you know, Joey, one of the things you hit on, I think was important is there was a lot of incremental change across the profession. You look back, you can see it, that's around our people, that's around technology, the services, it hits a lot of different areas. But when we look back over the past year and a half, maybe two years—what we experienced was really what I call forced change. We didn't really have an opportunity to wait. We were forced into doing that.

Some of the things that just you know, the general profession as a whole—I think a lot of firms found out maybe we were a little better at change than what we thought we were. And one of those areas, Joey, is around that remote and flexible work schedule. And so whenever you look at that, and how that happened, if firms would not have made that change to more of a remote workforce and some of the flexibility, what do you think are some of the negatives that would have come out of that?

Well, certainly, in the midst of the, you know, the complete shutdown, I mean, you're basically out of business. If you're not capable of—and some firms got caught in that, they cannot take their entire firm remotely overnight—that was one of the advantages that we had, because we've been doing a lot of remote work. But there's no doubt in my mind that—and this applies to coming out of the pandemic—we can't go back to expecting the workforce to work the way they were working. It's going to be very different. And so if we don't embrace this, and a more flexible work environment, the talent shortage that we feel right now is going to accelerate and be—it's going to be devastating in many ways. So people are simply—now—they are accustomed to, and expect, the ability to make choices that allow them to integrate their career and their personal life.

Yeah, totally agree, Joey. Well, with that, you kind of mentioned you were doing some of this prior to the pandemic. I think one of the biggest concerns is around what's the long term impact on our culture? How does this impact our culture, if we're not in person as much. So any thoughts on how we can tackle this as a profession, to turn it into a positive and to strengthen a culture of a firm and a culture of the profession?

Well, you know, fear—it's unfortunate—fear tends to be a more motivating force than promise of gain, which is one of the problems when we talk about uncertainty. You know, the risk is great if we try to return to a workforce like we had before. In maintaining that culture, and wanting that culture back, and we want to keep our culture strong, we want people having a strong sense of belonging in our firms. And that's going to be a big learning curve. That's part of the uncertainty, but it's also part of where we have to dive in and learn how to manage remote workers. Because our future's bright, and we've got to embrace hybrid schedules, and try different things about how we build connection. And that's going to take a lot of experimenting, it's going to take a lot of finding best practices, it's going to be unique for different firms, and different individuals. But we’ve got to embrace it and get started on it.

And Joey, in your opening remarks there, you talked about the fear and uncertainty. The best way I heard it described was, “All growth comes from being out of your comfort zone.” But sometimes if you're out of your comfort zone too long, that's when you start operating out of fear and emotion instead of logical thinking and seeing it as an opportunity.

One thing I was gonna take a little deeper dive on that you said, Joey, of the culture: When I think about the remote workforce and some of the changes that are taking place, in some ways you're going to see your high performers continuing to be high performers, or then some that maybe were not your high performers, you're probably still going to see some of that.

But what I wanted to hone in on was the new hires, of embracing the culture. I've seen firms struggle with those that were maybe recruited or onboarded right before the  pandemic or during the pandemic, and firms really struggled with “how do we get them ingrained into our culture whenever we have not been with them in person?” So any thoughts on maybe anything your firm is doing, or things you observed other firms doing, to really hone in on those year one, year two staff that maybe they haven't had the opportunity to be in the office?

What a great question. And that's something, one of the challenges that we're attacking now. And, you know, I'm looking around the profession and outside the profession—you find a lot of answers outside the profession too, and some of the things that we're doing, some things that we're copying from others include: One is, you know, somebody that's been onboarded like that, we are providing them with just tons of education about how to be a successful remote worker: best practices, we're having regular team meetings, we're having fun meetings. And then there's a plan, an intentional plan for somebody, whether it be their performance advisor, or maybe their performance coach, because we believe in coaching. We're making and having intentional contacts with them.

Because what happens when somebody is remote, it’s like they go into a mindset of lingering. In other words, they wait for something to happen—especially if they're young in their career. They're not as confident about being aggressive and asking and looking and finding ways to connect. So they go into this almost no motion kind of status. So you got to be very intentional about that. And I think it's a matter of, also, we're planning more and more face to face meetings now. Where we have team meetings in the office to provide even more connection.

Well Joey, one thing that you said that I love the fact that you talked about your belief in coaching and your intentionality around coaching. And one observation, I think some of this was happening before the pandemic, some of it maybe even ramped up during the pandemic, but if you look back on the history of the profession, many times coaching, or what I would call an annual appraisal, one time a year, and it was really more of keep doing what you're doing, it was viewed as compliance and not really true coaching.

So we've seen more frequent coaching whether that's monthly or real-time coaching. Any thoughts or maybe what you were doing or maybe even the back end—what successes have you seen with the intentionality of coaching? How has it impacted the career development? How has it impacted the retention efforts?

Heath, again, whether you call it a coincidence, or luck—I certainly give all credit to God. But back in 2014, we realized that people were not advancing as fast as they could because of  feedback. So we went to, it’s a book by a Harvard professor, Thanks for the Feedback. And we went to that back in 2014, trained our entire firm on that. It really teaches you about how to receive feedback. You can get good and bad feedback. You know, if you don't know how to receive it and give it in a way that's a safe environment, it doesn't work very well. So that's been a real key for us, is that we've continued to train and use—we call it a” feedback movement” at HORNE when we did that—and it's become integrated into our processes.

So from that standpoint, our people are used to regular feedback. You know, we all know that feedback is best when it's closest to when you need it, and it includes—this is the part maybe we struggle the most with—is appreciation. You know, we can't wait to have that conversation with somebody when they’ve blown it. But you know, when they knock it out of the park, you know, well that's what you're supposed to do, right?

Right. Yeah. You're right on track there Joey. And one thing that you said I'll take a little deeper dive on here as well is just the candid open feedback. You know, for our listeners today that maybe are on that career journey. More often than not in our profession, you know, our people care—they truly care about the success of the people that they coach. But many times it's hard to give direct and candid feedback, but if your coach is not giving that to you, how are you going to know what you need to improve? So, see that as, it's a gift, if you have someone that is actually sharing that kind of feedback—that's the only way you get better, is when you do have someone that's that's open and honest with you. And just know that even if it's awkward for you, maybe it's awkward for the coach giving it to you, but they're doing a disservice if they're not open to having that kind of feedback.

So Joey, we focused a lot on people so far. We're going to shift gears a little bit to a couple other areas of our profession. The next part is around clients. So if you look at what happened, too—it seems like most firms had a strong year. At Upstream we talked a lot about the trusted historian versus the trusted advisor. And really it seemed like the pandemic, at first, it opened that door for our professionals to reach out to have conversations with clients—maybe even more so than what they had in the past. So with the ongoing, maybe fear or uncertainty that our clients are facing, what can we do as advisors? How can we help them through this? How can we focus on the value, and not just the trusted historian concept?

I think, you know, when you look at what happened during the pandemic to client service overall, in many ways—if you really think about it—in many ways, client service improved. It improved because a lot of wasted time and lost time, you know, was converted to productive time, whether that be commuting, or travel costs, or meetings that had no real purpose. The other thing that happened, you know—I wrote an article for the Journal of Accountancy about, you know, through the pandemic, we need to think about more and less: more some things and less of others. One of the things that people have gotten used to was more access to leaders, because we had to be up in front and Zoom, and all of that made that possible. Well, that's what happened in client service also. Team members that had never talked to the CFO or the CEO, all of a sudden was on a call with the team, and so client service and connection to that actually improved. People, I think, a lot of times people haven’t put those dots together, but I know our team members have been exposed to client leadership a lot more, and it’s added value. It’s helped us respond more. So I think from that standpoint, it's been a big plus for client service.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool to think about. Maybe mana businesses or, you know, hospitals, banks, or whatever it may be, whatever industry or niche you're focused on—possibly It was one of the most challenging year, year and a half, maybe two years that they've had. So that to me, that's pretty cool that firms were in a position to help them through that. And I do, I feel like as a whole, many people were really able to elevate that advisory status.

And Joey, one of the things that we see, I think this has always been around, but maybe more so the past year, year and a half, around the thought of capacity. Many of our services are, really, we look at the power of the charge hour, and when we do this, it somewhat maybe caps our growth potential around the amount of time we have, the number of people we have. How do you think—with our current environment, our current landscape—how do you think this is going to shift the services that we offer and that we provide clients? And not only that, but maybe on the back end, how are we going to bill for our services in the future?

(laughs) You said this was a 30 minute podcast didn’t ya?

(laughs) Well, we can maybe go a little longer. I know it's a this is a tough subject.

You talk about a box of worms, you know, that's a box of worms. So we can probably take some little bites at i.

 I think going back to your comment Heath about historians versus advisors: The piece that is in my mind the most is that our clients’ needs are changing so much, that there's this huge amount of opportunity to just wade in there and help them figure some of that out. Let's take some of the easy things, like the fact that when the pandemic hit, so many of our clients weren't able—they weren't in a digital environment—they had a legacy paper process. So there was all the opportunity to take them digital. All kinds of new cyber risk popped up.

And with that comes the opportunity to—and this is a pet peeve of mine. I mean, I know you have, you've seen me talk about it, and you and I have had discussions around you know, our current business model of billing by the hour, versus the worth that we generate. And we are moving into, and we are already in, an environment where there's going to be a talent shortage. So there's—I don't know, I see a couple of things that are going to happen to cover that gap. Number one, I mean, you're going to see more outsourcing manual input tasks. And that's going to happen a lot, is automations fills that in. I mean, automation’s there, but it takes time to get it right, it takes time to get it implemented. So automation is catching up really fast—some of those tools. So that'll cover some of that talent gap.

On that point, Joey, because I think one of the things we struggle with as a profession, and we get into this in some of the various business development training, but how do you communicate the value versus price or fees? Because one of the things that you mentioned, the automation—so for an example, say you do an audit one year, and then three years later, you have new technology, you can do it with 25%, less hours. When you start communicating that efficiency to the client, are they going to expect you to charge 25% less, even though they're getting arguably the same or more value out of that?

So I hate to put you on the spot on a podcast, but what advice would you have to, you know, partners, senior managers, managers on how to communicate that value, and not just be so honed in on the fee side?

Yeah. That’s such a great question, and I love this topic, so. You know, first and foremost, pricing is a skill. It's a skill that every one of us can learn. It is a skill that is not prevalent in our profession, because we have used a cost model that just simply takes, how many hours is it gonna take us times—so we've never priced each unique client and each unique client situation.

So I'm just going to give you some examples. One is that, you know, we don't price by the hour, we price by what you're asking us to do: Here's what we believe that's worth and we stand 100% behind that. So think about the illustration you gave. You said, “Audit three years later is taking 25% less time.” You know what some people are thinking in their mind, they're just gonna keep increasing their hourly billing rate, right? So we go from 200 to 350. And we're getting the same thing. At some point, it's getting a little hard to tell a client you're gonna charge them 650 an hour, for somebody who's been out of school for two years. That's going to be a little tough conversation in itself. But really what you think—let's think about audit today, let's think about the regulatory environment. Let's think about the shortage of talent. The risk that a firm is at today, when they do an audit. Let's think about the cost of the insurance that is going up today. The cost of your brand to your brand, if you have a bad audit outcome, which is much more likely today. Why? Because business models, again—so much transformation and uncertainty, business models are more at risk, regulatory environment’s tougher. So if we would step back and look at our business model, we would think, you know, let's just take a bank: “This is a $1 billion bank or a $10 billion bank. Regardless of the number of hours it takes us to do that audit, we're taking on a certain amount of risk that we need to be rewarded for, and number two, we're bringing a level of wisdom and experience to this audit, that makes them better, and that we can't charge by the hour.”

Yeah, I love that Joey and you, you alluded to the backend costs and just even thinking about, a lot of firms struggle with the change management aspects. So if you're implementing a new technology, you've invested in the technology, then not only that, you invest in the training aspect of it, for all your people. There is a big investment in what changes we’re making, and you are spot on from a risk perspective. We live in a different world these days, with social media—the word can travel pretty pretty quickly. So Joey, I appreciate the insight there.

We have a couple minutes left here with our discussion, Joey, and one of my favorite quotes—it really revolves around, “my greatest hope is we don't reach for normal, that we reach for better.” Any final advice that you have for firm leadership, or maybe partners that are you know, earlier in their careers or others just in the profession, starting their journey. Any any last comments around what they can do to embrace, maybe, that fear, or where there's a pandemic—whatever it may be—and really look at the opportunity in a way to get better.

As I reflect on that, I mean, I think I would want to leave them with thoughts around where we sit right now today, because there's a lot of great quotes and things to think about, about personal development. But if we think about where are we at today, and what each of us as individuals and what our firms need to do: First thing is, embrace reality—which means uncertainty breeds fear. Okay? So all right, everybody scared—that's part of uncertainty, because you don't know exactly what to do. Our profession’s known for being black and white and knowing exactly what to do, and being very intolerant of risk. So alright, first thing is, it's okay, it’s human, it’s actually great that I understand uncertainty brings fear.

Now, what I want to understand is that uncertainty brings an ocean of opportunity. And it's actually the pathway to learning and building resilience for your firm to where you stay relevant. And so I guess you could sum it up with “Dive in.”

I like that, I like that: Dive in. And Joey, with that, there may be some failure along the way. But I like that mindset of use that to continue to get better. So Joey, I appreciate those thoughts.

And one thing we always do, Joey, we like to leave our listeners with some resources. Maybe one or two, either books or podcasts, whatever it may be. You know, I would say I will just go ahead and say your blog. I read that pretty frequently and follow you on LinkedIn. I've told many people that you're someone that I follow. it's a little different, maybe a different approach to some of the things going on in our profession. So just for our listeners, Joey—did not ask me to do that, but I wanted to provide that because it is a good resource.

But Joey, any resources that really made a big impact on you that you would recommend to our listeners?

Well, thank you for that. I mean, I've been very humbled by the people that respond to the blog, and certainly cc my wife—that’ss become known in many ways, and we have a good time around that.

So very quickly. I think if you're looking for personal insight and direction, one of my favorite authors, great friend, John O'Leary, he's got two books: On Fire—I gave that book to my parents and all my kids, and then he's got a new book out called In Awe. Those are fantastic personal development books.

A book that I finished last year, that I'm still going back to and looking at—and I think the reason I bring it up is it’s very relevant to the questions you started with, Heath, on, how do we keep culture strong, we got a new environment—and that’s Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game. And in that he talks about just cause, and how important that is to the long term resiliency of a firm. And it gets beyond your vision, it gets beyond your purpose, and it helps you see when you're making short-term versus long-term decisions. And then I would sum it up with, I'm a big fan of Patrick Lencioni’s work. You pick any of his books up, and I will tell you that when we went to work on our culture really hard back in 2011, it was his book The Advantage that I really, really went back and forth with.

Joey all great resources. That's cool that you know John O'Leary. He actually spoke at my previous firm’s leadership conference one year and it was a very, very powerful presentation. In fact, if I remember correctly, I believe he got a standing ovation afterwards—it was a pretty neat deal. And I can vouch for you on the Simon Sinek side as well. If you've not listened to the podcast interview he does with Brené Brown on Infinite Game. It's it's very, very powerful. I joke and tell people it's—and I'm very open about this—that's the only podcast that I listened to twice in the same day. I listened to it once and I listened to it again that evening. It just had a powerful message, and it's kind of that thought of, if the firm down the street closes, do you really win? It's much bigger than that, so.

I've listened to that podcast three times myself. And, Brené Brown is another fantastic author. Got some great insights in some of her books.

Well, very good, Joey. I—once again, I appreciate all of your insight and sharing. Although it's a brief window and a 30-minute timeframe, it's still a great insight for our listeners. I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule, and thank you to all of our listeners, as well. So Joey, thank you.

Thank you so much.

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About Joey: 

Joey Havens is the current managing partner for strategic growth at HORNE. He previously served as executive partner from 2012 to 2021, leading more than 1,800 team members while passionately living out his life’s calling to help others see and reach their full potential. Prior to being named executive partner in 2012, Joey served as the managing partner of healthcare services and the managing partner of government services. 

Within the profession, Joey actively challenges the mainstays of public accounting. He advocates growing leaders faster using holistic approaches and intentional sponsorship. In addition to his weekly beBetter blog, he is the author of numerous whitepapers and articles, including Becoming the Firm of the Future published by the AICPA. He has co-authored four books during his career at HORNE. Joey is an active member of CPA Practice Advisor’s Top 30 Thought Leaders, where he works with other accounting professionals to help lead and shape the industry.

Joey is a frequent presenter/teacher/facilitator on creating a culture of belonging, strategic planning, leadership development and loves to teach young professionals the ABCs to Outstanding.