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The Upstream Leader Podcast: Episode 21: Life Is Your Leadership Class: Leveraging Your Unique Skills to Drive Change


On episode 21 of The Upstream Leader, Dennis Sherrin, CEO at the Avizo Group, joins Heath Alloway. Dennis discusses how leaders can cultivate insights from their life experiences and maximize their unique strengths. He also talks about the aspects of accounting that keep him excited about the profession, the importance of soft skills, and the transformation the industry will undergo over the next several years.

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Upstream Leader podcast. I'm Heath Alloway, your host for today's episode. And today's guest, Dennis Sherrin, CEO at the Avizo Group. And I'm really excited about my conversation with Dennis. I had the opportunity—I met Dennis and several of his team members a few months ago, during a business development program. And I just, I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with Dennis and his team. And it's one of those deals from, you know, a trainer presenter standpoint, I could tell very quickly that they were just, they were bought into that idea of getting better, ongoing improvement, and leading change within the firm.

And I had the opportunity to talk with Dennis a few times since then. And the reason that I'm really excited about our conversation. I use this terminology a lot. But I quickly could tell Dennis was, he was one of those invisible teammates. He was one of those people or leaders that, he may be rooting for you even though you just haven't even met him yet. And my interactions, I could just tell that he truly cares about his firm and the profession as a whole. And before getting into our conversation, I did want to point out a couple items that were listed on his bio. Visionary who is constantly looking to the future and continually learning—he's a continual learner. So Dennis, welcome to the show. We're happy to have you today.
 
Thank you, Heath. I'm looking forward to having a little bit more time to talk with you.
 
Absolutely, Dennis. Well, then it says as we get into our conversation, this first question I always point out, this is a canned question. We always ask all of our guests, it's just an opportunity to get to know you a little more. I always have to tell people two minutes or less because I know it's hard to do but, what really molded you into the leader that you are today?
 
Yeah, I thought about this question. It's not easy to really think about myself as a leader. What I like doing is serving others, influencing others to be better every day. I like influencing organizations to kind of think beyond where they are now about where they're heading. And, you know, if I think about what kind of influenced me over time, I relate it back to food, believe it or not. I relate it to one of my favorite dishes from my most favorite city in the world New Orleans, Louisiana—gumbo. It's a little this, a little that. There's not any one thing or any one event that is something I can key on that said, this is what really led me to thinking like a leader. And so if I think about it from that perspective, it’s people, places, the opportunities I've had, the failures I've had, the struggles, and then ultimately the commitment and courage to know that every day, it's about a new opportunity. And I like to think of it as every day's a new day. So that's me, me in a nutshell.
 
I love that, Dennis and I have to say you are the first guest that has used food as an example. But I love that analogy, that's something I'm going to hold onto for myself for future conversations. And Dennis, you know, as we've talked, it's been fun, even though it's only been a few times, just learning a little more about your journey. And you've been pretty open about, you know, your career and things that have influenced you. And when we started talking about the idea of a podcast, you tossed out a title to me from a presentation or a talk that you did. Life is your leadership class. And since you dropped that title on me, I have to say that I've caught myself multiple times, kind of reflecting back on my life and really defining what that means to me. And I've continued to think about that. So then as I'm, I'm intrigued by that title, give us a little glimpse into really the talk that you did and really what, you know, what was your goal behind it? What were you trying to accomplish?
 
Hmm, good question. You think I have an answer for that? Okay. Let me see if I can come up. So what the talk was a presentation to a group of young CPAs here in the state of Alabama. Being a part of the state society board of directors, they asked me if I would speak on the topic of leadership. That's literally all they said. Leadership. Nothing more. Is this stuff, it's like free rein.

So the other thing that they said was, we're trying to do these presentations throughout the day like TED Talk presentations, like oh, okay. So the whole day was supposed to be designed for TED Talk presentations, but I got to say, most of them were not TED talk-like, they weren't. But I had taken the time to try to think okay, my job here is when I finished my presentation, I left them—left that audience asking more questions than having answers, because I wanted them to think more. So I didn't know how the talk would go. So I said, I'm going to talk about leadership, I really need to help everybody understand and appreciate what they've experienced in their life affects them every day. So it can affect their ability to make leadership decisions. And also wanted them to walk away with the idea that you're your own niche, if you will, and you have to be a leader in your style. I'm not one of these that says there are five or six styles of leadership. Because we're all unique, and we should be proud of that.

So I wanted them to appreciate that every day from when you're born all the way through your career, you're influenced by things around you. And it's your job to take those and make something of them. It's not your job to take those and let them affect you negatively, it's your job to take them and see how you make them something that benefits you. Because there's a lot of times that the experiences I had were not good. But they taught me something about being a better influencer, a better guide, a better mentor, a better coach, and if you will, a better leader.

And so I took a 20 minute speech and kind of led them through a story with pictures that, because I love to just do a presentation that just says pictures and then just talk, and I just kind of talked about influences. And I saw not heads nodding, not side to side, but up and down. And I think that if the more we appreciate how—that our life influences us, we all know that, but how we take that, and can develop ourselves as a leader.

Because every day whether every interaction—I can remember things that I did in middle school that I reflect on now that those were a good learning experience and even as an adult, I'm involved in youth sports, basketball, soccer, baseball, I have a son, a younger son, who is an Eagle Scout, so I was involved in Boy Scouts for years. I was learning leadership while I was around those kids every day. They were teaching me how to be a better leader, by just being kids and creating the challenges that they do. And I was trying at the same time to try to give them influences that hopefully somehow, not consciously, but unconsciously, when they're older influence them. And I didn't recognize that obviously, necessarily, as well at that early, earlier time in my life. But that's truly what leadership is about every day is a class for you in being better.
 
Yeah, I love that thought Dennis. And Dennis, there are a couple of things you mentioned there. One, I just want to try to summarize a thought there, but it's not what happens to you. It's how you react to it. Because inevitably, people are, no matter where you're at, who you are, what you are, you're going to come up against challenges in life. You're going to have times where you get knocked down, you get back up and you keep going. And that's I think that's part of life.

And especially if you reflect on the last year and a half or two, you know, sometimes the thought of growth comes from being out of your comfort zone. But if you're out of your comfort zone too long, sometimes you can start operating out of fear and emotion and let that get the best of you. But one thing I want to ask Dennis, you talked about life is your leadership class and how things that happen to influence your life. There has to be a lot of self accountability in that. So there's—how have you taken those experiences and built in that self accountability? Because sometimes things can happen and we don't take that self accountability to get better, and maybe it's a missed opportunity. So I'd love to hear your thoughts about how that self accountability really influenced your life.

You know that is an excellent question, and it is also a very difficult question probably for me to answer. I think like any one of, I will admit this, there are times that holding myself accountable is hard. Like there's a lot of times that, and maybe I feel like because I acknowledge that it does give me the freedom sometimes to just look in the mirror and say, you dodo. And so, from a practical standpoint and everyday being in the role I have with our firm, you know I have that morning thought period of time where I'm thinking about the day. I use a tool every week at the beginning of the week to set my priorities. And it's also my little simple way to keep myself on track because I love the new shiny thing that pops up in the middle of the week to distract me. And so I believe a lot of it is building easy, simple habits for me because I don't know if you're familiar with a Colby A index, but I'm a quickstart. And I'm always looking to improvise or innovate something. And so I have to have tools that are simple that can help remind me of what my primary objectives are for a week, and then I have a great team around me that doesn't mind helping me be accountable.
 
That's huge as well, is having the right people around you, it can make a huge difference. And there’s one thing I'll throw out there to add on to what you're saying. And that actually was my top skill, top trait was futuristic as well. So I have to kind of keep myself in check. And I shared this on a previous episode, but I'm going to share it anyway. And I'm going to share something else that I've heard around it.

But there's a podcast that I heard with John Gordon, it was with an author, it was focused on win the day. And the concept was, you know, it's easy to get caught up in the year goal or the long term goal. But step back and create those habits to win the day. So what do you do when you first wake up, what's something you can do to win the day? And then you win the second day, you win the third day, you're on a winning streak. And I've shared that a couple times. But something I heard recently, and I don't know how you even research this or bring the stats to this. But they said on average, every person on average has four wins a day. So roughly one of those things that happens where you feel good about or you wake up and you go to the gym or something where you're able to put back and save money or in your kids sports where you do something that results in a win. So if you think about four wins in a day, that's roughly close to 1500 in a year. That intentionality of focus on win the day, that's been a huge, huge help for me from a self accountability side.
 
Oh, yeah. Do you, how do you do that? Do you kind of keep a diary? Or is it more mental?
 
I don't keep a diary. That's a great idea, though, maybe I should start doing that. But I do, I intentionally plan out whether one of the first things I do is either going and being active in the morning or spending time to myself to kind of collect my thoughts and pray or meditate, whatever, you know, however one wants to refer to it as. But I like spending time, focus on kind of getting my mind ready to prep for the day. And then from there, even just going out and waking up my kids and setting them in a positive tone. That's two wins very early on. So it helps set the stage for the rest of the day.

Then it's one other thing you hit on—the self accountability or self change. It's not just self change, but you think about, you mentioned the futuristic, always focused on getting better, having that vision. So this is going to be somewhat of a—I'm going to take a couple, two pronged approach to this question. And the first one, it's not an easy, easy question. But when you think about vision in the future, I'm going to have you reflect back here for a second. And you know, I don't think this is any secret in our profession of, you know, some of the things are going on. And almost every firm that I talked to, they're facing some sort of staffing or capacity challenges where a high performer left or someone came in and recruited and there are fewer people going into our profession.

I was leading a panel discussion a couple months ago. And one of our participants asked a very, very candid question. She said, You know, this is great. We're talking about firm growth, business development, people development. She said, how do we, how do we even get to this, we have more work than we know what to do with, possibly at a burnout stage. And she asked one of the main partners in the firm, she said, Have you ever thought about leaving the profession? And if you did, why did you end up staying? And it almost, I want to say it was almost an aha moment. And he shared some insights. And I know this is once again, it's a hard question to ask or answer. But in that 30 years, or you go back to when maybe when you were two or three years in, or maybe even ten years? Did you ever have that thought? And if you did what kept you in our profession?
 
Yeah, I have had that thought. If I go back and you talk about, yes, right now, it's incredibly hard to attract staff, because they're somewhere and the good and we've had the misfortune, the fortunate misfortune to lose some staff to clients that became the CFO or something. So it's the fortunate misfortune. It's fortunate that they went to one of our clients and they're going to do a great job of that, it's going to make life better, but it's unfortunate because we lost them here.

If I go back, so I've been in this business now 30, I think I'm in year 35. I can go back to early on in the profession and say Yes, I did contemplate or think about leaving. I had a couple of opportunities to leave and always sort of thought that honestly, when I was in college, I would. Choosing accounting as a crazy story for another day that is funny and all that stuff. But I never thought I would stay in public accounting, necessarily, because my vision was to be the CEO of a company. I didn't, I ended up doing that, but it's a CPA firm.

I go back, and I think about it, I still think about it this way, why I stayed. There's a number of reasons. I love the change. What I mean by that is, every day or every week, or oftentimes, you're working with someone different every, every day, every week, every month. I was an auditor, when I first was in this profession and started out and I had 18 different clients that kept me busy, 50 weeks of the year. And it was so fun to kind of go and see those different clients and see what was going on. I love the interaction that I have there. And I realized how much freedom I had to kind of be me, within the CPA firm environment, once I understood the environment.

And I thought to myself, I'm an accounting major, got a degree. If I had three, four or five years experience, I'm going to go out, I'm going to go into a company somewhere. And I'm probably going to be a controller. And I'm going to do the same thing every day. In a week, there's a set routine. And there's a set routine for every month and every quarter. And I realized that I needed more flexibility in how I did things, what I did, and such as that, and for me, that I think there's much more opportunity to be myself working inside a professional services firm as opposed to working in a corporate environment. But I think there is flexibility, there's an opportunity to learn different things. Here, there's an opportunity to learn about different industries, get to know different people, meet entrepreneurs, meet innovators.
 
That's exciting to me. Hearing you describe it that way. To me, that's part of why I do what I do.
 
Yeah, yeah, I mean, you have a great chance to, you know, you get to meet different people from CPA firms, and you get to find out all of them are interesting characters. And that's the same thing I look at when we work with the huge number of clients that we have. And I feel like here, the role I have now, I have so much more opportunity to influence people, whether it's our staff, which is primarily where I think a lot of my influence is, as well as with our clients. And I think that, I know that in this day and age, the profession of accounting somewhat has that label that we can't shake, that we're number crunchers. But it's more about words than numbers, and it's more about personalities and relationships and conversations than it is about numbers. Sure numbers come back in the end. But it's more about understanding people and that's part of what this profession I think, gives me the opportunity to do that I wouldn't have had if I left it and went to work in the traditional route of going work in a private company somewhere.
 
Dennis, see, I knew there was a reason why I wanted to have this conversation and interview you today. I think you read my mind and started leading to my next question a little bit, because you mentioned, when I started to understand the profession. And you described how the relationship business plays such a big aspect of it. So you mentioned the misconception of what our profession is. And Jeremy and I kind of joke about this, would we have our kids get into this profession? And I do, I think there's still a huge misconception of what CPA and accounting and advisory firms do. In a lot of ways. I've heard stats around either 30 or 40% less people going in  to get accounting degrees and coming into our profession, which that's somewhat alarming to me.

But if you could describe it, especially to those earlier in their career. You mentioned you started to understand the profession. I think this goes to a grassroots effort, maybe even to the high school level in educating people what our profession does. And you started to get into this, but maybe how would you describe our profession? You mentioned the relationship side. You mentioned kind of entrepreneurship. I'd love to just take a, just take a second or two here. Describe how you feel like our profession is. And to me when you do that and people get in and they understand it. To me, it's pretty exciting.
 
Yeah, I agree with you. Your statistics are pretty darn close up. I’m fortunate enough to be on the AICPA Council. And so I've heard those statistics, you're right, the numbers going into accounting are, they’re declining and it's significantly less than it was. And we don't get into the high schools. The great quote I had somebody tell me the other day is that Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin offer football players scholarships in the eighth grade. Why aren't we in the accounting profession, getting into the eighth grade trying to introduce what we really are, which is about helping organizations achieve their goals and their ideas of success, and achieve their purposes for existing? Sure, we do that through helping them with effective business operations, effective business policies, effective strategies that deal with how they run their operation, how they manage their taxes, and such as that. But we also, we want to understand what those business owners’ goals and objectives are. Because we can give them better advice, and we can help them achieve those goals. That's pretty darn cool.
 
Yeah, when you're making a difference, I mean, to me, you look at career satisfaction. And when you're part of something bigger than just yourself—I mean, to me, that's a pretty rewarding opportunity. So Dennis, real quick, I'm going to get sidebar here for a second. But you mentioned in high school kind of perceptions. One of my dad's best friends was an accountant. And that's the exact perception I had, because he joked and he talked about his youngest daughter, and he said, when she was born, he took tax returns to the hospital whenever she was being born. And that just stuck with me. And that was my perception. And then I just by happenstance, just got into our profession. And I would agree with you, I think there's a lot more there than what people realize.

So, Dennis, I’d like to get, I'm going to shift gears here in a minute. We've kind of focused on our profession, we've talked some about the technical side. But one thing that, a new topic that I have been tackling to present and teach on is around emotional intelligence. And, you know, whenever I started down that road, I was a little, I don't want to say worried, but it just probably wasn't in my skill set of really teaching that. But I did a ton of research. And the more I got into it, the more I just absolutely latched onto it. And there's studies that show how EQ is in many ways more important than IQ in your leadership path—the empathy, perspective, being able to build those relationships. And I know a lot of people call them soft skills. I don't think they're soft skills, I think they're core leadership skills. So I'd be curious on how those types of skills have really impacted and influenced your career path.
 
I couldn't agree with you more that they’re so important, and so under appreciated, and under emphasized. Anything dealing with human relationship, human interaction. I don't know if it's accountants by nature, just want to not have to deal with that or not, but you have to, and a lot of them, a lot of CPAs, are very skilled at it. But it is a challenge. If I think about, I believe a lot about understanding your team, understanding how they function, how they do things, how they operate. I also believe you need to know the same things about your clients. I believe we undervalue it. And so we under emphasize the development of core skills, and I agree and soft skills is not the right word. And the reason I say that, I think I've told you this before, but I have this acronym, PPPT. Stands for people, planning, processes, and technology. And when I talk about people, it's all caps. Because without people that are committed and engaged, the planning in the process and the technology do not matter.
 
100%, Dennis. I 100% agree.

And I think our focus should be more on that as we develop people. I've often said, you've probably heard it from others, that we can teach them how to do the accounting and tax work. We need them to develop their human relationship skills, to understand how they function, how they interact with people best. We need them to have great skills at speaking, and great cognitive skills. These are all things that again, if we go back to life as your leadership class, they've probably had a lot of this experience, but they probably didn't have a lot of it in college. I took three or four public speaking classes in college. I don't know a lot but—
 
Well there’s a joke. I took it online, if you can believe that. Definitely afraid of it. I took it online. So it's hard to believe that I do that for a living now.
 
Oh, see there, but it was in you, that's the thing. And everybody has some gift in some way that they can communicate. And our business is so critical. It's so critical to have that communication capability and I say capability because I think everybody has it. Sometimes if you use skill, people get afraid of the word skill, like I don't have enough. And I think that we underutilize or undervalue that aspect of how do we prepare ourselves.

And if I take one more step back to life is your leadership. When you're that young parent and you are involved in coaching that youth sports team or being a part of your daughter's classes and dance or your son's karate classes or different things, where you're helping influence and guide them around others. When you're in that local civic club or you're in that college club, accounting club, Beta Alpha Psi fraternity, they're all things that are working on the EQ skills, not the technical skills. Develop those and come to us. We'll help you with the technical skills, we can definitely do that. And it's not like I'm saying dump all the accounting classes in college. They need to be more prepared for where we're going instead of where we've been. But that's another story.
 
Dennis, those traits are teachable. And you can learn those as well. I'm a 100% believer now. Well, Dennis, something you said, I'm going to go back to PPPT. You said people is in all caps. So Dennis, some of the things you have talked about with leading change within a firm—change is not an easy thing to do. And I think many times the main goals, the premise behind change, did they make sense for the firm, or they made complete business sense. But a lot of times with any major change initiative, they fail. And I think sometimes that comes down to a people failure. So I would be curious to hear, maybe it's recent, or maybe it's a little further back, but in your career, walk us through maybe a key change initiative that you led, or you played a key role, and maybe as the CEO, or maybe before you were the CEO within the firm.
 
If I think about that, there's one that comes to mind that we actually created our own name for it and trying to make it somewhat famous. I guess at some point in my lifetime, before I quit doing any kind of work. There were failures and successes in it. And I think that's why I kind of go back to it is probably about 10 years ago, we got into Lean Six Sigma. And we were, we brought in Dustin Hostettler who helped us do some lean process work, helped our tax processes get better. And we had Dustin in to do a follow up session on our entity tax process. And we always built a charter and we built some goals and objectives. And in the back of my mind, this had been around for a while. But he said, Okay, any other goals we want to share? I said, Yeah, I got one more. I said, I wanted to set a goal to reduce or eliminate overtime during tax season. We got chuckles. And everybody laughed. I said, No, I really want that as a goal. And so we put it as a goal, knowing that that's not a goal we're gonna address in this project. We just let it sit. It was like that pot of gumbo was sitting on the back of the stove just simmering. People started to ask me, do you really think we can do this? I said absolutely. But you guys have to make it happen.

Two years later, we created the name Project 40. With the whole idea that we wanted to challenge the norm and the belief that the only way to do the work you had to do during tax season was just work overtime. And we were one of those firms at that point in time. The partners are probably averaging 85 to 90 hours a week. Tax season. We were asking our staff for 75 hours a week. And so we built a grassroots effort. We had every phase of the firm involved in a group, the project 40 team, to build a plan for how we could reduce overtime during tax season. And we were very vocal and open about it with meetings and it was not a top down thing. It was an idea from the top. But it was a grassroots effort to change it. The first tax season we implemented those changes would have been tax season 2017. We reduced our overtime 22% that tax season. Got all the work done that we normally had done.

That's awesome.

The team was so motivated and so focused the next year they reduced overtime another 25%. Now our staff averages between 40 and 45 hours during tax seasons work hours.
 
So that's a pretty big change initiative. That's yeah, Dennis. Gosh, that's probably a another podcast topic. I have not heard that one. So I would, gosh, at some point, I'd love to have you back on and talk more about that.
 
I kept that one in my back pocket on you. I'm sorry.
 
Yeah, Dennis, I'll throw one point out there and we're going wrap up with a couple of questions. But there is a quote that I heard recently. It kind of ties directly to that of, if you give yourself like three months to clean your house, it takes you three months, if you give yourself three hours to clean your house, it takes you three hours. And it's kind of the thought of work expands in the allotted time that you have. So we've heard more and more firms taking on initiatives like that. And I think some of that's critical to the longer term success of the profession. Once again, we could probably spend hours on that topic alone. But this we’re going to wrap up here. And we think about kind of your future mindset. And thinking forward to the profession. Where do you see the profession five years from now? I know we're going through a ton of change. But where do you see the profession five years from now?
 
It's a mixed bag, as you well would know. I believe, it will look very different from where we are now. I've heard Barry Milanson say that now as well. Hearing Barry's kind of changed his perspective on that over the last three or four years has been really invigorating for me. And I believe that you will, you will see more what-if conversations with business owners. What if we did this, what if we did that, hey, I'm thinking about this. More of how we're helping them think about helping them move where they are today, but planning for what they want to accomplish tomorrow. So I believe we're going to move more into the role of a true consultant and a true advisor to a greater extent than we already do. I would be remiss to not say that that exists now. We just don't necessarily place the value on it appropriately, I believe.

I think in five years with technology audits will be so different that I can't even really explain it. But the audit will almost always be a remote task that's done with a significant level of technology, and reduce the amount of required human input. I think the artificial intelligence machine learning right now relative to understanding and interpreting handwriting will make tax prep virtually automated. I mean, obviously, we know it is with forms now. And that was one of the keys to our success in Project 40 is using that.

I think that the part that will be most important, though, is how we serve the clients to help them achieve their goals. It'll be more focused on that, more focused on asking them where they want to, where they see themselves in three years, and that way. So you know, and then, Heath, I'm getting toward the end of my career. I turn 60 here in a short period of time, and I'm looking for probably some, some next opportunity to do something fun. But gosh, I wish I was in my 40s. Because I think the next 10 or 15 years of this profession are going to be incredible. People say accounting is dying. Well, the old accounting, the redundant transactional processing partners.
 
Depends on how you look at it. I think it's alive and well.

Yeah, the old part of accounting’s dying, but the new part of being the advisor and the consultant. Boy, there's a brave new world there that could be a fantastic opportunity for those that want to go after it.
 
Yeah, I agree, Dennis, and a lot of the premise behind our Emerging Leaders Academy, we talked a lot about the trusted adviser versus the trusted historian. And it's a direct correlation to what you were just describing. So Dennis, as we wrap up here, with one last quick thought, so if you could give one piece of advice to our listeners, what has really made a difference in your leadership career? One takeaway for our audience that could help them.
 
Always want to try to understand yourself. It's not easy, and it's not completely possible, but try to understand how you do things, how you take action. Understand what your unique abilities are, that instills the Strategic Coach concept. Understand your unique abilities, and then find how you spend most of your time doing that. You're going to serve those around you better if you do that, and you're going to serve yourself better. And so it's about taking time to understand how you do things, how you go about things and understand what your unique abilities are, and how you contribute that to others. That’s what I'd leave it with.
 
But Dennis, I love that it ties right into that emotional intelligence piece, because one of the key things is understanding how you operate and acknowledging that and how you react, which aligns really well with what you just said. So well, Dennis, it's been a lot of fun to get to know you over the past several months and have this conversation. I hope our listeners are—to me, there were several good takeaways in there, so I hope our listeners get some good value out of this as well. And Dennis, I look forward to future conversations, and I appreciate your time today.

Thank you, Heath.

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About Dennis:

Dennis Sherrin is CEO and Strategic Consultant at the Avizo Group, which simplifies organizations’ accounting and tax needs and develops strategies to help clients reach their goals. With 30+ years of experience as an auditor, he is a leadership speaker at industry CPE events.

Dennis also serves as a member of the AICPA Governing Council. He is the past President and a current board member of the Alabama Society of CPAs.

Dennis holds CPA and CGMA designations and earned his BS in Accounting from the University of South Alabama.