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The Journey to Self-Accountability: Lessons from the NJCPA Managing Partner Retreat

By Carolyn Hook posted 04-04-2016 08:16 PM


Sam Allred, CPA, is a Director at Upstream Academy, Founder of Upstream Academy Network, an international association of accounting firms, and was the central figure in the development of methodology and best practices now practiced by hundreds of firms throughout the United States and Canada. Sam Allred has been regularly recognized as one of the major influencers of the accounting profession and has been listed for the past six years as one of Inside Public Accounting’s “Most Recommended Consultants.”

So when, at the NJCPA Managing Partner Retreat, Allred told of a time when he was his firm’s “least accountable partner,” New Jersey’s top CPA firm leadership wanted to know more. Here’s Allred’s story.

I believe that if there was a survey of who in the firm is the least accountable partner. I am certain it would have been me. I was a good contributing partner, don’t get me wrong. But that’s what led me to be the least accountable partner. I had the highest production. Everything I was touching was growing like crazy. Each consulting group I started saw 100 percent growth, year after year for a long time. Really strong profitability. Somehow in my mind I had convinced myself without even thinking about it, “Surely, You don’t need to do this. We don’t need to be there. You don’t need to follow through with this. It’s more important for you to do what you’re doing over here. And without realizing it I had become the partner that, at least the administrative people, hated.

Yes, he said they “hated” him because they had to constantly chase him down to do anything that other people were willing to do – even those things that, as a partner, he agreed to do. Today he admits to being embarrassed by his behavior, and to not even realizing his actions. This is the behavior that earned him the “least accountable partner” title:

Every other year the shareholders would turn in a personal financial statement by May 15 and in return we’d get a personal line of credit from our bank. We would get an email saying, “Turn in your personal financial statement by May 15” with a reminder that we agreed to do this. I’d get that email in October and I’d delete it. Then once a month there would be a reminder and I would delete it. Then as we’d get closer, the frequency of those emails would pick up. “This is really important. We’ve got to get it done. Right after busy season, don’t forget…” At some point it’s May 15 and there is an email that listed six of us. “We need you to do your personal financial statement. It was supposed to be done yesterday. We’ve got to give it to the bank.” And I’d think, “There are six of us. At least I’m not the only guy.” Finally, our system of accountability was that Tim, the CEO, would come to the door and, with some degree of irritation, say “Are you not getting the emails?” And then the system was, you would apologize and you would say, “I am really sorry. I’ve been really busy. I’ll do it today.”  And then you do it.

Allred confessed this was his system of accountability for all sorts of things. And the most embarrassing part was that the things he gave the most angst about in most cases would take about 15 minutes. That personal financial statement? The firm gave him a copy of the old form and a spreadsheet. All he had to do was plug in new numbers. Sounds more like the behavior of your teenager on garbage day than a firm partner. But the worst part,  Sam explains, was that he and Tim, the irritated CEO, were best friends. “I took one of my best friends and made him frustrated and he had to chase me down for something that literally took 15 minutes.”

Then two things happened. First, in re-reading one of his favorite books, True Professionalism by David Maister, he was suddenly struck at reading, “You are not a professional if you make the lives of other people around you more difficult.” The second thing was a discussion he had with a young man about integrity. Sam recalled a discussion with his own dad about being a person of integrity and how he wanted to be one. “If you can’t be counted on to do what you said you would do, you’re not a person of integrity,” he told the young man. And then it all came together. Even though he was successful, he wasn’t a man of integrity. He wasn’t who he wanted to be.

Success doesn’t correlate with self-accountability and success doesn’t correlate with integrity. I could get all kind of results. I could generate all kinds of things, bring in all kinds clients, generate all kinds of new services. But I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. And I recognized people at the firm smiling, insincerely, because they were highly frustrated. It was huge wake up call. And I really sat down and I tried to make a list: What are all the things I haven’t done on time? All the times I frustrated somebody? Times I never returned an email? I never did what I said I was going to do? I didn’t show up? I didn’t follow through? I chose something else I thought was more important? Or I thought my contribution earned the right to a get out jail free card? I remember being completely embarrassed making the list. I thought, “I owe a lot of people an apology. And I owe it to them to change who I am.”

It has been 12 years since Allred’s enlightenment – one he had to come to himself. Now he and his firm have adopted this definition of self-accountability:

Self accountability is the personal commitment to do what you say you’ve agreed to do.
It’s the willingness to do it on time, to the best of your ability and without reminders.

Now Allred’s system is to first ask, “Can I do it right now?” If not, it gets scheduled and it gets done ahead of schedule. You don’t need to remind him. He doesn’t do things last minute. And he’s careful about what he says he’s going to do. If he can’t do it at the level he thinks he should, he opts out. “The things I say yes to, I’m self-accountable for.” Being accountable and a person of integrity aren’t things he strives to be. They are his core values, who he is.