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“How That Happened” Episode 28: Sam Allred – Upstream Academy

Interview Transcript


Sam Allred:


I just think that this is a wonderful chance to continue to lead, but lead in a different way. Allow people more freedom, allow people more flexibility, allow more autonomy and authority to make decisions. The biggest single thing that holds people back, this isn’t just an in our profession. I’ll speak to our profession, but this applies anywhere. But the single biggest thing that was holding people back in our profession was all the time they were spending doing stuff they already know how to do and do well.


Robert Wagner:


From HoganTaylor CPAs and advisors, I’m Robert Wagner and this is How That Happened, a business and innovation success podcast. Each episode of the show, we sit down with the business and community leaders behind thriving organizations to learn how business and innovation success actually happens. Our guest today is Sam Allred. Sam is a CPA and a founder and director of Upstream Academy, a leadership and learning company focused primarily on the accounting industry. Prior to founding Upstream, Sam was a shareholder in a regional accounting firm based in Helena Montana. He has been regularly recognized as a major influencer in the accounting profession including being named as one of Accounting Today’s top 100 most influential people in accounting and is one of IPA’s most recommended consultants. Sam and his wife Marlene live outside of Park City Utah, and they have seven children. So Sam, thanks for joining us today.


Sam Allred:


Thank you, Robert. I’m so happy to be here.


Robert Wagner:


And Sam, I’d forgotten that we share that common big family thing. So congratulations on that.


Sam Allred:


Yeah. You know what? This pandemic happened probably at a wonderful time for us, Robert. I don’t have a house full of small kids.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. I still have some at home, but-


Sam Allred:


My kids are grown. So when I work at home, it’s peaceful, it’s quiet. It’s not interrupted. And I don’t know what I would have done 30 years ago or 25 years ago if we had had a pandemic and I was at home trying to work. It’d be more challenging [crosstalk 00:02:06].


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. It is challenging for a lot of folks in that boat. So Sam, let’s just kind of set some context for our discussion and tell us about Upstream Academy and kind of what that is and what you guys do.


Sam Allred:


So really very simply we function as a management consulting practice for CPA firms and our whole focus is very simply helping them get measurably better. So we focus on different areas of discipline, probably all of the common areas of discipline, financial performance and client service and people development and business development and how we help their partners have unity and teamwork and great discipline. Those are the things that we do with Upstream Academy.


Robert Wagner:


Gotcha. So Sam, I’m interested in the name. I mean, both the words Upstream and Academy interest me, and I guess I just assume they have meaning. How’d you come up with that name?


Sam Allred:


Well, fly fishing is a passion. It has been for the last 30 years for me. And so when we set out, we were doing the work before the name was there. I was a partner in a regional accounting firm and we began to serve accounting firms and work with them and knew that we would start something more formally than we were doing right then. And so when that naming process came up, I just knew that it had to have some connotation with fishing because that was a passion that I’ve always had for a long, long time. And that’s where the upstream part came. The Academy was really just wanting it to be more grounded and established and follow sound principles and best practices. And so that’s probably the word academy just kind of had that feeling and that ring. So Upstream Academy has been the name for the last 20 years of the entity that houses the group of people that serve accounting firms.


Robert Wagner:


Great. So that’s a great segue I guess into more of the discussion around kind of how this came to be. I’ve been corporate most of my career. Started in public accounting, went to corporate for 20 plus years, and then back to public accounting. But I have yet to have an accounting firm call me asking for consulting help. So how did that come about?


Sam Allred:


Well, I’ve had my entire career in and around public accounting. I mean, I started with one of the big eight firms back then Main Hurdman in ’84. And they are the ones that eventually became KPMG, one of the big four firms today. And when I started, I wasn’t doing consulting. I was really on the compliance side. It was a small enough office I was in, even though it was a big firm. I was in Napa, California, kind of a satellite office to San Francisco. And so I did audit and tax when I started my career. I was doing traditional service things. I won’t say it’s a fluke. I don’t believe so much in flukes, I believe way more in divine intervention, but because of divine intervention, a door opened for me where I became involved with accounting software installations and implementations.


And that started for the rest of my career, living on the consulting or the advisory side of the house and I’ve been there ever since. And I have loved that being the advisor to a client, being the trusted advisor to a client and helping them. And I probably spent 15 years doing accounting software installations and in a sense that just generated a lot of attention and success. And that’s really where I ended up doing the consulting side of things is so many of the firms initially asked me to help them begin a consulting practice around technology consulting. And after a while, I gained so many friends and spoke at so many conferences that I had partners of accounting firms begin to ask me for help in other areas. And that’s really what led me to start and found Upstream Academy and serve accounting firms from a management consulting perspective.


Robert Wagner:


Gotcha. So did Upstream or I guess did this consulting practice and Upstream is birthed out of the accounting firm you were inside of, is that accurate?


Sam Allred:


Yeah. I was an equity partner for 22 years with a large regional firm. We were headquartered in Helena Montana. And we covered from a technology standpoint, I started a technology practice with them. That’s really what led me to them. And it grew very rapidly and we covered about eight states, Western states. And after probably again 10 years or more, I kind of followed a practice, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s worked for me Robert and I call it the Monday morning feeling. How do you feel on Monday morning? Do you love what you’re doing? I’ve always believed that we ought to have the privilege of loving what we’re doing. And if we don’t love it, we ought to look at making a change, a course correction or a significant change to find something that we love.


And I had loved for a long time doing the technology consulting practice. There became a period of time after 2000 when sadly for me, Microsoft began to buy up all of the other accounting software platforms and they weren’t near the same partner that we had before. And the fun kind of went out of it. My Monday mornings didn’t feel the same. And I went to the managing partner and said, “Hey, I’m going to transition this practice to somebody else and I really want to start something that I’m passionate about again.” And with that, we started Upstream Academy. So for quite a few years, it functioned under the accounting firm’s umbrella and I was an equity partner in the firm. And then about eight years ago, I bought it from the firm. I moved from Montana down to outside of Park City Utah, and decided it’s hard to be a remote equity partner. And so I bought it from the firm and it pretty much has remained the same in terms of the team of people and the clients that it serves and so on.


Robert Wagner:


Gotcha. Gotcha. So Sam, you guys teach a lot of subjects. Where did you pick up sort of the leadership management chops to guide others in those kinds of areas?


Sam Allred:


Do you know what Robert, I don’t know when I started my career, I thought I could speak. I had all the same fears everybody had, not the fear of dying, I think it was ever that strong, but the fear of getting up and speaking in front of people and feeling massive butterflies and not really wanting to do that. And yet in our profession, especially as we begin to get on the consulting side of things, it’s pretty difficult to have a successful career on the consulting slash advisory side of things and not speak and teach. And so I recognized I needed to step up to that. And again, I’ll call it divine intervention because in the middle of giving a presentation one day, I remember clearly thinking to myself, wow, you’re pretty comfortable, right? You’re not feeling the butterflies. I was almost having a dialogue with myself in the middle of giving this presentation and thinking, boy, you went on a tangent, you found your way back.


You actually want questions. You’re actually making this enjoyable for other people as well as yourself and it was like almost a switch went off. And from then on, I leaned into it rather than away from it and began to get more and more and work diligently on getting better and better at doing it. And certainly if you like to give presentations, if you like to speak and teach, you find more opportunities to do it, and you usually find more people in the room while you’re doing it and my career has gone that way. And so much of what we do now is teaching and training and speaking, and those kinds of things. We tend to, not that we don’t have a fair amount of one on one time with clients, but I would say the vast majority of time we have it is one to many. In terms of our relationship with clients, we’re teaching multiple people and sometimes even multiple clients at the same time via conferences or webinars or programs, those kinds of things.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. That’s an awesome story. I’ve never heard anyone tell particularly around public speaking, having that aha moment sort of in the moment. That’s an amazing story.


Sam Allred:


Well, I still think back on it. I really do. I think back on it with fondness and with gratitude, because I realize that so much of what I do now is teach and speak. And I’ve never seen it as entertaining although if it’s enjoyable, it’s a little easier to sit through frankly, those that last all day. And I look back on that moment with fondness, that was a turning point. That was a huge hinge point for me when all of a sudden I realized I really enjoy this and I could spend a lot of time doing this. And then you’re on a relentless pursuit of getting better and better at doing it. Just the fact that you like it doesn’t mean everybody else likes it. So there’s a mountain to climb to make sure that it’s good, that people enjoy it.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. What kind of things have you done to get better at it? Because I think this is such a key thing for leaders across all industries, just being able to present ideas and things.


Sam Allred:


Well, one of the things, this is going to sound a little strange. I mean, there’s the common things that you do. You do it more often. You look at the actual material you’re presenting and make sure it follows a logical flow. You get a pattern of to me, I really … this sounds weird, but so many people use PowerPoint and the slides will just bore you to tears. And I thought, okay, I want something that looks good and pops and is easy to look at. I want something that challenges people. That was a big breakthrough for me to recognize that you had to bring value. It’s not just that again, you felt comfortable speaking. You had to deliver value to those that were there, that you gave them lots of aha moments.


If somebody sits through the whole thing and says, “Okay, I got one idea,” I was so disappointed. I thought, holy smokes, I got to give them 10 major ideas. Not that they can act upon it, but I’ve got to give value when I speak. So it was really researching and challenging the status quo and finding out a great way to turn a phrase and share a thought and tell a story and stretch somebody’s mind in thinking, and to me, it was a lot of work along that front. It wasn’t just speaking, it was speaking and adding value. There’s a difference. Some people can get really comfortable hearing their own voice and saying and speaking, but this idea of giving value, you got to have a well you can go to, and then you can’t be that one trick pony. You can’t just have three presentations and you’re always going to give them. No matter what the title is, you’re going to go back to those three.


And so I call it stretching myself against a strength. Once I realized that speaking and teaching was a strength, then I had to be willing to stretch myself against that strength if I wanted to get better. Meaning I had to be willing to continue to speak and teach, but do it on an ever changing list of topics, many of whom made me climb the mountain because I didn’t know what to speak on. In other words, I’d take on assignments and say, “Okay, I’m not an expert there. I don’t have a lot of experience there. I don’t have a lot of wisdom to share. So before I give this presentation or speak at this conference, I got to go climb that mountain. I got to do my research. I’ve got to get opportunities to learn in that area and then figure out how I can add value in an area that I’ve never spoken on before.”


And now, even to this day, every year I take on quite a few topics that I either have never been seen as an expert in the field I’m an expert. I’m an expert in being a consultant to accounting firms, but there’s lots of topics I’ve never spoke on before. And even to this day, I’m willing to take on those topics that stretch me because they keep me climbing that mountain and getting better rather than again, worrying that I’m going to be that one or two trick pony and only can speak on one or two things. I think you limit your value when you can only talk on one or two things.


Robert Wagner:


Right. Right. So I think you just answered this question, but I just want to draw it out a little further because I think it’s really interesting what you’re talking about in this whole value thing and filling the well that you can draw from as a speaker and as a consultant. So how do you get past kind of the imposter syndrome, right? So I’ve never talked about this. I don’t have experience in doing this. I’m going to go speak about it sort of as an expert or as an expert, I guess. I think your answer is I just prepare, prepare, prepare, and I learn it until I am an expert and that’s how I get past it. But is that an accurate statement?


Sam Allred:


Yeah, it is. Well, what you say though is really important. I had to make sure that I wasn’t an imposter. So I had to talk about things that I could get passionate about, things that I was willing to do my homework about. At this point in my career when I was starting, I was gaining clients that were interested in thoughts and ideas that I had and helping them. So at some point in my career, I had, I’m not going to say that it was an abundance of clients, but that’s kind of how I saw that. So many clients that trusted me that I could get access to them to say, “Are you wrestling with this? Let’s dialogue it. I’m willing to help you on this, whether it’s an engagement paid or whether it’s just a pro bono where I’m willing to help.” And I would, in a sense before I would speak, I would work to gain some experience because otherwise you are the impostor.


Otherwise, all that you’re sharing is someone else’s words and to me that’s still an imposter. Does that make sense? That all you’re doing is regurgitating what someone else has said. I really wanted to have some thought leadership and I still do to this day on the things that I speak about. So to me, it’s not completely foreign, even though I’ve never spoke on the subject before, I’ve worked in the industry. I know the firms, I can understand where the pain points are. I can understand why they’re struggling on it. And if it was for example, trying to help a firm become a one firm rather than a bunch of silos or everybody doing their own thing, even though I might’ve never spoke on it before, I had to really spend the time to get my mind into it, understand where they were, understand why they were there, understand their barriers and then understand the best way out for them.


I’ve done that on so many different subjects because I wanted to be authentic and not the imposter. So it really is a mountain to climb. I use that phrase, but you really got to exert energy, both physically and mentally to really understand what you’re going to teach and why it’s going to be helpful. And I’ve loved to take on subject after subject and again not be trapped that you’re only the guy that talks about these two or three things.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Yeah. That’s the key too is just having a curiosity about other things, right? So that’s really, really good.


Sam Allred:


I think that’s an understated skill, curiosity. I really think it is. If you’re curious, you ask questions, you want to learn, you want to know why something ticks or why something isn’t moving or working and curiosity is a wonderful attribute to have.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. So Sam, you work mainly with accounting firms. Why do accounting firms and accounting firm leaders need things, need help, particularly with things like profitability?


Sam Allred:


I’ve come to find Robert, all accounting firms have challenges, no matter … I tend to always say, all accounting firms are somewhere on this perfect bell curve. And most of them are near the center. And the center of the bell curve firm is a really good firm in terms of their results and their client service and they can attract and retain people and have a good culture and all of that. And then some firms are blessed probably through their effort to get further right on the bell curve where you have a smaller percentage of them, but every firm on the bell curve at any point on the bell curve has challenges. They have mountains to climb if you will.


I mean, some of the examples of mountains they make climb is, and I mentioned that getting greater unity and trust and teamwork within their ownership group or improving their business development culture and so they can drive greater organic growth or figuring out how to serve their clients way better than they are or how to get a better partner compensation system to fairly reward their partners for contributions to the firm’s success. It’s an endless list of things that firms need to get to higher ground to become a high-performance firm and they all need help. And we happen to be really, really good at finding ways to measurably help them so they can see that the dial’s moving and they in fact are a much better firm because of what we’ve done to help them.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Yeah. Very good. So Sam, we were talking all along about your own development. So how has your leadership changed over the course of your career?


Sam Allred:


My personal leadership?


Robert Wagner:


Yeah.


Sam Allred:


That actually is a more challenging question because I don’t know if my response is a hundred percent accurate because of the skewed perspectives that we often give ourselves. I mean, it seems like probably a more accurate answer to that question would come from somebody else in my organization, but I’ll give a run at it. I believe I’ve gotten more trusting of others and more patient with others. I’m more willing to allow others to take lead on key initiatives and trust that they’re going to make the right decisions and do the right things. And I have probably a far less tendency to micromanage anything or anybody than I probably ever did. I don’t know that was ever a great, something I did a lot of, but I have far less of an inclination to micromanage anybody now.


And I don’t need to be the leader on a lot of things. I’m far more willing to be an active team member and find ways to contribute from the ground level and so on. So I think that’s been a change in my leadership through the years is that I’m more comfortable being in the back seat than needing to be in the front seat. And maybe that’s just an indication of where I’m at in my career path and being towards the end of it rather than the beginning or the middle of it. But certainly those have been changes in my leadership style.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. That’s very good. I do think you reach a point, well, first of all, the whole trust thing and kind of backing away and you realize at some point that that’s how you learned and you came up and someone did that for you. And you have to allow other people to do that and that’s how they’re going to develop as well. And so that whole trust thing is huge. And then just kind of, as you said, kind of taking the second seat, just being comfortable with other people getting credit for things because you’ve had your day, no one’s going to take it away from you at this point.


Sam Allred:


Oh, absolutely. In fact, you’re very focused on them getting credit because one of the things that good leaders do is build confidence in other people. And if they don’t feel like they’re having success or getting the credit that they deserve and need, then the confidence isn’t going to be there. So to me that’s a big part of effective leadership is building confidence in the people that you lead.


Robert Wagner:


Yep. So Sam as I mentioned a minute ago, I’ve come back to public accounting and I spent years in corporate and I wasn’t really paying attention to the accounting industry. And when I came back, I didn’t realize that there was this thing, there was this industry called consulting to the accounting industry. So you have competition just like any business. One of the things that have been key to the success of Upstream Academy and how do you, a phrase I like to use is how do you guys show up different in the market?


Sam Allred:


Well, one of the things that is pretty fundamental for us Robert, the accounting profession is incredible clients. I mean, I chose to work there because you can’t find better clients than accounting firms. But one of the weaknesses of too many accounting firms I think is they’re willing to bring consultants in and not see results. And then they’re too willing to say, “Well, you know what, it’s us, it’s not you. We didn’t perform. We didn’t follow through. We didn’t execute like we should. We took our eye off the ball. It’s not you, it’s us.” And I was really frustrated that firms would pay a lot of money to get help and then not be helped. And I would say from the very beginning, one of the big differentiators for us was results, was 100% results.


I remember putting years ago a guarantee on our website and it’s still there to this day and we live it. We don’t hide behind it that if this hasn’t done for you what you expected it to do, anything, any program engagement, whatever it was, then ask for your money back. Don’t say it was you and you were the reason you didn’t get from point A to point B. I mean, for me, we had to learn how to deliver, how to give incredible value and how to literally move the dial. Whatever dial they needed, we had to help them move the dial and it had to be results oriented. And we had to look at everything we did and say, “Will this really help somebody get measurably better individually or as a firm or as a department or as a segment or service line or industry group or whatever, will it really help them get measurably better?”


And that needed to be our mindset in everything that we did. You can’t just be good enough to entertain or good enough to allow somebody to feel like, okay, this was worth listening to, you have to literally find a way to change them for the better. And if you’re not doing that, then somebody ought to be asking for all or a portion of their money back because you haven’t delivered. So that was as simple as it sounds, that was a big issue for us in differentiating ourselves.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah, I guess it does sound simple, but that is a big deal. And you’re right that so many times we quote invest in things and we ended up just spending money. It wasn’t really an investment because there wasn’t a return. And so I see what you’re talking about there. Let me ask you a question, I guess it’s on my mind. I think it kind of relates to what we’re talking about. And I’m thinking of it in terms of kind of the future of the accounting profession, a lot of the at least perceived coming pressures. Has it been, like over the years, has it been too easy to make money in professional services? And is that part of why things like you’re talking about where we hire consultants and then nothing really happens.


Sam Allred:


I don’t know if I would use that term, but now that I think about it, probably it has been. I mean, if you take … go back to this analogy I gave you or how we see firms and they’re on this bell curve. Robert, even the firms that are left side of the bell curve make money and I’m not trying to be mean spirited, but they’re the lousy firms. They have a really poor culture. They have a silo mentality, they have an eat what you kill mentality. There’s no teamwork, there’s no culture. There’s very little trust. There’s not any unity within the leadership group at all. The partners aren’t inspiring the younger people that want to be just like them. Even those firms make money. And you would think, okay, they really don’t deserve to make money. They don’t have a healthy culture.


They’re not growing and developing people. They’re not creating even a viable organization that’s going to succeed itself somewhere in the future because people don’t want to stay there and replicate that experience. They want to get out of there. And even those firms make money. So maybe it is too easy. And because of that, people become complacent. Most firms could be way better than they are right now, way better. They aren’t following best practices. They aren’t acting as a team and collaborating and giving their clients the very highest level of service that they’re capable of. Most firms fall way below that, and it’s because they are making money. And probably the worst thing for an organization is to have some degree of success that you haven’t even necessarily earned and that certainly doesn’t push you to climb a steeper mountain.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. You almost said something that a few minutes ago and something that you have said a couple of times when I’ve been in your sessions that I just love and I use it all the time is that the accounting profession is a jerk free zone. And I really emphasize that because I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been in corporate world and it’s wonderful, wonderful people there, but it’s not a jerk free zone. There are actual jerks out there and it is true in accounting. It is a wonderful profession with wonderful people. And I try to remind folks, younger folks about that all the time. It’s a privilege to work in this profession because-


Sam Allred:


Oh, it’s unbelievable. In all honesty, Robert, I thank the good Lord every day. I can’t think of better firms than accounting firms. They are the best clients on the planet.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Sam, you talked about value and bringing value a few minutes ago. This is a big topic in the profession as well about how to appropriately price value and getting away from time equaling a price or time equaling value. How do you think about that at Upstream and how are you talking to firms about that issue?


Sam Allred:


Oh, the billable hour has really been something that’s held our profession back in so many different ways. I mean, rather than focusing all our energy on where a client wants to take their organization, we can get so wrapped up in how we’re going to record each six minute increment and where it’s going to go and whether it’s billable or not or whatever. I mean, this sounds really strange Robert, but what we really need is a billable hour pandemic where globally, we’re not allowed or permitted or even able to enter daily time sheets. I mean, think about this just for a minute. Would that stop us from serving clients? No, not at all, that would not stop us from providing value to clients. If we stop worrying about time sheets, maybe we’d start focusing more on the client, become even more client centric. And the primary objective with every single engagement, maybe it should be, how do we make this client better?


That’s what we look at with Upstream. We don’t have any time sheets in Upstream. I want to say we never had. You remember we were part of an accounting firm, a large regional firm for quite some time. And even then, we only entered time sheets because we had to, and we only entered them after the fact. I know that sounds really strange, but we didn’t enter time sheets every day. In fact, we entered time sheets at the end of the month, one entry because we had to. We’re part of the accounting firm. And all we did was take everybody’s billing rate and say that was their internal billing rate that was in the practice management system. We said how much cash is in the bank that came from our clients and we just do simple division and say, “Okay, divide that into the billing rate, we’ll enter that entry.”


And we always had amongst the highest billable hours, if you will, in our firm and never cared about each day, how many billable hours we have. We just sat down with a client and said, “How do we help you?” And we did a lot of things. In many, the engagements were fixed. The engagements or many of them were leveraged engagements where the clients paid a set fee to participate in a surface offering that was available to many different firms at the same time and they would be involved in that service offering and we never cared about the hours. We just cared about how can this change the firm. And so when our focus became 100% client centric, then clients loved it. They paid really, really well. And if you had to then get billable hours, it was an after the fact exercise.


And I just wish every firm would begin to do more and more of that, where they just focused on the clients and said, “How do we just help you? Where do you need to go to? What mountain do you need to climb? What dials you trying to move and how do we help you get there?” And clients will gladly pay for any service that helps them get better. And if we would focus more on that, we would be focusing less on ourselves and more on the clients.


Robert Wagner:


You’ve given me some great ideas, this day around the whole recording time and how to think about maybe, how to think about that, doing that differently. That’s intriguing stuff. It’s a big, hot topic in the accounting industry.


Sam Allred:


Yeah, it is.


Robert Wagner:


So as we’re recording today, you mentioned the word pandemic. So we are still in the COVID-19 pandemic as we’re recording here in early July of 2020. Sam, I assume you’re talking to leaders in the profession and you’re talking to managing partners and talking to others. Who’s thriving and who’s hurting during this time.


Sam Allred:


Surprisingly, let me just say this. We were willing to help and work with any firm, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not selective. And so we work with a tremendous amount of firms that I would say are way right on the bell curve and they’re doing amazingly well. In fact, some of them, I talked to [inaudible 00:33:25] the other day and he used that term, that survivor guilt. He said, “It’s hard not to have survivor guilt. We’re doing so well.” The door is thrown wide open where our clients need us as trusted advisors. They need our help. They know that we’re committed to help them. We’re working with them to identify new ways they can serve their clients, our customers, the way they can develop their people. And everything’s kind of changed a bit with this pandemic, but what a time to need advisors and nobody, nobody is better positioned to be an advisor in the business market than somebody with an accounting firm.


Nobody’s better positioned to be that advisor. And so, so many of the accounting firms we work with now are doing amazingly well. I mean, many of them feel like they’re ahead of last year and last year was a great year. For the vast majority of firms in our profession, last year was a banner year. One of the best years ever, most firms would say that, and many firms are surprised to feel like they’re either on pace or ahead of where they were last year. And that makes them feel a little bit guilty because they recognize that businesses have struggled and the economy has been down. And there’s obviously been a big threat of illness and across the globe and yet firms, many of them are doing just remarkably well.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. So Sam, you’re based in Utah. Is your firm in Montana technically, or?


Sam Allred:


I would say the majority of our team is in Montana, but we have team members that are in lots of different states. And we’ve felt very comfortable working remotely. And we have Zoom meetings regularly, just had one a couple of days ago, the most recent one. And you can see everybody and interact with everybody and it’s really worked well. So there’s never been this desire that as we add to the team, that we need to add them in any certain place. It’s more about the quality of the individual and anywhere you find them is fine with us. They’re going to fit just right in and be part of the team.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. So great segue into this kind of big issue out there of remote work. And so you guys have been doing this for a while. This is kind of how your firm is built. What would you advise folks around not just working remotely, but leading remotely because I think that’s going to be a thing that’s coming up. We’re talking a lot. Professional firms and companies are talking about remote workers, but I think people are going to wake up and say, leaders of organizations are going to wake up and say, “I don’t need to be in any particular place either. Right? I can move.”


Sam Allred:


Robert, this is going to change everything. This is going to change everything up. First of all, think about what happened. If you were to go to firms, if I were to go to firms and I’ve got a great relationship with firms and I were to say, “You need to have everybody stay at home and you need to create this work environment.” I don’t think I could have ever done it. I think they would have fought tooth and nail over that. And all of a sudden, this pandemic comes and literally overnight, I mean, literally within two or three days, everybody’s working remotely and nobody’s fighting it, nobody’s battling it. Even the known anchor throwers, the one where everybody else grabs an oar and rows the boat and the anchor throwers throw it out because they don’t want it to go anywhere, life’s too good for them. Nobody’s fighting this.


And firm after firm tells me this was amazing. We never could have thought we would have done this. And now they find themselves having this very effective, remote environment where people can work and get the work done and whatever. Now there needs to be some adjustments to that because even now as they’re starting to look at, and of course, they’re starting to look at things and who knows we will or not because of the rising cases of the COVID pandemic that continues to spread. But I don’t know that people all want to come back to work. They’re loving what they’re finding. Now it’s hard. Again, those with young children, it’s been the hardest on them because it’s hard to work and be interrupted and on some regular basis and find a quiet environment and so on.


So we’ve got to be very sensitive to what each person’s going through. And from a leadership standpoint, we probably need to reach out more often. The discussions won’t be as long perhaps, but we need to have more frequent discussions and connect with people and make sure that people are, that it’s working for them and find ways to make it work for them if it’s not. But the majority of people I talk to have quite liked their experience. Again, like we said earlier, they’re reconnected to family. They’re involved in activities. They’re having dinner together. They’re enjoying things that they’ve never had in their career before and they don’t want to let those newfound things go. They hope the new normalcy will allow them to continue some of the things they’re enjoying right now. And I think it will, I think firms will figure out how to make that happen for their people.


Robert Wagner:


As a leader, how have you, not just during this time, but since you’ve been working kind of in this type of situation for a while, how do you lead a remote team from kind of from the top, I guess? What’s the secrets to that?


Sam Allred:


I think one of the nice things about that is people maybe feel like if there ever was, and again, I don’t know that I was a micromanager. I don’t think that I was, but if somebody had been in an environment where they were micromanaged, they’re going to feel like they have more autonomy now than they ever have. There’s somebody looking over their shoulder on a regular basis, at least physically, like there was. So I think leaders need to let go a little bit more in this environment and let people take the run and have those kinds of discussions to make sure that if it’s a critically important project, that you make sure you know where the guardrails are and you make sure that everybody understands, if they need to ask for help, they ought to do it and they ought to ask early and before they maybe get off into a deep end or something.


And I just think that this is a wonderful chance to continue to lead, but lead in a different way. Allow people more freedom, allow people more flexibility, allow them more autonomy and authority to make decisions, have discussions that are a little more upfront to make sure you set the right guard rails before they start down that path. But give them a little more rope and let them lead a little bit more and do the things they need to do. I think it can be a wonderful development opportunity for people. Again, one of the big things, Robert, that was a huge aha moment for me was when I came to the understanding that the biggest single thing that holds people back, this isn’t just in our profession. I’ll speak to our profession, but this applies anywhere. But the single biggest thing that was holding people back in our profession was all the time they were spending doing stuff they already know how to do and do well.


And in our profession, we’ll spend innominate amounts of time doing things we already know how to do. And in that period of time, we’re not developing anything, no skills and talent and competence and ability and growth and whatever. All that comes when we feel some butterflies and we do something we haven’t done before. This environment opens the door to allow people to do things they’ve never done before. Take the lead on assignments, take the lead with clients, take the lead on a team, whatever it might be, something they haven’t done before. And this is a perfect opportunity for leaders to allow others to experience growth by doing things they haven’t done before. And that’s where rapid skill development comes and rapid growth comes. So I’m excited about that literally for people within our profession.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. That’s very good. And we’ve talked about that with folks here in our firm about just approaching this situation as this is an opportunity. And this is where careers are made, that when you get someone my age, late fifties and people ask you to tell about your career, you tell about the hard times, because that’s when you stretched and learned like you were talking about. That’s when things really got tough and you developed a new skill, developed new learning and new abilities. So it’s a great point. And as leaders, we need to be … being intentional about letting that happen and positioning people so it can happen.


Sam Allred:


Oh, absolutely. Robert, if somebody goes to their career and does everything they can to avoid the butterflies, they’re killing their growth. They’re just flat lining their career. It’s not going to be on this inclined plane that it could be. And to me, leaders need to be aware of that with their people and not allow them to just settle in and do the same thing, no matter how good they are with it. That’s irrelevant. People need to do things that stretch them in order to see any growth and leaders need to make sure that happens. And this environment creates incredible opportunities for that.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Sam, I got one more question for you before we do our five questions and I got to believe this is a question you get asked all the time, but I want to draw it out. So you guys do something that I’ve never seen anyone else do. And it’s definitely a difference maker to me just in a small but a big way and that is that you memorize folks names who attend your events, names and faces. And I remember going to one of your conferences, I think the headwaters conference, and I had never been before. We passed each other in the hall and you called me by name and I thought that’s very impressive. But I thought, probably 80% of the people here have been here before so Sam knows them and he made an attempt, he made an effort to know the new guys.


But then you came to HoganTaylor and you came to an event here and there were probably 80 people in the room and you knew us all by name and face. And I thought, there’s no way he knew more than five people coming into this thing. So tell me how that came about and how you do that.


Sam Allred:


So that was in a team meeting years ago. Robert, I want to say probably 15 years ago and we were brainstorming as we always do the topic, how can we make more of an effect? How can we be more successful and be more impactful with the clients that we work with? And at the time, one of the younger people on our team said something like, wouldn’t it be cool if we knew everybody’s name that was at any event we ever had? And I remember thinking, okay, number one, this person’s a lot younger. I mean, Tim and I looked at each other, I don’t remember how old we were at the time. Tim’s about six years older than I am and I’m 60 now, so I was probably close to 50 then. And I remember looking at Tim and we had this look like holy smokes, this person has no idea how big some of these conferences can be that we’re at or at least that we’re in charge of.


But the more they talked about it as a team, the more excited they got and the more they talked about how it could be done. And it was one of those times where you thought, okay, as a leader, you can either kill this or you can let it get legs and buy into it. And we decided to do that. And that became a long pattern. There’s a process. Everything that’s going to have success probably has to have a process. It’s not just an event. And so the way that it works, and now it’s a little bit different today, because I’m not traveling right now. I’m that stay at home warrior that we mentioned, but the way it typically would work, I’ve got a retreat I’m doing next week, a firm I’ve never been at before.


This week, somebody on my team who has that assignment this year still sent me two documents. And the two documents I got, one of them was the bios and the picture of everybody that’s going to be at this retreat I’m going to next week. It’ll be the first one I’m going to in this pandemic. And the second one is just the pictures and they’re in a different order than the bios were. And my job is to study the bios, read them to where I really can understand them, not just memorize the name and the face, but know something about them, where they went to school, what they’re passionate about, those kinds of things. And then it’s to be able to go to that set of pictures and write the name of every person and something about them on those pictures.


Now, next week I go and I’ve got 18 and that’s not insurmountable at all, but it’s a different story when you’ve got a conference with a hundred people or 200 people, and we’ve been doing this now for again, I want to say close to 15 years and it’s everywhere we go. So if I go speak at someone else’s conference, I want to know everybody that’s there, within reason. I mean, sometimes you’ll get a conference Robert that has 1500 people. And I’ll say to whoever’s in charge that year, I’ll say, “Look, don’t give me 1500 names. I’m not even going to try, but let me pick 50 of them and you give me the pictures so I can do it with 50 of the 1500 people.” But the vast majority of the places we go, it is true. We know the names of everybody there.


We don’t always get them, right. Robert, some people, I got to be honest, some are still using their high school picture. I don’t want to call them out and embarrass them, but I’m thinking to myself, there’s no way you look like this picture. I don’t ever embarrass. And you’ll find some that look very similar. And so you can say, “Boy, I’m going to have a hard time telling these three people apart.” But we’ve also been encouraged just go for it, don’t hesitate. If you call somebody by the wrong name and they say, “You know what? I’m not Robert. I’m Steven or whatever.” You can say, “Look, I’m going to give you this one chance to be Robert. If you’ve always wanted to be a Robert, this is your chance. Otherwise, I’ll work to remember Steve and I apologize.” And we just have some good humor with it.


But it’s been, actually has been wonderful. And I have encouraged so many of my clients to do the same thing with their clients. If not all of them, why not take your best clients? What we call your A-level clients and go memorize who you’re going to be on an engagement with. And if nothing else, it’ll catch their attention if everybody on your team knows their names when they come to show up for the engagement. And it’s not that hard. I don’t do Sudoku. This is my form of Sudoku.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah, is this the muscle that needs to be activated?


Sam Allred:


It really is. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s some work. I wasn’t blessed with that gift. I will guarantee you I was not blessed with the gift of remembering names, but you can work at it like you can anything and you can get better at it. And everybody in our team, we know who on our team who’s the best people. I mean, Kelsey knows, in fact, you’ll say, “Kelsey, that person at table three, is that so and so?” And she’ll tell you their first name, middle name and last name, and you’re thinking Kelsey, I didn’t even look at the last names. I’m just focused on … and she’ll know all of that stuff instantly. She has a gift.


Sam Allred:


We don’t have a gift, we just work at it. And we found that with some work we can really master it. We can get good at it. So I encouraged so many clients embrace that. Don’t just cop out and say, “Well, I’m not good at remembering names.” Most people aren’t, I wasn’t. Work at it. Don’t give up on that. It does make a difference as you noted. It leaves an impression that you care enough to do some homework, right? I mean, that’s the impression you leave.


Robert Wagner:


It absolutely does. It absolutely does. So I commend you for it. It’s an amazing thing. So, all right Sam, I really appreciate the time we’ve had together. And at the end of every podcast, we ask every guest five questions. So are you ready?


Sam Allred:


I’m ready to go.


Robert Wagner:


All right. Sam, what was the first way you made money?


Sam Allred:


Working for my dad. My dad was a general contractor and he would hire me and literally I couldn’t even pound a nail back then. So I was picking up scrap and sweeping floors and whatever. And my dad was the most awesome dad on the planet. He was a tough boss. He was a … He never, never wanted us standing around. His phrase was do something, even if it’s wrong. He never wanted us standing around. So I learned not only how to work, I learned how to work hard. And I’ve been forever grateful for that.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. So Sam, if you were not leading Upstream Academy, what do you think you would be doing?


Sam Allred:


Well, first of all, I’m sad to say if I wasn’t doing this, I wouldn’t have the world’s best job and that would be sad. But if I had to do something else, I think I would really enjoy wealth management. To me that’s advisory and it’s advisory at the highest level with what probably matters to some people the very most is what to do with what they’ve earned and how to invest it properly and protect it so that it blesses their retirement years and all of that. So I’d probably do wealth management.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Well, it’s an interesting question for somebody who has the high bar of asking yourself the Monday morning question. So that’s good stuff. What would you tell your 20 year old self?


Sam Allred:


Take more chances, feel more butterflies, sit down and literally look at what scares you and go do it. I mean, not from a legal standpoint or a moral standpoint, but just from a business standpoint. I think there’s such a propensity to spend time in somebody’s comfort zone and think you’re okay and there’s no alarms you hear, there’s no lights that flash, no sirens. There’s not even a barking dog. And people stay there in their comfort zone forever and it kills your career. It just kills it. It brings it to a stop. So to me, I would have probably encouraged myself, get out there more and face the butterflies. It’s going to help you.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. That is really good. No one’s ever said it like that. We’ve had a few answers similar to that, but kind of make a list of what scares you and go do it. That is really good.


Sam Allred:


The term I heard one time Robert that I loved, don’t take counsel from your fears. And I loved that phrase. I would say when I was younger, I listened too much to my fears. Don’t ask this question because somebody’s going to think it’s a stupid question. Don’t volunteer this answer because somebody’s going to laugh it’s not the right thing. Don’t volunteer for that assignment because it might be hard. You know what I mean? There’s too many doors that open and you didn’t go through them.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. Yeah. I feel the same, same way. And thank goodness for those people who had enough confidence in you to kind of make you do things, right?


Sam Allred:


Absolutely.


Robert Wagner:


Put you on that project anyway, because we can become masters of avoidance if we’re left around devices so many times.


Sam Allred:


Absolutely.


Robert Wagner:


All right. Question four, Sam, what will the title of your book be?


Sam Allred:


I’ve had a lot of people ask me through the years to write a book and I’ve never wanted to do that. I mean, cumulative, I’ve written lots of things, but I’ve never, ever wanted to write a book. I’m sharing something personal here. I always thought if you write a book, somebody is going to think you’ve got a really strong opinion of yourself. You hold yourself in a little higher regard than you ought to. It’s going to go to your head or whatever. Literally I’ve thought that. So I’ve never, ever wanted to write a book. So I’ve shied away from that. So if I had to write a book, what would the title be? Probably something along that line I just said, face the butterflies, face your fears, something along that line.


Robert Wagner:


Yeah. That was going to be my guess as you were going forward there. All right. Last question. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?


Sam Allred:


Probably the best advice I think I’ve ever been given came from my dad early on. I remember I was going away to college and he sat me down and he said, “How many people do you know where you’re going?” I was leaving from Northern, tiny little town in Northern California and going to Provo, Utah to BYU. And I said, “I think I know two people and that was it.” So he said, “So you’re going to be around people that you don’t know and they don’t know you?” And I said, “That’s correct.” I didn’t know where this whole discussion was going. And he said, “This might be a really good time for you to decide what you’ve always wanted to become and start to act more like that and take advantage of that opportunity where you aren’t going to be around people that know you and say, ‘This is the Sam Allred,’ and hold you to a certain level.


Why don’t you become the person that you’ve wanted to be?” I mean, I was pretty quiet and shy at that time and why don’t you speak up more, ask more questions, take more of a leadership role. I mean, we had a really good discussion. It was just something that was at the right time, really thought provoking for me. There’s less risk in becoming what you want to be when you’re around people that don’t know what you’ve been, kind of thing is what my dad was sharing. And it was very impactful for me at the time. And maybe it was more catalystic than I even recognized then to help me step up and be more of what I’m like today.


Robert Wagner:


What a gift. That is an amazing piece of advice. That’s excellent. It’s a great way to end. Sam, this has been a great conversation. Appreciate your insights, appreciate you, and HoganTaylor appreciates Upstream Academy as well. How can folks get a hold of you if they desire to do so?


Sam Allred:


Probably the easiest way in today’s world is upstreamacademy.com. Our website is the easiest way to access anybody on our team and what we do and all that kind of stuff. Thank goodness for technology. It’s got a website you can go to.


Robert Wagner:


All right. Again, Sam, thanks so much. Appreciate you being a guest on our podcast.


Sam Allred:


Thanks so much, Robert. Have a great day. We’ll see you later.


Robert Wagner:


That’s all for this episode of How That Happened. Thank you for listening. Be sure to visit How That Happened. Thank you for listening. Be sure to visit howthathappened.com for show notes and additional episodes. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher. Thanks for listening. This content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. Copyright 2020. HoganTaylor LLP, all rights reserved. To view the HoganTaylor general terms and conditions, visit www.hogantaylor.com.


Sam Allred is a founder and director of Upstream Academy, a consultancy of passionate advisors who design processes, tools, and programs to help firms achieve greater success. He has spent many years in the accounting industry, including as an equity partner with Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co., P.C. in Montana.

Allred has been regularly recognized as one of the major influencers in the accounting profession including being listed as one of Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting and also as one of IPA’s “Most Recommended Consultants.” He is one of the most sought-after speakers in the accounting profession and is viewed as one of their top strategic thinkers.

In this episode, Sam discusses how he came to create Upstream Academy, and how he developed leadership qualities to overcome his fear of public speaking. He also reveals some complacencies that can stagger personal growth.

This episode is now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also listen via the podcast player embedded above.

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