Ep. 44: Sarah Elliott - Accounting, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership

January 23, 2020 | 15 Minutes

Sarah Elliott, PCC, CPA, and Co-Founder of Intend2Lead, joins Count Me In to talk about her accounting background, her interest and desire to start and run her own business, and how her accounting skills enabled her to efficiently and effectively run her businesses. Sarah believes the future of the accounting profession depends on our capacity to love. Through one-to-one coaching, group learning, and innovation labs, she helps CPAs access the possibility dimension: the place where fear is no longer the enemy. Prior to founding Intend2Lead, Sarah consistently balanced client service, firm management and industry leadership throughout her 14-year career as a practicing CPA. She spent ten years at PwC, where she performed a two-year rotation in their National Office. Sarah is an author, speaker and instructor on coaching and leadership development and an advocate for women in the CPA profession. In 2019, she was recognized by Practice Ignition as one of the Top 50 Women in Accounting. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, she was recognized by AICPA and CPA Practice Advisor as one of the Most Powerful Women in Accounting. Sarah has excellent insight and perspective on the importance of leadership and communication in the accounting profession, so download, listen, rate, and review now!

Contact Sarah: 
About Sarah: https://www.intend2lead.com/sarah-elliott/
Intend2Lead: https://www.intend2lead.com/

Sarah's favorite quote: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson

: (00:05)
We are back with Episode 44 of Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. Our conversation for today is between Adam and special guest, Sarah Elliott. Sarah talks to us about how her accounting background and skills enabled her to start and run multiple businesses, and she really emphasizes the importance of leadership. Let's go over to the conversation now.
Adam: (00:33)
So Sarah, can you please tell us a little bit about your accounting experience?
Sarah: (00:38)
Of course. So I am a CPA and I practiced in public accounting for 14 years in the audit space. So I spent 10 years at big four. I worked for PWC. Eight of those years were in Austin, Texas, which is where I am now. They had some really great experiences and challenges that PWC, I feel like somehow I worked on a lot of engagements where the company was restating which made things extra interesting and challenging. And so I just really got to learn a lot, love digging into the messiness of some of those things and making it through it. A couple of years later when it was time for me to become an equity partner, actually instead chose to take a leap of faith to start my own business because I had learned more about myself and I knew I wanted to make a bigger impact in the accounting profession. Then just one from, I really wanted to expand the impact to the profession as a whole. So I took that leap of faith in 2014 and I was five months pregnant at the time. So it was scary and exhilarating and fun. And I, I'm somehow here to tell the tale.
Adam: (01:56)
So, you know, you've mentioned that you started your own business you know, you, you've started elevate and ultimately intend to lead. Can you tell us like what contributed to wanting to start those and then what areas of interest of yours spark those spark the initiatives?
Sarah: (02:12)
Sure. So it's a, it's a bit of a convoluted story how all this came to be. So the, the short answer is both businesses are something that I wished I had had for myself at a point earlier in my own journey. So I saw a need. It was a need I had in me and I thought, wow, I really want to give this back to others. So the longer answer, and by the way, there's been a lot of twists and turns with elevate, so it feels stick with me. You'll see it's kind of an interesting story and I think as an entrepreneur it's not all that uncommon that we end up in a place where we didn't see setting out. We're really just figuring out as go. So initially right when I was in the practice of accounting, I had done some volunteerism through the AICPA on a couple of task forces. And my work there helps me see that there was a real need for leadership development in this profession. I saw the challenges that were not just at my firm, that they were the same as the entire profession. And so I started to see that there was alignment in our leadership challenges with my own gifts and my own passion. So that really inspired me to take that leap of faith, right, to leave the firm and the career that I had built in the security of that to really make a bigger impact on my own. So the first business I started was actually, it was called elevate advisors back then. And my intention was to provide strategic consulting services to the profession in leadership development. And I was five months pregnant, if you'll remember. So I had about four months of a runway before I had my kiddo. And what was interesting was in those four months, it's more of a generalist consultant, I realized that there was really more that I wanted to bring. I wanted to bring that magic of coaching, which had such a profound impact for me. I wanted to bring that to the accounting profession. So I made a decision in December of 2014 when I was nine months pregnant, about to pause, to go back to school for my coaching certification. So I went back to school for a year a couple of months after that when my baby was, I think he was about eight weeks old at the time. And then I rebranded elevate advisers to elevate coaching. And my focus at that time was really on coaching women in the profession because I really believe that we need more women leadership in this profession. We need more diversity and women leaders have so much to offer the profession what we really need right now. And I think women bring a really strong different type of leadership to this profession. We're really human side of leadership, collaboration, empathy, compassion, inclusion, creativity, and really need more of that. We need more balance in this profession. So I was focused on coaching for women in accounting [inaudible] then I met Brian Kush, who's my amazing partner for intend to lead. So I met him in the fall of 2015, you know, another coach, another CPA who had turned into a coach. But he was a few years ahead on his journey than where I was. And so a mutual friend said, Oh, you two need to meet. We met via phone. We instantly connected. We shared the same values and vision or innovating leadership development in the profession and for bringing the magic of coaching right to accounting. 
Adam: (05:54)
So since this is a podcast for accountants, I have to ask, how did your accounting background help in starting and efficiently operating each of these businesses that you've just described? For us?
Sarah: (06:06)
I said, it's an interesting question because some obvious things come to mind, which is being good with numbers is great when it comes to running a business, right? So right from the start I knew how to create a budget, how to set goals, right and, and revenue goals, then I could project what it would cost to deliver a project and what cashflow needs I had. So those things just came to me. Second nature, a lot of things that I think accountants take for granted that much of the world is not adept with. And, and the work in audit is, well, it's just given me a lot of exposure to business things. So entity formation at contracts, how to write and use a contract. What payment terms you want with your customers, right? To make sure you can manage cash flows. So those are some of the obvious things that are helpful and necessary to run a sustainable business. And then I think there were less obvious things that really support entrepreneurship. So I was an auditor for 14 years and I worked with a lot of different businesses. So I have an innate knowledge through that experience of how business works beyond just the numbers because you're always learning what is the business to do, right? What is their model? And I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work. So when you work with companies for a few years, you see the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes the business really great and what actually makes businesses fail. Okay. And then because of the work, I was in a neat accounting in an accounting firm, I was pretty well connected in the business community. I got to know, a lot of business people, business owners, and I learned so much just from listening to their journeys. Certainly the things that had worked out well for them, but also what they struggled with. So I was just soaking it in like a sponge for all those years. And I don't even think I realized it really until you asked me this question. So, so yeah, I think in the world of accounting, we are gifted to just see that the inner workings of a business and we take that for granted. And what I see if you're working with some women entrepreneurs outside the accounting space through elevate, it's just, that's hard for a lot of people. I think we do have a leg up on entrepreneurship for sure.
Adam: (08:42)
Sounds like it. As you were talking, just came to mind, how important is listening when you're being an entrepreneur?
Sarah: (08:53)
Well, listening important, whether you're an entrepreneur or not, we actually, through intend to lead, we teach coaching skills. I mean, not only do we bring coaching to the profession, right, by delivering that, but we also teach people in the profession to use coaching skills and we teach people to use listening. That's a primary skill. So I, I say it's a success skill for any human being because that's how we learn, right? When we're able to let go of the voice in our head, that's always trying to respond or think about what's next in a conversation or thinking about what we're going to have for lunch after this or what's an art to do list, right? When we can actually be present with another person and listen and understand the meaning of what they are saying. There's so much that we'll learn that's incredible, right? We learn so much more when we let go of what we think we know, and just listen.
Adam: (09:53)
When we let go of the fact that, or are you accept the fact that you don't know everything and that you can actually learn something from each person that you meet, even somebody younger than you somebody who's just starting out and then going up to somebody who's been in the profession for a long time. You can learn from each person you encounter each day.
Sarah: (10:12)
Yes. That is the truth. Even someone that you don't agree with, even if they're saying something that you don't like, it has something to teach you if you're open to that.
Adam: (10:22)
So circling back to leadership, you know, why are leadership skills so important? And why should accountants continued to develop their leadership aptitude?
Sarah: (10:33)
Well, I believe that leadership is at the heart of everything. It's about how can I be a better human being? And at the end of the day, business just humans doing business with other humans, right? It's humans trying to help other humans in some way. So when we focus on leadership development, it helps us be better humans and the people that embrace the path of learning, that people that realize that we can always elevate our consciousness is a leader. These are the people who create meaningful success and contribute to the world in a bigger way. And that's what we need more of, right? Especially in the accounting profession. So if you just look at the profession where it is today and what's ahead of us, the pace of change is always accelerating. It's just getting faster and faster in every moment. So we've got to adapt. We've got to innovate, we need to create new ways of doing things, and we need to work together to do that. It's not just one person. We've got to collaborate, right? And we need diversity at the table to be able to truly innovate and create something new. And in the accounting profession specifically, we're seeing a shift from compliance to more of a consulting approach, right? Because a lot of the compliance, traditional work is being automated. So we've got to get comfortable as accountants with ambiguity, with the unknown, with looking forward instead of backwards. And I think the more that technology, is coming into the world, right and into business and automating so many things, it makes our human to human skills even more important. So our humanity matters most. And I think as human beings we're seeking more meaning and connection through our work and with one another. And the cool thing about coaching specifically is coaching provides meaning. It gives people that space to make meaning and it provides the opportunities to really understand other human beings. And so just coaching and leadership development as a whole, it's, it's just incredibly powerful and I think we really need it right now more than ever. 
Adam: (12:51)
Is there space to be vulnerable in the midst of a fast-changing business world?
Sarah: (12:59)
Not only is there a space to be vulnerable, I think it's required. I think in the fast paced right, this world that we live in and in this world where all of us human beings are seeking to connect with one another and to grow and to learn, we have to be okay being vulnerable and saying we don't know everything yet. And in fact, what connects us as human beings are often. The struggles that we share, right? And through the work that, that I am blessed to be able to do in coaching. That's how I get to see from people is, are deepest vulnerabilities. And the thing is, when you're willing to dig deep and be vulnerable and share those with someone, it gives you the opportunity to move through it and beyond it, right? And to elevate yourself is a leader in ways that you never could otherwise. 
Announcer: (13:53)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.