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Transcript: Garrett Wagner

August 26, 2019

MAUREEN DINGUS: Welcome to Leading Forward, the Virginia Society of CPAs' podcast where we focus on innovation leadership and the CPA profession. I'm your host, Maureen Dingus, and I invite thought leaders for short, casual conversations on topics and trends important to the success of the CPA profession. Today, I am talking with Garrett Wagner, founder and CEO of C3 Evolution Group. Thank you for being here, Garrett. 

GARRETT WAGNER: Maureen, so happy to be here today. Excited to kind of talk about this amazing profession that we all get to be a part of.

MAUREEN: Yeah, Garrett is a guest at our Leaders' Summit, which is an annual event that we have with all of our volunteer leaders to talk about the future of the profession, kick off their volunteer year, and really get them on the right track. And we had lots of great topics today, and Garrett just wrapped up a session on, really, the future of accounting and the future of the profession. So before we get into the the meat of the program, could you tell us a little bit about what C3 Evolution Group is? 

GARRETT: Yeah, I'm more than happy to, but first I'm going to start with, for those who couldn't be here, their Leaders' Summit was amazing. I always speak at a lot of different state societies, and not all of them are always as remarkable, as amazing as this one. So hats off to you and the group for pulling together such an amazing event just for your members to get them thinking about leadership. 

MAUREEN: Thank you, thank you. 

GARRETT: Because leadership is very important our profession as we move from technicians to be more than that, and you kind of asked me what my journey, and that's something I realized early in my career that I didn't have many positive role models inside my firm organization. And I saw these changes coming and had no idea how you get there. And I saw that I didn't have the skills that I needed to get there, naturally. So I did what made sense to me and I just did a lot of research and made a bunch of lists, and sought to teach myself how could I become a leader and move from being a technician to an advisor, which eventually spurred me to start C3 Evolution Group to provide innovative solutions to the accounting profession, to CPA firms, to practitioners, to people, and just try and drive change every day in our industry, because it is an amazing, amazing industry.

MAUREEN: Yeah. So you are you are really living this journey. You are a young CPA, you know, and you're out there trying to beat the drum for change. So is that, is that hard? Getting people to join you in this journey?

GARRETT: It is hard, but it is something where I get to say every day, I love what I do, without question or pause, which many people can't say. So there is a little bit of that drumbeat and driving that change. But a lot of times I get asked this question a lot, believe it or not, because change is slow. You know, for me, it comes back to a life lesson I learned as a young child, my grandfather who I was very close with. And my grandfather lost his right arm when he was, like, 12, and growing up, I remember a lot of times with him, splitting wood with my grandfather. So he was a short, like, 4-foot-11 Italian man with one arm. And you know, we'd be out in the yard splitting wood. And mainly I'd be like a little kid, like, 8. So I'm not really doing much splitting. 

And I remember a lot of times saying, I'm like, "What are we doing?" Like, how is this possibly going to, like, split a piece of wood between the two of us? You know, you've got one arm and I'm a little kid. I'm just saying, like, if you keep at it long enough, that piece of wood is going to break before I do. And it's that way with driving this change in the profession. "The profession is going to break before I do" is the attitude you kind of have to have, right? It's not easy, and change never is.

MAUREEN: Yeah, yeah. So a big part of your presentation revolved around this idea of the entrepreneurial CPA. Tell us what that is. 

GARRETT: You know, that's that realization, as we look, about the change needs to happen our profession — how do we go from backward-looking to forward-looking? — that people been talking about for 10 to 15 years. So when I looked at that, I went back and made a list of, what skills would I need to be forward-looking and to be an advisor to my clients. And then I recognized that a lot of those skills line up with the skills of an entrepreneur. Also, I'm a millennial, a proud millennial, and millennials really embrace that entrepreneurial mindset. And it became that perfect marriage of the skills we need as practitioners to become consultants. I would be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is so commonplace in the world today. It's a big part of being a millennial. And we can combine those entrepreneurial consultant skills with our technical accounting skills, it's going to make us really powerful advisors. That's one of the things I'm most passionate about, teaching those skills to practitioners and firms around the country. We built a whole program around that transformation. 

MAUREEN: What type of skills are there? 

GARRETT: So we break it down to eight skills: vision, problem solving, motivation, collaboration, flexibility, loving to learn finance knowledge, and most importantly, not being afraid to fail. 

MAUREEN: Right. Right. How did you come up with this this list? I mean, there are so many out there that sound pretty spot-on. But how did you guide that process?

GARRETT: So for me, it was it was making that transformation myself. And I've looked a lot of different research papers, publications, consulting organizations, institutions, wherever I could, but what were the skills that a consultant and advisor had. And I made a lot of lists and whittled them down and whittled them down and change it and just refine it over time to those eight. It took me many, many years to do. And I kind of jokingly tell people now, like, I can kind of skip that part and we can focus on just learning them. I had to go through the struggle of like, create - figuring out what are the eight that we needed to have? And now we can just focus and driving that change in the profession.

MAUREEN: So the number one was vision?

GARRETT: Yeah, vision. 

MAUREEN: Yeah. So it is that challenging for people to tackle? 

GARRETT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Vision is...

MAUREEN: It seems like that's the cornerstone, right?

GARRETT: Yeah, that's the big one. But sometimes it's a mix of how you teach people skills, and then provide some tools to do it. Because ultimately, people that work inside big consultant organizations have checklists and tools, just like we have as people on the tax side or the audit side. So okay, can you teach someone a vision, and then provide them a vision worksheet to think through — here's the process to go through, thinking about an idea with vision. Because we're people, we're accountants, we like processes and procedures. So deploying some of that to help us make that transition easier. There's audit work papers, and there's consulting work papers.

MAUREEN: Wow. So that is really intriguing. So you're taking it almost to what works in a certain type of brain? 

GARRETT: Yes. 

MAUREEN: So it's not this foreign concept. And when you come in and kind of work someone through this process, it sounds like it's almost intuitive once you have the right tools.

GARRETT: We try to in there. And there's a lot of research in the marketplace today. And some what the broad marketplace and how to teach different skills and how the brain reacts to learning. So it's a mix, it's learning non-traditional skills, like, to say a lot of times, like we learn how to do a like-kind exchange, but it takes us a long time to do that. The same principle applies to being a consultant, like having vision. There's a process to learn how to do that, just like there's a process to learn how to a like-kind exchange. They're both difficult, but both can be taught in a systematic way.

MAUREEN: Right, right. So that the eight skills that you've identified, have you found your clients have trouble with one more than the other? Are there some stumbling blocks with any of them?

GARRETT: Usually, the fear of failure is the hardest one, because that really gets down to us as people and we've been trained as a culture and people, and especially as a practitioner industry, we worry about failure. We feel we have to we have to be absolutely right. And that gets to some of our own insecurities as a person. So that usually is the hardest one, is this concept of looking at failure differently. 

MAUREEN: How do you look at it differently?

GARRETT: You know, for me, for me, particularly, public speaking is probably one of my great fears ever in life. And now I do it all the time. And for me, it became like, my fear of public speaking, hit right headfirst and my passion for driving change in the profession. And I had to make that harsh choice of I gotta give in to one, do I want to give in to my fear or do I want to embrace my passion? And that helped me overcome that. I want not just have to do it, I want to do this, to make a difference. And I've got to get comfortable with this, which means I gotta show up, and do it. And it might not be perfect, but I'm going to learn from it and get better every time we do it.

MAUREEN: Right. Right. I love what one of our other speakers at the conference really focused on forgiveness.

GARRETT: Yes. 

MAUREEN: Part of failing is allowing, to forgive people, forgive yourself. So there is so much in this failure area that I think that we could talk about for quite a bit with our CPA and even with ourselves, because it does seem like it's just not allowed.

GARRETT: We feel like we shouldn't ever fail. And we're taught that way. And we're a very black-and-white profession where one plus one always equals two. So we talk about problem solving. It's not solving problems, like in the past, one plus one equals two. It's not more problem-solving, like quantum mechanics and quantum physics, where it's these really complicated problems with non-clear solutions, and how to be okay with solving these very non-linear problems, and being okay with the fact that our clients aren't looking for us to have — to your point on failure, think about that. Our clients in a consulting space aren't looking for us to have an absolute answer, because no one can predict the future. You know, Bill Reeb, this morning, talked about, no one could break the future. All the futurists are pretty much wrong all the time. Yeah, we expect that, but we still want to hear from someone their thought on the future. We don't expect them to be right. But we still listen to them. 

MAUREEN: Because we still keep asking them back, right?

GARRETT: Yes, we still keep asking them back. But they're still making an educated guess about it based on some principles. And we want to hear that. We want to hear where things are going so we can try and do a better job for ourselves of getting there,

MAUREEN: It's just, you don't know where that information will take you. Maybe that thing won't happen, but that idea will lead you to this other opportunity, just like a failure could lead you to some other great line of business or a great client or a great business model.

GARRETT: Some other opportunity. It was the same thing. Like when I first started C3 Evolution Group, I had an idea what I wanted to do, and that's changed over time. Some things have worked, some things haven't. And I've pivoted along the way, because you're never going to know absolutely where you're going. No organization or person can say absolutely or no state society can say, like, 'Here's how we get our members from A to B.' You've got to try different things along the way and learn from that. But there's that realization, if you stay where you are, it's going to fail, because you're not going to change. And you know that. So let's start to take some small steps and learn.

MAUREEN: Right, right. So what do you think the firm of the future will look like?

GARRETT: I really think, you know, we talk about the firm of the future, we talked about that today. It's all about vision, technology and people. How does it have vision and clarity of who it is? What's it gonna do? What makes them different? How do they leverage technology, and how do they deploy a team of entrepreneurial CPAs and accountants who have these consulting skills combined with their accounting knowledge that allows them to be successful. And I think really more than anything, once our profession changes, we have an amazing profession that people like, want to do. And I talked about today on stage, when we meet someone now, we say "I'm an accountant," they're kind of like, "Okay, this person is probably boring. Like, let me not talk to them at the dinner party." Instead, they're like, "Okay, wow, you've got an amazing career. I want to hear about what you do." 

I think back, I had a college professor who was very, very smart. He took all four parts of the CPA Exam and only got one question wrong about four parts. So that's kind of his level of like, very book-smart person. And he used to tell us all the time, the dream in accounting is to get an accounting degree, and you work for the Big Four, and then you know, work in industry. And if you work long and hard enough, and you're really lucky, you can be a consultant. And that's the ultimate dream is to get to be a consultant someday. And now, we're all going to get to be consultants, because that compliance version of us is going away by automation and change. And we're all going to be consultants. So that's the dream. Everyone gets to live that dream. 

MAUREEN: Living it right now. 

GARRETT: Yeah, like you're just in it, unlike in the past. So that's an exciting part of that future, being a consultant, being an advisor, and having a lot of fun and enjoyment as you go through. 

MAUREEN: And that is especially appealing to young people. To have that notion that you're gonna, you know, slog it out for years and years, before you get to be that person that is advising and guiding clients and employers.

GARRETT: And even for anybody of any age, we all want to make a difference and make an impact. So to tell people, okay, your new career isn't just data entry, entering numbers, doing tax returns. You get to advise clients, and you get to help them grow and be successful. Because the interesting thing, you know, sometimes I get asked, like, does this only apply to introverts and extroverts? No, everyone, all personality types, introverts and extroverts, can be entrepreneurial. CPAs can be consultants because it takes different skills. Sometimes, an extrovert is more, in fact, effective, and sometimes an introvert is more effective. Both personality types contribute and can do consulting and business advisory work. So there's no, "Well, I can't do this. I'm an introvert, and it only is an extrovert type thing." It applies to everybody.

MAUREEN: I'm guessing it's just having a clear understanding of yourself and how you can most effectively use your skillset your personality or your strength. 

GARRETT: Yeah. It's the same thing like up on stage like to get comfortable presenting in front of people, I just have to be myself where I can't be somebody that I'm not. You know, like Bill Reeb this morning is Bill Reeb on stage, I'm guessing.

MAUREEN: And you're not going to be — you're not going to be that. 

GARRETT: It would be very weird for me to get up there and act like Bill and it would just fall apart and  similarly, Bill couldn't act like me, and vice versa. So yeah, everyone's got their strength and their unique way they come about that makes us unique. I also think, kind of speaking of being like entrepreneurial CPAs and accountants, where I see a lot more focus on people's unique brand and presence inside organizations and companies. Because we all want to be people and be different. We can highlight that and celebrate the fact that even so, our entire organization, we've got a shared vision. We've got different people that stand out doing different things, and that's an okay thing. We don't have to be all homogenous like we're all the same little robots.

MAUREEN: So are you saying foster your own personal brand?

GARRETT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Fostering your personal brand, because that also gets you to connect with and think about understanding who you are.

MAUREEN: How do you describe a personal brand?

GARRETT: So this is actually one of the things we go through in the entrepreneurial CPE program is to think about your personal brand, and start to think about what makes you unique. Why should someone interact with you? And it doesn't have to be like, "Oh, because I'm good at 1040s." Like, what truly makes you unique as a person? What value to bring to the situations? What are you passionate about? And then how do you represent that and your brand, and your brand doesn't have to be some big like, bold, like, I am this guy, the iPhone guy, or the Android guy, or whatever. But it can be - your brand makes you unique. And it doesn't have to be this big, bold thing. But know what makes you unique. So when people ask you, "What do you do?," your brand can be a part of that. And you know what makes you unique as a person.

MAUREEN: A lot of self reflection. Sounds like confidence in the end.

GARRETT: Yeah. And part of the the goal of becoming an entrepreneurial CPA is building that self confidence that most accountants, and I speak from personal experience, I haven't had a lot of self confidence when I started. And I could never have done this or that on a podcast. I definitely would have said no. But had to kind of learn who I was and build my skills and build my confidence so I could do this. So I could fulfill my goal of driving change in the profession, as you said, like, beating that drum.

MAUREEN: I love what you said about the the fear and the passion and what was I going to let win. And if we could just keep that in front of us, then there are a lot of fears that we would just kick to the side.

GARRETT: And that's why I love what I get to do every day because I get to exist in the accounting profession, I get to consult with firms. We have our own CPA firm, so I'm still involved in public practice. But I don't talk a lot about, like, those aren't normal conversations that I've had with partners before, like, your fear versus your passion. It's always like, go do more work, and then come back and do more work, and to do some more work. And that was it. So what if we talk about like, what we're passionate about, excited about? All those things. Everyone's happier, everyone's better off, it's doesn't matter your generation. You want to do what you're passionate about. We can all do it together and still get the work done.

MAUREEN: I I always think it's interesting when people talk about millennials and all the things they want, want, want. And then we say, "Well, baby boomers want the same things .Millennials are just asking for it or talking about it. So why don't we all talk about it?"

GARRETT: As a millennial, as one things I speak about a lot of times, yeah, we asked for it more, and our parents taught us to stand up for what we believe in. So we're willing to stand up for what we believe in and say, like, "Well, if I'm not getting that here, I will go look forward someplace else. 

MAUREEN: So firms need to start out having that conversation. It's a talent issue.

GARRETT: Yeah, it goes into talent retention. But it's definitely it's all about today? It's not about ball pits. It's not about beer on tap. It's not about slides, foosball machines, ping-pong tables, those things aren't going to drive change in our profession. Right. Right. Right.

MAUREEN: So we've covered a lot of ground already, so thank you. Thank you. I've got two final questions that I like to ask our guests. And the first one is, what do you think CPAs need to be thinking about in the next year? What do they need to have on their mind? What's on their radar? What should be on the radar?

GARRETT: Change. Just looking at it, even if it's small, what are the three things you can change inside yourself or your firm, your organization, your company, just start driving that change now? And stop waiting for it to happen. Because too many continuously put off change. Even if it's three small things. It doesn't have to be three major things. Drive change today.

MAUREEN: Awesome. Awesome. Okay. And the last one is more on the lighter side. What do you do for fun?

GARRETT: What I do for fun? Besides living my dream every day? So two things. One, I'm I'm a father of amazing little four-and-a-half-year-old girl. And then two, I'm an avid runner, biker, endurance athlete. So between everything else. I don't do as much as I used to. I used to compete a lot. Since my daughter was born, there hasn't been enough time in the day. But still, for fun. I'll still get out and go for a run, go for a bike ride, go for a swim and kind of relax my own thoughts. 

MAUREEN: Sounds like a triathlete.

GARRETT: Yep. I've done a bunch of triathlons before. Sometimes it's nice to to de-plug. I say one of the few times when I'm not accessible via phone, email or anything is when I'm on the bike or running or swimming, like it's my time to unplug and just relax, reconnect, be with my thoughts and refresh to keep beating that drum, as you said, 

MAUREEN: All right, right. Well, I hope you get some time to run this weekend. So thank you. This has been awesome. It's really been a great presentation for our members anD great spending a little bit of extra time with you. So thanks for, thanks a lot. 

GARRETT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me and like I said, amazing event at your Leaders' Summit.

MAUREEN: Thank you so much. And thank you all for listening to Leading Forward. Make sure that you subscribe to the podcast so you can keep tuned into what we have coming up and talk to you later.