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Transcript: John Sarvay

April 16, 2019

MAUREEN DINGUS: Welcome to Leading Forward, the VSCPA's podcast 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 CPA profession. On this episode, we're talking with John Sarvay, the founder of Floricane, an organizational change and strategy business — did I say that right, John? 

JOHN SARVAY: You did. You've got it correct. 

MAUREEN: All right, tell us a little bit about Floricane. 

JOHN: Yes, so Floricane is 10 years old this year. And we are a small Richmond-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations clarify their purpose, build a path that helps them achieve their purpose and get their people oriented around that pathway and purpose. So it's organizational change in strategy is a fancier way of saying we help organizations figure out what's next and how to get there.

MAUREEN: Yeah. Alright, so I know that what I wanted to focus on with you today is your work with professionals on their leadership journey. So before we dive into that, I was interested to hear about your leadership journey and what were some of the moments that influence what you bring to the table today. 

JOHN: So it's been an interesting winding journey. I don't think I expected to be in a leadership consulting role ever in my career. So I started out my life as a journalist who was passionate about poetry and Middle Eastern culture and politics. And one day in the mid-90s, found myself working for a quarry country, a quarry company, here in Central Virginia — Luck Stone Corporation — and doing internal communications and sort of those two stories of sort of built into this idea of a leadership journey was one day in my office, my boss walked in and said, "There's a cart outside your door with some training materials. You're going to do 60 workshops this summer for employees at all the quarries," and I said, "I'm a communications guy. I don't do training," and she said, "Well, what do you want to do in September?" And I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well, do you want to work here?" And I said, "Yes." And she said, "Great, so the cart's outside your office and put a plan together and go do the training." 

And the point really, for me, it was it was probably one of the first times in my career where someone pushed me very hard and intentionally and out of my comfort zone on a like a practical skill-based way. And I realized that part of being successful at work meant not just doing the things I was good at or comfortable at, but exploring spaces — or being forced in that case to explore spaces — that were downright scary. It was the most petrified experience of my life was going out to Augusta County in West Virginia with a bunch of quarry guys and they're chewing tobacco and, and standing up and saying, "Hi, I'm from HR, I'm here to help you." So that really began sort of this orientation of my job can be bigger than what I thought it would be.

Fast forward a couple of years. Luck Stone, as some people and your organization know, began work around something called Values-Based Leadership, which was really about building a culture that was built around set of core values and principles behaviors of support those values and enabling the leaders and really all employees to kind of coalesce around a shared culture and a shared way of working. You know, the other kind of humiliating learning story for me was sitting at the leadership team table and my communications role one day and having a, you know, sleeves-rolled-up conversation with the owner and the vice president of the company and we wrapped up in my other boss, the Vice President of HR said, "Can I see you in my office for a few minutes?" and I wandered in and he said "Were you effective or impactful just then?" and I said, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm a slow learner." 

And so fortunately, Jay was super patient, and essentially what unfolded over the course of the next hour and the next day and really the next six months was you know, he asked the question, what did I want to happen in that meeting? I said, "I want Charlie Luck to stop making stupid decisions." And he said, "Did that, did you get what you wanted?" I said, "No, he made a stupid decision." And he said "Aand yet, you, you know, threw a grenade on the table. You annoyed everybody at a senior leadership level and my boss, who happens to be the owner of the company, asked me to have a conversation with you about your career at Luck Stone." So here we are, again, right, my journey basically as a series of people saying, "Do you want to work here anymore?" And me saying yes, and they saying "Great, so you need to step up your game," and in this case, it was really stepping up my awareness game. 

And so I think the biggest step on my leadership journey was recognizing that the doorway I had to walk through was a doorway of self-awareness. I had to understand not simple things like "How do I think?" or, you know, "How annoying am I?", but the impact that I had on the other people in the fact that my words my actions, my behaviors, that to me felt unimportant, they just felt like how I behave —actually, they're profound in impact on how others saw me. And so while I may have perceived myself as playing a leadership role, others in the organization saw me as a disrupter. And so finding the tension, or kind of resolving the tension between those two things, was really the work of the next several years. So maybe that's a doorway into a conversation. 

I think that from my experience effective, kind of having an effective wake-up call in your career Is an important thing. That may not be true for everybody. And and most people probably haven't had that experience. But for me, it was a reset moment. 

MAUREEN: Yeah, there's so much to kind of pull out and the stories that... I'll try to think where to start, but the first thing that comes to my mind is how does a company whose business is to take big rocks, and little rocks become so committed to something so, what some would say touchy-feely, are you so introspective? I mean, how did that happen? 

JOHN: Yeah. So it so it is I mean, it's, there's a real dissonance there. And it's counterintuitive, and it really happened when you know, and Charlie Luck tells a story exceptionally well, but essentially early 2000s I think he woke up one day. He was he was taking over the company, third-generation family leadership from his father, and woke up one day and said, there's so much conflict and politicking and I spent all of my time essentially in wrestling matches with my vice presidents around things that should be easy.

And so he began to look for someone to help him and the organization sort of navigate the change and found a guy named guy. This Guy Clumpner down in Texas who worked for Holt Caterpillar, the oldest Caterpillar dealer in America. And Guy came up to Richmond and worked for about a year with the leadership of the organization around Values-Based Leadership, which is something Holt had embedded in their organization. You know, the journey really was initially, how do we reward the company around a set of core values. And I think when we began the journey, nobody realized how deeper how far it would go. But it became really Charlie's passion.

And, you know, the journey really was initially, how do we re-orient the company around a set of core values? And I think when we began the journey, nobody realized how deeper, how far it would go. But it became really Charlie's passion. And I remember a conversation with Charlie, a little bit before I left in 2008, where, you know, we were talking about his core driver behind this and essentially what he said and he still says, and he and I were just emailing recently about this, was, you know, his mission with Luck Stone is one to make money, right? There's a mission of crushing stone and generating revenue from that. But its real mission is real purpose that he sees as a as a business owner and a human being is one to leave the communities he touches off better than he found them, and, and really, for employees. What that means is he wants to create an environment where everyone can live in their fullest potential. 

And so what that doesn't mean, and we used to joke about this, it doesn't mean if you're a truck driver, and you want to be a ballet dancer that Luck Stone will pay for you to go to ballet school. But what it does mean if you're a truck driver who has a passion for ballet, is that we want our managers to work with that truck driver to find ways for that person to have enough flexible time in their life to pursue their passion, knowing that it will probably not benefit Luck Stone directly, right, we won't start a ballet company within the organization. But if that employee feels liberated and passionate around something that's important to them personally, they're going to show up to work. more invested, particularly if the company says we support who you are and what you want to do with your life and the ballet is an extreme example, but it could be having to learn to work in it. I want to learn to fly a plane. I want to I want to be a better truck driver. Right? Right. So So unleashing people to to really identify their talent and their passion. And then either to integrate that nerve their work or to find the work-life balance that allows them to be fully invested, right, and who they are, was a, I think a, an accidental, pretty amazing discovery for Luck.

MAUREEN: It just makes me think about so many of our members, excuse me, companies that have been around for many, many years, and have been built off of maybe just a different way of thinking, you know, a very traditional business model that we're finding is hard to sustain. And it sounded like he found it was it's very leadership-driven, and it can evolve. Sometimes they feel like folks think that you have to start off this new company with this solid vision, but it does sound like there are ways to take companies that are very embedded in successful in the way they've been operating but need to take a new step into a new way of just thinking about what success is. 

JOHN: Yeah, and I think to your point, right, it's, it's, it's one being open to reinvention. But I think it's also recognizing that reinvention doesn't necessarily mean transformation or blowing up kind of where you were, or changing your business model can be a very iterative process. And it could be very organic and small. But what I would say is that any company, anywhere that isn't asking hard questions about how it operates will be in trouble at some point. And it's in its journey. And, you know, we talked to clients all the time, who feel they're very unique. And, you know, we've worked with newspapers and with symphonies and with public libraries and with health systems and with CPA firms, and you know, just go down the list. 

I mean, every industry that we've touched over the last 10 years, it's the same story. The story is that demographics and technology have disrupted the way we do business. And if if you're not thinking strategically about what that means to your organization and how it operates or what it means to your industry and how it functions, you're at risk. And if you're thinking strategically about those questions, and you're not thinking strategically about, who are we as an organization, how do we build a culture that is authentic, that's real, either to the leadership or to the clients that you're serving, you're also going to be at risk. And so there's a lot of layering there. But I think that's the essential messages. If you're not looking at five to 10 years and asking yourself or if your leadership isn't asking themselves, how do we need to be different or how do we need to be more effective? Or how do we need to be more aligned as an organization in order to serve our mission or purpose our clients? You're not asking you're not having the right conversations, right. 

MAUREEN: So you just said everyone thinks they're unique. And of course, I think about the fact that you have worked with a lot of our members. You lead our Leadership Academy. What are you seeing in those particular segments? Is there anything unique that is happening?

JOHN: Yeah, I think, well, I don't say no, I don't think there's anything unique, right? I think it is literally the same sorts of dynamics that we're seeing and other industries. But what I see within CPA firms, with small accounting organizations with the young leaders that are coming into the VSCPA programming, I see that there is a changing of the guard happening, right. So there is a generation of leaders and your industry and frankly, every other industry that is looking at the horizon and saying, you know, "How do I make a graceful exit?" And that could be a professional question for people. It could be very personal, but it's a question that many people are starting to ask and part of that graceful exit, for the success of your organization, has to be as I exit stage left, how would you ensure that the actors left on stage know their lines, right, and can carry on? So there's a legacy piece attached to that, there is a mentoring piece attached to that, there is how do we preserve institutional knowledge? So that's sort of the rear-view mirror piece of the transition. 

And then you look forward. And you said, so what is changing and the environment? And these are questions? You know, I know that the VSCPA has been working with its leaders on in recent years, you have to start asking how is technology transforming the way we interface with our clients or we process or analyze information? How does it change the way that our clients process or analyze information? And so, then, what should our relationship with them be? Is it transactional? Is it strategic? Is it relational? You know, is it not? So there's a big technology component on the external side and then I think the demographics such as demographics of your employees, it's recognizing, if you're a firm in the industry, that is, for instance, supporting small businesses, that 20 years ago, 95 percent of small businesses that you might work with were, were run by people who had English as a primary first language. And in 2025 — I use this data point all the time — 23 percent of Central Virginia will be not white or black, will be first- or second- or third-generation Asian, African or Latin American. So the the demographic changes that are happening in our country, from an ethnicity perspective, have a profound impact on not only how do we relate with and talk to and market ourselves to different communities of businesses or clients, but also what are the nature of the conversations were having with them? And and frankly, in many cases, can we actually communicate with them, right, because they may not speak the language we're speaking. 

So we can beat our heads against the table all day long and say, "Well, everybody should learn English,"  and maybe that's a true statement of the reality is that, you know, I've got a dry cleaner I'm going to go to every day, not every day, but every week. And and you know, the the family that runs the dry cleaning business. You know, they've been there for 10 or 15 years and they're from Korea and they speak passable English. But I would bet if I was an accountant having a conversation with them, that I would need some translation support for that. So there are lots of paths you can wander down, but at the end of the day, it's recognizing that as things shift, leaders have choices tonight, right. 

MAUREEN: So going back to that idea of the who's left on the stage, yeah, we we really do try to talk to our members about how are they preparing that team, how are they just having those discussions and one of the things that always comes up is a leadership development training. Send them to a program. Now they're a leader. What is really happening in this leadership development space that is working, and what is not working? 

JOHN: What's so what's not working are workshops, and by which I mean, and you know, we can talk about workshops all day long and we operate a lot of them. And they have a value, but the value is not an independent value. It's attached to other things. So so one of the things that's really important for people to recognize when you're thinking about the next generation of leaders or managers or front-line employees, right, people who need to learn something to move forward in their career is the 70-20-10 rule. Or it's a 10-20-70 rule, actually, so 10 percent of what you learned is content. So in workshops, you know, so if you have a 10-hour workshop, you know, 10 percent of that is going to be content-based. The other 20 percent is shared learning. So it's conversations, it's mentoring, it's dialoguing around what you're learning. So it's processing the information out loud, and then the other 70 percent is actually doing. 

So in the past, you would go to a week-long leadership conference and you would get all the books and got all the workbooks and see all the PowerPoint presentations and people would infuse you with the leadership, right? And then you would come back to work and you wouldn't do anything with it. And, and so maybe retain the few concepts, but you didn't deploy any of that knowledge. And so today, the the basic framework is in order to develop leadership muscle, you have to exercise. So learn what the proper way of exercising is, that's the classroom environment. But then you have to have the discipline, or the training regimen or the coaching support, to turn that, that learning into activity. And so if you're, if you're going to be in a 10-hour workshop, you need to be committed to doing 70 hours of practice after that workshop. And and so, I would imagine that many of your managers or leaders listening to this just had a horrified look on their faces. They thought about 70 hours of practice. But the 70 hours of practice is just doing your job. Right? It's facilitating meetings with your team. It's having performance conversations with your employees, it's thinking strategically about your worker priorities. It's doing the work of the business, but doing it through that filter of whatever the learning was that you experienced. 

So I think the big the first big message I would put in place around what's working around leadership development is when leadership development isn't services to the development of actual leadership muscle, it works. When it's a book, or it's a self-contained conversation that isn't deployed in the course of normal business operations, it's a waste of time, and it's a waste of money. So that's a, that's my profound thought for the day on that. 

MAUREEN: Yeah. So the folks that we most commonly hear going to these programs are, you know, the emerging leaders, but I know that there's been a lot of thought around leadership development doesn't stop there. You know, it's it's all the way going into the determining what my legacy is and how do I how do I leave these folks set up for success? What should our members be thinking about in terms of how that leadership continuum unfolds? 

JOHN: Yeah. So there I think there's a question of, of legacy. It feels important to me. Just the other day I heard an interview with John Cleese from Monty Python, who's got to be in his mid-70s. Now, and so it's, I think, the 50th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and the thing was Terry Gross on NPR, someone was talking to him and said, "What are your plans for the 50th anniversary?" And he said, "Oh, we don't actually have any plans. Half of us are dead and the other half of us are too tired to care." And then he kind of laughed, he said, "We may do something, right?" 

And so I put that out there as as a I mean, one, it's semi-amusing, but I think it's also semi-true, right? At a late stage in a career, I think people have choices. And we'd like to pretend that, you know, as in this interview, you know, oh, you should have some grandiose vision of how you're going to celebrate this moment, right, this anniversary or this retirement, and some people just want to move on. Right. And that should be okay. But I think for leaders who are nearing a transition and have invested themselves in the organizations that they're serving, there's an important set of questions to ask around. One, what is it that will leave me feeling most complete as I make a transition to a different role or retirement right to something else? The second question is what is it that I might owe my organization, right? So what am I, you know, and it's not what do I owe them transactionally, but what is it important for me to leave behind for the organization, not out of a demonstration of loyalty but just as a responsibility that we all have contained in us a lot of knowledge and information and perspective that nobody else in our organization has. So there's a, you know, what do I need to feel complete? What do I want to leave behind for the organization? 

And the third piece is what do I want people to say about me? You know, we used to joke that, you know, when you're on your deathbed, very few people say, "Bring me all of my things so I can touch them again." Now we say, "Where are my where my friends or my family?" Right? We, the relationships that we have, are the most valuable investment we make in our lives. And I know that in the accounting field, people like to joke about it being very clinical or very linear, very non-emotional, but it is absolutely relational, right? I mean, the accounting industry, while it is built on numbers, is really built on relationships with people. So the relationship of you to others in your firm, the relationship of you to your clients — what is the legacy you want to leave behind there? What is the story you want them to tell? Not about who you were 30 years ago, but about who you were, you know, when you get to the finish line?

MAUREEN: When do you even start thinking about that? I mean, you can't do it. That's six months beforehand. 

JOHN: Yeah, I mean, probably when you're probably when you're 24. Right. And I say that a little globally, but also, I think, really truthfully, that, you know, nobody at the age of 24 knows where they're going to be when they're 60. Um, but if you're not asking big questions of yourself, you know, how do I need to be right now? What does my organization need of me? What is my role asked me? If I'm leading a team, what am I — what does my team need from me in order to be successful? If those are questions that aren't part of your everyday exercise regimen, then your work is just transactional. And if your work's transactional at 24, it's going to be transactional at 44 unless something collides into your life and shakes you up.

MAUREEN: That boss comes in, right and says, "Do you still want to work here in six months?" That boss comes in.

JOHN: Right. "What do you want to be next week?" So so I think that yeah, it's it's important for 24-year-olds and 34-year-olds and 44-year-olds to be asking themselves big questions about where am I at this moment? And what does that ask of me? Or what is, what do I desire? What am I passionate about? I'm surrounded by people in my personal and professional life who have expectations of me. How do I feel about that? And how do I deliver on those? And I think as you begin to near sort of that last quarter of your career as people transition, mid-50s, and to 60 and in many cases, beyond, beginning to ask the questions asked a few minutes ago, right, what's the legacy? And and how do I invest the right time? Or how do I invest my time differently at this moment to ensure that that legacy is as best positioned as it can be?

MAUREEN: So that's, that's a lot to ponder.

JOHN: We can rewind the podcast and listen to it twice. 

MAUREEN: There you go. Yeah. So on that note, I think we're gonna start wrapping this up. But if you had to, if you're speaking to a group of leaders, and you had to send them off with one message to think about in the next year, just what what would you, what would you want to challenge them to do?

JOHN: I think I would challenge them to take a step back and identify a set of new relationships in an organization that they could, that they could initiate or build. So you know, take a small team of new employees out to lunch, or reach out to, you know, a middle-level employee who you may not have a strong professional relationship with, in order to really explore what the universe looks like, through their eyes. So I think oftentimes, when we're later in our career, and I, you know, not that late in my career, but I recently had this sort of "A-ha," the the other week, that we feel like we've learned it, all right, and we've we've got all the skills, we've got all the tools, we sort of know how the world operates. And then if you're, if you're unlucky, have a boss who pulls in and tells you, you don't know anything. Or occasionally you can wake yourself up and say, I may not know everything there is to know. And so being curious about what other people know about the profession, how they're experiencing the profession, what they might need, as they move forward in their careers, and what role you can play, to be of service to others, I think would be sort of my parting words of wisdom or guidance to people.

MAUREEN: So it goes back to that relations, relationship. 

JOHN: Yeah. And then, yeah, and that, and that your best, your best legacy move, right, for anybody, except maybe the most extremely selfish of people, is to ask yourself, "How do I be of service to others at this moment?" And that's, I think, what leadership is essentially all about.

MAUREEN: All right, John. So when you are thinking about leadership, helping people transform their lives with all these deep thoughts, what are you doing for fun?

JOHN: I'm leading my small children and helping them transform their lives.

MAUREEN: Helping them stay safe. Exactly.

JOHN: So no, I mean, I run my business, I play with my kids and spend time with my family. And, you know, hopefully, at some point, in my twilight years, I'll take up golf or, you know, cultivate roses in my garden.

MAUREEN: Well, John, you're doing great stuff. And we appreciate all that you've done for our members what you do at our Leadership Academy, it's really making a difference. So thank you so much. 

JOHN: Yeah, absolutely. 

MAUREEN: All right. And that's it for today. So thank you for listening to Leading Forward and check us out on your streaming service, whatever you do to listen to podcasts, and we'll catch you soon.