Advice for building strong personal connections in a hybrid world

Hosted by Neil Amato

Steven Harris was not always the outgoing firm leader he is today. Harris, the subject of The Last Word in the March issue of the Journal of Accountancy, said he struggled to connect with other professionals early in his career, but once he learned to be vulnerable and to listen, he was able to form strong bonds. Harris calls that connection breakthrough "magical."

He shares advice on emphasizing collaboration in a hybrid work environment and discusses the talent development tie-in to bringing work back into the office. Harris also explained his affinity for OneNote and the movie The Godfather.

Also, get caught up on several JofA news articles:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An overview of audit data analytics.
  • When "awesome" came into regular usage.
  • The reasons that Harris struggled early in his career to make connections with colleagues.
  • His advice for CPAs interested in serving on boards.
  • Why he compares the movie The Godfather to a form of executive education.
  • News related to the IRS backlog, proposed SEC climate disclosures, and new ethics guidance.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: This is the Journal of Accountancy podcast, and I'm your host, Neil Amato. Coming up on this episode, I speak with CPA Steven Harris on collaboration, how he learned to be vulnerable at work, and his advice for CPAs who might be interested in serving on a board. Also, we have news related to the IRS backlog and more topics, all coming up after this brief sponsor message.

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Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Joining me for this segment of the show is Steven Harris. Steven is a CPA who is partner-in-charge of the Entrepreneurial Services Group of the firm RubinBrown.

Steven is also the subject of the March Last Word feature, which we will have a link to in the show notes for this episode. First, Steven, thank you for being on the show. Tell me about how RubinBrown has approached bringing work back into the office as pandemic concerns have diminished.

Steven Harris: Well, Neil, thanks for having me. From RubinBrown's standpoint, this is all about flexibility. A lot of our team members are looking at this as an opportunity, the firms looked at this as an opportunity to make sure we're getting the most out of each other.

Everybody's looking at an opportunity to work together, and being flexible within some type of arrangement. We have situations where people try to work two to three days in the office or at a client maybe, and then still have that opportunity to work at home as well.

We're finding that our people are much more productive when they have options, and they can do the things they need to do. We're trying our best to bring it back. We'd love to have everybody back every day, but we know that's not going to happen.

But what we're trying to do is make sure that there's still good collaboration, people working together, and people can come and go as they please and feel very comfortable working to the best of their ability in a very comfortable state.

Amato: Is there a talent development aspect to that? Meaning, I guess, are newer or younger employees needing the connection of working with their colleagues in the same space?

Harris: Absolutely, Neil. What we're seeing in a lot of cases, because you've got interns coming in, you've got new people starting, and to have access to other leaders or other people, even their peers, gives them an advantage.

Anytime you can reach out to someone next to you and ask a question, it's going to give you some comfort. You don't have to go call up a person and try to email, set up a time, and go through that process.

Anytime you can just walk down the hall or walk across the workstation and get your questions answered is definitely going to be a good thing for those individuals. We find that the people who are coming into the office are having a great experience. They're having a great opportunity of learning. We're seeing better development from those individuals. They're not struggling as much with some of the newer concepts and newer things. It could be something as simple as technology, but being able to have access to a person definitely gives them that advantage to keep moving forward.

Then they get a chance to build relationships and get to know the very best of each other. I go back to my time. Public accounting is probably one of those professions I would say that makes you very excited because you come in with a young class, you get a chance to meet each other and spend time with each other. That's the beauty of it.

Well, if everybody's working in a different place a lot of times, you don't really get that feeling, the sense of that. So we're trying our best to make sure people feel that they can do that together, there's an opportunity to do that, but there is also the opportunity to, when you need to work at home for whatever reason, you can do those types of things. The people who are taking advantage of it, they're getting the best out of the situation. That's why we're finding.

Amato: Yeah, the whole nature of collaboration has changed, and that's the topic we're going to address next. The pandemic clearly disrupted work models in so many ways, collaboration being one of those. Are there strategies that your firm put into place to better collaborate when people aren't right next to each other, in the same office or a conference room?

Harris: Absolutely. You've got to look at the situation and what the pandemic presented to us as an opportunity to do things a little different. We're really big on innovation. I'll start by saying this: The pandemic in some ways challenged us and pushed us to use technologies that were already available for us in a lot of ways, but just making us use those a little bit more. We have to embrace those technologies. That's from the partner level all the way down to our interns, and going through that process.

Everybody has to embrace technology. You can't have one group that's very comfortable with it, and then a group that is not. To make sure everybody's comfortable in that space, a little bit more training, a little bit more development in that space to make sure everybody is using it and understands what we need to do in that space.

I would say, when you look back at this, I can't remember the last time that I picked up and dialed into a conference line. But at the same time, it's like Zoom, Teams — they're like second nature to us now. Had the pandemic not happened, we wouldn't be in that space.

But I do feel like we have to be more intentional about making sure that even in a hybrid environment, that we're setting up the appropriate times for people to get on and lock in and work together.

What we try to do is if groups are working together, there's targeted times where they get together, they can ask questions. Sometimes, it's not just about talking about the clients or the work that we're doing; it's getting connected with each other. Making sure that we are learning the very best of each other when we're working on different clients, and learning about each other, what we did over the weekend: the plans for the weekend, what our kids are doing, what our plans are for the week, what our biggest challenge is for the week are and how we can help each other.

We're being very more intentional and making sure those times are set up with each other to make those things happen. You also see it more, too, whether you have a partner meeting or a manager meeting and those type of things, people feel a lot more comfortable knowing that, I don't have travel time. If I'm at a client, I don't have to travel all the way back to the office to be in-person, to be engaged in the meeting. What they typically do, they jump on, they can continue their day, they can be effective, they can be efficient and keep things pushing and moving our product forward.

When you talk about collaboration, the keyword there is being intentional about it and not just hoping that by chance things are going to happen. We have to be very intentional about making sure people get together, they know how to use the tools, they know when to use the tools, and we meet each other where we are to make sure all those those meetings are taking place and feel good about it.

Amato: Do you feel like hybrid work models overall can support true collaboration, or is that still a work in progress?

Harris: I think it's a work in progress, but I think we're at a point, Neil, where we don't have a choice. I think the talent in our profession right now is telling us that we have to embrace these hybrid work models.

People have gotten used to it. They've learned how to navigate the space. You've got some people who can work in a city. They can go and travel and be with family across the country and still be productive, and we've just got to embrace it.

The key to good collaboration is no different than having an in-person meeting and it's really the engagement and the focus that you have going into those situations. I've been in tons of meetings where people are checked out in the live meeting. So it doesn't really matter if you're live or in-person. You've got to have people that are focused, that are engaged and making sure that they are there to do the work of the organization and keep moving things forward.

Amato: In The Last Word feature, you said that early in your career, you struggled to connect with people. Why do you think that was, and what steps did you take to change it?

Harris: When you go into an organization, you are starting your career, there's ultimately a lonely feeling that you have going into anything, because your experience, what you deal with every day, is going to be different than the person next to you. Is my story interesting enough for a person to want to know about me? Then when you look ahead of you, you see all these great things happening with partners and managers, they got these great lives and things, and you're just like, "Little ol' me here, coming out of college, do they even care? Do they want to know about me?"

Well, of course they do. That's why they brought you into the organization, it's why they brought you into the team. But I think something clicks with a person where you learn you've got to be vulnerable, you got to be OK with sharing a little bit about yourself to learn a lot about other people.

And then that conversation, when it happens, is magical. You start to learn, people get to know you, and then over a period of time, some of your stories come out, and some of the stories that you even don't want to come out, they come out, and they never go away, it seems.

I got some partners here, they still tell stories about what it was like when I was an intern and some of the things that I shared. It makes our culture special. Because I felt comfortable making that step to do that, and why did I? Because they shared with me, and I felt like I had to share with them.

That's the very best. When you think about working with our teams and the people that we have at our organizations, we spend more time with those individuals sometimes than we do with our own families, especially during the course of a busy season, those types of things.

You want to make sure that you're building good connections, building good relationships, and making sure people feel comfortable. Sometimes you've just got to be brave and courageous and share and watch what happens. Watch the magic that happens when people are sharing back with you and good relationships form.

You're talking to a person that, when I look back over my career, whether it was on a professional side or the personal side, somebody in this organization was right lockstep with me side-by-side in everything that I did, whether it was when I got married, had kids, or I lost a parent — somebody from our organization was there.

That only happens when you're vulnerable. People get to know you. Friendships are developed and good things can happen.

Amato: You mentioned board service as something that became available to you more because of your approach to connecting. What are two or three pieces of advice for CPAs who may be interested in serving on boards?

Harris: The first thing I would tell people, Neil, when they're thinking about joining a board or serving on a board, is serve where you have a passion. If you're passionate about something, if there's a cause that you're interested in, that's where you got to go spend your time, because boards are an addition to, it's something that you're adding on to your development. You have your family, you got your work responsibilities, and then you add on these board responsibilities. You got to make sure it's something that you're very passionate about.

I also tell people when they go into a new organization and are serving on a board: Listen first, learn first, before you go in and feel like you've got the magical solutions to everything that the organization has been challenged with. It's something that's very powerful, and listening and learning in that space that people should want to do, and it really helps level-set your understanding of the organization and the organization's understanding of you at the same time.

And the final thing I will always tell CPAs going in, don't just go and be a treasurer. There are so many different things that you can contribute to a board. And then also use that opportunity to learn, develop within yourself, push beyond your comfort zone.

We're very comfortable in the numbers, but sometimes find a way that you can get involved in something that's beyond the numbers, and then you can always come back and be a treasurer. But let's find a way where we can work together through that process.

Amato: Going back to The Last Word feature, you mentioned the app OneNote as a favorite of yours. In what way do you use it and why do you like it?

Harris: OneNote is one of my favorite apps and softwares that I use. It's really because it helps me stay organized. When you're dealing with so many different things, where in some cases, what I do from our organization, I work on the firm and I work for the firm.

Working on the firm, working with our committees, working with our leaders and helping us drive growth and opportunity, and then working for the firm from the standpoint of working with clients.

OneNote keeps me organized. It allows me to collaborate with a lot of people. I can share a note, share resources, share information through that space. It has some great features, to where if you have to-dos that you assign to different notebooks, you can then sync those up into one location.

Again, it keeps me aligned where I can keep things focused. I'm a true accountant, I like checking things off the list. I like scratching things out, so it all makes sense as we try to work together and keep things moving in that space.

The best thing I love about it, I can access OneNote from every device. I can access it from my laptop. I can access from my cell phone, and my iPad — whatever device I'm working on, I can have those notes in one location synced up and ready to go.

Amato: Continuing our theme on the JofA podcast where The Last Word subject talks about their favorite movie, you've chosen The Godfather. Explain.

Harris: Neil, The Godfather has always been my favorite movie. When I say Godfather, to true Godfather fans, you know what I mean. Godfather 1 and 2, those are the ones that everyone knows as the two great versions of the movie franchise.

There's so much learning in the movie, from leadership, from management, how you look at people. You've gotta get beyond the crime stuff, right? But there's a lot of people working together. How you manage situations, how you keep people close, how you navigate tough situations, learn. Very entertaining from that space.

The storytelling; how they go back, history and tradition is all important in that space. You learn a lot from watching that. In fact, when I was going through my executive MBA course, they brought up the fact that you don't even need to pay for this, just go watch that movie and you can get an MBA just by watching The Godfather.

In some ways, it's true because you just learn so much. But in that movie, you learn how to work with people and understanding that it's just as important to keep your peers, your friends, and people who you feel like may oppose you really close to you, to understand what you're trying to work towards to get some things done.

It's the only movie, Neil, that I would say no matter where I am in the world, if it comes on, no matter where it's at, it could have 45 minutes left, it can have an hour and a half left, I will watch it to the end every time.

Amato: Steven, this has been great. Anything you'd like to add in closing?

Harris: In closing, I would just say I think that as a profession, we just embrace what's ahead of us. I think if we really want to inspire people to stay in our profession and to continue on this journey and make sure they feel like they're a part of it, feel like they're comfortable, we've got to continue to be vulnerable. We got to continue to listen. We've got to make it fun. We got to make it fun to be here and show all the benefits of being in public accounting or being an accountant, whether you're in industry or whatever.

How if you do it the right way, great things can come for you and your family. You can meet a lot of great people, a lot of great friends, and you can have a tremendous impact, not just on your organization, but your community, your family, and anyone who's interested. I think we've got something special here.

We just got to double down on it and keep it going. As we navigate away from this pandemic, let's embrace some of these changes and hopefully let's leverage those changes to attract more people to come in and want to be a part of what we find to be a very special profession as we move forward.

Amato: Steven, thanks very much.

Harris: Thank you.

Amato: Again, that was CPA Steven Harris. I said at the top of the program there would be news related to the IRS backlog. IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the IRS is making progress in addressing the backlog of unprocessed work, a lingering pandemic challenge dating to 2020.

Rettig appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight to report on the current filing season. Subcommittee members spoke and asked questions about a range of topics, including ongoing enforcement and administrative policy on specific tax issues and some tax law considerations more precisely within the purview of Congress.

Addressing the backlog, Rettig used the word "absolutely" when asked if the IRS would clear the backlog by the end of 2022. Paul Bonner has the Journal of Accountancy story on that topic. You can find his article on or in this episode's show notes.

Also, a new SEC proposal would ramp up climate-change disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies. The proposal announced Monday would require companies to disclose information about climate-related risks that are reasonably likely to have a material impact on their operations or financial conditions. They'd also be required to disclose certain climate-related financial statement metrics in a note as part of their audited financial statements.

Ken Tysiac has that article, and he also has news of ethics guidance changing for CPAs this week. That's thanks to new and revised interpretations issued by the AICPA Professional Ethics Executive Committee, or PEEC.

The committee addressed a variety of issues, including noncompliance with laws and regulations for members in business and in public practice, and self-review and management participation threats when members assist clients with the implementation of accounting standards.

Again, those articles mentioned will be in the show notes for this episode, along with a link to The Last Word feature on Steven Harris. That's our show. Thanks very much for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.