Calvin Harris, CPA, senior vice president of finance and CFO of the National Urban League, says he would not be in the position he is in today without the help of numerous mentors.
In Part 1 of the conversation, Harris explained why donations at the National Urban League increased in 2020 and what the organization did with that revenue. In Part 2, hear more about the role mentors have played in his career, how he mentors finance professionals, and why diversity initiatives should go beyond press releases during Black History Month.
What you'll learn from this episode:
- The advice Harris gives to aspiring CFOs.
- What a term as president of the National Association of Black Accountants taught him.
- Details on the work the National Urban League does related to social justice.
- Why CPAs Frank Ross and Benjamin King are among the people Harris counts as role models.
- The CPA leader that Harris calls "a legend."
- How one early manager, a drugstore pharmacist, had an effect on Harris' career path.
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@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Hi, this is Neil Amato. Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. In our most recent episode, we featured a conversation with Calvin Harris, a CPA who is CFO at the National Urban League. Next up is the second part of the discussion, which touches on mentoring, the role models Harris has learned from over the years, and why he says, "It's perfectly OK to want something you love to be even better than what it is." Here's that conversation.
Calvin, in a previous episode with you, we talked about the steps not-for-profits can take to develop employees. One way to develop those employees is through mentoring. First, what role have mentors played in inspiring you?
Calvin Harris: Sure. Again, thank you, Neil, for chatting with me. That's a huge thing in my life and my career — the various mentors. And, candidly, there have been so many, some of their names I struggle to remember as the years keep going on. But at every stop along in my career, at every job, there have been mentors who have been there for me.
In some cases they've been at the job I've had. In many other cases, they've been outside the jobs that I had, because it's good to have both inside and an outside view. But I'm very comfortable in saying that I certainly would not be in the role I am in today if it hadn't been for great mentors along the line. It's always a pleasure to be able to give back in recognition of those who did so much for me.
Amato: You now mentor professionals yourself, so what advice would you give to someone about becoming a CFO?
Harris: That's a great question. Certainly, there's a process that you have to go through. I would be remiss in saying that you certainly need to have some type of credential with you. It makes it much easier. The modern CFO is not necessarily an accountant, but I think that's still the more expected background, to have them. But what I would also suggest if you have that in your sights is to align yourself and chat with people who are already in the role.
One of my first mentors, back in my Arthur Andersen days, Jeff Picker, gave me a piece of advice that I've been able to use now for more than 25 years. It's been that long. More often than not, you should try to model the job you want. If you want to be promoted from accountant to senior accountant or senior to manager or controller, CFO, what have you, already be modeling that job in every way. If at all possible, already do the job.
Seek out opportunities to be doing more than what your current job is. Because when it comes time for people to decide on who's going to be getting that promotion or if you're going to another organization, but the role you're looking at is essentially a promotion, you've already answered the question on whether you can do the job, because you've already been doing it.
The only thing we're really talking about is making your title match the work you've already been doing. That's one of the big pieces of advice I give everyone who asks about progressing to whatever their next level is, is first seek out opportunities to do more than your current job description.
Amato: Would you say that you, the mentor, benefit as well from the mentor-mentee relationship?
Harris: It's almost like gift-giving really. Sometimes the person giving the gift receives more than the person who actually receives it. I can't begin to express how gratifying it is to have the opportunity to help people become their best selves. Because I can think so easily of various mistakes I've made along the way. In some cases, I was given advice and I didn't pay attention to that advice. But that happens all the time I think when you're still finding your footing.
I get a great deal of pleasure in just chatting with younger professionals, and just giving my advice on what I've seen throughout my career. I think one thing that mentors always have to be careful of, and I try to remind myself of that as well, is that the world that we grew up in is not necessarily the world now; some cases better, some cases perhaps not better, but it's still different. Anytime I'm giving advice, I often will give it with the caveat that I recognize — I became a CPA in the early mid-'90s. Even the exam was wildly different then. At this point, I've been a CPA about half of my life.
I recognize that in some cases there may be some generational differences or just the way the world is different, but I still think there are fundamental things when it comes to managing and leading that really don't change from environment to environment. I try to make sure I'm passing along those lessons because I think even as the world changes, there are certain things that are still a bit of a constant.
Amato: You're a past president of NABA, the National Association of Black Accountants. What did serving in that role teach you?
Harris: Well, it's hard to list just a few things that serving in the role taught me. I will say that organization is a great place for mentoring, both to be mentored and to mentor others. I had the pleasure of serving at all levels at my college, Morehouse College. I was a chapter president as a student. In the Baltimore chapter, I was the local president for a number of years, then got onto the board and eventually became national president, now called national chairman of the organization.
What it really helped teach me, as many things, is giving me opportunities to lead and work with others, in some cases, before I actually had them in a job or paid role. It showed me how important it is to serve others. I have no doubt that my experiences in NABA dovetail very much so into the work I do now and how much of my career has been in the not-for-profit space. But it also taught me as much as anything how important it is to give back to others. That anything that you may have in your career, particularly as a Black accountant, that there are giants that came before you and you have a responsibility to give back whenever you can.
Now, I believe that as a past president — it's been more than 10 years since I was a past national president — also, one of my jobs is to stay the heck out of the way for the new leaders. If anyone ever needed assistance, I'd be right there. But otherwise, there can only be one leader and let them lead. I think the current president, Herschel Frierson, is doing an amazing job.
What I've also seen is you just can't forget the past. I saw a posting on LinkedIn recently from another accountant. They posted about Benjamin King Sr., first Black CPA in the state of Maryland. He also founded the Baltimore chapter of NABA, where I was honored to be the president for a number of years. As I saw that post, I remembered that we had an opportunity to honor him at an event. We put together a video, and amazingly enough, he was there and I got to say even now and so many years later, that's one of the highlights of my career; a highlight of my life.
I certainly met him and chatted with him many times, but to have the opportunity to honor someone who meant so much to so many others and paved the way, quite honestly, for people like me was a real great thing. In the end, I would say NABA as much as anything taught me how important it is to serve others and reminds me to this day.
Amato: The National Urban League's mission includes the phrase "social justice." You touched on this in our first conversation, that the events of 2020 in particular, combined with the pandemic, help draw attention to the work the organization does. Why to you is that mission, that work, important?
Harris: Yeah, just so many reasons why that work is important to me. Now, fundamentally as a Black man, the work that the Urban League does has benefited me for my entire life, whether I worked here or not. In many ways, having the honor of working here allows me to give back a little bit of what it's already given to me. But it's also a recognition that for as great as this country already is, there's still so much work to do.
It's perfectly OK to want something you love to be even better than what it is. I am well aware that in my role and in the experiences I've had, I've had opportunities that others simply haven't. There's no doubt. Now, I've taken advantage of those opportunities, but I know that there are people who simply haven't had those opportunities. Part of the work that the National Urban League does is help make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be their best selves.
From the job training we do, to the housing support we do to help people get in houses, to the health work we're focused on as much to make sure that people are living the healthiest lives they can, and certainly on equitable justice, to help make sure that we've got a world that is not just equal but is equitable as well. In many ways, I feel the National Urban League is almost a capstone to all the work that's been important to me in past lives.
Amato: How do you think organizations that employ CPAs can continue to move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Harris: I don't think there's any one thing that organizations should do as much as a number of things. First, I think you really need to walk the walk. It is so easy for organizations to put out these great press releases and these wonderful things on what they strive to do. I'm not knocking them, I think they should continue doing that. Not just in February, Black History Month, but throughout the year, show that commitment.
But it's then on the back end to make sure that's where the real work happens. What we see so often, and I've experienced that myself, there's a great push to recruit diverse candidates in, and that's wonderful. That should continue to happen, of course, but then making sure that the organization on the inside is based on one that will want people to stay. There are countless statistics out there that show how much cheaper it is to retain talent than it is to recruit talent.
Yet what seems to happen so often is that organizations put so much emphasis on the recruitment, which they should continue to do by the way, but don't do as much on the retention. That's where the real value is in the organization — focusing on retention, focusing on those things to where all employees, all CPAs, will feel welcome. Making sure that when they look at the top levels of the organization that they see people who look like them there. When those things occur, you see organizations survive and thrive so much better.
I was very lucky early in my career that when I started at Andersen in Baltimore, I saw a diverse pool of colleagues at all levels of the organization. That matters. It truly does matter because without saying a word, organizations show how important diversity, equity, and inclusion is. What I would strongly suggest, while you continue to do the important work on recruitment, while you continue to do the important work on making sure you have groups and constituency groups inside that can support your employees, while you continue to do work with organizations that are focused on Black accountants and as well as, of course, the National Society of Black CPAs, that you also focus on the retention. That's a place where organizations like the National Urban League are certainly well prepared to help you support that.
As well as NABA, as well as National Society of Black CPAs and a number of others. We're here, we're waiting to assist you. If you ever have any questions, just please reach out because we want to make sure that you're being successful in this way and in other ways as well.
Amato: You mentioned this is Black History Month, you also mentioned the name Benjamin King.
Amato: Besides him, are there pioneering Black CPAs who you've gotten to know or admire, and what have you seen them do that has helped improve opportunities in the profession?
Harris: To be honest, that one question could be a whole episode in itself. Let me list off a few names. Certainly Frank Ross, one of the founders of NABA. I know he's been on his podcast before, and I'm even hard-pressed to come up with one great thing to say about Frank. It's hard to not be amazed whenever you've had an opportunity to chat with, so certainly Frank Ross.
In more recent years, of course, you've got Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, who is a number of firsts. Just seeing the power and the grace that she's exhibited, and the leadership obviously, in leading the AICPA through so many different phases, she, of course, is a legend. She always defers if you call her something like that, but she's obviously been a legend. Then quite a few others that, some of whom you may not have heard of, that have made a great difference to me, not just CPAs. I joked because it was funny, but it actually was true.
One of my first mentors, honestly, was a pharmacist at a drugstore I worked at because he's the one that planted the seed for me becoming a CPA. Now, unfortunately, I am so embarrassed, I can't remember the gentleman's name, but it was quite a few decades ago. But he asked me what I wanted to do, I said, "Well, I want to be an accountant." Without missing a beat, he said, "Sure, you're going to be a CPA." Wasn't really much of a question, it was more of a statement of what you're going to do.
I said, "Well, I guess." I'm a teenager, 16, I think. He said, "Well, no, if you're going be an accountant, you need to be the best." That planted the seed for so many things that happened. I can think of professors that supported me along the way. There's a great professor currently at Morgan State University, Sharon Finney, who was my professor at Morehouse.
Another professor, I won't say his name because he would be embarrassed. But one professor at Morehouse actually gave me the money to buy a textbook for one of his classes because he knew I couldn't afford it. I've got to say, for me, there are countless people, some famous, such as Frank and Kimberly, some not as famous, who made a huge number of sacrifices, not just for me but for many others.
Amato: Again, thanks to Calvin Harris for being on the podcast.
In other news, the IRS announced Tuesday that it intends to provide additional transition relief for this year from the Schedule K-2 and K-3 reporting requirements for partnerships and S corporations with respect to items of international tax relevance. Paul Bonner has that article, and he also has the news on the IRS revising Form 14457 with an expanded reporting section and detailed instructions for reporting on cryptoassets.
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