Learning to be a leader: Grab a mirror and a book

Hosted by Neil Amato

For Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA, the president at Lume, a deodorant company headquartered in Utah, taking a rigorous approach to analysis – whether it be marketing spending or performance management – is critical.

The human side of running a business is also important. In a conversation more than seven years ago, Griffiths spoke about emotional intelligence, a skill that has served him well in a fully remote company.

"We have to be paying much closer attention to what cues we're getting from different members of the team," he said.

In this Journal of Accountancy podcast episode, Griffiths offers leadership tips, reflects on what he did and didn't know in making a move from a CPA firm to a retail company, and uses a baseball analogy to explain how performance management should work.

Griffiths is scheduled to speak at next week's AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference on the topic of performance management.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An overview of a recent career move by Griffiths.
  • How CPA training helped in his new role.
  • Some of the things he had to learn about mass retail and branding.
  • Why Griffiths says that budding leaders should "find someone in your life that's willing to hold up a mirror for you."
  • The importance of getting honest feedback early in your career.
  • The statistics that people don't bring up when discussing the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa baseball home-run duel in 1998 – and what that has to do with performance management.

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: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. The guest on today's episode is someone I had the pleasure of talking to in the very early stages of our magazines' podcast episodes. His name is Dan Griffiths. He is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation, and he's made a career move that we'll focus on for some of this conversation. I think you'll find it interesting. Dan, first of all, welcome back to the podcast.

Dan Griffiths: Thanks Neil. Great to be here.

Amato: Yeah, we're glad to have you on again, and I'll maybe get into some of the background of that episode we recorded. Since then, you made a career move. You're now the president of the company Lume. You've been there two-and-a-half years. So, a big change from I guess working at the firm Tanner to being now a company president. Tell me some about that change and some of what you've learned and maybe been able to apply from your time at Tanner to now the company Lume?

Griffiths: Yeah. A big change as you can imagine having built a practice set of professional services firm, a CPA firm, all the client relationships and the time that it takes to build those, and then leaving that behind to do something else was a big move and a very difficult decision for me at the time. My CPA background and particularly the time I spent as a partner was incredibly valuable in helping prepare me for what I would find here.

One of the things that has really stuck out to me is the rigor of analysis that our profession trains us to require of everything. I'm in a organization today, it has a significant amount of marketing spend. In most organizations, marketing spend is this bucket of stuff that just gets spent because we have to, and "let's do a Super Bowl commercial because we've got budgets. We'll do it and hopefully it works, and hopefully some people see it."

At Lume we've taken a very different approach and do much more rigorous analysis around the performance of all of our marketing. If it doesn't perform, we don't do it and just bringing that CPA lens to the way we think about something like marketing spend has been incredibly valuable and allowed us to grow a lot faster. That's an example of something where that CPA training was incredibly valuable in my time at a firm.

There's some other places where I needed to learn a ton, for example, branding. I didn't know hardly anything about branding. Now I work at a consumer brand, and that has been a really steep learning curve. Fortunately, we have a founder and CEO who is dynamic, creative, unbelievably gifted in all of those ways to connect with the consumer and understand what the consumer really wants and what will resonate.

I've learned a ton from her in my time here of just how important and how valuable that is. Branding is something I would say as a CPA, I did not have.

Amato: I didn't say it before, but could you explain what Lume does, the product it sells?

Griffiths: Yeah. Lume is a deodorant product that was developed by an OB/GYN, obstetrician/gynecologist who was having women come into her office with odor complaints, below-the-belt odor complaints. She was really frustrated with the alternatives at the time and believed that women were being over-diagnosed for conditions they didn't have and over-prescribed for medications they didn't need.

Women would walk out of the office with a fist full of Zithromax and be sent on their merry way and assume that that's going to control the issue. But what she found is that most of those odor complaints are actually external. She developed a deodorant product that solves for odor anywhere on the skin. As it turned out if it worked below the belt, it also worked under arms and also worked on feet and so it's a pretty remarkable product.

Amato: You've mentioned some of the parts of your new job that maybe you weren't quite ready for and maybe you're still learning. If you could expand on that a little bit more, what are some things that maybe you wish you knew.

Griffiths: Mass retail. Let me tell you, mass retail. I had worked with a number of clients over the years that had undergone retail expansion, but never on a mass basis. Understanding all of the data connections that are required to make that all work seamlessly. All the EDI [electronic data interchange] connections and all of the warehousing capabilities and really appreciating the scale of a Walmart, for example, or a Target and just how many points of distribution you're talking about, and understanding all of the work that goes in to getting that product on the shelf.

That has been a huge learning curve for me and I really in retrospect, wish that I'd had more of that experience. Fortunately, we've taken Lume through a merger process with a company called Harry's, the razor company. They have a ton of expertise in mass retail and have helped us a lot along the way and I've learned a ton, but that was definitely a blind spot for me.

Amato: Now, I will link to the episode that I mentioned from many years back. It seems like in some ways, not that many in others, but I'll link to that episode in the show notes so that people can listen to it. But we talked about emotional intelligence. I would like to say first that I think our emotional intelligence was tested that day because we were at a conference in Orlando, record this entire 25-, 30-minute interview where my recorder was on pause mode and I didn't know it.

I got to ask Dan if he had time to record again after lunch, and he did. I have always been grateful to him for doing that. But that's a really long way of getting into my question. Which is, how has your knowledge of emotional intelligence helped inform your role at Lume?

Griffiths: That has been more important in the role that I currently have than anything technical that I might have had learned along the way in my career. We are a remote-first organization. Lume was started in Shannon Klingman's pantry. She's the founder.

She developed this product and thought it was pretty great and found a contract manufacturer that would take a risk on her, and mortgaged her house and drained her 401(k) and went through that whole process of starting a business and didn't want to spend money on stuff that wasn't going to generate revenue for the business so never created an office.

This was before COVID, before remote work was cool. She still to this day works a lot of days out of her pantry, which is cool. But as a remote-first organization, what that means is we have to be even better at understanding where each member of the team is coming from and reading the cues. Reading the room, understanding what's likely to be a sensitive topic. Picking up on body language cues over a Zoom call. It's a lot harder to do than when you're live in person.

It's a lot easier to mask some of those things. It's a lot easier to go off-camera for a minute and grab a bite of your burrito. There's just a lot of things that can be missed. We found that in a remote-first organization, it requires a heightened awareness for things like emotional intelligence. We have to be paying much closer attention to what cues we're getting from different members of the team.

You have to schedule intentional time just catching up with people and checking in with them. Whereas in an office environment, you're going to bump into them in the hallway and have some of that sense of, you're having a hard day. Whereas someone shows up to a Zoom meeting, you don't necessarily know that they're having a hard day and so being able to create intentional time for that type of interaction that allows us to pick up those emotional cues from each other is really important.

Amato: I didn't ask before, but how did this opportunity even really come about for you?

Griffiths: Lume was a client that I'd been serving for a couple of years. They'd reached a point in their growth where they needed some help taking things to the next level. Specifically, they felt they needed to partner with an organization that would be able to provide them with capital and expertise they didn't have. That organization ended up being Harry's.

I was brought on board to help lead a search process to take them through a merger or an investment event, or something else that would partner them with the right team and resources that could help them go into mass retail. That's how I initially got connected, just as a consultant working with them.

Amato: What would be two or three bits of advice that you'd pass on for people who want to become better leaders?

Griffiths: I'd probably share three things. First, spend time with people that you admire and respect. You've probably heard the refrain or the advice that we become like the people that we spend time with and the books that we read or we're influenced by those things. I really believe that to be true. Whether that's spending time one-on-one with mentors or others that can help you in that way, I think that's been hugely valuable for me personally. But in addition, today, we actually have access to way more people that we can be influenced by through tools like YouTube. If there are people that you admire and respect and feel like they have got it together from a leadership perspective, you can actually spend time listening to them and being influenced by what they have to say and how they think, and how they approach their leadership. It's really remarkable to have the opportunity to learn from some of the best people in the world at what they do.

Then the second thing I'd recommend is find someone in your life that's willing to hold up a mirror for you. Spoiler alert, most people won't.

It's just too painful to reflect back all of the things that I'm seeing about somebody else. It's high-risk, too, because it may be that there's some things in that mirror that I'm holding up that don't look quite right. But guess what? That's exactly what we all need. Find those people in your life, who are willing to hold up that mirror and give you truly honest feedback about their experience of you and your leadership. There aren't very many of those people who will do it. But the earlier you are in your career, the easier it is to get it. The later in your career, the harder it is to get it. As soon as you get promoted, then everybody tells you how great you are. But they don't tell you what they really think. It's really, really important to find one or two or three people who can give us that perspective and help us understand some of the blind spots we have and hold up that mirror.

Then another thing I'd add is reading. The books that you read have a huge influence on who you become and have had a huge influence on me. I feel like leadership books, business books, but even just books written by smart people have influenced how I think about leadership. Anytime that I have a chance to read another book, I take advantage of it.

Amato: That's good. Thank you for that advice. Now, this is the first week of May [when] we're recording. In the second week of May is the AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference in Salt Lake City, which is basically your hometown, correct? You're speaking in a CFO Conference session on performance management. Would you like to say anything about that session upcoming?

Griffiths: I'm really excited about this session and I'm excited about the conference. The last time I spoke, I think was in New Orleans a few years ago. It's always a great event and it's fun to feel the energy of people that are out in business and industry making a difference, growing things, creating jobs. It's just a dynamic fun group. The session is some of my reflections, especially the last couple of years on performance management from the perspective of leading a company. I had spent time in my consulting days helping businesses design performance management systems, implement things like OKRs, objectives and key results, or balanced scorecard, or other tools and systems. But now having the opportunity to actually live it in an organization that's growing and scaling really fast, it's a whole different way of thinking about it.

One of the biggest insights that I've had is, Neil, I think you're old enough that you would remember this. In 1998, you have Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa who were duking it out for the home run title. They were going to take Hank Aaron's and Babe Ruth's records, and Mickey Mantle and everybody, just obliterate them. In that year, at least as a baseball fan, I was following closely who was ahead and McGwire ended up hitting 70 home runs that year. But what you never hear people talk about is that he struck out 155 times. Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs. He struck out 171 times. What we sometimes neglect in our performance management systems is creating the space for people to swing for the fences. We can inadvertently push people to play it safe. Which, depending on your organization, might be the right thing to do. But at least at ours, we want people swinging for the fences more often than not. We'll take a base hit when we get it, but we'd rather that they try for the home run.

For example, our performance marketing teams, we want them actively testing new creative concepts. New ads, like just get out in the world. Let's see how it works. It might work, it might not work. In some ways, the strikeout is just as important as the home run because we learn something from each of those strikeouts. We have to calibrate our performance management systems to create room for people to strike out and kind of be excited about it because it's just one step closer to the next win. I feel like too often in performance management, it can become about really pushing people to play it safe.

Amato: Basically what you're saying is, yeah, Tony Gwynn was great, but I'd rather watch the home run.

Griffiths: Yeah, maybe. Although I love Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and others that were like in that same base-hit-machine genre. Depending on the organization, you may want to calibrate more towards the base hits, and you may want to calibrate more towards the home runs and for different roles, but I think it's a useful way of thinking about performance management. What behavior am I encouraging? Am I encouraging people to really go for it, or am I just encouraging them to sand bag and play it safe?

Amato: I think that's a really good spot to end on. But Dan, anything else you'd like to say in closing?

Griffiths: No, Neil, I really appreciate the time to talk to you again today. This has been fun. Thanks for the time.

Amato: It has been fun. Thank you very much.