‘Status quo is the riskiest option’: One leader’s proven approach

Hosted by Neil Amato

It's obvious that change is happening rapidly these days, but is the accounting profession moving quickly enough to adapt to that change? It's a question Joey Havens, CPA, has pondered often in his career at the firm Horne LLP.

Havens joined the Journal of Accountancy podcast to discuss the building of organizational culture, why the word "enduring" has been a strand running through his career, and why he likes to ask the question "Are we moving fast enough?"

Havens is a speaker at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE in June in Las Vegas.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An explanation of "the core values of putting people first."
  • One leadership theme of Havens' new book.
  • Why Havens said: "Autonomy is a word that scares leaders."
  • The things Havens is looking forward to about ENGAGE.

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: Hello, listeners. This is Neil Amato. Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. For this episode, our guest is Joey Havens, a CPA who is a major firm partner. He's also an author of books and blogs and a speaker at the upcoming AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE in June in Las Vegas. Without further ado, Joey, welcome to the JofA podcast.

Joey Havens: Thank you, Neil. What a pleasure. I'm very honored to be here with you today.

Amato: Thank you. Joey, one of your tenants for creating firm and organizational culture is that it be enduring. Based on your tenure, that seems to be the case. You're quickly closing in on four decades at Horne LLP, a major firm headquartered in Ridgeland, Miss., and now with offices in 10 states and Puerto Rico. You don't just wake up one day and say, "We want to have great culture," so how exactly do you think that happened at Horne?

Havens: Thank you for that, Neil. Let me first say we've been blessed beyond our greatest expectations. Certainly, me in my 40-plus years, 39 of them with Horne, I've been blessed immensely. When I reflect on that question, without a doubt, I think the enduring strand, if you think about a strand a rope that holds organizations — because people cling to that rope — I think it's our faith-based values and Christian values of carrying and serving others, which I believe leads to a magnetic culture. Whether you are faith-based or not, those core values of putting people first, that's what creates a strand of rope that gives from one group to the next and I think endures from, when I think about our company was formed in 1962, and part of our commitment is to honor God and serve our families.

But it was in 2011 where we took it to a whole other level. We accelerated that rope, and we grew it stronger by being very intentional and bold enough to say, "Culture is our number one priority." It's before growth, it's before profitability. Of course, what we quickly found out is that when you put people first, growth and profitability follow along with you. I think it starts out with having the right values and then being very intentional.

Amato: That's a great answer. Thank you very much for that. You have a book coming out. It's called, I guess the short title is Leading With Significance. In some of the descriptions for the book, it says that the book will help leaders "break through the limiting barriers of common culture theory to elevate to a culture that is genuine, enduring, and magnetic." What does that phrase, "common culture theory" mean in there to you?

Havens: Well, it's probably a little bit of a take on a pet peeve of mine, but it's a very wide net. You can read a lot about culture and what you should do in culture, there's a lot of advice out there. There's a lot of advice out there from people who've never grown a company from good culture to great culture, and then to experience exponential growth with that.

So there's a lot of ideas, but there's not a lot of how — how do you do it? It's the journey where you never arrive, so you could start off in a better place each morning. You can start out ahead of your competition. But the biggest myths I see in culture theory is that every journey is really unique to that organization, it's unique to that group of leaders, it's unique to those team members. It only really starts when leaders are vulnerable and trust in the inherent good in people. Theory says, this is a good initiative, that's a good initiative, you do this your people are going to love you. It's a lot of bells and whistles.

The latest happy is another way that you might describe that. What's the happy, what's the banner we're going to hang up. But when you get down to a real journey, it's about embracing the brutal reality of where your culture is. I say "good culture" because if you ask anybody about your culture, what do they say? Our culture is good. Without culture that's grounded in a strong sense of belonging, all of the initiatives fail. All of that culture theory fails unless you have a very strong sense of belonging.

Hanging the latest banner doesn't get you where you need to go. Theory says, for example, that if you have flexibility, just tell people you have flexibility. Flexibility is your policy. You'll be on track. But flexibility is dead when leaders continue to control the where, when, and how. It's dead on arrival when leaders don't demonstrate flexibility. It's dead on arrival when there's too many exceptions to it.

Theory simply doesn't explore the complex human emotions and interactions that happen on a journey like that. If it was easy, there would be more companies and organizations thriving with distinction and winning the war on talent.

Amato: Your firm's website has the beBetter Blog, which I think does a really good job of referencing situations away from work to help us better address situations at work. In the evolving workplace of today, how big a priority is it for leaders to address work/life balance if they want to build a great culture?

Havens: Well, thank you for mentioning the beBetter Blog and thanks to my wife, CeCe, who allows me to be quite liberal with using some of our personal family things to make certain leadership points. But your question about work/life balance goes to the heart of, I call it the culture quagmire today. Work/life balance, I believe, is better described as flexibility. Real flexibility provides autonomy. Autonomy is a word that scares leaders, but that's really where we are and what we need today.

We need autonomy to team members to integrate, to them to integrate their careers in their personal life. It's never going to be balanced. There's always a priority on one side or the other. Sometimes there's competing priorities. But the magnetic energy happens when our team members can help decide how this priority should be managed in their world.

It goes back to your question about culture theory. This trust must begin with the leaders giving the team members the benefit of good intentions. In other words, we know this is our commitment to our client, this is our deadline. You match that trust with clarity — with clarity on their role, responsibility, their communications, their commitment. It's not easy. It's a learning process

Yet, it's exactly what people are looking for today — more autonomy and setting priorities in their lives. It's not the Wild West. Yes, they have to do that within the commitment that they've made to the organization, to their team, and to the clients. Back to your question, this is a huge priority for leaders. How do you empower people to be successful? And in my opinion, it should be the first page of every strategic plan. How do we empower our people to be successful?

Amato: Having that people empowerment be upfront — very important. Lindsay Stevenson, who certainly is a leader in the profession, a former JofA podcast guest. She mentioned in a LinkedIn post a few weeks back, she's quoting part of the book, I guess the part about leaders potentially being concerned about "going too fast." Can you give a little background on what that means, maybe the context for that and why speed in a time of incremental change versus transformational change matters, and why you instead want to ask the question, are we going fast enough?

Havens: Yeah, are we going fast enough? That's one of my favorite questions. But first, let me give a big shoutout to Lindsay. I'm a huge fan of hers. I love the work she's doing in our profession for all our people as well as being a great role model for women in our profession. Lindsay and I served on the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee together, and I'm so honored that she took the time to pre-read Leading With Significance and then to share those kind remarks that she shared.

But if we step back from your question, "Are we moving fast enough?" and just take a moment to reflect. In your lifetime, whoever you are, whether you're 22, 32, 42, 52, 62, or 72, have you ever seen more change, faster change in more areas of your personal life, from turning your air conditioner on from your phone to locking your condo or your phone, to having ChatGPT do research for you, to reading while your car is driving you down the road, to real-time notification of your credit card transactions?

Our heads are spinning with the possibilities that are going on around us. It's the same situation in the public accounting profession — faster change, more change. There is faster and more change in what our clients need. Their businesses are being turned upside down. People's values and choices are changing. Technology is driving so much of this change; it gives us these possibilities. It's only speeding up. It's not slowing down.

Do you think we're going to go from 5G back to 2G? Are we going to be talking about 8G and 10G and processes, opportunities? It is warp speed on all fronts, and sometimes we don't step back and say, whoa, things are moving fast, and there's no end in sight. We are in an exponential world. That's where we start with that, but you think about our leaders, you think about our firms, you think about our companies today. We grew up during times of incremental change.

Most of our careers were spent where things change 5% or 10% rather than 100%. We had time to be reactive. You can be reactive and still be leading the pack, and with an exponential world, moving from an incremental to exponential, that's now our biggest risk, are we moving fast enough? It's not, are we moving too fast? That's the legacy question that stuck with us from those incremental years, and it actually pulls us backwards.

The status quo, in my opinion, is the riskiest option for anybody. It's much better to make mistakes going forward because reacting is going to leave us further behind, it's going to leave us in last place. We've got to become more comfortable with experimenting, like getting something where it's 80% and taking off down the runway, and when it lifts up off the runway, you start making adjustments based on what you learn. That's very different for the accounting world. That's very different for public accounting firms. To help with the anticipatory mindset, I flip the question around to always we must address this question first, are we moving fast enough?

When companies do that, they rarely find time to see where they might be moving too fast, and chances are there's really not anywhere that they're moving too fast. Most of the time it deals with the legacy not wanting to change. This deals with the lack of clarity on the steps ahead, how it will change your personal world. We all vote for change. We're all for it until we find out how it's going to change our world. It's about helping people have an anticipatory mindset.

Amato: Now, Joey, you'll be at ENGAGE in early June and that's an event I've been to before. I've looked forward to it in the past. I'm not going to be able to make it this year, but for you, what are the top three things you look forward to most from ENGAGE in Las Vegas?

Havens: Neil, I mean, that is one of the top conferences for the profession. Probably, I guess the biggest conference for the profession. There are so many wonderful things that happen at that conference, and as I think about being there to participate, the first one for me is engaging with leaders across our profession to help inspire more leaders to trust in the good in people. As we're more intentional in how we care and serve our teams, we will help those teams reach their full potential and will help firms have higher performance.

I would say the second thing would be learning from others. As we navigate these new waters, it takes everybody, it takes innovation, it takes discussions. Our profession has some of the smartest, most talented people, and as leaders, I believe you should always be growing. You should always be challenging your assumptions and your beliefs. I look forward to being a sponge at that conference and just learning from all of those around me.

And the third would probably be creating new relationships and nurturing existing ones. Learning, I think it'll allow me to see how we can help our profession move forward faster, in a better way. We need to tell a better story.

We need a better story for our profession, and I want to help share why this profession is one of the most rewarding of all. Why people should think about making the commitment I made to 40 years of service to this profession. Those are three things I'm most excited about. I will say this on a fun side, also on the personal front, looking forward to challenging that blackjack table again.

Amato: Well, I'm sure you're not alone in that on both the professional and the personal for the conference, so that's great. Joey, thank you very much for being on the podcast. We're really happy to have you.

Havens: Thank you so much, Neil. I really appreciate it. It's certainly an honor.

Amato: Thanks again to Joey Havens. We invite you, the listener to share, follow, rate, and review the show, and thank you for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.