‘You can’t transform without missteps’: A CPA leader’s career advice

Hosted by Neil Amato

About three years ago on the Journal of Accountancy podcast, Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, spoke about how to get over fearful moments in our careers. That topic is revisited in this episode, a follow-up conversation with Stevenson, now the chair of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

Stevenson talks about CPAs and their comfort zones and discusses some of the key points in her career journey.

Also, get a summary of recent Journal of Accountancy coverage of a report on the IRS's calculation of recovery rebate credit eligibility.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Why Stevenson says, "It's OK to be a little nervous."
  • What Stevenson did to get over a fear of public speaking.
  • The value she places on mentorship.
  • A moment from three years ago that Stevenson called a tipping point for her career.

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: Not that long ago, Lindsay Stevenson was named the winner of the AICPA's annual Outstanding Young CPA Award. Today, Stevenson, a CPA who holds the CGMA designation, is chief transformation officer at the San Franciso-based firm BPM LLP. We're going to talk some about that career journey and more on this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. That conversation is coming up after this brief sponsor message.

Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. I'm joined for this segment by someone who has been on this podcast before, but not all that recently, to be honest. It's Lindsay Stevenson. Lindsay was on the podcast three years ago at ENGAGE, when we were live and in person. Now we are remote, advancing ENGAGE. Lindsay, welcome back. Thank you for being here.

Lindsay Stevenson: Thank you so much for having me, again. It's exciting to join you one more time.

Amato: You are the chair of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee [WIEC]. What is the mission of that group and your vision for it moving forward?

Stevenson: WIEC's mission is to promote and support the success of women to advance the profession together. That's really important, because we recognize that while the group is reflective and intended to make a way for women in the profession, it only works if we're doing it all of us together. We recognize that and value that importance.

In terms of vision for the future, there are so many things that are opportunities in the profession right now. But I think really focusing on "How do we create environments of inclusion in all of our organizations and the accounting and finance world?" is big on our plate; finding tools and ways that we can provide insight to leaders in the profession on how to do that. What does that look like? How do those conversations occur? Then, tools and resources for the women in our profession who are trying to figure out how to navigate their way forward and finding their opportunities in leadership.

Amato: I've already referred to it once, but we're actually going to talk about some of the points of that interview from three years ago. We will post a link to that episode in the show notes, but I want to revisit this topic. This is something you said: "We as CPAs can find that place where we operate efficiently, we're good at our jobs, but sometimes we let that get in the way of doing something new." What do you think about that?

Stevenson: I think we still have that challenge. I think as a profession, the world has changed so much since we last spoke in 2019. Really, the last time we were together, Neil, the world had not shut down yet, and most of us weren't working in a remote, flexible environment. Now that has completely shifted, and we were forced to do something new as a profession. We were forced to pivot and, man, have we done an incredible job.

I think when I hear that comment and say how we're really good at the operational efficiency, we're really good at those technical know-how, we really execute well. But when it comes to doing new things, we're a little reluctant. We may be reluctant but, man, can we do it well when we have to. I really hope that it opened our eyes up as a profession to say, hey, maybe when we don't have to do it, when we choose to do it, when we see these opportunities to do something really incredible and innovative and cutting-edge, that we'll go ahead and take that step forward because it can be successful.

We've just watched it happen over the last two years. We've watched our profession change dramatically. I think that's just really encouraging for us as a group of CPAs who tend to be very straightforward in the way we like to approach things. We get very comfortable. We're very, very efficient to say "What more? What more can we do now? Wow, we did that really well, what more can we do now?"

Amato: You use that word, comfortable. My next question was going to be,"How can CPAs get out of their comfort zone, or maybe they're already out of it, or they were forced out of it in the past two years or so?"

Stevenson: Yeah. I think it's twofold. I do think we were forced out of our comfort zone over the last two years. All of us, not just people in the accounting profession, but everyone in the world. Having your kids not be able to go to school and you ended up in this teacher role. Some of us had elderly parents that we were caring for and there was the fear of being exposed to COVID and not wanting to expose our families to that. All these things that were happening from a societal standpoint really impacted how we addressed what we did in business. I think CPAs getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, that's going to become a model that we live by more often than not, and it'll be around things that have to do with social injustices. It will be around the way that we employ our teams and connect with our teams. The way that we do that is just by accepting that it's OK to be a little nervous, it's OK to be a little uncomfortable, because when we feel like that, we grow.

We've watched it with our kids. We've watched it with those of your family members. If you don't have your own children, you watched it with your nieces and nephews. You see that they get uncomfortable before something really incredible happens, before they develop some new skill or some new ability. We're the same way. We get better when we're uncomfortable. That's the precursor.

Amato: In that podcast discussion, the headline that I ended up going with was, and probably with some editorial help — it wasn't just me — it was "How to keep fear from short-circuiting your career." I think it's worth telling or retelling, I guess, the example you gave of overcoming your own fear of failure.

Stevenson: Yeah. I think fear is always sitting with you, and I don't think that we ever stop being fearful for any number of reasons. But yeah, in the beginning of my CPA career, I was definitely focused on the technical development piece and being an expert at how I delivered that really important knowledge base that we give to our external clients. That became my bread and butter. I really was about putting my head down and really getting all my work done and being that technical expert.

But I had a real excitement and passion around public speaking. I'd been in acting and theater when I was in high school. I really enjoyed those things, but I didn't really know that it had a place in my CPA career. I think I shared last time I had gone to our managing partner at the firm that I was with then and said "I want to do this, but I don't know how." He said "Baby steps. Go out there and just do it. Find a place that you can go talk about tax returns or talk about something that you're really good at and that's part of your technical expertise. But you can go out and share it with the world."

I did that, and I was so afraid. I was so afraid I was going to fail. I was afraid everyone was going to think I was a terrible speaker or that I wasn't going to share the information I meant to share and I would say something completely off topic. I prepared and prepared, but when I went up there and did it, it was so freeing. I think before, I said I maybe blacked out while I was doing it, because I was just in this utter phase of joy, being able to stand in front of people and share something I thought was really important and really meaningful and engage with them in a way that I felt was the best piece of myself. Coming off that stage and taking that deep breath afterward, I thought, "What if I never would have experienced this?" Because I was so afraid to get up there in the first place. How awful would that be to not know that this was something that was so meaningful to me and that I could make a difference? I say now, having gone through that experience, really every time I get that fear response where you get the butterflies in your stomach and you think, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to pass out if I do this," or you start maybe even emotionally responding with tears or you get really hot or your face gets really red, all these things that are the physical pieces of fear just remembering that, but what if I don't experience some kind of awesome?

That's a bigger miss out for me. I want to experience whatever that great is, so I'm just going to take the risk and go do it. If I don't feel the great, then I know I don't want to do that thing again. There's really no loss even though that fear feels big. "What's the worst that can happen?" I like to ask myself that now.

Now fast-forward three years from when we met, and I think that was probably seven years before we talked three years ago, so 10 years ago. Now I love it, I love being able to just try new things and say "That wasn't for me, but I did it." Now I know for sure, or "Oh my gosh, that was the coolest thing I have ever done, and I want to do more of that. I'm going to find a way to do as much of that as I can."

Amato: There's a lot of things I could follow up on in that answer, but the one thing I think is important is that you were told to talk about something in which you had expertise. I think that's really important because, one, your knowledge comes through, two, your passion comes through for that project, and it's not just, "Oh, I'm going to give a speech." It's going to come so much easier when it's something you care about, right?

Stevenson: Absolutely, and it gets back to this, "How can CPAs get out of their comfort zone?" Just expand your comfort zone. Take those things that you feel really good about that you know 100% dead to right, it's something that you're really good at, and then find a way to take that skill and apply it somewhere else. If we're talking about public speaking, speaking about your expertise. If we're talking about you want to have an opportunity to lead a team and you haven't had that opportunity yet. Really getting into what are you really good at from a technical standpoint and helping them develop those skills. It's really getting in tune with the stuff we're comfortable with. Just pull that out a little bit, make it a little bit wider, and now your comfort zone is a little bit bigger, and that happens just step by step, and pretty soon you're comfortable with a lot of crazy things.

Amato: Well, one way I got over my fear of public speaking was I decided that in a Toastmasters meeting I would give an explanatory speech on how to make banana pudding. Because, man, I love some good banana pudding and, even if the speech bombed, I was like, "Well, I can talk about it," and I also brought in the banana pudding that I made, and so if it did bomb, at least people got to have banana pudding afterward.

Stevenson: How bad can the speech be if the result is delicious banana pudding? You really can't complain about it. That's a perfect example of doing exactly that.

Amato: Obviously, we've talked about the public-speaking example. Do you have any other ways that you think you'd advise people to overcome fear?

Stevenson: I think it's just always [being] willing to make a mistake. My role is really based on us failing and learning, and taking the next step, and then being successful, and then failing again and learning and taking the next step.

You can't transform without missteps. There's no way to know what's coming forward. I mean transformation in and of itself is all about uncertainty. We don't have a road map, we don't have a way to get there. We're deciding that as we go. I feel like there's just a real opportunity for us as CPAs to say it's OK to not have the answer today, and it's going to be OK if we take a misstep, because we're going to do it together.

We can take calculated risks. We can make a mistake as long as we have a system in place to see the mistake and drive innovation around the mistake. That's how we as a profession, I think we'll move forward. I think that's how CPAs can get out of that zone of "I'm almost paralyzed with analysis because there's so much data and information coming at me. I don't know which way to go. I don't know how to get past this block." Being OK with that saying that's good, don't know, and then take a step. If the step is wrong, that's cool. We'll just go back to the drawing board, and we'll take another step.

Amato: I mentioned the Women's Initiatives Executive Committee at the start. Now this is 2022, and you're the chair of that group. Just five years ago, you were the Young CPA Award winner. What to you have been some of the important steps on that journey?

Stevenson: Well, I will tell you that this year, I officially aged out of being considered a young CPA. That was a new territory for me, but there were just so many things. I mean a big part of it is having advocates and mentors and sponsors in your professional life that are engaged in what's important to you and there to give you advice, there to give you a hand up. Those things have been really impactful for me, even people I didn't work with.

I think when we spoke, I was a VP at a bank, and I think I had a consulting practice on the side. Now, I'm a chief transformation officer at a firm. Just the transition of that from a lifestyle perspective is constantly having conversations with people that I felt really got me and really understood what my goals are and what was really important to me, and they had their own journeys going on, but we really connected and then I talked to them regularly.

Our CEO, Jim Wallace, at BPM was just a personal mentor for me, and I talked to him many times over the last five years from when I won that award to where I'm now. Just asking those questions, "What makes sense? Should I spend my energy here? I'm not really passionate about that, but I feel like it's the thing I should do as opposed to what I'm really passionate about, but maybe that doesn't fit into my career goals."

I've just always gotten feedback, "Go with the passion. Your career goals will follow. Go with the passion." When you show up fully engaged, really passionate, wanting to make a difference, it doesn't matter if that's not the track that every other partner has taken or every other CFO has taken, or every other CEO has taken, or whatever you might think you want to go, it really just comes back to that passion and excitement, what gets you fueled up. And the people in my life have been really great at reminding me to take that road.

Amato: Well, to wrap it up about fear and innovating and passion, I do want to point out that three years ago at ENGAGE, the interview we had was the closest thing we've ever had to a live podcast. It was posted one day after recording. That was a really fast turnaround for us then. Now it's regular, and you've been pioneering for us, you've helped. I appreciate you helping us innovate, helping us get over our fear, and thanks also for helping with your advice to everyone in the profession.

Stevenson: Well, it is my pleasure. I will tell you that this podcast, three years ago, was really a tipping point for me to really be more engaged in the profession as a whole. It's been a very exciting journey to go from thinking that I could do something different than just my technical role to thinking that I could have a voice in the profession, to thinking that I can actually make a difference in the profession as a whole.

This podcast was actually a big jumping-off point for me to believe that. Thank you all for everything you do for the profession. It makes a huge difference.

Amato: Lindsay, thanks very much.

Amato: Again that was CPA Lindsay Stevenson. We appreciate her being on the podcast. In other news, Paul Bonner of the JofA is writing about a TIGTA report that shows the IRS correctly calculated taxpayers' eligibility for a recovery rebate credit in the 2021 filing season 99.3% of the time. However, the report says that corresponding 0.7% error rate involved hundreds of millions of dollars in improper allowances of the credit, and there were other instances where individuals should have received a recovery rebate credit or a greater amount of that credit but did not. Details are in the article on journalofaccountancy.com or in our show notes. Thanks for listening. A reminder that we would like to hear from you in the form of a rating or a review. Please also subscribe and share the Journal of Accountancy podcast wherever you listen. Talk to you again next week.