Ep. 113: Twyla Verhelst - Building Confidence in an Industry of Introverts
Twyla Verhelst, CPA, Head of FreshBooks Accountant Channel & Leader of the Accounting Professionals Program, joins Count Me In to talk about how the stereotype of the introverted accountant can be broken and what finance and accounting professionals can do to build their confidence as business partners. Many got into the profession because they’d rather dive into numbers than deal with people, and now they’re being asked to embrace new identities as confident, smooth-talking advisors. Twyla knows the struggle — she wasn’t always comfortable in her communication either. Now, she has been recognized as one of the Top 50 Women in Accounting and is known for leading the charge when it comes to advocacy, change, and community in her industry. Download and listen now to hear about the strategies that helped her overcome introversion and find her confidence as a speaker!
Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. This is your host, Adam Larson and today I'm bringing you right up to the start of episode, 113 with our featured guest, Twyla Verhelst. As we listen to this conversation, we first need to acknowledge that many accountants got into the profession because they are really good at crunching the numbers. However, the role has changed, and accounting and finance professionals are now asked to be confident communicators and storytellers. Twyla will walk us through the evolution of the position and give us strategies for overcoming introversion to be confident business partners. Let's head over and listen now.
The accounting profession is one that typically attracts rather introverted individuals. Now there are many stereotypes about accountants and their personality traits, but in speaking with you, I know some of these stereotypes have evolved or proven false, particularly in today's industry. So would you like to give us just a little bit of background from your perspective on today's conversation?
Sure. So, you know, I don't necessarily think that the personality types have changed per se. I still think that the accounting profession does attract rather introverted individuals and I feel comfortable sharing that when I'm an accountant and an introvert myself. But what I do believe has happened is that we're no longer your dad's accountant, or we’re no longer your Uncle Joe that used to be an accountant. Accountants now have a very diversified skillset. We have social skills, we have relationship skills, and oftentimes these relationship skills are what are driving the service agreements. We have the clients, that's the value they're paying for. They're no longer paying for what you slide across the desk at them every year on an annual basis, coupled with their bill that you slide across, that's just different, it's changed now. And there's so much more inside of the personality of an accountant that's being shared with the client and the client is valuing. So, when I speak of this previous accountant that I'm thinking of, I actually think of my parents' accountant in my head. I think of the man that we saw on an annual basis, my parents were entrepreneurs, we went and saw him annually. They helped with their personal taxes and their corporate taxes. And I remember specifically when I told him I'm thinking of becoming an accountant, he really just had five words for me, which was, do you want a job? He didn't expand. He didn't elaborate. He was very much an introvert. So now I think we're still introverts at the profession probably still does draw in introverts, but the stereotype of the boring accountant that fits in a box and doesn't really talk and doesn't really converse has changed. And that's, what's evolved inside of the industry.
So typically, you know, many accountants will get into the profession because they're skilled at diving into the numbers, right? They like to work at their desk and crunch these numbers rather than really work with people. But as you said, the job has evolved. And you know, these accountants are asked to embrace new identities. You know, we look to these individuals as really confident advisors. So as the job evolves and the individuals grow within this profession, again, from your perspective, what is the first step for accounting and finance professionals to take when looking to make this progression and gain a little bit of this confidence?
Before I dive into the first step, I just want to make sure that we're clear on the type of advisors that we're looking to be, or that we're trying to strive to be. And why I want to start there is because sometimes that's the barrier to us getting there, is that we have now painted this picture of, I need to be this really professional, highly confident, so knowledgeable, and use these big words and this accounting jargon in this financial jargon in order to fit that new mold. That's not necessarily true either. And so I want to just lay that out there because sometimes that's a roadblock to thinking, how do I get started? Because you're trying to get somewhere that I would encourage you not to get too far down that road, because now you've become somebody who's no longer the introverted accountant, but now you're intimidating or now you're talking over your clients or now you're really not in relationship with your clients because they're almost too scared to bring up what's going on inside of their business because of potential shame or potential guilt or potential, you know, getting inside of a conversation that they no longer understand and that they don't even feel comfortable saying, “I don't know what you're talking about”. So I want to make sure that we start there and then once we know that, alright, let's be professional and let's be advisors and let's be inside of a relationship out there, clients, but not take that too far. Then it's a case of starting with do some personal reflection. Where do you currently have a skill gap and do that self audit. Do you have really personable skills already and, that you've evolved or developed inside of your career thus far and now you're just layering onto that. Or are you the more traditional, introverted accountant, super, super smart, but loves sitting behind your desk and you know that you need to take steps towards breaking out of your shell so that you can feel comfortable inside a relationship or inside a conversation with your client. Or is it more that you're needing to do some other sort of, upping of other skills, which could be video calls nowadays, especially, where you've got to feel comfortable getting on video, presenting, doing that virtually, being organized to do that and not losing your place and feeling confident and having a loud, clear voice that everyone can understand and hear over the internet. What do you need to do to upskill? And so it's kind of taking that step back and saying, all right, here's what I'm trying to be. So once you understand where it is you’re trying to grow to, or stretch to then, where do I need to fill in that gap in order to be that advisor.
Now, please correct me if I'm wrong. But I would assume that technology is a big reason that this evolution within the accounting profession and an individual's ability to effectively communicate and build these relationships, you know, this change is because of technology. I would say technology is now that person who was sitting behind the desk crunching the numbers, right? We have the software and the computers to do that for us and the human, the accountant, is responsible for the communication of the data that's gathered from the technology. So, utilizing this technology and kind of having that secondary relationship, what is the best course of action for a professional to increase their comfort and confidence in changing what they do on a day-to-day basis because of technology and then communicating what comes out of it?
I completely agree with you that technology has really paved the way for this evolution, paved the way for us being able to have the technology be the number cruncher as you said, and gather that data and pull together really timely and accurate data more efficiently and effectively than we could do a number of years ago. I was going to say how long ago, but I don't want to give away my age too much. But, you know, when I started in accounting, we'd still number crunch. We sat behind the desk. We had the work to do, it was very manual labor. Now with technology that happens automatically when we're using the right pieces of tech to get that data for our clients. And as a result, that evolution or that shift has transpired. And so now you can be the communicator of what's inside of the technology. Cause there's two things with the tech firstly, not all tech is a hundred percent accurate and sometimes it's not the tech that's at fault, it's the information. It's what I like to say, “garbage in, garbage out”. So, if the data is not clean or the data is not accurate or current, then what the tech spits out is not necessarily going to be accurate either. So firstly, recognizing the data, or the inaccuracies in the data or the accuracies in the data for that matter, looking at the data and then once you're comfortable that it's accurate, what does this mean? And the client can't interpret what it means. Otherwise, you could just plunk the client in front of the technology and then say, there, my work is done, but that's not the case. Most business owners don't have that financial savvy ability to read and interpret the data in a way that's meaningful for them. So, you're like the translator or you're like the messenger of the data. Here's what it says. Here's what this means. Here's how this impacts your future decisions. So as a modern accountant, it’s finding your way or your place inside of the technology and the relationship with the client and being that intermediary in between.
Well, we've already talked about two different perspectives on how the profession is changing. And as far as the individual within this profession, you know, our target audience, our listeners here there is this age-old adage that growth only happens outside of your comfort zone. So, whether we are talking about developing the soft skills to communicate, or if we're looking to develop some actual technical skills, whether it's with technology or enhancing our accounting skills, what is it exactly that accounting and finance professionals can do to get out of their comfort zone and grow? You know, how would you encourage individuals to really focus on their personal and professional development so that they can creatively evolve with the profession as time goes on?
This is a conversation that's really near and dear to my heart. It's something that honestly I've spent the last two years myself on this journey of trying to stretch professionally in some of these areas that I recognized I lacked. So basically did that self-audit, what do I need in order to be the type of professional and advisor that I want to be, and it's going to be the best for my clients and really serve my clients and my industry of accounting. And it's a journey, and it can feel really overwhelming. In fact, today I saw a post on Twitter that said, get comfortable, being uncomfortable, get comfortable, being uncomfortable. And I believe that's true. That's definitely true that we need to do that. But just thinking about as an introvert, get comfortable, being uncomfortable, that can feel exhausting or that can feel insurmountable, or it can feel like where do I start? Or am I even motivated to start? So, I rephrase this a couple of years ago and I started on this journey of pushing my boundaries and getting uncomfortable to a phrase that I call, “comfortably uncomfortable”. And what that means is that I still pushed my limits and got uncomfortable, but not to the point where it was completely exhausting or it wasn't something that I could continue doing because it was just too far of a stretch. So, a great example of this, if we think about something that's not inside of the accounting industry would be, I decided I'm going to run a marathon and you don't go from the couch to running 26 miles overnight. We all know that, that's not logical. Instead, we take steps to get to the spot where we can run and finish 26 miles. And so typically you'd take steps to get there. Maybe you start with buying running shoes. Then you come up with some sort of training schedule that maybe you begin a walk, run program, and then a five kilometer run. Then you progress to half marathon. Maybe you find a running partner, download some music or some episodes of the account man podcasts. You do all these things to progress to the point of going from the couch to running 26 miles. So, that's what I call getting, “comfortably uncomfortable”. Where from the couch to the 26 miles, that's a stretch that feels like a lot. I can't run 26 miles every day, but I can comfortably take steps every day that's pushing my limits. I'm getting off the couch to the point of now I can run 26 miles and do that comfortably even though months ago, that was a big stretch. So, it's setting yourself up for success. So, if you think about your skill gap, whether that's soft skills or technical skills, don't take it on in a way that's overwhelming and you won't stick with it, take it on in a way that's piece by piece, step by step, incremental steps to get to a spot that you didn't used to be at. And so that's why I like using the phrase of getting, “comfortably uncomfortable”, setting yourself up for success so you can keep progressing forward instead of the words of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that's true. It just feels too big, too overwhelming to make steps, to get the progress and the momentum to get to a spot where now you've, up-skilled.
I think that's a great analogy. And I think it's a perfect example again, whether it's the soft skills or the technical skills, there are plenty of resources and plenty of ways to go out and step-by-step make progress towards that bigger long-term goal, for your personal and professional development. So, perfect story thank you for sharing that. I just have one more question for you, you know, in summary, we've already talked about how the profession has changed, individuals need to up-skill, why is it so important for accountants to be aware of their personalities in today's industry and, you know, kind of wrapping up what we've talked about already, but then how do you envision the profession changing even more in the future? Why do accountants and finance professionals today need to be aware of these skill gaps in continuously taking these small steps towards that marathon? Even though that marathon might be a different race in the future, you know, using your analogy. So, what do you recommend listeners do on a daily basis and why is it so important?
Yeah, there’s no line that the marathon will change at your rate. It's a moving target. And part of that moving target is because this industry is wrapped into now the technology industry, as well as the accounting industry, we've come together with an industry that is moving very quickly and, versus accounting, stayed relatively close to the same for a number of years. I mean, it went from pen and paper to then some software and some tech, but the evolution of the industry in the past 10 years far outweighs the evolution in the industry for probably the 50 years before that. And so it's a moving target in constant motion, which means we need to be in constant motion too. Now, when we talk about the soft skill side, you know, the technology, there's kind of this technology hot on our tails of, if you don't progress forward and up-skill or move up the value chain, and you've heard all these analogies for it, then technology could potentially replace you. And the reality is that's true in a number of industries, not just the accounting industry, but it's something we feel this pressure or this heat of make sure that you don't get replaced by technology. Now, can that happen immediately? No. Can that happen over the next course of the next 10 years, perhaps if we don't keep progressing ourselves forward. So, I think that the soft skills are part of the equation or part of the workflow or part of the relationship that our clients are looking for. That is a very, very long time away from being completely replaced by technology. I think it will be further enhanced. I think there will be more communication even in the past year with, with all that’s transpired with people working remotely and working from home and relationships going virtual. There's been communication tools that have advanced significantly in the past 12 months. So, I think that that will still evolve, but you still need the human element inside of that relationship for the business owner. There's nothing that can interpret the data the way a person can today. Now, again, it's a moving target, but today, and so at least up-skill yourself in the technology side and the technical side and the personal skill side to ensure that you're kind of the front edge of this industry, this evolution, this collaboration of the technology industry in the accounting industry. You want to be at the front side of this evolution, not the backside. So that means constant motion, constant growth, that marathon that you've trained to run will shift. Maybe it becomes an ultra marathon, or maybe it becomes a marathon in a different location that's now more hilly. A couple years ago, I ran a half marathon in San Francisco, that was certainly different than running a half marathon in a very flat city. So it changes. And so you need to change with it and you need to grow with it, which means we're in constant motion. Just the way that the industry is in constant motion. So keeping ahead of it or keeping on the, at least the front side of it will mean constantly learning, growing, being curious, being creative, being flexible, not ever trying to fit inside of a mold of what you believe accountants should look like or should be. But instead that we're being creative around what they're going to be in the future and how we're going along with that journey of that transition.
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.