The Top 100 People: Overcoming obstacles

No one’s career runs perfectly smoothly, and everyone faces some obstacles. In the end, though, what matters most isn’t the size of the obstacles you face, but how you rise above them.
As part of this year’s Top 100 Most Influential People survey, Accounting Today asked, “Have you faced a major obstacle or challenge in your career? How did you overcome it?

Some of their most interesting (and, in more than a few cases, inspiring) stories are below, ranging from business crises to health problems to difficulties with the CPA Exam.

(To see the full responses of all the candidates for the Top 100, click here.)

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In college I flunked five accounting courses and hold the University of Wisconsin/UWM record for most flunked accounting courses by an accounting major. I also flunked the CPA Exam twice but was able to pass the entire exam the third time I took it.

If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that perseverance, always believing in yourself and never giving up (no matter what) are attributes one must have in the game called business.

— Allan Koltin, CEO, Koltin Consulting Group
Golden River-Michelle-Fore 2018
Twice I’ve found myself with a pink slip. During the 1989-1990 downturn, my company relocated its headquarters from Irvine, California, to Missouri. I was the lone accountant who approached the CFO offering to move to St Louis to help with continuity. She was shocked (who leaves Southern California for Missouri?) but let me do it. I was 24 with a five-year-old and knew no one there. But it was the best big decision of my life to date.

The second time, I was the marketing director for a law firm (after I’d been in marketing for public accounting). I may or may not have gotten busted for sending my resume to a CPA firm. With only a severance check and no savings, I thought I might give consulting a try. I hung my shingle and began cold-calling local CPA firms. I only had to make six calls before I got a few takers. My first three clients started with an A, a B and a C. That was 1999. The first years were a little lean but I did OK after that! This became my next “best big decision” to date.

— Michelle Golden River, President, Fore
Powerful Accounting founder Dawn Broline
As a former partner in a firm ... I was told I would never be a CPA, I would never do tax returns, and I was not really a good accountant, only a QuickBooks expert. I had a big decision to make. Was I going to agree with that analysis from my partners, or was I going to do something about it? Well, I decided no one was going to tell me what I could and could not do so I left the firm, started up my own company, finished and passed all four parts of the CPA Exam and even took it a step further and earned my Certified Fraud Examiner License. I am not a quitter.

— Dawn Brolin, EVP of Business Development and Compliance, Powerful Accounting powered by Out of the Box Technology
CalCPA CEO Anthony Pugliese
Being a member of the LGBTQ community as a CPA was a challenge, particularly in the earlier stages of my career when the profession was not perhaps as welcoming as it could have been of members who were part of my community.

Once I progressed further in my career to leadership and executive positions, I found the profession to have become more welcoming, inclusive and diverse. I stayed focused on balancing my personal life with my professional life, which kept me centered on the importance of inclusion, equality and diversity in our profession. I believe I am a better leader as a result of these challenges and overcoming them and living as my genuine self.

— Anthony Pugliese, CEO, California Society of CPAs
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I have faced plenty of obstacles. One in particular I will never forget. One of the first businesses I founded, ThinkLite, grew extremely fast. In fact, we were listed as the 46th fastest growing company in the U.S. in Fortune Magazine. Unfortunately our growth and accounting complexity resulted in some cashflow and cash on hand reporting errors. Ultimately, we thought we had more capital available and thus invested heavily in manufacturing equipment for a new lighting technology, only to realize later that as a result we were not going to be able to make payroll in two weeks.

My business partner and I were determined to make payroll and couldn’t fathom sending employees home empty-handed, and thus we decided to go to every convenience store and supermarket within 10 miles and buy all the gift cards they had on hand using our personal credit cards. Then when payday came, we called the team together, explained the situation and told everyone that though we couldn’t provide them a normal paycheck we could give them the equivalent compensation in the form of Amex and Visa gift cards and that we were determined to make payroll by end of next month so if they would hang there, accept payment in this form, and continue working, we would then buy back all the gift cards with cash, as we understood you couldn’t pay for rent or a mortgage with gift cards.

Ultimately we went on to get a line of credit, made payroll the following month as promised and bought back all the unused gift cards. For the entire next year my wife and I paid for everything with the gift cards I bought back.

— Enrico Palmerino, CEO, Botkeeper
Joe Woodard
As most of your readers know, in 2018 Woodard Events suffered a financial downturn that ultimately resulted in the need to restructure the company’s debt under a Chapter 11. To weather this storm, we embraced a culture of public transparency with our financial situation, and we focused intensely on our company’s vision “to transform small businesses through small-business advisors.” Our transparency helped us to retain the trust of our customers, and our vision-focus within our team led to a season of purpose-driven innovation around our educational and coaching programs.

Ultimately, our ability to overcome this obstacle would not have been possible without the loyalty of our customers, and we are extremely grateful for the continued trust and engagement of our attendees, members, and sponsors. These cherished relationships sustained us during a very difficult time.

— Joe Woodard, CEO, Woodard Events
Crosley-Gale-Consultant 2018
During my career, I’ve more often than not been the first female in the company/firm I joined. From the first female professional hire in the local office of two different Big Eight firms, to the only executive-level female in countless startups. It has been one big challenge!

I wasn’t ever motivated to be a trailblazer. I was just using my God-given gifts as a businesswoman, back in a time when this was very rare. I overcame it by not getting discouraged and keeping a positive attitude, continuing to forge ahead, and focusing on the mission!

— Gale Crosley, President, Crosley+Co.
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In 2010 while I was working at Intuit, I got an offer to be CEO of a privately held energy company. As much as I loved Intuit, I had always wanted to challenge myself by running a company. People I respected gave me the coaching that it might not be a fit, but I wanted the challenge and to prove to myself that I could lead a company. So I left Intuit and became a CEO. Turns out they were right. It wasn’t the culture I had grown to love at Intuit.

Sometimes in life you have to learn things the hard way — it helped me learn about myself and what’s important to me. When I came back to Intuit I gained a new understanding of the importance of values and culture. Intuit is a place where we live our values of dreaming big, working hard and being inclusive every single day. Where people care deeply about each other and the customers we serve. Now I’ve come full circle, and every day I apply these lessons to how I lead the company.

— Sasan Goodarzi, CEO, Intuit
Wiley-Sandra-Boomer Consulting 2018
My life is full of challenges, which is no different from anyone else! The one time that comes to mind immediately is July of 2008 when I learned I had thyroid cancer. I went through treatment and had to stop consulting/traveling for four months. I loved the fact that my team just stepped up and took on clients, projects and all my work so that I could focus on healing. I’m a very fortunate person because today I’m healthy. Life is indeed very good!

— Sandra Wiley, President, Boomer Consulting
Johnson-Kacee-CPAcom
I had a lot of people doubt my potential impact on the accounting profession based on the fact that I am not a CPA. I never took it personally, and instead focused on the old mantra my mom used to say, “Actions speak louder than words,” and I set out to show that cognitive diversity is critical for evolving organizations. I know my lane and try to build off my strengths while being the first to admit if something is not my expertise — people tend to respect that because there are so many emerging leaders out there that are trying to be everything to everyone.

— Kacee Johnson, Strategic Advisor, CPA.com
Marx-Jason-Wolters Kluwer 2018
As a business executive, public speaking is a part of my day-to-day business life, but it wasn’t always something natural for me to do. For me it has proven to be a learned skill and one that takes regular and intense practice and preparation in order to succeed. I always solicit feedback during my practice sessions — direct, no-holds-barred, tell-it-to-me straight type of feedback — to help me refine my delivery. That’s not always easy in an executive role, but finding someone who will tell me when it is bad only serves to make me better.

I also watch a fair amount of Ted Talks and other public speakers, not just for the content (which I do find interesting) but to try and pick up the clues of what separates truly great public speakers from everyone else. Corny as it might sound, the power poses and deep breaths just seem to help me present better.

— Jason Marx, CEO, Tax & Accounting North America, Wolters Kluwer
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I initially faced a huge challenge being effective in my role as the head of marketing at Ciuni & Panichi. For the first time in my life, I found it difficult to communicate my ideas and have them heard. I hired an executive coach, with the support of the firm, who helped me to understand my personality and theirs. I gained insight into how accountants think and the best way to communicate with them. It helped me become more effective in my role, and it was the best investment I ever made. The firm respected me for it and, as a result, continued to support it.

— Lauren Clemmer, Executive Director, Association for Accounting Marketing
Rushton-Charlotte-Thomson Reuters
I had the fantastic opportunity to relocate to Singapore to run our Tax & Accounting business in Asia Pacific in 2010, and my husband was able to relocate his job there at the time also. Unfortunately, when my two-year assignment was up, it was much harder for my husband to move his job again, and we spent most of the next two years commuting thousands of miles to see each other! I’ve always been a strong believer in “Everything happens for a reason” and it did all work out well in the end, but it was definitely a challenge, personally, at the time.

— Charlotte Rushton, President, Tax & Accounting Professionals, Thomson Reuters
Hood-Tom-Maryland Association of CPAs 2018
Yes, my biggest challenge was being disrupted in my years as CFO in the highway construction industry, where an industry downturn had hostile conglomerates trying to force us out of business as a private independent construction company. That period challenged me to learn firsthand what it means to transform a business under pressure and how the CFO role is critical on the top management team to support the strategy and direction of an organization.

I overcame this challenge by perseverance, communicating our financial story to maintain support of our bank and bonding company, and leveraging my network as a member of the Maryland Association of CPAs.

My key takeaway from that was learning how critical communication was during that crisis — internally with our people, externally with stakeholders like the bank and bonding company, and within our leadership team. The most rewarding piece was holding our team together with high morale with a very uncertain and scary situation. Ultimately, we were able to innovate in an adjacent industry that ultimately bought us time and money to sell our company and save our employees’ jobs.

— Tom Hood, CEO, Maryland Association of CPAs and Business Learning Institute
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Landing from France as an immigrant twice in Silicon Valley and Canada in less than three years apart. Arriving with a rudimentary English was particularly difficult and frustrating experience as I had achieved a high education in Europe, but I had to prove myself all over again. After this, I had contributed significantly in building a high-tech team in Silicon Valley at a young age, but I had to prove myself all over in Canada which is more conservative when it comes to emerging young leaders.

In both cases overcoming it was simple but not easy: You work 12+ hours a day, six to seven days a week and deliver more than others without appearing than you do, except to who you report to. Results speak louder than words, but you need to be careful not to build resentment with your colleagues.

— Solon Angel, Founder, MindBridge AI
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After graduating with my Ph.D, I landed my dream job at the University of Texas at Austin. But, like many young assistant professors, I struggled to get my research published. I kept writing research papers and submitting them to journals, but to no avail. After four-and-a-half years of rejection after rejection after rejection, it became clear that I wasn’t going to get promoted at UT and would have to leave. …

That was a career low point for me. After that, I looked around for a job, but there were not a ton of opportunities for someone in my position, so I was lucky to land a position at Georgia Tech. I kept submitting papers during that period, in large part because I had some strong encouragement from one of my graduate school advisors, and the tide eventually turned. Fast-forward 11 years, and I am now back at the University of Texas at Austin, having recently rejoined their faculty as a tenured, full professor. I’m convinced that leaving Texas was crucial for my career development, and I never would have done so on my own. So, unexpectedly, I’m now grateful for having had the opportunity to fail.

— Jeffrey Hales, Chairman, Sustainability Accounting Standards Board