Category Archives: Inspiration

It’s All Good

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I have written before about the importance of whistleblowers as a prime tool for detecting and discovering fraud. The ACFE’s 2018 Report to the Nations states that 40% of frauds were discovered through a tip from a whistleblower. This is, by far, the most common way in which fraud is uncovered. At 15%, internal audit came in a distant second. That’s huge. It is important to note that, in a business, a whistleblower can report wrongdoing in many areas – dangerous weaknesses in the design of a product, dishonest marketing and anything else going awry in an organization.

The history of the whistleblower in America dates back to the late 1700s when ten members of his crew and 2 citizens reported Esek Hopkins, the nation’s first commodore, for torturing British prisoners of war among several allegations. Hopkins was suspended and, in turn, retaliated by having the whistleblowers arrested. These whistleblowers appealed to the congress claiming that they were “arrested for doing what they believed and still believe was nothing but their duty”.  Congress responded by creating the country’s first whistleblower protection law. I love this story because it covers the entire whistleblower cycle. First, we have people seeing behavior that they believe is wrong and then taking steps to report this. We then have authorities taking action on the reported wrongdoing. We see the ugly side of things when Hopkins retaliates, something that, unfortunately, happens too often when whistleblower complaints are filed. Finally, we have whistleblower protections, as lawmakers recognize that it is important to have a system in place that protects those who call out what is wrong.

Sadly, this was not the moment when the world realized the importance of the whistleblower, holding the role in an esteemed position, where whistleblowers would be lauded and admired for all time. Instead, over time, in all spaces, including the movies, whistleblowers were given a bad rep and uncomplimentary labels like “snitch”, “informer” or “rat”. Instead of being admired for uncovering wrongdoing, whistleblowing was viewed as violating a sacred code of silence. We were being told that it was better to be a criminal, stealing money, jeopardizing people’s livelihoods and sometimes even their lives, than to be the person shining the light on all of this. We found ourselves in a space where, yes it’s terrible if someone runs off with your money or turns a blind eye to safety in a product, in pursuit of profits, but it is so much worse if someone tells us about it.

In 1971, Ralph Nader, the famous consumer activist, made it his mission to remove the tarnish from whistleblowing. He described whistleblowing as “An act of a man or woman who, believing that the public interest overrides the interest of the organization he serves, blows the whistle that the organization is involved in corrupt, illegal, fraudulent, or harmful activity.” He worked tirelessly to put a positive spin on the word whistleblower and as people view the role more favorably, whistleblowers can be better protected from retaliation.

We should recognize that it is not easy to be a whistleblower. Most people have a level of loyalty, if not to their job, then definitely to their colleagues. When they see fraud or other wrongdoing happening, they are torn and conflicted and often hope that they are wrong. Most of us like the people we work with and may know about their families and may even socialize with them. The second last thing we want is to find out that a coworker is perpetrating a fraud, only because the last thing we want is to be the person reporting this. At times, people will leave a job before they report a fraud. Other times, a person will keep quiet, hoping that someone else takes on the burden of reporting the fraud. It is a heavy emotional burden.

This is all before a whistleblower has to consider possible retaliation for reporting that wrongdoing. Many people fear losing their job or being ostracized after blowing the whistle on fraud. Unfortunately, sometimes these people are correct. At times the retaliation will not be overt but can happen in insidious ways where those retaliating try to find loopholes and legal ways in which to push a whistleblower out. When this happens, any other potential whistleblowers can be scared into silence. We tend to find out about this retaliation when a fraud is uncovered and we discover that, perhaps for years, others had tried to report the fraud but were fired, ostracized as people who were not team players, or treated as though they were insane for suggesting such a thing.

With these things in mind, it is paramount to business leaders and all others to act to hold whistleblowing as a positive action and to encourage and protect whistleblowers. Unless you are a leader perpetrating a fraud at your organization, why wouldn’t you want a whistleblower in your midst? Here are a few steps you can take to make this happen:

  • Your onboarding process should include information to employees encouraging whistleblowing and giving them clear and easy ways in which they can make reports.
  • Provide employees with an anonymous way in which they can share a tip. Also provide various places or a third party, in case the whistleblower does not feel that the option provided is one that is safe and one that will act on the tip.
  • Have zero tolerance for retaliation. This should not only be communicated to employees but be an active part of your company’s culture.
  • Show clearly that you have acted on a tip and that such actions are encouraged and appreciated in your organization.
  • Keep information on reporting whistleblowing prominent in your firm and remind employees regularly.

We are in the midst of football season and many fans are very upset with referees right now because it seems they are not making calls that they should, and they are letting players get away with things that lead to what fans view as unjust outcomes. If we feel this strongly about referees blowing the whistle on bad plays, shouldn’t we be bringing at least the same level of passion to blowing the whistle on wrongdoing in businesses and other organizations?

 

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Nobody’s Perfect

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Barings Bank was the United Kingdom’s oldest merchant bank and the second oldest merchant bank in the world. In 1992, the bank sent 25-year-old Nick Leeson to be the general manager at its new office in Singapore. During that first year there, Leeson made unauthorized trades that earned Barings £10 million in profits. The bank should have had a system where one person was a trader, and another was double-checking and then authorizing these trades. Instead, Leeson did everything with no checks and balances. Yes, these trades were unauthorized, but they made the bank a lot of money and so, instead of nipping the unauthorized trades in the bud, Barings paid Leeson a massive bonus and labeled him a rising star. Things changed very quickly, and Leeson started losing money on his trades. Instead of reporting his losses, Leeson hid them in a suspense account, that he created and tried, unsuccessfully, to recoup his losses. He would then hide those losses in this suspense account as well. By the end of 1994, the losses stood at £208 million. In February of 1994, Leeson left a note stating, “I’m sorry”, and fled Singapore, leaving Barings Bank with £897 million in losses (equivalent to $1.4 billion). Barings Bank could not recover from those losses and, after being in business since 1762, collapsed and was bought by ING for £1.

The story of Barings Bank and Nick Leeson is like one of those puzzles where you circle the ten things wrong in a picture – there are that many problem areas and weaknesses that led to the downfall that we could revisit this story many times for lessons. Today we shall focus on Nick Leeson hiding his bad bets. Initially, Leeson made errors and miscalculations on some trades that he made and lost money from those errors. From some of the accounts from Leeson, it is implied that mistakes were not looked upon kindly. Leeson claimed that he first opened the suspense account in which he hid losses after a colleague lost £20,000 after making an error herself. Instead of either one of them reporting the error, they decided to hide this error from leadership. Nick Leeson then went on to hide more of his trading errors here, thinking, in the manner of a gambler, that he could gain the money he had lost back, and his bosses would never find out what he was doing.

I thought about Nick Leeson this week because I am reading Principles by Ray Dalio. In it, he tells the story of how his employee Ross, who was in charge of trading at the time, forgot to make a trade and that cost the business “several hundred thousand dollars”. Dalio tells us that, with such a costly error, he could have dramatically fired Ross and “set the tone that mistakes would not be tolerated. Instead, Dalio recognized that mistakes happen to us all the time, he himself had made mistakes so large that he had essentially lost his business at some point. Dalio’s approach, which is an approach that I am a huge fan of and have tried to follow for a long time, is to think about what to learn from mistakes and how to improve things to minimize the chances of those mistakes happening again, or at least how to minimize their impact should they occur. As I have written before, Dalio recognized that punishing Ross for his mistake would likely result in other people working hard to hide any errors. Dalio saw that would cost his business a lot more in the long run. At his firm, Bridgewater, Dalio and Ross created an error log where errors were tracked and addressed. Instead of people getting into trouble for making mistakes, they would get into trouble when they didn’t report mistakes.

With Leeson (and Barings Bank) and Dalio in mind and the different outcomes that have resulted from their approaches to dealing with mistakes is very telling. One person brought down the second oldest merchant bank and the other has what is considered to be the fifth most important private company in the United States. Some things to keep in mind when considering how to manage responses to errors in your business:

  • Create an environment where everyone is comfortable reporting errors that they have made. Be explicit with this, both in what you say and how you respond.
  • When you discover a mistake, take the time to look, with your team, into how this mistake might have been avoided or recognized and resolved earlier. An example is, with a missed trade, it is likely that Dalio and his team looked at the process and sought to put in checks to make sure that there were others aware of the trade, checking to make sure the trade was made and having a way to check in with Ross to make sure he had not forgotten.
  • Review your systems to see where there are checks and balances and if especially important areas are not put on one person. Make sure that someone else is checking – we all make mistakes and that is why there is a checking system. Not to make us feel bad about ourselves but in recognition of our humanness.
  • Have open discussions about errors and get input from all levels on how to avoid or detect errors. At the leadership level, you may come up with a system, but you may find that staff find that process cumbersome, don’t stick with it and errors can go undetected for a while. And if an error has not even been detected, it can’t be reported.

These are just a few things to think about but the most important part is creating an environment that is open to communication, not just about success, but about the things that have gone wrong. You should think about making the environment open for the hard conversations the priority because it is simple to report and celebrate success but failure and error are what kill our business. With that in mind, are there situations that you have found yourself in where either you or someone on your team made a mistake? How did you respond, how did others respond, and how did things turn out?

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Even When You Don’t Want To…

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Linda Kadzombe

Linda was not my friend. I was in high school, sitting in the car, in the school parking lot, with my father, waiting for my little sister to show up. She ran up, with a friend and they stood by the car, smiling and sporting matching nose rings. My father looked up and the two girls, and their matching noses, and exclaimed – “I suppose nose rings are part of the school uniform now.” That is my first significant memory of Linda, who was my sister’s friend. Along with a great group of friends, Linda and I rang in 2000 in Victoria Falls. We talked about the fact that we were both moving the United States and we promised to keep in touch with each other. This vague promise turned into a relationship that the word “friend” does not do justice. With our families far away, we checked in with each other almost every day and often the conversation started this way: “Just checking in. I’m alive.” Once, I called Linda when I stuck in a dress I had ordered online and that I was trying on. She was living in Boston and I was in New York City and yet, she was the first number I thought of dialing. We were travel buddies and talked about becoming the sweet old lady travelers that we often came across during our trips. We shared a love of European chocolate and I was a person she taught, and gave permission, to stab her with an EpiPen should the need arise.

On March 6th, I received a call that had never even drifted into my imagination. While flying back home from an epic vacation with her cousins, Linda passed away. The news was devastating; it still is. At the same time, there was a lot to do. Whether or not you have planned for death, when death happens, there is a lot that needs to be done, not only to put your loved one to rest but also to sort out your loved one’s affairs. Friends and family came together for Linda and, as we navigated various issues, we were frustrated, energized, and touched, often all at the same moment. It made me think about the importance of planning, not only for the workplace, but also for one’s personal life.

The first step is the dreaded will. No one wants to ever think about their mortality but, even when you think you have nothing, you always have enough to put in a will. At the very least, you have your wishes. Even when you think to yourself – oh, I am single, and/or I don’t have children – you still should have a will. Remember that a will is a legal document and you should be sure to comply with the law, or your will may not be accepted as binding. For instance, the rules about whether or not a handwritten will is recognized varies by state. You should also see if your financial accounts can be set up to be transferrable or payable upon death, as this will save survivors the headaches of dealing with probate court. In addition to letting people know what you want done with your stuff, you should also think about how and where you wish to be laid to rest, if that is something that is important to you.

We live in an age of paperless billing and most business being transacted through online accounts. This means that, for many of us, all our accounts have a login and information about accounts and their existence may only exist in our email accounts. To questions about what accounts and liabilities Linda might have, we could only shrug and guess. Dashlane estimates that the average user has 90 online accounts! Consider making a list of your accounts that you will keep safeguarded in a safe, or with a lawyer, if you keep your will with a lawyer. There are various ways in which to work to both safeguard your personal information and also ensure that your accounts are known and closed correctly, after passing.

If you don’t already have it, get life insurance. The policy doesn’t have to be a big one; just enough to cover the costs that may come up due to death. These include:

  • Payment of final expenses;
  • Taking care of your loved ones, if you have loved ones that depend on you;
  • Payment of debts, so that your next of kin are not on the hook for them;
  • Payment of estate taxes

It may seem horribly morbid to talk about death and it is certainly no fun to deal with the affairs of a loved one. In the midst of grief, you don’t want to deal with some of the headaches that can pop up around the administration of everything – dealing with hospitals, funteral homes, airlines or whatever. Fortunately, Linda had an amazing network of people who loved her (and some incredibly kind strangers who saved the day more than once). All worked hard to get her home and laid to rest near her family. We also were able to spend a lot of quality time with friends and family that we had long promised to spend time with you. You know how that happens – next week, next month or next summer turns into ten years. However, through it all, we had a lot of figuring out how to do something or where to find things because we had never even thought about navigating this terrain.

Take some time to think about what you have and what you want done about it. Talk to your loved ones and tell them to make plans, if they have not already. Remember that it is never too early to plan and, unfortunately, often too late.

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One Team, One Dream

 

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The Winter Olympics are going on and I am filled with joy. From the opening ceremony until the end, I am inspired over and over again. Just the other day, Ester Ledecka, from the Czech Republic, won a gold medal, on skis she borrowed from USA’s Mikaela Shiffrin. Athletes, representing their countries, come together to compete against each other while, at the same time, showing incredible sportsmanship, teamwork and support of each other. Four skiers from so-called “tropical” or “exotic” nations (Colombia, Morocco, Portugal and Tonga), who were among the last to finish, waited for the last athlete, from Mexico, to finish. They cheered him across the finish line and raised him in exultation. How incredible is all that?

Since I stepped out and started my own company, I have been spending a lot of time alone. Honestly, even though I was working in offices, my last few positions had me working mostly on my own. Seriously, I could go for weeks without talking to anyone about what I was working on. I would sometimes wonder if anyone cared. I started working on a project a few months ago and I am being reminded how powerful a great team can be.

Modern offices are designed to have more interactions among people – offices are more open, there are games set up in the office and people can hang out on couches. Imagine that, comfortable furniture in the office. With all of that, though, I am finding that the real trick to interaction and successful communication at work sits with the people. I have been in open office spaces where, for days on end, people say barely a word to each other. I have walked down hallways where the person heading towards me will risk breaking their neck by looking anywhere but at me – the horror of a greeting is strong, apparently. The Inner Auditor kept me thinking about the priority of people in a business and on a team.

In the work that we do, we are often under pretty stressful conditions – clients are almost never happy to see us, we have tight deadlines and we are often trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense to the people doing those things. Each of us is incredibly busy and run the risk of keeping our heads down just get through everything assigned to us, while staying within budget. With that kind of pressure, the temptation is high to just put our head down, plug in our earphones and only engage when absolutely necessary. I am sure that approach can get the job done but I know, without a doubt, that the structure of the team that I worked with ensured that we excelled.

We did not choose our team, but I ended up working with three incredible women who have made me better at what I do and how I do it. I believe that we all agree that we have benefitted from our experience together. Each member of the team has a knowledge strength and is more than willing to share what they know and help us get a little stronger too. Even as deadlines have loomed and hours have stretched, our team has prioritized wellbeing. We have been taking time to read more, laugh more and talk to family and friends more. Because our team has come together on these various levels, we are also able to communicate the difficult information that comes up during our work. Sometimes, a person may come across information that will either upset the client or lead to more work. Sometimes a person may realize that they missed something. In these cases, if communication is not good, that person may choose to remain silent. Instead team members may end up spending energy on hiding issues and hoping that they are not discovered. That is never a good thing. Not only did our team feel comfortable about bringing up the issues, we were always willing to brainstorm and work together to resolve them.

Although this may sound like I am seriously crushing on my awesome team (which I am) it is also a great lesson in the incredible value of having a team that is talking to each other and working together in order to produce great work. In an office where no one is talking, and people are not interacting, how long do you think it will take to realize that something is wrong? If people view saying good morning as something to be avoided at all costs, who are they going to tell when they think the person in the cubicle next to them is doing things that they shouldn’t? If people are not talking about what their fellow work mates are doing, how are they to know who to turn to for assistance and will they even feel comfortable approach Janice who barely grunts when they come across each other in the office’s common space? And then, when fraud or error is found at the company, can you really be surprised that it took as long as it did for it to be discovered?

The time you take to get to know the people you are working comes with benefits that are worth far more than that time. It takes more than knocking down walls and providing great coffee. We spend a lot of time talking and reading about the impact of communication. We know this in theory but how often do we put energy into putting this into practice? I know that each one of us stepped outside our comfort zones in order to get to our Dream Team status. Each one of us made a conscious effort to reach out and share of ourselves. Each one of us was determined to produce exceptional work and communication was a key element of achieving that. I have been inspired by these women that I have worked with. I have laughed, been moved and been brave with them.  I shall be truly sad when this project is over and eternally grateful for the great experience. #OneTeamOneDream

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Three Words for 2018? We Got This!

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Over the last week, I have been thinking about 2018. I don’t know about you, but 2018 snuck up on me. One moment I was caught up in the day-to-day of 2017 and the next moment 2018 was just a couple of weeks away! After my initial panic, I thought – well, it’s great because I get to think of my three words. Three words? Well, if you haven’t been on this journey with me before, I shall explain. In 2012, I met and was inspired by Tom Hood and he introduced me to the Three Words approach, which came from Chris Brogan. At the start of every year, now, I sit and think about what three words I would like to guide me through that year. During the year, I come back to those words, to help center, direct and motivate me. Over the last few days, I have thought about how to make this work better for me, and I determined that I must display these words to remind me, even when I am not thinking about being reminded, to move me when I feel stuck and to hold me accountable. I say this in part because, 2017 was a challenging year for me and I found that I often lost track of my guiding lights. Involved in, and sometimes overwhelmed by, the moment, I often forgot to even look for my words. Putting the words everywhere, will go a long way to keeping me mindful of that.

Last year, I started looking back over my year and I have found this to be a great way to assess how things went and to help me set my intentions for 2018. My three words:

Imagine. This is the first word that came to me. During 2017, in part through work and volunteering with the New York State Society of CPAs and the AICPA, I have had some truly new experiences. I have learnt how to play poker and how poker skills can benefit me in the workplace; I have worked with a team to consciously inch towards better health – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and that has included laughing more and skating in Byrant Park; I have collaborated with incredible people and presented in various spaces, from a national conferences to a college campus. During the year, I have been involved in conversations that have opened my eyes, that have ventured into spaces that are often afraid to even tiptoe into, that have renewed my hope when things have seemed bleak. I have often reminded myself to listen and to hear because that is when I find the moments that hit me hard and that get me to imagine and those moments are incredible. When we imagine, and step outside of what we know, we can find brilliance, we can find understanding and, just as important, we can also see and revise the not so great. In 2018, I want to imagine without fear of where my imagination will lead me. I want to imagine and be okay with when what I imagine doesn’t always work out. I also want to make sure that I make the time and space for my imagination. Back in 2015, I tried to create space for me to be bored, which is a big part of creating the space for imagination and, as the exercise stated, brilliance. It did free my mind in great ways and, looking back and looking at now, I know I need a lot more boredom in my life. And I still haven’t finished my Starry Night jigsaw puzzle!

Innovate. During 2017, I listened and took part in conversations about change. The conversations were about artificial intelligence (AI) about blockchain (and cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin) and about cybersecurity. Other conversations were about what diversity, inclusion, and belonging mean and if and why it is important. We had conversations about what to do about all the change happening in our professions, in our world and in our lives. We talked about how we react to it and how we can embrace, be ahead of and even create greatness out of all the change. Beyond the conversations, we brainstormed and tried new things. We looked at the new approaches other took and ran with them. I spend a lot of time looking at challenges and how, sometimes, people take the same approach to resolving them and see minuscule results. As much as we tout how “change is good”, it is a human thing to resist changing the status quo. During this year, I want to innovate. I want to collaborate and brainstorm and determine to try something new. I want to embrace the difficult conversations, appreciate and improve upon feedback and, on my part, provide truly constructive feedback. I want to remember the power of synergy and never forget that the best innovations come through a community of people sharing, listening and taking risks.

Act. My third word came to me after I wrote and thought about my 2017 look back. When it comes to training, I have established and go with what gets me to success. If I have a race, I print up a daily timetable that includes rest days, cross training days and exactly what I shall do on each day (distance, goals, tempos if needed). The night before every training, I put out exactly what I am going to wear on the day and I determine my route. I think about and take away all my excuses so that, when I wake up, I just do exactly as planned and that gets me a step closer to where I need to go. I keep my schedule on the wall and tick off each day as I go along. During 2017, I often did not apply this approach. As a result, especially where I felt the stakes were high, I became adept at getting cold feet, at second-guessing myself and at putting things off until I decided it was too late to do them. There are many reasons why this happened but knowing the reasons and doing nothing about them is not helpful. I am going to do more acting in 2018. To help me do this, I am going to find the ways to take away my excuses, and I am also going to be more realistic about what I can get done, so that I don’t end up doing many things in a mediocre manner that only serves to disappoint me and others. I also must remember to be kinder to myself when I act and to see the power in action. I must remember that it is through action that I can bring value and have impact.

Before diving into 2018, I want to take a moment and meditate upon my previous three words:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn Fear & Community
2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu

Several years ago, I went to Hawaii with friends and decided to take surfing lessons. I was a couple of months out of surgery and hesitated before I went out – I wasn’t at full strength, everyone else was going on a fun outing and I would be doing this solo, as no one else was interested. But, I had been thinking about taking a surfing lesson and I had told my surfing neighbor (who ultimately became my husband) that I was going to take a lesson and that made me feel accountable. During the lesson, I fell countless times, I scraped my knee and sometimes even got to the point where I was able to ride a wave while kneeling on the board. Then, I stood, and rode, and didn’t fall off. It was glorious and totally worth every fall, and the skin missing from my leg. When I finally fell off the board, I rose out of the water with a victorious yell! It is this that I must remember – it is a journey but it can only happen if I Imagine, Innovate AND Act.

Happy and wordy 2018 to you! Please share with me – what are your words for 2018?

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Fare Thee Well!

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“2017 was an intense year”. That’s the news alert that I received on 26 December. You’re not kidding me! – that was my response. This year has been a more challenging year than I expected it to be. Last year, I decided to do a year in review. Looking back helped me think more about my plans for the future. I have decided to do the same thing again. It is important to take stock. Without that, how can one think about the future?

As the year began, I decided to deal with minor health issues that turned out to be way more tedious and drawn out than I ever expected. Something that I thought would not take much time at all ended up lasting through July. What a drag. A trip that my husband and I had been planning, to visit my grandmother, was postponed. Then, on 10 June, my grandmother passed away. It was devastating news and made more so because, being in the midst of my own treatments, I could not travel for her funeral. The silver lining in this was that I discovered something I had never known. My family in Zimbabwe shared the above photo and I was stunned to see just how much I look like my grandmother.

Despite the challenges that came with the new year, I was honored and excited to be an instrumental part of a new committee with the New York State Society of CPAs – the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. It has been an eye-opening and insightful year, working to provide programming to our members to improve diversity & inclusion in our profession and to have frank and enlightening discussions and events around the topic. I have had fun times with members and those who have attended events and I like to think that, one little step at a time, we are making progress.

I have continued with the cello lessons that I started a year ago. I have woken up on Saturday mornings, exhausted after a long week at work, drained and not looking forward to the long drive back to downtown Brooklyn and the horror that is looking for a parking spot. However, once I get into class, I find joy. Our cello instructor started an adult orchestra and I have already had two recitals. A year ago I was learning how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” and that was an important milestone. A couple of weeks ago, our orchestra played the theme to Jurassic Park AND I played a solo!! I’m no Yo-yo Ma (and never plan to be) but I always welcome the opportunity to work my brain and heart in new ways. I believe it makes me a better person, a happier person and a much better CPA!

I have continued to be inspired by high school and college students. These interactions renew my energy to work to build the pipeline to our profession – there is so much incredible talent out there and some of that talent should be a part of our profession. I speak with young people who are full of passion and promise and it fills me with joy!

I spoke at the AICPA’s Forensic & Valuation Services Conference. I met an incredible range of fellow professionals and came away feeling as though my brain had expanded a little bit. Every year, I look forward to sharing thoughts and insights and learning from Forensic & Valuation professionals and this year did not disappoint.

During the year, something I struggled to do was run. A couple of years ago, while taking out the trash, I tripped over a concrete block in my parking lot and fell, hard. I fell hard enough to fracture my leg and spent several months in a brace. As I failed to make a comeback, I went to see a doctor and found out that I had a torn meniscus. I closed out the year a procedure to fix the meniscus. That is all sorted out, but it turns out that, through that fall, where I wasn’t even running away from a rabid raccoon, I managed to do more damage to my knee that may need to be sorted out. The sad part of this is that I have been told to give up running. Honestly, I was gutted. Running has become a large part of who I am. My runs are my quiet time, they are my meditation and my medication. I have run through a Times Square that is cleared of traffic and pretended that I am trying to escape zombies. I have run through all five boroughs of New York City, during the marathon, and found delight and strength from those lining the route. To be told, “no more” is a difficult thing to swallow. I keep faith that I shall find new adventures and hold the secret (not so much now) hope in my heart that I shall run again.

  • I skated in Bryant Park and even let go of the railing!
  • I spent time with friends and family at the beach (I live here now!)
  • I went to an interactive screening of The Big Lebowski. There were a lot of bathrobes and even more spandex.
  • I have met new people who have made my life better.
  • I continue to be extremely grateful for all those I have known, who have given me hope, joy and support, sometimes even when they don’t realize they are doing so.

Yes, 2017 was a year with pain and disappointment but 2017 was also a year of inspiration and joy and it is important to see the progress that we have made, the work that has been done and the relationships that have been formed and built upon. I am ready for next year because I know I have great things to carry forward with me.

It is two days before 2018 – a year that will bring the Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup! I already have three words for 2018 – Bring It On!!!

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Something’s Not Right

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When I was just heading into my teenage years, something was not right. Not with me, but with my mother. It was unsettling for me and then miserable. It was difficult enough to be heading into my teenage years but my mother was not helping by being off.

First of all, she began to act out of character. She would come home from work and ask for a glass of water with lots of ice in it. You may not see anything wrong with that, on the face of it, but it was plenty odd because my mother never drank glasses of water with lots of ice in them. And now she wanted a glass every night. To make things even more stressful for us, each glass was closely examined and if it was not perfect – not enough ice, water somehow looked cloudy, the glass was not perfectly polished – one of us kids would have to get a new glass and make sure that it was perfect this time.

Then there was the language. My mom started using new slang. For all I know now, she may have started hanging out with a new lunch buddy and picked up some phrases from this new friend. But, along with the water, this new language mom was freaking me out. It was truly odd. But the breaking point came, for me, one Saturday morning. I was following my mother around the house and she watered and spoke to her many, many plants. This was totally in character so that gave me some comfort and was likely the reason why I was hanging about with her that morning. Then I noticed that her dress didn’t quite fit. It was tight on my mom and that was, once again, out of character for her. What was going on?

That thought was still with me as I spent time alone that afternoon. What was going on? Well, after an afternoon of pondering, I had narrowed it down to two options. Either my mother was having an affair or she had been abducted by aliens and they had left an imposter alien in her place. My two options seemed to be the only options that made sense to me at the time – I had friends at school whose parents were going through divorce. Something about our conversations made me think that divorcing parents did not act like themselves. But, if it wasn’t divorce, it could only be aliens. I blame Star Trek for getting me to believe that my mother could be abducted and a poor replica, that wasn’t quite the same size and betrayed itself with its weird speech patterns and love of ice, be left in her place. Both options were devastating for me; either way I was losing my mother and that filled me with despair. I even cried a little that afternoon.

Fortunately for my state of mind, just that week, as though she knew what was going on with me, my mother broke the news. She was pregnant (some may say I was sort of right about the alien in her body). What a relief!

It turns out that, despite all the clues that I noticed, I came to a completely wrong conclusion about what was causing the changes in my mother. Fortunately all my wrong conclusions led to was an afternoon of sadness and tears. In the work place, the consequences of taking data, red flags and other clues to incorrect conclusions can be far more costly. A classic example is that of Rita Crundwell, who defrauded the city of Dixon of over $53 million. The people who worked with her saw that she had a growing stable of quarter horses and was often traveling far and wide with these horses. They assumed that the horses paid for themselves and more and this was how she could afford to keep them. People in the horse world, who knew that horses cost more than they made, thought that she had some kind of trust fund that paid for her extravagant lifestyle. When Rita would not let anyone do her work, or even collect her mail, they thought she was being a great treasurer who diligently controlled her city’s budget. No one saw all the clues and thought she was embezzling money.

If someone was paying attention to the clues and knew how to analyze all the red flags that Rita Crundwell left in her wake, her fraud would never have lasted for the two decades that it did. If, for instance, the city had taken on the services of a forensic CPA to analyze, design and implement control systems and to help them with fraud prevention and deterrence, they may not have lost over $53 million to Crundwell.

This is an excellent reminder of how important it is to have a CPA, with experience and qualifications in financial forensics, to analyze and assess your business’s operations and finances to see what clues are there and what those clues really mean. You may notice that things are amiss, but how willing are you to accept how expensive coming to the wrong conclusion can be for you?

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Now That I Think About It…

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When we talk about fraud and how it tends to happen, the classic fraud triangle is most commonly used to help us understand how it all happens. The sides of this triangle represent opportunity, pressure and rationalization. In this triangle there is a person, just a regular old person, like you and me. Fraud can happen to anyone and fraudsters are often regular people who find themselves under pressure, faced with the opportunity to perpetrate a fraud and the ability to rationalize it all.

Sometimes this person may face pressures. Maybe she has a family member who gets sick and now they have to deal with massive bills. Maybe the person has a gambling problem. Maybe he wants to live the jet set life that he sees his friends living. Whatever the reason may be, these people feel under a lot of pressure to get their hands on more money than they are currently earning.

Pressure or not, maybe this person sees an opportunity to defraud. Perhaps he can sign checks, AND, he has custody of the checkbook AND he performs the company’s bank reconciliations. He has all this access and responsibility and no one checking his work. So, now he has access to the money and he can doctor the books to cover up his wrongdoing. However it works out, these people see a weakness that they can take advantage of.

The third leg of this triangle is rationalization. This is where a person tells himself that there is a justification for what he is doing. Maybe she tells herself that she really needs the money to deal with this one emergency and this will happen only once. Maybe she then tells herself that this will happen only once and, to boot, she has been a loyal employee for a while so the company really owes her a little leeway for all that she has done. Maybe she tells herself that once she is out of this spot of trouble, she will pay the company back and it will be like it never happened in the first place. Maybe he tells himself that he is underpaid and that what he is doing is merely taking the money that he is rightly owed for all the hard work and time that he puts into the business. The rationalizations that people use are practically endless.

Earlier this year, I listened to the podcast “Ponzi Supernova”, a podcast about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and what has happened since. One thing that was fascinating about this series was the conversations that Steve Fishman, journalist and narrator of the series, had with Bernie Madoff, infamous perpetrator of a massive Ponzi scheme. Bernie talked about his childhood and how affected he was by his father’s financial failures. Bernie tells Steve that, after seeing his father lose a lot of money and what it did to the family, Bernie swore he would never let that happen to him (perhaps one could see this as a pressure looming over his life). In the early 1960’s, Bernie Madoff violated market regulations and his clients’ trust by losing their money on risky deals. Instead of letting them know that this had happened, he lied to his clients, borrowed money from his father-in-law and carried on as though he was a brilliant investor. Speaking with Fishman, Madoff made it sound as though, because he did not want to fail as his father had, he took these steps so that he could continue to, at least, appear to be successful and very talented.

Bernie Madoff spoke with Steve Fishman a couple of years after he was caught (though, in some versions of his story, he claims he quit). Bernie Madoff also spoke with Diana Henriques, who wrote the book The Wizard of Lies, which is now an HBO Film by the same title. Their interactions also occurred a couple of years after Madoff’s fraud was discovered. After he had plead guilty to his crime. Yet, over and over again, Madoff seemed to continue to make excuses for his behavior and try to minimize what he did. Even though, when pleading guilty, he claimed that he acted alone, he has since changed his tune and as co-conspirators have testified against him, he then seems to say, “well, except for that person, I acted alone”. So, it seems that even after being caught, he is only sharing as much of the truth as he needs to and, what I have found to be most interesting, is that he appears to continue to rationalize what he did.

In an ideal world, one would imagine that having a fraud exposed and pleading guilty would bring a fraudster to his senses. When we imagine a person committing fraud as a regular person who has fallen into irregular behavior, the hope is that putting an end to this irregular behavior will bring this person to her senses and get them to admit that what they did was without excuses; that, even though they rationalized their actions when they perpetuated the fraud, they now saw the error of their ways and realized that the rationalizations were all without merit. During the hearing when he plead guilty, Madoff read a prepared statement where he apologized to his victims. However, even that apology came with a “but” attached. “While I never promised a specific rate of return to any client, I felt compelled to satisfy my clients’ expectations, at any cost.” Yet, listening to Ponzi Supernova, you learn that some clients would demand an adjustment to their statements when they did not receive the return they had been promised. Madoff has also placed blame on his victims, claiming that they knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, that he had warned them and that they did not lose as much as they claimed. And, I have found that it is not just Madoff who does this. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners talks to people who were convicted of fraud and, in video after video, the perpetrators found ways to hold others responsible for what they did – and this is after they had been found guilty and served their sentences. For instance, one blamed her supervisor for being too trusting, “I don’t blame them but…” she started her sentence. Another stated, “I asked you for help and you said no”, while yet another said “I won’t get caught again”, not “I won’t do it again because I realize it was wrong.

It may be human to not want to admit full responsibility. Perhaps it is too hard for most of us to admit that we have done terrible things. Who really wants to be a monster, blamed for ruining lives, even when those lives are laid out in front for you? And if we are not harshly judging ourselves, even when caught, then can we really adjust our behaviors to do right and get back on the straight and narrow? I don’t know the answers to this but it is something I think about as I perform my work as a forensic accountant. If a person is not able to strip away rationalization and admit that they were just wrong when they perpetuated their fraud, then what are the chances that it won’t be so difficult to do it again?

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Paying It Way Forward

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Bert N. Mitchell

Last night I attended the New York State Society of CPA’s (NYSSCPA) Moynihan Fund Gala. I was looking forward to a fun night with my colleagues, looking out on the water as the sun set and enjoying good food and drinks. What I did not expect was the incredible history lesson that I received from Lifetime Award Honoree, Bert N. Mitchell. In 1987, Mitchell became the first black president of the NYSSCPA and, during his tenure, the NYSSCPA launched the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program. I was already aware of these very impressive aspects of Bert Mitchell’s career, but, as he shared his life story, I found that these achievements were only scratching the surface.

Mitchell shared, last night, that he was the 100th black CPA in the United States. This statistic hit harder when he shared that he earned this qualification in 1965, a little more than ten years after Bernadine Coles Gines became the first black woman to become a CPA in New York and the 34th black person to become a CPA in America. Even though it was 11 years after Gines had encountered many obstacles on her journey to becoming a CPA, Mitchell did not find things to be much easier when he graduated, at the top of his accounting class, in 1963. Despite his top-notch qualifications, Mitchell spent two weeks seeking a position at one of the top accounting firms, preferably, one of the Big 8 (at the time). He travelled from lower Manhattan and worked his way to Midtown, stopping in at every major CPA firm and, over and over again, he was turned away, with the excuse that their clients’ attitudes regarding hiring a black person were why they wouldn’t give him a job. In 1968, the AICPA launched the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups and Mitchell was one of the five black members of the eleven member committee. A year later, in 1969, Mitchell published a study entitled “The Black Minority in the CPA Profession” and this study found that underrepresentation in the CPA profession was worse than in law, medicine and other professions. This study found that out of 100,000 CPAs in the United States, fewer than 150 were black and firms claimed, as they had to Mitchell when he was seeking employment, that the barrier to hiring African Americans was not their own bias but that of their clients.

In a follow-up to the 1969 study, Mitchell published a study in 1975 that showed that the number of black CPAs had tripled to 450. As encouraging as this information was, there was still much to and, as became apparent, Mitchell was nowhere near done. When Mitchell became president of the NYSSCPA in 1987, the stats were depressing. Black people made up almost 13% of the population, yet they made up less than one percent of CPAs. In comparison to other professions, only airline pilots had lower representation. Representation by other peoples of color was not much better – Latino representation also hovered around 1% and Asian representation was about 3%.

When I heard Bert Mitchell’s speech last night, I knew I needed to know more and when he mentioned that he was the 100th black CPA in America I, fortunately, knew exactly where to go. When I met and was moved and inspired by Bernadine Coles Gines, I went out and bought the book “A White-Collar Profession, African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921” by Theresa A. Hammond. This book, published in 2002, tells the history of African Americans in the profession. I knew I would find him in there, not only because of the incredible work that he has done to expose people of color to the CPA profession, but also because I remembered that the book included a list of the first 100 black CPAs in the United States. I got home and there he was – “100. Bert N. Mitchell 1965 New York”.

At the Gala, as three alumni of the COAP program took to the stage and shared their stories of how the program and not only exposed them to the CPA profession but also made them believe that this was possible for them, I was deeply moved by the work and efforts of Bert N. Mitchell and others who, like him, have been dedicated to diversity and inclusion in our profession. Pick up the book, read it and learn more about Mitchell and the other first 100. This is not ancient history, it is actually amazing how recent this history is. It is hard to pass the CPA exam. It is a daily challenge to maintain the standards and knowledge that make us trusted professionals. It should never be a struggle to be hired because of your race, gender or sexual orientation. I am truly in awe, as Bert N. Mitchell, truly has dedicated his life to advocating for diversity and fairness in the profession.

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2017! Three Words! Let’s Go!

img_1043-2Yesterday, I took a moment to look back at 2016 and I am glad that I did. After that exercise in honoring history, I actually changed one of my words for 2017. My words for 2017? That may be what you are wondering. Let me explain. In 2013, Tom Hood introduced me to the concept of Three Words (and that concept came from Chris Brogan). I use these three words to give the year ahead a theme, almost like a rhythm that I can dance to as I go through the year; and isn’t everything better with dance? The process of thinking about my three words and then coming back to them throughout the year, help consolidate, direct and give confidence to what I do and how I do it. As I read over yesterday’s post, I saw my 2016 Three Words dancing over my year, in ways that I had not thought about as I was writing the post – Learn. Fear. Community.

For several days, I thought about what my words for 2017 would be – and how those words would serve to seal my intentions for the days ahead. I think I have it now.

Embrace: In previous years I have written about changing things in my life. Transform was one of my words in 2014. Then, in 2015, Receptive was a word of mine. Last year we moved to a new neighborhood. When I was a kid, due to politics and other adventures in their lives, we moved around a lot. Between first and third grade, I went to four different schools in three different countries, in four different cities. During my first two years in New York City, I lost count of how many places I lived in. I even spent a couple of months camping out on a (very amazing) friend’s couch on weekends, while I worked in Florida during the week. Last year, I talked transformation and I was receptive to talk of moving but, now that I am here, I realize that it is not going to work until I embrace it. This is where I am now with my move, with my work, with my life. I can talk about how great innovations in my line of work are; I can marvel at how awesome some of the tools that are available to us are; I can wax lyrical about the incredible people who cross my path and make me better at what I do, but all of that is not worth much unless I dive in there, snuggle in and just embrace it all.

Persevere: When I started training to run long distance, I learnt about the power of a mantra. The mantra was invaluable to me, when doing hill repeats. I would chug up a hill and repeat, over and over again, “I love hills.” I will say this, I reached the top of that hill and many others AND I hate hills less and appreciate their value. I actually surprised myself when I told a cousin that I wished there were a few more hills around my new home. In 2015, I embarked on a new journey of sorts. I started my own business and decided that I wanted to do work that made me look forward to getting out of bed every day. I loved that my husband’s work, as a photographer, was something he also did for fun. I admired how excited he got about his projects and I wanted some of that. At times I would talk to some people about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and they would tell me, “that will never work.” Fortunately, my incredible community (2016 word, hello!) took over and repeated the mantra I had not yet learnt to say myself. However, as the year came to an end, I started to believe. So this year, I shall remember to say to myself, “You got this. You can do this,” not just when I am running, or doing pull-ups. I shall tell myself this as I am serving my clients, community and the public.

Monchu: My last word is a word that I have borrowed from Chris Brogan. Chris tells us Monchu is an Okinawan word that means “one family”. It essentially means that we treat people who are not our blood as though they are family. I have benefited from this concept forever. As someone who lives very far away from most of my blood, I just don’t know where I would be with my one family. For instance, I just wrote about how I was able to crash on a friend’s couch when I first moved to New York. I didn’t mention that I had only known her for months and she offered her home to me, and her husband and adorable daughter didn’t seem to mind either. That is just one of a million of my stories. I know that I could do a way better job of keeping in touch with people to let them know that they are part of my one family. I know that this philosophy will guide me to be better at what I do and how I do it. I hope to also inspire others around me to embrace this philosophy.

As I share my words for 2017, I want to acknowledge my words from previous years:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn, Fear & Community

And now for 2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu. I am excited for the year ahead and I know that the view from my new home will help me do so. You see it up above, I can see forever now. I got this.

Tell me, what are your words?

I hope 2017 is your best year ever!

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