Entering the Leadership Academy arena 

A participant reflects on what she learned at the AICPA’s annual leadership event for young CPAs. 
by Alison A. VanOtterloo, CPA 

Entering the Leadership Academy arenaWhat are the arenas in my life where I want to show up, be heard, and be brave? What powers do I have within myself, and how can I use them to maximize the potential for success? How do I respond and react to the people, feelings, and emotions represented in the arena seats? I examined these and other up-close-and-personal topics earlier this year during the AICPA’s annual Leadership Academy.

Our performance in various “arenas” of our lives was an important theme at the academy, which also offered several new arenas in which we tested ourselves. It started with a challenge in which teams tried to build the tallest free-standing tower out of spaghetti—with a marshmallow on top— and ended in a lengthy letter of reflection that I wrote to myself. The journey between those two events was one full of insight and inspiration—a four-day, life-changing adventure shared with 37 other diverse individuals representing the country’s next generation of leaders in the CPA profession.

During the academy, we defined and analyzed our personal values and strengths. We asked ourselves questions such as, “What are your values, and how do they align with those of your company/firm?” and “Who in your life helps you live those values?” I discovered that my strengths are learner, achiever, maximizer, positivity, and woo (winning others over). I own those strengths and now understand that being a CPA and a woo is what makes me unique. We learned that effective leaders focus on their strengths and build a team that is strong in areas where they may be lacking. Tom Rath, in his book StrengthsFinder  2.0 (which was required reading before the event), put it simply as, “You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.” We also learned strategies for keeping our strengths in check and making sure they show up “in excellence” rather than “in excess.”

The academy also introduced us to the theory of well-being and the five contributing elements—positive emotion, engagement, relationship with others, meaning and purpose, and achievement (PERMA). The instructors illustrated how focusing on only one aspect of well-being can prevent you from truly flourishing. We defined our own PERMA equation and developed techniques for maintaining the balance. There are many events in life that are outside of our control, but we each are the keepers of our own PERMA and have control over our reaction. We learned a technique called thought-bridging, which is turning a negative reaction into a positive one. With each situation, there is a choice to move toward, away, or against. I know it will take some practice to make thought-bridging automatic, but I am improving each day.

Other academy highlights included practicing strategic thinking and learning how to apply and facilitate the Insight 2 Action tool in group strategic planning. That tool helps users create detailed action steps by identify strengths, challenges, opportunities, threats, and trends. I am excited to give the tool a try. We also met AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon and then-AICPA board Chairman Bill Balhoff, who gave us insight into issues facing the CPA profession and their own leadership journeys. It was an amazing opportunity to be in the same room with such influential members of the CPA profession.

I had no idea that saying goodbye to my academy classmates and instructors would be as difficult as it was. Listening to their stories, struggles, and successes was incredibly inspirational. Who knew a group of young CPAs could be so different yet so similar at the same time? I spent a lot of time during the event reflecting on the various arenas in my own life. I entered the academy feeling fairly content with my performance, but I left absolutely inspired to change, grow, and learn. To show up, be heard, and be brave. I left with the skills to face the critics in the “cheap seats” and the gratitude for those who have walked beside me into the arena and cheered me on from the front row.

I often look back at my life and recognize those pivotal, life-defining moments and appreciate the path that came after. I have no doubt that the AICPA Leadership Academy is a new significant mark. Even though I may have few gladiator moments in my arenas of work, home, and community, I know what I have learned through the academy will make a difference. I am extremely grateful to the AICPA, the Iowa Society of CPAs, my company, my husband, and my mom (who tag-teamed the child care responsibilities while I was gone) for allowing me this amazing opportunity. It is one that I will truly never forget!

Alison A. VanOtterloo, CPA, CIA, is vice president of Internal Audit at Pharmacists Mutual Cos.

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