Lead Story

The Enablers

Michael K. Shaub, October 11th, 2017

Two seemingly unrelated stories in the news, one in the entertainment industry and one in the world of sports, have me thinking about how difficult it can be to summon the moral courage to do what everyone agrees, in retrospect, should be easy to do. The numerous charges of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have dominated the headlines, particularly since entertainment and news are a bit hard to separate nowadays. And this week, former Baylor and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon revealed how he was able to pass drug tests while he was a college student and remain eligible to play.

Harvey Weinstein

While the scope and importance of these two stories may be fundamentally different, what they have in common is this—enablers are always necessary for someone to escape justice over a prolonged period of time. Weinstein was allegedly enabled by a long line of subordinates and friends, some of whom were likely on his payroll for that very purpose. Gordon claims that an assistant coach provided him with cleansing drinks and taught him how to drink them so that his system would be free of evidence he had been taking drugs whenever he was tested.

Many people would rather spend their lives around successful people than people of integrity. This is true not just because some of these people are dishonest, but because successful people can offer them things that people of integrity may not be capable of providing. These folks want to project that they are successful and that their success is merit based. This was true of numerous people engaged in the Galleon Group insider trading scheme headed by Raj Rajara

tnam, projecting skill in trading when they were really masters of getting people to divulge information illegally. Volkswagen engineers followed the orders from above to design defeat devices for their vehicles that would shut down emission controls and maximize gas mileage, except when the vehicles were being tested by emissions control experts. …Read more

Two seemingly unrelated stories in the news, one in the entertainment industry and one in the world of sports, have me thinking about how difficult it can be to summon the moral courage to do what everyone agrees, in retrospect, should be easy to do. The numerous charges of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have dominated the headlines, particularly since entertainment and news are a bit hard to separate nowadays. And this week, former Baylor and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon revealed how he was able to pass drug tests while he was a college student and remain eligible to play.

Harvey Weinstein

While the scope and importance of these two stories may be fundamentally different, what they have in common is this—enablers are always necessary for someone to escape justice over a prolonged period of time. Weinstein was allegedly enabled by a long line of subordinates and friends, some of whom were likely on his payroll for that very purpose. Gordon claims that an assistant coach provided him with cleansing drinks and taught him how to drink them so that his system would be free of evidence he had been taking drugs whenever he was tested.

Many people would rather spend their lives around successful people than people of integrity. This is true not just because some of these people are dishonest, but because successful people can offer them things that people of integrity may not be capable of providing. These folks want to project that they are successful and that their success is merit based. This was true of numerous people engaged in the Galleon Group insider trading scheme headed by Raj Rajara

tnam, projecting skill in trading when they were really masters of getting people to divulge information illegally. Volkswagen engineers followed the orders from above to design defeat devices for their vehicles that would shut down emission controls and maximize gas mileage, except when the vehicles were being tested by emissions control experts. …Read more

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Texas A&M

I am still attached to college and professional sports, but I am quickly losing my love for them. And it’s a bit ironic why—it seems to me that the search for justice, which is central to my daily thinking, has completely invaded the sports world. And I’m not sure that it is making it a better place to be.

There are several unintended consequences to the search for sports justice. The easiest one to notice is the length of games. NFL games are taking longer than ever, with the average game through eight weeks in 2016 taking three hours and 12 minutes—five minutes longer than two years before. The length of college football games has been steadily climbing for the last decade, and is fast approaching 3½ hours. The average major league baseball game now takes over three hours, and game two of the World Series, a simple 5-1 Cubs win over the Indians, took four hours and four minutes. Of course, endless commercials play a part in this change. But the advent of replay as central to all these sports is making the games substantially longer. And, particularly for football, the review methodology is inordinately inefficient and involves too many people, inflating the delays driven by the search for justice.

I am also put off by the nonstop complaining on shaubthe field that results from this search for sports justice. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, best known for being ejected earlier this season for throwing his towel at an official, went on a profanity-laced tirade against the referee after the Chiefs’ playoff game loss to Pittsburgh, saying the ref didn’t even deserve to work at Foot Locker. He was obviously frustrated by a holding call on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. But the disrespect that coaches and players obviously have for referees now is embarrassing. Officials are regularly subjected to animated hand-waving exhibitions after calls, particularly in the NFL. And, for the most part, officials walk away and take it. In both professional and college football, officials are getting an earful from coaches on both sidelines throughout the games. It takes an awful lot to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on the bench, and the coaches know that. So they model for their players how to get in the referee’s head with their comments, in hopes of getting a future call.

I am on Twitter, so I know a lot about the general decline in respect going on in American society, particularly in politics. But it used to be, at some level, that sports was largely immune to this. I grew up a fan of the Baltimore Colts, and thus hating the Green Bay Packers. When I was a boy, the Colts lost a playoff game to the Packers because of a blown call by an official on a field goal that was obviously missed. It was agonizing for Colts fans. But it didn’t result in a meltdown by Colts players, or by coach Don Shula toward Vince Lombardi or the refs. I can even remember watching a TV show later in which players from both sides were laughing about it. Colts fans didn’t like losing, but you had to respect what Lombardi did with the Packers, especially when we had the better quarterback. Travis Kelce’s explosion in the locker room is commonplace, and it even seems like reporters sometimes encourage it with their questions after tough losses.

But long games, endless whining and a general lack of respect have made being a spectator a lot less fun for me. I know that a great deal of money, and lots of people’s views of themselves, depend on game officials getting calls right. But I have to say that it is sucking much of the joy out of something that has always been a sweet part of my life.

I guess that we as a society have largely rejected respect in favor of justice. I think that both are important, and, in my mind, they are not mutually exclusive. I would not want to abandon the pursuit of justice so that I could be thought of as respectful.

But there are unintended consequences to abandoning respect in order to get the “right” outcome. Things that used to add spice to life—for me, sports, politics, and the differences between us—are becoming increasingly distasteful. It really just struck me that I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day. I cannot think of anyone in my lifetime who more doggedly pursued justice while demonstrating respect than Dr. King.

We could learn a lot from him.

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It’s the end of another semester for me, and I am encountering the usual changes that go with it. I have just pushed through grading exams and papers, posted grades so that graduation can go on as usual, and filed away things that need to be kept for a future semester. In the rhythm of college life, manic productivity turns to reflection.

There are still things to do. Decisions must be made about admissions to our program, proofs for a manuscript need to be back to a  journal in four days, and I need to get word out to people about deadlines.

But these will have to wait a few daemptyhalls-8ys, because something more important awaits me.

The end of the semester always brings an eerie quietness to the halls in my building. Yes, people are still working in their offices, but the energy, the lifeblood of Mays Business School is gone. The hum of nonstop conversations and laughter that permeates this place disappears for a few weeks, along with the traffic jams on Harvey Mitchell Parkway.

I know this routine, and I love it. I have time to think about what I’ve learned and what is ahead. It is part of what motivates me to continue investing in my students, and it reminds me in a regular cycle that I have the opportunity to get better at what I do, and, more importantly, to learn how to be a better man.

But the empty halls have a different meaning to me this December because thnathan-shaubey will never sound quite the same again. One infectious laugh, one bright-eyed smile and a waiting hug will be gone.

My son is graduating.

Nathan has had a wonderful experience in Mays, something fundamentally different than I experienced 40 years ago in business school. He has been invested in by gifted leaders like John Van Alstyne, mentored by people like Eric Newman and surrounded himself with a cadre of first-rate friends. That story is worth a blog of its own.

I had no idea what it would be like to have a child attend the university where I taught, because my other four went elsewhere. Especially being in the same building, would it be awkward for him, or would he feel restrained in his growth? I can safely say it was none of that. Instead, continuing our high school habit of weekly lunches gave me an appreciation for all the good things that were happening in his life. He has become the guy I had hoped to be when I graduated from college.

Tomorrow is graduation day, and the day after that is his wedding day. It is a weekend to celebrate where he is in his life, and where he is going. But this morning I am pausing, and reflecting on the gift I have been given, not just for the past 3½ years, but for the past 22. He walks away this weekend into his beautiful new life, in no small part because of what Texas A&M – and Mays Business School – have provided him.

And next week I will be back in the office, trying to make a difference in what young people like Nathan experience during the years they spend here. Seeing what he has gotten, close up, inspires me to do a better job for the students in my life. Our family has been the beneficiary of what this place has to offer, and I’m very thankful. I will go back into those classrooms and those hallways with a new vigor.

But for me, without that laugh and that smile, the halls will always be just a little emptier.

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I am approaching my 40th anniversary of entering the accounting profession. Since my first introduction to the professional world, I have been told that auditors must be independent in fact and in appearance. I have only one problem with that statement. It’s not true.

Max Bazerman and his colleagues have made the case that auditors are incapable psychologically of being independent. I largely agree with his arguments, but that is not the point of this essay. For purposes of the discussion here, I am assuming that I am incorrect and that it is possible for auditors to be independent in mind, or in mental attitude. Even granting the premise, I am saying that they never will be.

scope-limitation

Independent Audit, Ltd.

There are several reasons for that. First, they don’t want to. I can easily point to egregious violations that have brought recent sanctions, such as the EY partner who had a relationship with a public company’s chief accounting officer, or the “relationship partner” who wined, dined and wooed the family of a CFO who was unhappy with the firm. But the truth is, auditors rationally want their clients to be happy. If you are going to drive through rush-hour traffic every day or work busy season hours, it is no fun to arrive at a grumpy client who wishes you would leave. My students are well prepared to be charming and to keep clients happy, because their short-term happiness is tied to the client’s.

Second, the accounting firm doesn’t want them to. That is why firms have appointed “relationship partners” in the first place. KPMG thought that was a good role for Scott London, the LA audit partner who went to prison for passing on inside information about audit clients such as Skechers to a golfing buddy. London was the “relationship partner” at Skechers for five years between his two terms as engagement partner, because he was forced to sit out by Sarbanes-Oxley audit partner rotation rules. Of course, accounting firms don’t want auditors breaking independence rules such as owning client stock, mistakes that can be very expensive for the firm. But empathy for clients is a common theme that has been consistent across the decades as I have taught – not that much different in tone from my days as an auditor. And that empathy is an explicit part of client retention strategies.

In addition, clients don’t want them to. While management may not particularly want auditors around, it makes sense to build a trust relationship with the auditor. Auditors have to trust clients in any circumstance, because they cannot audit everything. A skeptical auditor is potentially more expensive for an honest client, and can be downright dangerous for a dishonest client management. So it is natural to want to make auditors feel like part of the team, to make them comfortable with rooting for the company. Occasionally an audit committee member may try to restrain this tendency, but it is rare.

 Finally, the AICPA doesn’t want them to. In particular, the unwillingness of the primary body driving policy in the public accounting profession to consider alternate reporting models protects the current model. And the current model, even with a few recent tweaks, is a “one size fits all” seal of approval that contains no real information. If you meet the minimum standard, you are fine. The recent introduction of “critical audit matters” into the PCAOB opinion has come only after years of wrangling and minimizing the impact of these paragraphs, under the guise of protecting the profession from liability. In addition, being a “trusted advisor” to clients is central to the AICPA’s vision for the future, known as CPA Horizons 2025. “Trusted business advisor” was a term trademarked by Arthur Andersen. Whatever else can be said about Arthur Andersen, their goal was to be a “one stop shop” for their clients.

But the AICPA will not allow alternative (higher quality) forms of opinions to compete in the marketplace, opinions that would provide partial guarantees to shareholders. Allowing alternative opinions would create space for firms to charge a premium over the cost of a regular audit if they are willing to assume the risk and do high-quality audits. Significant evidence exists that people will pay a premium for certainty as opposed to “reasonable assurance.” The presence of gold, silver and bronze opinions would also allow users to differentiate the level of assurance being provided by the audit, introducing legal protections for those offering the lower quality audits because clients passed on the “gold” audit. And perhaps most importantly for the marketplace, it would stimulate the development of “audit only” firms who could compete with the large public accounting firms, but without the pressure of keeping clients happy.

There are other structural ways of strengthening independence that have been suggested over the years, most dismissed out of hand by the AICPA. Perhaps the best one is for corporations themselves to buy insurance on their financial statements, and for the insurers to hire the financial statement auditors. This would mean the auditors would have a client (the insurer) who is deeply interested in the quality of the audit because, unlike audit clients today, their interests would be aligned with those of an auditor interested in protecting the public.

Today, instead, we repeatedly see the interests of young auditors quickly aligned with those of their clients. There is nothing structural in the profession, or in the accounting firm, or with the client that prevents that emotional attachment that comes with trying to keep the client happy. Professional skepticism is unnatural in the client-pleasing environment that exists in the firms, and it is irrational to expect it to develop unless something intentional is done.

For the last 10 years, I have had the privilege of teaching ½ to 1 percent of all the people sitting for the CPA exam in the United States each year. I am well aware that unless my students equip themselves to recognize the danger signs of being emotionally attached to clients, they have little chance of being independent in mind. Fear of lawsuits is insufficient to accomplish that, except for a brief time in a particular geographic location after a scandal.

Like most people, my students are far too trusting of successful people. So we wrestle in both Auditing and Accounting Ethics courses to help them calibrate an appropriate level of skepticism. Watching them do that really helps me not to be cynical, and it gives me hope that we can change the profession, and not wait for the top-down intervention that is inevitable when there is another crisis.

But after 40 years, I’ve come to this conclusion:scope-limitation Auditors will never be independent.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo credit: James Ulvog

Two scandals running in parallel have made me think more deeply about whether certain ethical trends are fixable in our society, and what role the auditors have in addressing them. I am following both the Wells Fargo and Volkswagen scandals with great interest, because each in their own way reflects the business environment that dominates developed countries. Both tell stories that outrage the average person, reflecting total disdain for honesty or for the impact of company policy on others. They involve huge penalties and fines. And their revelation will, in my opinion, do absolutely nothing to stanch the devolution of business behavior into unimpeded self-interest.

Volkswagen has more than 600,000 employees producing roughly 10 million vehicles a year for the world’s largest car company. Wells Fargo has about 265,000 employees; roughly 2 percent of them were fired for their participation in the scandal. Wells Fargo also has a 37-page ethics “vision & values” brochure. This allows for the plausible deniability we see in these situations by CEOs like Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf; how can we expect upper management to be aware of what’s happening at the branches? Mr. Stumpf said in his interview with The Wall Street Journal, “There was no incentive to do bad things.”

But of course there was, and the rampant cross-selling behavior across branches of the bank evidences this incentive. Actually, a better word is pressure. If you can put enough layers between yourself and the employee, you can pretend that it is not true. But that teller or “personal banker” has quotas for selling new accounts and new services from a supervisor, who has quotas from a branch manager, who has quotas from a regional manager, ad infinitum. And if there was no incentive, why is Wells Fargo announcing that they will no longer promote these practices?

There is nothing wrong with cross-selling products or services that add value to the customer. But the temptation is to take advantage of the leverage you have with an existing customer and use it to generate fees that provide little or no benefit to the customer. Wells Fargo is not the only bank doing this; in fact, my sense is that it is common practice. Wells Fargo went even farther by opening accounts and credit cards without the customers’ consent in order to meet quotas, subjecting the customers to fees they should have avoided. And the incentive to stop is small; the $185 million settlement for Wells Fargo is chump change. A recent story indicated that the bank’s three largest competitors have paid over $100 billion in fines in the last eight years for a variety of questionable practices. And the executive in charge of the Wells Fargo unit where the unauthorized accounts were opened, Carrie Tolstedt, retired in July with a pay package reported to be in excess of $124 million. Mr. Stumpf referred to her as “a standard-bearer of our culture.” Apparently, this was true.

Volkswagen’s leadership has tried to put similar distance between itself and the engineers who developed the technology that allowed them to detect when emissions testing was being done. But the conspiracy to cover up the fact that “clean diesel” engines could not be both clean and meet fuel efficiency targets extended almost nine years, according to the Justice Department. When upper management claims that it knew nothing of situations like these over such a protracted period, fines are not enough. The only effective way to find out is to prosecute from below and move up the executive food chain. That process began last week with the guilty plea of Volkswagen engineer James Liang.

So what can be done to detect this behavior other than to push for more prosecution? Auditors need to better understand these risks in their clients. I know that most of my audit partner friends will say “Not my job!” But the truth is that auditors of public companies have almost unlimited access to data, and the big data tools and analytical skills to evaluate it. That is one reason consulting services are such a growth area for accounting firms. What auditors need to do is bring those skills to bear in nontraditional audit applications if they want to have real insight into their clients. We used to call this “understanding the entity and its environment” in the auditing standards.

Auditors protect the public interest. Auditors who bring professional skepticism and data analytics skills to bear in the audit can serve as an early warning system for some of these scandals, instead of relying on customers to reveal them. For example, data analytics might well have signaled to the auditors that there was disparate growth in Wells Fargo’s new accounts in California, causing them to question the reliability of the bank’s revenue numbers.

Wells Fargo is a classic example of customers being used for profitability rather than served. If auditors really want to have value, they can stop focusing solely on cross-selling analytics services, and use them to detect fraudulent behavior in the audit. And they can remember that in the case of a large corporation, management will never say they knew what was going on.

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DenhamDenham Springs, Louisiana is a sleepy bedroom community of broad lawns and big grills east of Baton Rouge. It is the kind of place you build a home and raise a family and wear purple and gold a lot.

It is, on an average Saturday, not all that friendly to maroon. But the week before last was not an average Saturday. And a sleepy bedroom community becomes something else entirely when a river runs through it.

To be specific, a 3-foot-deep river ran through the house of one of the most dedicated husbands and fathers I know. I had seen him earlier that week at a conference in New York, and we laughed about the things that normally preoccupy us—our research project, our families and our students. He is a gentle giant, personally unassuming and always others-centered.

I found that to be true in the worst of circumstances during a short visit last week to Louisiana. I arrived to lawns littered with the wet remains of lifetimes, gone for good in a matter of hours. I heard stories of narrow escapes, of rescuing his aging father first before the remaining family members went through a harrowing hours-long ordeal, including wading out in chest-deep water with dogs on their shoulders. Of homes and vehicles uniformly destroyed without warning in areas that never flood, like my friend’s house. And all he could think about was how I could be most comfortable.

I watched his children do the work that children should never do, tearing down and destroying all that the family had built up through the years in an effort to rescue what was salvageable. They cut drywall out 3½ feet high throughout the house, and mercilessly ripped out door molding and the doors themselves, swollen by the onslaught. Out came wet insulation, and soggy slippers, and anything that was not on a high shelf or counter. The floor was smeared, van Gogh-like, with the tracked remains of the crumbled sheetrock. His daughter peeled apart letters from her grandmother, page by page, draping them on ruined stools in hopes that a convection oven drying would be sufficient to sustain them for posterity. Her older brother, mindful of their significance, moved them gently aside to a shelf when it became necessary to use the stools. A portrait of the children hung above the fireplace, a reminder that everything important still remained.

Tiger values, I found, aren’t that different from Aggie values. Loyalty and selfless service manifested themselves everywhere. Every meal was provided by the neighborhood of relatives who were less affected by the deluge. I watched various family members assume leadership for the different jobs that had to get done. Any request from a neighbor was fulfilled instantaneously. As with many disasters, this one served to unify disparate people, and to remind those who were already close why they loved each other so much.

My brief trip to Baton Rouge also provided a portrait for me of what I have seen in the lives of those who have made serious ethical missteps. I have had the privilege of knowing those who have reconstructed their lives after disastrous decisions. I have also known those who have crashed and burned. What allows people to walk through the biggest mistakes of their lives and still find something worth rebuilding?

First, it takes a willingness to embrace a certain amount of pain, a ruthlessness that will recognize truth and not live in denial. You cannot fix a floor by pretending that there is no seepage underneath; it must be ripped out for the room to be restored. A restored life requires facing the truth, recognizing the damage that has been done and taking responsibility.

The second requirement of rebuilding is perseverance. If you have never been through a disaster, it is common to think that the toughest day is the next day, when life has been turned upside down. But it turns out that day six, and 12, and 20 can be tougher, when it seems like the fixing will never get done. A rebuilt life requires moving forward even through rejection and constant reminders of past failures. It also requires living with the knowledge that it may never actually be the same again.

But perhaps the most important need for those rebuilding is friends. When we make the big mistake, we need those who will come alongside us to help us tear down and rebuild. We need those who will feed us and make sure we stay hydrated, physically and emotionally. We need those who are in it for the long haul—not because of what we have done, or what we have built, but because of who we are.

My friend has all three of these, in his character and in his surroundings, and I am confident that he will be OK. But I know those who don’t, who are one big rain or one bad decision from watching it all come crashing down. And, as another school year begins, I am about to meet some more.

That’s why I’m here.

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Facing backwards while riding the up escalator, she squinted across the terminal to catch a final glimpse of the mixed emotions in her parents’ faces. On seeing us, her face lit up and we received one last enthusiastic wave before she disappeared behind the overhang. The unseen pivot at the top was her entrance into her dream.

Katie Departing for New York

That dream involves places with names like Queens, and Astoria, and Hell’s Kitchen, and Times Square. It is the adventure of doing what you were trained to do, as well as what you have been called to do, in the place where you most want to do it. It is, in fact, what she has been preparing to do for the last 24 years.

Her grandmother preceded her in this great New York escapade by 66 years, a young pianist fresh out of Peabody pursuing a master’s at Columbia. I can only imagine how excited Mom was as a gifted musician to embrace the arts present there, since as an accountant I tend to associate Manhattan with Wall Street. After finishing her Ivy League degree, she took a train to Dallas, met my father-in-law, and the rest is history.

When we think of our children, we tell stories of the homecomings. We celebrate the times we gather as a whole family at the beach, or at a farmhouse at Christmas. We rejoice, as we should, at being together, at the chance to express love in meaningful conversations.

But there is an important part of love that involves choosing to be apart. I have found for each of my children that their destinies and, in fact, the richness in their lives as adults, have come from their intentional choices to leave. Four of the five went away to college, two have had impactful overseas experiences, and two have served extensively at summer camps. One daughter went to college, married and settled in Tennessee.

Because I am a professor, I regularly encounter parents who are on the other side of these choices, bringing to Texas A&M their most valued investment, young people who have chosen to leave them. There is a mixture of pride and dismay in Mom’s and Dad’s faces as they contemplate their child beginning this adventure. And no matter how many times they claim they can’t wait to get them off the payroll, there is a hint in the air of melancholy, of the permanent surrender of how things once were. I can tell you, as a parent, it is hard to get past that.

But I have found also that it is that letting go that provides the fuel that launches our children out of the safe orbit of home. For a season, that is where they belong—but not for a lifetime. There is too much they were meant to do, and to become. There are those lives out there who need them, and what their parents and their faith have built into them.

And in some sense we at Texas A&M are the halfway house to the fruitful lives they will live. They will build their friendships, find meaning in work and service, and establish their priorities, while they develop the discipline that goes with earning their degree. Because of this, I am privileged to have, week after week, meaningful conversations with these remarkable people in formation.

But today, I am a daddy, less than six hours removed from that airline terminal where my curly-haired girl disappeared out of sight. She has already landed, and moved on. Me, not so much.

Sixty-six years later, her grandmother is deeply loved and well cared for. But in this latter season of sameness she endures with such grace, she also longs in her heart for the day when she went away, by choice.

So sleep well, little girl, on your first night in your new, and awful, and wonderful place. You were meant for this.

And I was meant to let you go.

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values
Last Friday night I had the opportunity to speak to SUMMIT, a Mays conference designed to help students understand who they are and who they want to become. The faculty and staff in Mays who have designed this conference are very intentional. Me, not so much. I went out to Carolina Creek camp to do my session, but I would be lying if I said I did a great job of tying it into the rest of the conference. But it turned out that I was the one who was going to be learning a lesson this weekend.

What I explained to the students at SUMMIT is that we all make decisions about what is valuable, what is worth the most. The goal is to develop principles to guide your life that align with those values. (I understand that people can value worthless things, but that is a topic for another blog.) Finally, we hope to make choices consistent with those principles we have defined.

If you find yourself making choices that are inconsistent with those principles, most people feel guilty or troubled. If your choices are often different from your values, then you are lying to yourself. You really have different values.

I spent the rest of the weekend watching the person I know who is most consistent in living her values, known to my students simply as The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. What she values is people; specifically, for her, people are more important than things. And her choices almost always mirror that value.

Saturday she orchestrated an event, along with others, meant to honor someone else. She set up a chapel for an engagement party with the help of a delightfully industrious young woman, following the preferred design of the groom-to-be to the letter. She made sure that the food she contributed to the party was the favorite of those involved, making arrangements ahead of time to be sure there was plenty. She bought the flowers and gathered the candles and
Shaubsgarnered the help to move the furniture in the chapel, and she made sure she understood the preferred layout. Then she left, and went to make sure that her part of the contribution to the celebration was in order. It even
occurred to her that she might be seen, and so she tried to avoid any chance of
that happening on the way from one venue to another. I, on the other hand, drove the car. After the engagement deal had been sealed, she returned to the chapel with that industrious young woman to clean things up and put things back the way they were.

On Sunday evening, we had students over for dinner. Since she was making meat loaf, and her homemade macaroni and cheese, and green beans, and apple crisp, I suggested that perhaps it would be more efficient to buy canned biscuits instead of making them herself. She quietly ignored my suggestion. And when the students arrived, she engaged each one in conversation, both before and during the meal. She drew out from them their stories and their connections with one another, and she recognized when someone wasn’t really getting a chance to contribute to the conversation. I, on the other hand, told stories.

Monday evening, after attending a Mays Business School discussion on race, I sat on the same side of the booth at Chick-fil-A, sharing a sandwich, soup and a shake with this same pretty girl. For half an hour I was all she cared about, and I was the one she wanted to draw out and know better. I made my half a sandwich last as long as I possibly could.

If you aren’t aware of it, your values ooze out of you. Most people can reach conclusions about what you value within the first 30 minutes of a conversation. I make a living studying how people live out those values, and helping my students think intentionally about the lives they want to live. It is a rare privilege to do what I do.

But it cannot compare with the privilege of living side-by-side with a person so aligned with her values, day after day. It is true that her values have shaped our children, and thus our grandchildren, as well. But, more than anything, she has changed me by living her values so consistently.

I really can’t describe how much I value her. But that’s why she goes by a title, and not a name.

 

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I have been thinking lately about how to better use my time. The truth is, I am always thinking about that rather than actually doing it. But I have been trying to give serious thought to the things I should say no to, and the things I should embrace and do with all my heart. Part of my preoccupation with this derives from my having read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and part from trying to figure out what really matters in life.

Most of my values are reasonably well formed, though I may not live up to them consistently. I don’t struggle so much with what is important or valuable, but with what is priority, what comes first. I often fail in my priority because I give a little bit of attention to a lot of issues, and my job is such that I can do that and feel, in the moment, that I am making a contribution. But I am lying to myself.now later

One of the hardest decisions for me is whether to accept speaking engagements. Who doesn’t want to hear himself speak, or want to be asked? But the truth is that the things I talk about are things that any number of people are perfectly capable of addressing and, in most cases, more eloquently. What I need to decide is which situations warrant the investment of preparing for that speech.

I think the answer for where I should focus my efforts is where I am less replaceable. At some level, accounting professors are all replaceable. If you are looking for an accounting professor, there are any number of people who fit the bill. People might like certain characteristics of one more than the other, but there are a lot of people who can fill the role. I am less replaceable in certain teaching contexts than others, so it makes sense that those warrant more of my attention.

But many times we are disappointed to find out that we are replaceable. I used to teach at a small liberal arts school, and in my last year there, I was named professor of the year. Since I was still relatively early in my career, I was under the impression that my leaving the college would have a significant impact on the students and the accounting program. I went back the next May to attend the graduation of those juniors whom I had taught. And though I was welcome, and they greeted me warmly, it was clear that life had moved on just fine without me.

Our replaceability in most contexts may seem depressing, but it is actually quite freeing if you are the type of person who has difficulty saying no. I control my choice to make the highest contribution I can to others’ lives, to my family, to my workplace, and to my continued growth and development. Greg McKeown makes the point in Essentialism that if we do not choose for ourselves, someone will choose for us.

With national signing day for football this week, numerous high school students will be given the impression, through conversations with coaches and reading about themselves on message boards, that they are irreplaceable. That may be true for a few, but only for a limited period of time. And believing that it is true can lead to all kinds of dysfunctional behavior.

Replaceability has the potential to produce the kind of humility that frees us to maximize our contribution while living a priority-driven life. Ironically, failure and burnout can accomplish the same thing, as I have learned on more than one occasion.

But my hope, in this stage of my career, is to let this realization that there is a finite end to my productivity light a fire in me to maximize my contribution today. I can prepare students for my profession and encourage them to adopt the values that will sustain it. I can engage in one-on-one conversations aimed at helping them do that, and in helping them understand their own values. I can invest in the one woman I will ever love and, to the extent I am given entry into their lives, in my children and grandchildren. And I can continue my research in the two or three areas where I make my maximum contribution.

And I can write.

But I will only do these things if I am humble enough to know that I am not necessary for everything and that it is okay to say no to things that others can readily do. My goal for this year is to make real progress in that endeavor.

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She is up befoMeredith Oliverre dark for a two-hour workout, and she knows that a workout at least as long waits for her in the afternoon. And yet, for the last 15 weeks, Meredith Oliver has faithfully attended and engaged in my Auditing class while her body recovered from one workout and braced itself for the next. She never asked for special treatment or made excuses. Perhaps some days were more of a grind than others in the classroom. But if grinding is what is necessary, Meredith Oliver is ready to do it, because she is not just an accounting student. She is also a swimmer.

Twitter started blowing up yesterday with speculation about a second quarterback leaving our football program at Texas A&M, leading to the inevitable statements of despair, loathing, and frothing at the mouth over coaches, game plans, and loyalty. Meanwhile, I was sitting quietly in my office discussing upcoming internships with two scholarship athletes who have distinguished themselves in their time here, and who have excelled in my classroom at Mays Business School this fall.

One of those, Conner McQueen, is a quarterback as well. He is also the holder for placekicker Taylor BertolConner McQueenet, who was recently named second team All-SEC, and I am confident that Bertolet knows that his success is in no small part due to the consistency of his holder’s performance. But you are not going to hear that out of Conner McQueen. He is self-deprecating in the best sense of the word. The grandson of one of the greatest Texas high school football coaches, he is more concerned about being prepared to succeed in his accounting firm than he is with winning awards. You can tell by watching him on the field how much he loves his teammates, the experience of playing college football, and wearing maroon and white. He was recently named to the SEC Football Community Service team and was nominated this fall for college football’s Wuerffel Trophy for community service.

The other student-athlete sitting in my office was volleyball player Shelby Sullivan, captain of this year’s SEC champions. Watching her on the court with her animated support of teammates is inspiring. I sat at a match where a Shelby Sullivanteammate was removed unexpectedly, much to her chagrin, and her disappointment led to an animated, whispered conversation with another player while waiting to re-enter. I am not a volleyball aficionado, so I watched to see if that behavior was typical. In fact, I watched Shelby, because she was rotated out regularly, even though she was the team MVP last year and was an all-SEC player this year. She left each time with a smile and a high five for her replacement, already intent on how she was going to get those on the bench more excited in their support of the team. It is no surprise that in addition to being last year’s SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year, she was one of 10 national finalists for college volleyball’s Senior CLASS Award this year, given for excellence in community service, classroom performance, character and competition.

All three of these students are top-flight academically, even while they are running a second parallel life in the athletic arena at a big-time sports school. I have the privilege of preparing them for a role in the accounting profession, though any of the three could be successful in a variety of ventures, from coaching to entrepreneurship. Their paths to success are largely the result of incredible work ethics attached to their inherent giftedness, and the habits they have developed will almost certainly lead to significant achievements. All of them are also very grounded; none of them seems driven by the need for adulation or the attention of others.

I am a season ticket holder for A&M football games, and I have only witnessed one 10-win season in my 10 years here. I ask myself the same questions that every other fan does about where we are as a football program and where we are headed.

But I don’t ask that question about Texas A&M as a university, because I have an advantage that very few Aggies have. I get to spend my life investing in students who work long hours at jobs to support themselves, who serve extensively in our community, who lead organizations, who quietly enrich the lives of others without asking for anything in return. I get to talk to them about the auditing profession, and life, and where they come from, and their hopes and dreams.

As I finish another semester as a professor, I am reminded that it is a gift to be here, to be alive in this place, to teach. I have been given a sacred trust, the hearts and minds of young people anxious to learn, to be better, to build a life worth living. Students like Meredith, Conner and Shelby will leave this place and make their communities, their families, and their workplace different, and richer.

So, just in case you were worried about us here, please don’t. All is well in Aggieland.

Categories: Uncategorized

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