Shoot Straight, Be Bold: Leadership Advice from REDW Principal Sandy Abalos
REDW LLC | April 13, 2021
Celebrating Diversity at REDW
Not many freshly minted college graduates would propose bringing their young children to work, becoming partner as soon as they pass the CPA exam, or buying out their partner when he retired as part of a job interview. And certainly not in the 1970s, when only a tiny fraction of accounting students at Arizona State University were women. But nobody told Sandy Abalos that she couldn’t. So she did.
“I’ve never been normal,” laughs Abalos, REDW Principal and former Principal-In-Charge of the firm’s Phoenix office as well as Practice Leader of the tax department. “I had to do everything on my own. I’m the first in my family to go to college. I qualified for the 1976 Montreal Olympic tryouts in archery after only four years practicing the sport. And I got no job offers when I graduated from any of the big accounting firms I interviewed with.”
The boldness Abalos exhibited in approaching David Schwarz, the sole-proprietor CPA she had worked for as a secretary/bookkeeper for a year during school, wasn’t an anomaly, either. It was simply the latest in a series of courageous decisions.
The oldest of five siblings from modest means in Phoenix, Abalos worked three jobs during college to supplement her academic scholarship. Though she placed 7th in the Olympic trials, she learned from the experience that she could and wanted to perform on an elite level. She won the NCAA national title as a university freshman.
“Being an archer at a highly competitive level has helped in ways I never imagined,” she says.
“In college and career, the discipline of the sport has been really useful. Being in control of your emotions, of directing yourself – both physically and mentally – creates the ‘champion within’ mindset. I talk about that when I give motivational speeches for high school kids and other groups – to recognize this and unleash it. This champion mentality allowed me, and allows anyone, to overcome barriers.”
Abalos’s first steps down her path to accounting came from her love of math, and especially algebra. In fact, she thought her high school accounting class was “like algebra on steroids.” From her part-time jobs with accounting companies during high school she gained so much real-world experience that only 16 months after Schwarz agreed to her hiring demands, she had become licensed as a CPA. A few short months later, she was a partner in the small firm.
“David was egalitarian, kind and generous. He saw more in me than I saw in myself. He was the best person to grow a business with and we did well together for 10 years until he retired.”
One of the ways Abalos had helped build a thriving practice during Schwarz’ tenure, and continued to do so after his departure, was by creating an appealing company culture for working mothers like her. She offered flexibility in the workplace long before it hit the radar of other firms. She says she also never considered herself a boss, but rather part of the team.
“I’d never worked full-time anywhere else, so I developed the culture that I wanted to work in. I had my three daughters young, and always put family first. As a result, we were able to recruit really talented women who had no space to thrive in big corporate environments. At one point, the practice was all women!” she says.
A confluence of trends in the mid-1990s pushed her already visible leadership in the accounting field into the wider business community. First, she joined the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business owners. This group put her in direct contact with a growing cohort of other women leading their own businesses. These relationships took her company to the next level. NAWBO also prompted her to overcome her fear of public speaking by giving her opportunities to practice in a constructive environment.
Next, the tax environment in the country was changing. The Internal Revenue Service was aggressively auditing worker classification status in small businesses, often resulting in reclassification of independent contractors to employees, with devastating financial consequences. “But I saw bigger businesses that were operating the same way with regard to independent contractors facing no repercussions.”
“I’ve always been a fighter, so I ran as a delegate to the White House Conference for Small Business on a platform of leveling the playing field and bringing clarity to the independent contractor classification criteria.”
With NAWBO supporting her successful campaign, Abalos went to Washington, DC, where she was among more than 2,000 attendees – small business owners from all industries around the country. She discovered she was good at explaining complex issues like the tax implications of legislation. As a result, her mission to help reform this thorny tax issue for the entrepreneurs and business owners she loved working with was voted the highest of 60 priorities of the conference. She then served on the IRS Electronic Tax Administration advisory committee as its first CPA and small business owner.
Her influence continued to grow, too. The National Small Business Administration and Arizona chapter both recognized her as SBA Accountant Advocate of the Year for her work on these tax issues affecting small businesses. Over the next decade, she testified before Congress three times, helped draft national legislation, and was interviewed on National Public Radio for her tax and small business expertise.
With all this success, and while running a successful multi-million dollar and well-respected practice employing 14 staff under the name Abalos & Associates, PC, why did she merge in with REDW? She’d had buy-out and merger offers before, but said no to them all. Ever mindful of demographics in the accounting field and her own reality as a younger member of the Baby Boomer generation, on top of a health scare for her partner and herself, the introduction to REDW by a colleague led to a perfect match.
“At some point Boomers need to move on, whether they are ready or not. I didn’t want to be the last Boomer out. I did want to position my practice with a firm that had a like-minded culture, that understood flexible work environments, promoted on merit, didn’t have a presence in the Phoenix area yet, that needed tax expertise, and was smart enough to recognize Phoenix is a town built on relationships. I still have fire in my belly to grow and succeed, and wanted to be able to continue those relationships, but also keep the practice going when I’m gone,” she says.
When speaking to the next generation of accounting leaders, she empathizes with their desire for work/life equilibrium because it was something that directed her own career. “The profession needs to shift to meet the overwhelming majority of talent coming up and their desire for balance. Because if they don’t, they will have a short supply of motivated employees.”
For those who strive for leadership in this field, Abalos’ advice is pointed. “First, it’s wide open and yours for the taking, provided you demonstrate the full range of your abilities – not just competence in your job. You need to be comfortable with public speaking, with the relationship building that helps grow businesses, and learn how to have real conversations and value them. Building relationships requires a dialogue. That can’t be done via an email or text.”
Finding a mentor or mentors is also a way for the next generation to advance. “You have to really want it, though, not just think that it’d be good to have one. Find someone to connect with, to learn from their mistakes, and be your coach. This will open many doors for you.”
Abalos says it’s never okay to limit your expectations, either.
“If you say ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’, you’re right. Everyone has an equal opportunity to wildly succeed in their chosen career path, but you must give yourself the grace to fail. That’s part of being self-confident – knowing you’ll make mistakes and that each one is an opportunity to grow and learn.”
Not accepting limits or lowering expectations includes the growing issue of pay equity in business today. “Women need not accept what the status quo is. They need to position themselves and be clear about their expectations. My advice is to take control of your own destiny, don’t just accept what’s offered. If I’d done that, I’d never have become a partner or grown my own firm. Share your career goals, take advantage of leadership opportunities, assume responsibilities, and build relationships.”
Finally, Abalos strongly advocates for accounting as a career for women. “We’re well suited to do accounting – it is detail-oriented and requires good communication skills. You also need empathy to work with clients, and patience to help them understand complex issues that can really impact their businesses. But also, people are not impressed by what you know, or where you came from or your background. Instead, they remember what you can teach them and help them understand. And with comprehension comes confidence. If you can help a client understand an issue and how it impacts them, they’ll be loyal and remember that you took the care and time to help them.”