Brian Austin joined Avalara as Director of Accountant and Industry Relations in 2011. In his role, Brian works with accountants in public practice and industry, and with industry organizations like the AICPA and state CPA societies to evangelize the role of technology in solving clients’ sales tax issues.
Prior to joining Avalara, Brian was Director of PR at SpeedTax, a sales tax automation solution provider, and participated on the leadership team that took the company to acquisition by CCH in 2011. Brian has a long history in PR and communications and we have always been impressed with his ability to network with others, make friends and get his important technology message across in an interesting and informative way. We see Brian as a leader in accounting and technology relations and it’s in that capacity that we’ve invited him to be featured in this Leadership Spotlight.
ConvergenceCoaching: Whose leadership style do you most admire and why?
BA: Hands down, Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit. His relentlessly positive, sure, steady demeanor in the face of multiple challenges and growing competition over the past years is inspirational. His ability to set priorities, understand the shifting landscape in the accounting technology space, and guide a supertanker with great agility make him a stand-out leader. What puts Brad in a different league amongst fellow CEOs is his genuine ability to admit and own mistakes, assure his constituencies that their issues and concerns are reaching top levels of management, make significant course corrections that positively affect the bottom line, and retain legions of talented employees who bring his vision to fruition.
ConvergenceCoaching: What do you think the single most important leadership attribute or characteristic is and why?
BA: Over the years, the best leaders have been the ones who were the best listeners. Every time I encounter Millennials or young Gen-Xers who have already emerged as leaders, I’m pleasantly surprised by the traits and competencies they possess – in many ways, their ability to lead is so much more advanced today than when I was their age. We’ve certainly found this to be the case with younger employees at Avalara, and certainly with younger members of the Information Technology Alliance (ITA). Without a doubt, our best leaders within Avalara, in the ITA, and in my experience within the profession are the ones who take the time to listen, assess the situation and then act in a fair manner.
ConvergenceCoaching: What do you look for in young up-and-coming leaders?
BA: More than anything else, I look for self-starters who aren’t afraid or hesitant to voice their opinions. When you are willing to take a position, people are then able to determine if they want to support it. And I certainly look for employees who have an innate ability to get others to follow their lead. You can certainly mentor young professionals to consider leadership roles, but they must first have a clear understanding of why leadership is important to their career, and ultimately to the next generation in their profession.
ConvergenceCoaching: How do you develop leadership in others?
BA: In many ways, leadership is something that can only be learned by taking action and making mistakes – and sometimes, those mistakes are costly. However, it only takes one mistake to learn a significant lesson that drives great improvement. Leading a team or project is just like that; the more you stumble, the more you’re respected for your knowledge and experience. Not only are you perceived as “human,” you’re admired for your tenacity to pick yourself up and continue growing.
ConvergenceCoaching: What advice do you have for those looking to step into a leadership position in their firms or businesses?
BA: You have to be patient, but you also have to make yourself visible. Let’s face it – with so much activity going on within a company or firm, it’s not unusual for supervisors, managers and even the partners to pay more attention to the business than the people inside. After they’ve been with their firms or companies for 2-3 months, I usually advise promising, future-focused employees to make an appointment with the executive to whom they’d ultimately want to report – and I’ll in many cases help them craft the conversation. In this way, they’re getting great face time with the boss’s boss, and generally guaranteeing they’ll be remembered when it comes time for advancement.
ConvergenceCoaching: What three words best describe your leadership style?
BA: Optimistic – If someone tells me they know something or can work on a project, then I give them a strong benefit of the doubt that they’ll succeed. Positivity is infectious in all aspects of life, and certainly within the work world. Optimism is a foundational element to effective leadership, and its trickle-down effects cannot be overestimated.
Trusting – Micro-management is not a word in my vocabulary; I trust that the work will be done. Of course, I get involved when I need to, but good leaders are admired because they delegate. It’s kind of like being a parent; you have to give your children the freedom to succeed without intervention unless they are in some kind of danger.
Fair – We all hope for fairness from our leaders. To the extent that we expect it, we must practice it on a daily basis.
Listening skills are often an undervalued leadership skill and I am thrilled that Brian has allowed the light to shine on the importance of listening. When people feel heard, they feel respected. And, when they feel respected, they are more likely to be endeared to their leader and more likely to genuinely want to “follow them in to battle.”
And Brian’s advice to those seeking to advance their careers is perfect because aspiring leaders must take the initiative to make themselves visible and to emphasize their achievements, capabilities and aspirations. What additional advice would you offer to “up and coming” leaders? We’d love to hear your thoughts!