Cultural Insight

An interview with Amy Langer, who co-founded staffing firm Salo with John Folkestad in 2002

MNBIZ: You started as an accountant. Did you go to school wanting to become an accountant?
Amy: I did go to school wanting to be an accountant. I grew up on a farm, and I knew I wanted to be in business but didn't know what I wanted to do in business. Someone said, "Well, if you want to be in business, you have to understand the base level understanding of how business works, and that's accounting. When you understand how a company makes money and when you understand the ins and outs, you can understand business and do a lot of different things."

Plus, I did not have a lot of money. I paid for all my college myself, and I knew I needed to graduate in four years. So I went into the business school, and I got an accounting degree in four years. Came out and worked for KPMG.

MNBIZ: That's very efficient. What kind of farm did you grow up on?
Amy: It was a dairy farm -- so dairy cattle and grains and a lot of different animals.

MNBIZ: I've always had a sense that people that grow up on farms are a little bit more practical because they see how everything's connected. Did that help you in your career?
I haven't thought about it about as practical. One of the things I connect with it is hard work, a strong work ethic. You cultivate literally everything you eat when you grow up on a farm. And you learn how to use multiple resources in different ways.

When you think about it, farmers are entrepreneurs. They are running their own businesses. They're doing what it takes whether it rains or shines. I think there are a ton of parallels between the farm and running your own business.

MNBIZ: And accounting. You don't count your chickens before they hatch.
Yes. I helped do the books a little bit when I was a kid, but it didn't feel like accounting then. It was more of, "How are we helping our family be able to develop and grow?" It's just what you did. Everybody was hands-on in everything when I grew up.

MNBIZ: That sounds idyllic and very practical at the same time. I just wondering, there are a lot of stereotypes about accountants, but you didn't go in because you felt, "I'm an account on the inside." You went in, as you said, because it's foundational. Were a lot of women already getting in to accounting then, or was it still a white, male stronghold?
Amy: I think the accounting profession has done a lot to help the genders get into it. I feel like they've really worked very hard. The big four firms for sure, and then a lot of the middle market firms have been able to show a path for women.

So when I started in 1994 there were two women partners at KPMG here in Minnesota. There were multiple senior managers and managers as well, so to be able to see someone and envision yourself in that, I think is really helpful and useful. It's always something that I think about. Individuals want to see people like them in positions that they aspire to. Obviously, there were a lot more male partners than there were females, but I think even to see that that was a possibility was always inspirational.

MNBIZ: Right, to rise to the top. Another stereotype about accountants is that they're not always the Mr. Party Person or Mrs. Party Person or Ms. -- and you don't come across like a stereotypical account at all. To what extent is that a false stereotype?
Accountants have to be technically sound, so they have to be studious and understand what's going on in the technical aspects. When you start in public accounting or when you start as an accountant, that's an important part of it. I've always felt like your attitude and your personality and how you show up, you choose that. That's always been one of my calling cards and, I think, why I excelled well at the beginning of my career there.

What's interesting is I think there's a lot of people that start in public accounting that go elsewhere. It's a great base foundation. Accountants also have clients. It's a professional service, so there might be a stereotype of "you have to be technical," but you have to interact with people as well.

What I saw when I was there is that there were many people around me who were really attracted to more of the technical accounting and learning more in that aspect. What I always gravitated toward was, "I want to learn more about my clients and who they are as people." I was really able to help with the teams, so where people might have been heads down, I always brought a little bit of positivity to a team. In times of stress and deadlines and things that go on when you service clients, I think that was always appreciated.

The transition from that to me recognizing, "Ah, that might be something I do better than the technical piece," is what shifted my career to be able to focus more on the sales side -- more client development. It was that realization early on to me starting to say, "I think I'm better on this side than on the technical side."

MNBIZ: When did you want to go into business for yourself?
After KPMG I went to another firm that helped me learn how to do sales. It was more of a temporary staffing firm, so you take your accounting technical background and then you go to more of a temporary staffing firm. There was just a period of time where it was like, "Hmm, I think there's a gap between these two that needs to be filled."

My current business partner and I had worked together at the second firm. He was also out of public accounting, and there was time where we thought, "Maybe we could do this business just a little bit differently than it has ever been done." That has been the idea. "Maybe we can add our personal values into an organization, really think long-term about clients and people and connecting lots of different people to be able to make a difference for them as individuals or to help different companies." That was really when we started Salo.

MNBIZ: When you got started, did you go to a lot of these businesses to see how they work? Has that always been part of your path that you've been able to be an anthropologist going into different locales?
I've never thought about it as an anthropologist, but it's one of the things I so love. I am thankful every day that I get to continue to learn about people's businesses and what they see. I love taking tours. I get geeked out about manufacturing floors and seeing how people are doing it and what they're making and what they're doing. I always want tours of our clients, a genuine curiosity of, "How does this company work?"

This is where the language of accounting comes back. I never truly understand a company until I can understand how they make money. What are really the ins and outs to be able to do it? Then it clicks, to be able to see it that way and also to be able to understand it from physically being in a company. I am thankful every day that that is part of my work -- exploring other companies.

MNBIZ: That makes me think now, some companies might look terrible, but their accounting is solid. Others might look solid and then you find out there's a big crime going on and they're all going to jail.
I think all companies ebb and flow in their different departments, so what could be a really solid system in people at one time, things happen and change. What's interesting is finance in an organization, especially I know a lot of your readers are more entrepreneurial, small, even mid-size, and bordering on those larger clients. The finance function in those types of companies is a very intimate position with the owners and with the entrepreneurs.

If you think about it, a lot of times the owner has a lot of their personal wealth tied up into an organization. It is make or break for their family, whether they've had their house up for mortgage or they've taken in money of family and friends. If you think about it, finance is tied so closely to the entrepreneur that, sometimes it works very, very well. But a lot of times, entrepreneurs might overlook some faults in their finance, whether it's the trust or they know they get it or there's really a fear that this person knows so much, how could somebody else ever come back in and be able to help.

Sometimes, when companies get stuck with their finances or it might look great on the outside, it's the fear of, "This person knows so much, not only about our organization, but also about me."

MNBIZ: I assume there's some basics that everyone has to follow, but to what extent is there variety depending on the nature of your company whether you're retail or a manufacturer, etc? Is there a lot of variation in how to keep accounting?
Well, there's generally accepted accounting principles, so there is that. There's definitely a set of guidelines of how it's done. What I have found that's separated really great partnerships of finance and ownership is how a finance person thinks strategically. Do they think like an owner? When a finance person or human resources persons puts themselves in the shoes of the owner and thinks of it that way and can take the numbers and think about and think, "How does this get impacted in multiple different ways," and you're thinking outside of the numbers, that to me is usually where it's a hit.

MNBIZ: The big thing now is big data. Accounting, that's always data. The key part is to be able to analyze it and understand it. Is that a big skill? Can some people analyze better than others?
You said the stereotypical accountant, so if you think about it, accounting is summarizing the past of what's happened. Your financial statements are the past. It's what's happened. What is important is being able to take that and face forward. What of that finance statement allows me to think ahead? Whether it's big data, whether it's taking the trends and being able to analyze it forward, that's the trick. That's what makes a good finance person, a good business partner is, "How do we take what's happened and be able to project that to what's going forward?"

MNBIZ: "If you keep doing this, that is going to happen."
Yes, or, "I see this trend or here's how we're reacting to what's going on in the market place. Now I've seen what our competitors are doing. I saw this from something else." Being able to take lots of disparate pieces of information and being able to put those together to tell a story. That can be trained, but some people just have it and they're really good at it. Those are the things that you want to look for in people.

MNBIZ: A good accountant who can interpret the data and then become somewhat of an adviser.
Yes, absolutely.

MNBIZ: What's the difference between an accountant and a CFO?
A lot of what we've started talking about, there is some base level, "I have to get the books done. This is what is required for our banks, for our investors, for us just the knowledge of what is happening." A general reporting. "We have to get our bills paid. We have to pay our vendors. We have to pay our employees." That is your basics of accounting. That has to be done in any size organization.

If you are a company of one, you're probably doing it yourself. When you're a company of 10-12, depending on what that is, now you might need some help to get your bills out, to get them paid, to do receivable and collectables. All the things that make a business. To do your taxes.

As companies grow they actually have more need to be able to put in systems. At first, if you think about it, you can do all those things yourself because the volume isn't there. As the volume increases and, perhaps, you go into different business line, the complexity increases. Now all of a sudden it's not just a person doing it but putting the system in place to be able to support it.

Then companies start to say, "I need that interpretation of data. I need somebody at the helm with me to be able to think about our company and our organization in a way that furthers the thought." How do you take the basics of the numbers and project it forward? Multiple different things. Make or buy decisions. "Should we do this acquisition or not do this acquisition? What would it look like if we did it? How do we project forward if we hire six more people? What are the costs on that form of that?"

A lot of times it’s taking an entrepreneur's dream and interpreting that dream on paper and interpreting that dream in black and white that helps to make decisions. That is the magic in a finance person.

MNBIZ: Why they are C-level.
That is true, yeah. That's what you want. That interpretation and getting it down to be able to make decisions. I'm sure you've talked to many entrepreneurs who dream and think and ideate at a broader level. If an organization followed every one of those entrepreneurial dreams, I'm not sure it would go anywhere.

I think being able to take it, not to be the nay-sayer, but to explore. That's sometimes where it's like, "Well, accounting said 'no.'" Or "Finance has put a quash on it." No finance person wants that moniker. Everybody wants it to be like, "Let me help make it real. Let's make it real by putting real projections together and real numbers together to be able to help in the decision making."

MNBIZ: I was at an entrepreneurial workshop yesterday, and one of the pieces of advice was, "If you're going to start a whole new thing, get your finance person in at the initial planning. Don't bring them in at the end and have them try to fix it."
That's the common complaint of finance people. "Now they bring me in? Now I'm cleaning up. We could've helped with that." I think that's true of marketing and HR as well. I think everybody wants to be at the table.

To make an idea come to reality, I think it's really good to have disparate thoughts in the room or different differences of opinion. You might have an idea, but having other interpretation and different thoughts, it always gets us to a better spot and hopefully our clients, too.

MNBIZ: They're not saying "nay" just to say "nay."
No, they're not. Sometimes some of their natural strengths are to see pitfalls and see, perhaps, roadblocks that might be in the way. What I've seen is a lot of times entrepreneurs see the dream, see the vision. They can picture it and see it, but they might not see all the hiccups on the road. They might not see all the, I guess we're going to say, the potholes in the road. They might not be able to see all those things.

MNBIZ: "You think I might need a car?"
: Yeah and, "Oh yeah, how much is that car going to cost? Or could I take a bike or could I walk? What are those different things?" Having someone who can help see that vision, but then also paint the different scenarios. "What would it take if we took a car? What would it take if we took a bike? How much more investment would it be with the added return?" It's not as simple as it seems; sometimes it gets complicated.

MNBIZ: Another factor is the personalities of those people at the table. There's got to be a compatibility. This leads into the topic of a company's culture. It's kind of an experimental process. It's like you're making some sort of soup, some primordial soup. "Do these people work well together or not?" Have you seen a lot of that process going on?
I think cultural compatibility is critical. I think it's about 40-50% of what makes a relationship with an executive work. Past performance elsewhere isn't an indicator of future success. What in that past performance has each party had? Then you break it down to culture. Every company has a culture. When I feel people are better at their hiring decision and are better at making that match is when they understand their culture. They understand what values the company has.

That's good and bad. Culture isn't always positive, but being able to know your own culture is necessary. "Here's what works for me." When you have somebody who naturally has those things in them, it seems to match better.

Let me give you an example. You've toured our offices, so you know it's very, very open. Just imagine if we brought somebody in and we've never shown them our space and we’ve never talked about how we love to talk through things. Everybody here likes to talk face-to-face, hash things out, brainstorm together." You can imagine some people prefer to work quietly, have a lot of time by themselves to be able to process. Maybe write, maybe think through some things. You could see how, if we weren't up front about that about our culture, it could be a mismatch, plain and simple.

That's an easy example. There are other examples that play in. Are you a hard charger? Do you like making calls early in the morning? Late at night? Do you work all through the weekend? Who are you as an organization? What are your basic standards? What are your values? When you're talking about them in a real way, good and bad, people can opt in. The bad stuff people can accept. They can make a choice when they know about it. It's when they don't understand it coming in that sometimes that's a mismatch.

MNBIZ: I worked in news rooms, and, if you don't like adrenaline and deadlines and that kind of pressure, you ought not work there.
That's exactly it, and some people might not think that. If you're coming out of school or let's say you've been a journalist and you've worked for an organization doing their PR and you thought, "Ah, I want to get into a news room." If they don't understand that, it's a fail a lot of times. I want to choose in, but I want to be able to choose of something that I know about.

MNBIZ: That's why one of my band wagons is I always appreciate the PR people that have been in the media because then they understand how we work. They'll write a news release and they're not writing it for me, they're writing it for their boss. My thought is like, "This is not something I'd even care to read."
That's a good point. Understanding your audience. They have it better because they've been there and done that before. That's, sometimes, how we help clients. It's like, "We've seen multiple different things, so it's not just about how do we help you based on what we know today. It's bringing in that past experience to be able to be more relevant."

MNBIZ: You can have all kinds of culture and that's one thing, but then you can have a healthy culture or a toxic culture. That's something else. How do you fix a toxic workplace?
We could talk for hours on that.

MNBIZ: Can you describe a toxic place?
I would say non-transparency, where the organization has in-fighting, where it's very, very competitive. Where people don't know where they stand in terms of the organization.

MNBIZ: Dog eat dog. Climbing the ladder.
That's one. But I never say anything's a good culture or a bad culture. There's probably positive elements in each culture. Even in an organization I've heard people say before, "That X Y Z company has a bad culture." I'm like, "Do they? Because there a lot of people who really enjoy working there." Is the culture not right for you.

So good and bad can both be within an organization. Departments have their internal culture within, so it does get complicated. The company might have a culture, but if you're in this department you don't want to go there. Why is it? When you think about what's toxic, most of the time it comes from leadership and management when they're not supportive of their team. Maybe not autonomous. Like that micromanager.

MNBIZ: So – the leaders need to reflect on their company’s culture?
Yes, especially because the culture of a company has to be intentional. A culture exists in a company no matter what. Anytime you get together more than two or three people there is a culture that exists. Companies that figure out how to be intentional with that culture. How to say, "We are going to work on it and these are the values of of our organization. We hire on those and we fire on those and we're very intentional about it." That's how you work on your culture, you say, "This is what we're going to be."

In a less successful culture, or one that is perhaps a little bit more toxic, culture just happens the way it happens. They're not spending time on it. If you're not working on it intentionally, it is creating itself.

MNBIZ: Right, and some people are oblivious to their bad habits.
I think each of us are oblivious to our bad habits. You need to be open to having a discussion of, "What are our good habits? What are our bad habits? What do we tolerate?" To have very strong culture is really having a defined set of values and holding to them. I'll tell you it is hard to do it.

You're in a business case scenario that something is happening whether it's with a client or an employee, and you need them. You feel like you're in a spot where, "I know they're acting in a way that's not how we would want it, but I need them right now. I need them to make this projection. I need them to be able to help this client. If they go, what's going to happen to our business?" It's easy to not live your values. It's the intentionality. It's having other people surrounding the leader, surrounding the different leaders, who will call you out.

We recently had a business case scenario where it would have been easy to go against our values. We had someone in our management team say, "This isn't who we are. If it is who we are then let's say it. Someone was leaving us and said that they really wanted a promotion to be able to stay. We needed that person. It's a top performer for us, but now that doesn't really line up with who we are as an organization, so we felt very stuck.

What will be the ripple effects be if we don't do that? This was the biggest question that pulled us in. And what are the ripple effects if we do? If we give a promotion when someone doesn't necessarily deserve it but we're doing it because we feel stuck, we are setting a course. When you don't think of how this impacts the rest of the organization, your decisions can lead to a culture you don't intend. I think I'd rather use those words, unintended culture versus toxic.

MNBIZ: Like an untended garden.
Totally. There's lots of different weeds in it, and it's easy for those to spring up all the time. I like the garden analogy.

MNBIZ: Culture comes from horticulture. That's where they get the word. An old word has meaning to scratch. So they'd scratch the soil to plant the seeds and that became horticulture.
Now we're back to the farm.

MNBIZ: Back to the farm. See it's all connected. Whatever seed you plant, that's what grows.
That is true. One of our values is positive energy, so one of the things we look for is people who are naturally positive period. It's one of our traits. When you are naturally positive, you fit in. You can imagine someone who's not naturally positive. They might think we're a bunch of Pollyannas.

One of the things we talk about is when someone comes, it's your responsibility to add to the positive, fun nature. It's that spark, that electric enthusiasm. You cannot just take from it, you also have to give. That is one of our values and we talk about it. It's always fun to take from it and sometimes you need it. Sometimes you need that positive. You had a hard day. And that leads us to another one of our values -- of being aware and intuitive. How are we impacting others? That matters to us.

MNBIZ: A little bit of empathy goes a long. Right now a lot of industries complain of a shortage of good talent. Is it an employee market or an employer market?
The organizations that do well over time always think that this is an employee market. How you treat your employees is how you treat your vendors is how you treat your clients. Sometimes when we're working with clients we can tell how successful they are by their relationship with us. People who think it's always an employee market -- "I have to take care of my people whether they could get a job anywhere or not" -- they're the ones who make it long-term.

MNBIZ: What is the big challenge you see in your industry of that employer/employee equation where people don't always have the talent they need?
Contingent labor has continued to increase for all organizations. It allows companies to be able to be nimble and bring in people. I always think there is definitely a core staff that is needed in every single organization, but to be able to bring in talent when you need it happens to be a trend that we particularly like in organizations.

What I think is going to be increasingly hard, there is a talent war, and I think there always will be at the professional levels. Companies who will win and grow will figure out how to invest in talent.

MNBIZ: I've heard about raiding talent; is that a thing?
I think it is. I generally see the good in people and in companies. I don't think any company sends out and says, "I'm going to go raid them." I think what happens is it's more like a thread. I think maybe a person joins and organization and says, "Hey I like how I'm treated. I like what I'm learning. I like how they're investing in me. Maybe you should try it, too."

Most people get to companies through a friend of theirs. They think, "There's someone like me there, and my friend thinks it's a pretty good place to work. Why shouldn't I come, too?" Sometimes that could be in raids, but I think it's more from a, "I think this is pretty awesome. Come join me here." More like a snowball effect.

MNBIZ: In the talent war, you believe in non-violence.
Well yes, non-violent recruiting.