A Conversation with John Sharbaugh of the Texas Society of CPAs

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When you're born in Hershey, Pennsylvania and grow up in a town close enough that you can small the chocolate whenever the wind blows, you just know that the future can only be bright. Of course, John Sharbaugh attributes his successful career in association management more to his education and his penchant for preparation than to having chocolate in his DNA, but a case could be made either way.

With a bachelor's degree in international politics and foreign service from Pennsylvania State University, Sharbaugh went on to earn an MBA at the University of Florida. Next came a chance to put his business knowledge to work at the Florida Institute of CPAs in Gainesville as the deputy executive director and the continuing professional education manager. He may not have aspired to work with CPAs, but he evidently found them an agreeable group, since that was just the first stop in a long career working in the accounting field. After several years at the Florida Institute, he moved north a bit, to become the Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of CPAs, followed by a 12 year stint with the AICPA in Washington DC where he served as the vice president of state societies and state legislation. Finally, he took all of that education and experience and headed southwest, where he now heads up the Texas Society of CPAs (TSCPA), which has the largest in-state membership in the country.

With two offices, a small one in Austin and the headquarters in Dallas, the TSCPA employs 57 people, and serves a growing membership of more than 27,600 CPAs. That, says Sharbaugh, is about 65 percent of the licensed CPAs in Texas, including many that work in industry. That's a huge amount, but like most state societies, they are always striving to increase membership.

Understandably, he's proud of the work the TSCPA does. "I believe in the power of associations," he says. As the head of a CPA Society, he enjoys working with "a bright group of people who are willing to give of their time and energy to make things better for themselves and others. Being part of that is motivating." There's a lot to like about working for an organization like the TSCPA, says Sharbaugh. "It's people-oriented. If you don't like people, association management is probably not the right kind of work for you." Plus the job offers flexibility and a wide variety of projects. One day he might be promoting the accounting profession and the next day, working to pass legislation, coordinating volunteers, or sitting down with the Society's leadership to iron out plans and budgets or set standards.

As a way of contributing back to his profession, he has served as president of the State Society of Association Executives, and also on the board of the American Society of Association Executives and the Texas Society of Association Executives. The ASAE recognized his service by making him a "fellow" which is a position for which you must be nominated. That recognition of his contribution, he calls a "distinct pleasure."

What Advice does he have for the Aspiring Association Manager?

The lessons he has learned along the way are especially valuable, in light of the fact that only one college in the country offers a major in association management. As it happens, the educational path he took - a liberal arts degree and a masters in business - prepared him well. A key skill that any good leader has to have is communication, says Sharbaugh. It doesn't matter if you communicate in writing or in person, one-to-one or making presentations to groups, if you're going to succeed you have to develop a high degree of competence in communication. As an association manager, you have to understand business concepts, to know how to manage the expense details, and to set budgets, and... you have to understand motivation.

"It's important never to underestimate people. Your family, your boss, your staff, even your competitors." Generally speaking, the people you deal with are capable of far more than you might think, he says. "So set your expectations high."

His most important piece of advice may be to realize how important preparation is to success. What other people attribute to luck, he attributes to laying the groundwork ahead of time so that when opportunity knocks, you are ready. Whatever the task, in business and in life, Sharbaugh says, you can't over-prepare yourself.

How He Sees the Future Shaping Up

About the economy, Sharbaugh believes that Texas may be better situated to ride out the storm than much of the nation. That's partly because of the presence of oil there. But also, the economy is diversified. In the 1980s when the oil industry collapsed, diversification was key to bouncing back. Real estate is down in Texas, but the state hasn't been as hard hit as most areas. Plus, Texas is business-friendly. That, combined with the population boom, is driving business at a fast pace. "Fifty percent of all new jobs created in the United States recently were added in Texas," he says... a good indicator of the future of the Texas economy.

He also believes that the accounting profession as a whole will do better than most sectors of the economy. Not that they will be unaffected, especially those accountants who work in industry. But generally speaking, businesses need help in good times or bad. They need advice, and accountants are still their trusted advisors. "There will be challenges in the short term, just like for everybody else. But," he estimates, "we'll get through this time better than many."

One sign of the health of the accounting profession is the fact that more students are enrolling in college as accounting majors. After a long period of a shortage of accounting graduates, that situation seems to be rebounding. But it wasn't without a lot of effort on the part of the AICPA and state societies like the TSCPA and others. They worked directly with high school guidance counselors to provide information about the profession. Plus events like Enron and WorldCom have focused attention on accounting, and the outcome has been positive in some ways, including recruiting.

Overall... he's optimistic about the future of the accounting profession and the economy in general, especially in Texas. Would you expect any less from a guy with chocolate in his DNA?

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