Episode 121 – Sean Stein Smith

Sean drums his way to better business skills


Dr. Sean Stein Smith started playing the drums when he was 8 years old because they provide the driving force for all of music. He was a member of his high school marching band and later his college’s pep band. Since graduating from college, he’s continued to play his Pearl Export drum set in the pit orchestra for shows, as well as on the stage during a cabaret musical.

In this episode, Sean and I talk about how his drumming has allowed him to have the mindset to analyze the bigger picture and understand how you fit in. By combining our out of work identity with our work identity, it adds depth to each one of us which develops trust. These layers to each one of us make us more approachable and more real. It’s important for firms to be open to realizing that their staff are people, and it’s healthy and natural for them to passions outside of work and to talk about them when they’re with coworkers and clients.

Dr. Sean Stein Smith is an Assistant Professor at Lehman College. He was a member of the 2017 AICPA Leadership Academy, and named 40 under 40 in the accounting profession by CPA Practice Advisor.

He graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a B.S., Accounting, M.S. Accounting, and an M.B.A., International Business. He later received his Doctorate of Business Administration, Strategy and Innovation from Capella University.

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Sean playing the drumset for a production of Cabaret

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    Welcome to Episode 121 of the Green Apple Podcast where each Wednesday, I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion, making them standout like a green apple in a red apple world. When I tell you to imagine an apple in your head I’m sure for most of you it was red, right? Because in school, A is for apple. Remember that picture? It’s always red because that’s the stereotype. But the interesting thing is that all apples actually start out green and then as they grow on the tree over time they turn red turning into the stereotype.

    Just like that, we all have these hobbies and these passions that we started out with but then professionalism slowly squeezes them out of us turning us into that stereotype and letting us forget about these hobbies and these passions that what we had outside of work. That’s what I love to shine a light on each week is people that are shattering that stereotype.

    I’m also doing some research. It’s super short, a one-minute anonymous survey about firm culture and how maybe the green apple message might apply in your world, so if you’ve got just 60 seconds, please go to greenapplepodcast.com. There’s a big green button there, you answer a few quick questions. Again, it’s totally anonymous and I so appreciate your help.

    Thanks so much to everyone for subscribing to the shows so you don’t miss any of the cool guests like this week’s Sean Stein Smith. He’s a member of the 2017 AICPA Leadership Academy and named 40 under 40 by the CPA Practice Advisor so he’s a system professor at Lehman College in the Bronx. He’s absolutely killing it. I mean congratulations, Sean, and I know you’re super busy guy. So thanks so much for taking time to be with me on the Green Apple Podcast.

    Sean: Awesome to be here, John. Thank you for having me.

    John: Oh, man. I’m super excited to share you with everybody and after talking with you on the phone and congrats on being in the leadership academy for the AICPA. So that’s really exciting, man.

    Sean: Thank you. Yeah, I mean it was also an opportunity and an awesome really, sort of learning and growth experience for me.

    John: Yeah. Well, buckle up because this is round two. But I gave everybody a little bit of an introduction to you but maybe in your own words, it’s best probably and safer for everyone. Just in your own words, what you’re up to now and a little bit of how you got there?

    Sean: Sure. Currently, right now I’m an assistant professor at the City University of New York. Prior to that, I held a variety of roles in corporate accounting and corporate finance in the for-profit and in the not-for-profit areas as well. Really, how I got here was that I enjoyed talking about accounting and finance and I’m pretty good at it. So I’m also happy to be here to talk about that today and be doing it now for a job.

    John: Yeah, man. No, that’s fantastic. As an assistant professor, I mean you got to really, really like accounting. Like really like it. What made you want to go into that to begin with?

    Sean: I took my first accounting class when I was in high school. Actually, I was just over there last Thursday, I was giving a talk to some students there on career opportunities in the field. Yeah. I think it’s important for individuals who are in the field or really in any field if you do have the opportunity to always try to give back.

    So John, I have a funny story for you. When every kid is in school, they always ask you what you want to be when you grow up like what kind of job you want to have and all the rest. When I was about seven eight, my answer was I wanted to own a bank. The reason was that, I figured that at the banks you had all the money there so I figured that — if I owned a bank then I’d be in good shape.

    John: Exactly because you don’t even have to make money, it’s already there. It’s in the business.

    Sean: Exactly.

    John: That’s hilarious. It’s so funny, man.

    Sean: I mean sort of being interested in accounting, finance, and business, I’ve been interested in this stuff for as long as I can think back.

    John: Right. Like my friend and I in high school, we wanted to open a toll road because we just thought it was free money. We didn’t think that there was any maintenance or it was just like, oh, we just collect money from people for driving down the road.

    Sean: Yeah, the parkway, I mean come one.

    John: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That’s awesome, man. So early on, I mean it’s just always what you wanted to do and now you’re making it happen and now you’re making another kid’s dreams come true as well.

    Sean: I’m trying.

    John: Yeah. I know that that takes up a lot of time but what sort of hobby or passion do you love doing when you have some free time?

    Sean: Okay. So the hobby that really that is I think sort of shocking to people, as I share it to them, but I think it’s also very good from a business point of view is that I’ve been playing the drums since I was about I’d say eight or nine years old. I’ve been playing the drum my entire life.

    John: Wow, and this is like drum kit like —

    Sean: Oh, yeah.

    John: Not just like a pot with a spoon or like a bongo drum or something. No, this is like drum kit. That’s awesome, man. That’s so cool.

    Sean: I think so and to be honest with you, John, that’s the reaction that most people have sort of like, “Oh, wow, it’s cool” and two, that they’re surprise that I play the drums. I’m not sure why they’re so surprised but they’re always surprised.

    John: That’s great, man. How did you get into it? Just you were like, I want to play the drums and then made it happen?

    Sean: Well, when I was a kid, I was looking for something to do as sort of a extracurricular activity and I was not terribly good at sports. I’m not terribly athletic. I was looking for something that would be fun, enjoyable, and I gravitated towards music and then I gravitated towards really the drums because, and I’m being honest with you now, is that really, like the drums or the beat of any band or any group is sort of the driving force of it. I thought hey, if I want to be involved in music I want to be sort of the driving force, I want to be involved in sort of how the whole band goes.

    John: Right, yeah. I mean you never get any of the credit but you’re like the center of the offensive line. No one knows your name but if you do poorly then everything falls apart.

    Sean: Yes, absolutely.

    John: Yeah. That’s fantastic, man. So you just get the drum set and then go from there? I mean you’ve played professionally as well. I mean people had paid you now to do that.

    Sean: Right. I mean I’ve had a great opportunity to really maximize my interest in playing the drums. I mean I was in school, I was in the marching band, I was in band camp and all that, you know. I did all of that in high school. I was in the college pep band for several years. I played drum set for them. Then yeah, I’ve had I guess three or four opportunities where I was actually paid to play the drums as part of a pit orchestra for a local cultural arts center that was putting on some shows. The great opportunity to leverage my interest in music and to sort of also earn some money on the side while doing something that I like doing.

    John: That’s great, man. That’s great. Is there one moment where you’re like, man, this is as good as it gets or one of your favorite stories about playing the drums?

    Sean: I was playing it’s a drum set, so I was playing it and I was being paid to play it in this instance but I was actually the drummer for a performance of the Broadway show, Cabaret. So anybody who knows anything about music or Broadway, it’s a very interesting show, right?

    John: Right, right.

    Sean: They actually had myself and the person who was playing the keyboard on that show right in the middle of the stage and I was up on the platform and there are pictures online of me playing the drum set for Cabaret and I’m sitting there and playing it and I’m like it cannot get better than this. I’m having fun, I’m center stage, I’m literally the center of everyone’s attention and I’m also having fun. That, for me, was an awesome opportunity and I really did enjoy it.

    John: Yeah. You’re old Sean is like, “I made it! This is it. Take that athletes.” I’m just like picturing it all. I’m sure we’ll have it at greenapple.com so people can check out that picture.

    Sean: There are actually awesome videos too.

    John: Oh, even better, even better. Do you feel like because a lot of people think that hobbies and passions don’t really matter or they’re just throwaways or whatever, do you feel like playing the drums has made you better at being a CPA? There’s some skill that translates over?

    Sean: Honestly, John, I would think so. Because honestly, if you’re playing the drums and it can be any instrument, right? I chose the drum because I was good at it and I was interested in it. But if you’re playing any instrument, one, you have to be able to sort of analyze the bigger picture. How you fit into what else is going on around you and obviously, I think that that’s a role that a lot of CPAs have to play in the industry, in public practice or on their own firm.

    All CPA’s work in that broader sort of context and also what you’re doing as either a musician or as a CPA has to work with what else is going on around you. I do think having that experience and sort of mindset, so taking that almost a step back and observing the business as a whole and then two, understand sort of how, what you’re up to, and so what you’re doing fixed into what else is going on, I think those are two ways that the playing an instrument or in my case playing the drums has sort of helped me.

    John: Yeah. Because that’s exactly it. I mean I played trombone in the marching band. I don’t want to brag it up. I mean it’s no drums but it’s a —

    Sean: I mean come on, the drums?

    John: Right. Exactly, exactly, just don’t tell the trumpets. They get really angry about everything. But, yeah, you certainly do, you understand your piece in the whole picture and in how each part is very important and they all play a certain role and yeah, I mean that’s certainly something that comes in handy when you get out of school or when you’re in the office. Do you find that when people find out about this that they have a lot of questions?

    Sean: I would say that probably the first reaction is the reaction that you had probably when I told you. It was like half like, “Oh, wow. This is amazing” and then half shock or surprised. “Oh, really? You play the drums with a drum set –” because one of the things that immediately when you play the drums you’ll turn into a drummer.

    John: I would say Def Leppard but you have both arms. I saw them. That guy’s amazing though.

    Sean: Yeah. In spite of that, he’s an awesome drummer. So when everyone has certain expectations of their CPA and then of people who are interested or who are playing the drums and so it’s normally a combination of like, “Oh, wow, awesome” and then sort of a shock or surprise that I’m doing this.

    John: Right. Have you found anyone else in the business world that also plays drums when it comes up?

    Sean: Sure. I have not found other folks that are playing the drums, I find people all the time that are in the business world or who are CPAs that also play instruments. They play the trumpet, the trombone, all kinds of different instruments out there. I do think that all of that sort of ties back to what the two of us are talking on earlier is that really sort of playing an instrument and regardless of the instrument and questions that forces you to think about yourself in that broader context and to make sure that all of the pieces are working in lockstep.

    John: Right, that’s really cool. I have to imagine that your relationship with those people that are musicians is probably a little bit of a different relationship than the people where there’s no connection at all or strictly business talk.

    Sean: Absolutely, right? Because I think we all have a work identity and then a out-of-work identity. The individuals that have known me who are in the office, most of them know if we interact for a certain period of time, they do know that I play the drums, I like music, and I’m very interested in all of this. But all of the people that I meet outside, the one I’m playing the drums, all of them do know what I do for a living. So, yes, it is different. There’s sort of a different sort of backdrop to it.

    John: Right, right. That’s an interesting thing. The people that see you drumming and then they find out you’re an accountant versus the people that know you’re an accountant that then find out you’re drumming. I wonder which group is more surprised. Probably the accountants that then find out that you’re a drummer because that’s probably like wow, okay. Why is it that you think there is this work identity and outside-of-work identity? Why isn’t it just one identity?

    Sean: I would honestly think, John, that it boils down to what we are sort of tasked with whether we work for a company or be on our own practice or coming in as a auditor or some kind of consultant role, we’re tasked as being experts in every technical field that has a tremendous amount of rules and regulation and that is constantly evolving.

    In our work role, as it is currently defined, I mean we sort of have to be experts and be serious and be very up-to-date and knowledgeable in those technical areas that are changing and that are going to impact our clients and customers and partners that we’re working with. So that, I believe, has to be separate from any sort of, currently at least. Has to be separate from any of sort of hobbies or sort of more creative type activities that we are in engaged in outside of work, and because obviously, the sort of joke goes, the last two words you want to hear together are creative and accounting.

    John: And accounting. Right. Exactly. But I mean I would imagine that I mean doing the activity but talking about it is that frowned upon or that’s okay?

    Sean: Absolutely. I think talking about the activity —

    John: Not leading with it necessarily but proving that you’re good at your job first —

    Sean: No, I wouldn’t open with that phrase like, “Hey, I am Sean. I play the drums and I’m a CPA.” I wouldn’t lead what the drums part. I would probably lead with the sort of expertise being good at my job and just sort of the task that I’m assigned to do for you.

    John: Then and I play the drums.

    Sean: I do think adding that adds some extra depths to you as an individual and a person and also to build some extra trust and depth to the relationships that you have with the people that you’re working with.

    John: Yeah. That’s for sure. I mean that’s the thing. If you used to tell somebody I’m an accountant and I play the drums I bet nobody has ever said to you, “Oh, really? Tell me more that accountant part.” Nobody. Nobody. I mean they’re like, “Drums, what kind of drums? What are you talking about? Drums?” 50 questions on drums. Because that’s what people are interested in because no matter what job you have or what position you have within that firm or company or school or whatever, the drums are with you all the time. That’s really cool, man. Really cool. Is this something that you were open to share even early on in your career?

    Sean: I mean it would depend on the individual and I think on the context of our work relationship. But I’d say that anybody who has worked with me on a continuous basis for over a year or so knows that, one, I’m very interested in music and two, that I do play the drums so yeah, I’m pretty comfortable sharing that.

    John: Right. Because some people just feel like oh, it’s going to take away from my image as an expert or as a CPA or what have you because it’s not something that typically you would think CPAs do for whatever reason. Do you have any words of encouragement to anybody listening that’s like maybe they play the drums but they’re afraid to bring it up at work if people ask?

    Sean: I would be open about it, right? Because I think, one, and I’m a little biased here. I think that playing the drums is awesome and that it’s very cool. I think most people are pretty happy to hear that. Everyone likes music and is interested in some kind of music in some way and if you’re involved in that and you’re playing the drums, I don’t think that it’s a negative thing to share.

    John: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, because I think then you find out, yeah, I mean all of a sudden you’re elevated status to not only you’re a CPA but dude plays the drums like, what?

    Sean: Exactly. I think that’s a big benefit of it because it adds some depths to you as a person and as a individual. It adds some extra layers to you and it also helps you see more approachable and more real which does count for a lot when you’re working with other people.

    John: Yeah and one think that I always think about though is how much is it in on an organization to create that culture where it’s cool to share. It’s okay to share, it’s okay to have hobbies and passions outside of work. It’s okay to not have accounting be the end-all be-all of your life or law or consulting or whatever your job is. How much is it on that firm or that company to create that culture or how much is it on the individual to lead the way and create a little small group on their own whether or not the culture supports that or not.

    Sean: I think both, right? Because the company has to be open to having employees that are people. Regardless of whether you’re a dentist, a CPA, an attorney, or an architect, you’re going to have hobbies and then activities that are happening outside of work. I do think that it’s healthy and natural. To talk about them with the — you have people that they’re interacting with the most on a daily or ongoing basis.

    I do think encouraging that is important from the side of the firm or of the company but it’s also up to the individual, right? To sort of find people who you feel comfortable with, that you’re open to sort of talking about the things that happened outside of work and I think being willing to share these outside hobbies and activities with them.

    John: Yeah, because I mean a lot of people I think, yeah, I mean they’re just — I think the fear is mostly in your own head you know because once someone asks and you tell them then it’s cool no matter what it is. One time I was talking to a firm and I asked, “Okay, who’s got the most boring in the room like shout it out. I want to hear the most boring one.” That woman yelled out, “Genealogy.” Another lady from the other side of the room yelled out, “That’s not boring, I do that too.” It’s just like —

    Sean: See, that’s not boring at all.

    John: That’s not boring that’s awesome. I mean because then you find out that you’re seven removed from a king or something and it’s like, what? That’s amazing. I think we downplay our hobbies and passions and what we do in our own head and that we don’t want to be seen braggy or we feel like maybe I’m not that good but no one’s good that’s why you have a real job. Have you seen any firms or companies or where you’ve worked or peers of yours that are doing some cool things to encourage this?

    Sean: Sure. The organizations that I’ve worked at and I’ve had the benefit of working at some firms that are very open about this. I mean I’d say that pretty much everybody is encouraged sort of to form those friendships and those bonds with the people that they work with on a daily basis and those individuals although not on a daily basis, on an ongoing basis and we’re encouraged to sort of be actual people and just sort of talk about things that happen outside of work and then at how they’ll impact us at work.

    Yeah, I believe that there are quite a few firms out there now who are encouraging people to be although not totally open but sort of more open about their hobbies and activities outside of the office.

    John: Right. I think too, there’s a lot of partners in upper management, they share amongst themselves. They open up amongst themselves but sometimes they’re afraid to do that in front of staff and so I think that that’s what’s most important is to show by example that, “Hey, it is okay,” and the smaller the group the more the tone at the top matters.

    Sean: The upper leaders now, it could be partners, it could be a CFO, it could be anybody who’s at the top of that corporate structure but if they’re open about it and they sort of talk about their hobbies and their interests outside of work then that in of itself will help to encourage people to be more open and to share their hobbies too.

    John: Yeah. That’s exactly it. Well, this has been really, really great. Really great, John. But before I take the train over to New Jersey and hangout with you and do a drum duet. Is that even possible? Is there a drum duet where we can both drum out —

    Sean: Absolutely, absolutely.

    John: Well, there is now. That’s for sure.

    Sean: You’re on the cowbell. I’ll put you on the cowbell.

    John: Yeah. There we go. Cowbell with my gut hanging out Will Ferrell style. That’s awesome. Nailed it, I will be all over that. But I have my 17 rapid fire questions that I like to run people through just to make sure that we can hang out and be friends because you never know people are suspect. Let me fire this thing up here. Let’s fire this up. All right. Here we go. I’ll start you out easy with the first one. Start you out easy.

    What’s a typical breakfast?

    Sean: A typical breakfast is scrambled eggs.

    John: Scrambled eggs. All right. There we go. Do you have a favorite actor or actress?

    Sean: A favorite actor either Will Ferrell or Colin Farrell.

    John: Oh, not related ironically enough. Would you say you’re more of an early bird or a night owl?

    Sean: Early bird.

    John: Early bird. All right, all right. Do you have a favorite color?

    Sean: Blue.

    John: Blue. How about a least favorite color?

    Sean: Least favorite color. Red.

    John: Red, okay. All right. Are you more pens or pencils?

    Sean: Pens.

    John: Pens, yeah. How about Sudoku or crossword puzzle?

    Sean: Crossword puzzle for sure.

    John: Interesting. All right. When it comes to financials are you more balance sheet or income statement?

    Sean: Income statement.

    John: Okay. All right. Do you have a favorite adult beverage?

    Sean: I’d say a light beer.

    John: Okay, yeah, yeah. All right, all right. How about a favorite number?

    Sean: Favorite number. 8.

    John: 8 and is there a reason?

    Sean: Just because it rolls up the tongue easily and I sort of like how it looks.

    John: Yeah, it’s a balanced number, looks good. Yeah. Do you have a favorite band or musician yourself?

    Sean: Favorite band although it’s changed overtime, probably Blin-182.

    John: Yeah, nice. There we go. Would you say you’re more suit and tie or jeans and a t-shirt?

    Sean: I’d say jeans and a t-shirt.

    John: Okay. All right, all right. Do you have a least favorite vegetable?

    Sean: I mean Brussels sprouts.

    John: Oh yeah, that’s a solid answer right there. That’s a slam dunk. When it comes to computers, are you more PC or Mac?

    Sean: I’m a PC guy.

    John: Yeah. Me too. Now when it comes to your mouse, are you a right-click or a left-click?

    Sean: Left-click.

    John: Making decisions. All right we got two more, two more. Do you prefer Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Sean: Star Wars. I mean, come on.

    John: Right. That’s awesome. That was the best. You’re like, is this even a question? The last one, the last one. The favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?

    Sean: I have a autographed baseball because I am a New York Mets fan so I have a Jacob deGrom autographed baseball.

    John: Sweet. Yeah, the picture, man.

    Sean: Yeah. I think it’s pretty cool.

    John: No. That’s fantastic, man. That’s really cool. Thank you so much, Sean, for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.

    Sean: Absolutely, John. It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

    John: Wow. That was so great. I love how Sean said having a hobby adds extra trust and depth to your relationships with people and this is something that happens subconsciously so it’s really great that Sean realizes this for himself. I also love how he added that firms need to be open to having employees that are real people. It’s much more than just a billable hour and the sooner that firm leaders realize this, the better it is for everyone including them. It’s a huge impact on the bottom line.

    If you’d like to see some pictures of Sean on the drums or connect with him on social media, be sure to go to greenapplepodcast.com and while you’re on the page, please click the big green button and do the anonymous research survey about firm culture.

    So thanks again for subscribing to the show and for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread, which is to go out and be a green apple.

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