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Opinion: 2020 proved we could build the plane while flying it

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COVID-19 presented challenges for everyone. For bankers, certified public accountants and other finance professionals across the nation, it put us on the front lines of economic recovery.

The launch of the unprecedented federal economic relief, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, certainly resulted in many stories for all of us to tell the grandkids someday. The street name, PPP, became more common to us than LOL and often got mixed up with PPE (the acronym for personal protective equipment that got a lot of attention).

My most vivid memories of PPP are from those very early days, when it felt like we were building the plane while we were flying it.

This massive program “took flight” on April 3, 2020. At its launch, there was a great fear and uncertainty about the program “running out of money.” As a result, business owners wanted to be the first in line, but this was not Black Friday doorbuster deals they were lining up for. At that time, this was perceived as what could be the largest federal grant program in U.S. history. The anxiety of the global pandemic was high, and business owners were exploring all options. This put a heavy burden on bank and CPA professionals to respond.

The only thing permanent about PPP was change. Navigating the change would include reading through daily updates, FAQs and guidance released by the U.S. Small Business Administration. We became familiar with phrases like “interim final guidance.” How confident would you be with guidance described in that way? In fact, a large piece of guidance was released and marked as “Final,” and only a few days later that same piece of guidance was rereleased with changes and published as “Final Final.” Perhaps Version 1 and Version 2 would have been more appropriate terms, but I digress. This is a laughable example to illustrate just how fast change was being circulated.

Your network is your net worth
As a young professional, I had always thought about networking in the context of gaining new clients. Now 15 years into my career, I do not have a dog-and-pony show that makes me a rainmaker for new clients. Instead, I have used networking opportunities to build a vast network of peer professionals.

My professional network is deeply rooted in the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants – the world’s largest member association representing the accounting profession. Other professionals in my network include local bankers and CPAs. This network proved to be vital in navigating the change I have introduced above.

During these rapid changes, Slack channels and Twitter hashtags were havens for collaboration and group interpretation among my network. There was analysis shared by my national networks that proved valuable for me to share with my local networks, and vice versa. I would talk with a local banker and learn something new to share with my national network. This synchronous learning on-the-fly was priceless for my personal journey through the change.

Keep in mind, the change I introduced above relates to PPP, but there were other economic relief programs like stimulus payments being introduced at this same time. Tax law changes were rampant, too. This resulted in many CPAs saying the past two tax seasons were the “worst” of their long careers by comparison. From my observation, this left many CPAs feeling on-demand nonstop and a bit cantankerous.

As for me, I cannot say navigating the change with my network sheltered me entirely from crankiness. I had my moments of WTH, too. My network kept me moving forward through the change, and away from throwing in the towel. My network proved to be educational from a “smarty pants” view, but valuable from a mental health perspective, too.

To the financial soldiers of the local banks, accounting firms and other professionals that navigated this timeline of rapid change with me, I tip my cap to you. It was an honor going to battle with you.

To younger financial professionals, next time you hear talks of networking – do not think of speed dating for new clients or customers. Instead, think of how you can build a strong network of peer professionals. They may prove to pay you back bigger than any client or customer.

Gary Wood is a partner at CRC and a charter member of American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ networking group for young CPA firm owners. He can be reached at gary@crcfirm.com.

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