Dawn plays her way to better work relationships
Dawn Brolin is all about having fun, especially in the office. Whether it’s nerf guns or shooting hoops outside, she is right there in the center of it all, which is pretty unique considering she’s the CEO. In her words, “If money is what drives you then you’ve got it all wrong.”
In this episode, we talk about how having fun at work has led to increased productivity, better morale and stronger connections at work. In fact, her clients are even drawn to the fact that Team Brolin can serve their needs despite not being focused on work all the time.
Dawn Brolin is a CPA, MSA, and Managing Member of Powerful Accounting. She has been named One of the Most Powerful Women in Accounting for 5 Years Running.
She has her Masters in Accounting from Eastern Connecticut University, where she scored the winning run for the softball team’s national championship.
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JOHN. Now it’s time for this week’s guest, Dawn Brolin, a certified public accountant and managing member of Powerful Accounting LLC. She’s been featured on MSNBC’s Your Business, and has spoken at some of the biggest accounting conferences in the country, including QB Connected where we met several weeks ago. She’s really, really fun, and this is going to go off the rails so fast, but I’m really happy that she’s with me today on the Green Apple Podcast. So, Dawn, thank you so much for taking the time to be with me today.
DAWN. Sure. You know, it’s really funny, and it was so fun to meet you at QB Connected, interesting and ironic a little bit, I started a bookkeeping company many years ago, but then when I went to an advanced certification for QuickBooks I met the people from Intuit and my whole world changed in 2008. So we’ll go from ’99 to 2008 real quick, but interesting that I met you there. One of the things that I ended up doing was changing the name of my company to Powerful Accounting, through the course of time I realized that one of the things that I’ve always been is athletic. I know if you’ve seen my picture you’re like, “wow is she in amazing shape, she should be on Ninja Warrior or something.” So I totally get that.
JOHN. Or maybe a Wheaties box? Something like that?
DAWN. Yeah, Wheaties box. Or they’re like, “wow, you’re Melissa McCarthy, but a little smaller maybe.” I’m like, “now she’s smaller than me, which is irritating.” We kind of laugh about that. I decided that I really wanted to have my company represent who I was, because I’m a psycho right? I was Professional Accounting Solutions at first.
JOHN. Oh boy, snooze fest.
DAWN. Yeah. That’s out. So I changed it to Powerful Accounting, and then it pretty much went crazy from there, let me just say. So we went from a simple bookkeeping to now we represent people before the IRS, as soon as we get a call we put eyeblack on, get our BB guns and a bullet proof vest and we’re off trying to save the taxpayer. It’s super fun.
JOHN. That’s so cool man. That’s so great. Just changing the name changes the attitude and everything else, then the way clients look at you as well. That’s awesome.
DAWN. We limit, right, and I loved accounting since I was 16. I knew when I was 16 years old that’s what I was going to do, and I even went to college for it, which is surprising right? Most kids go and get a psychology degree and the next thing you know they’re doing computer programing, which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. For me I just knew right from the beginning. the combination of being an athlete was not common.
JOHN. Right, yeah, and in the accounting programming. So going way back, what made you even want to go into accounting?
DAWN. I had a really small high school, OK? I think I graduated with like 38 people.
JOHN. Oh wow, yeah, that is small. I graduated with 90.
DAWN. Everybody made out. I’m not saying the girls did, or the guys made out with the guys.
JOHN. Right, you dated all the dudes.
DAWN. I dated every one of them. The problem was, I was so good at basketball that I couldn’t keep one because I was just better than them at sports, and that was to them that their manhood was taken away.
JOHN. Yeah, that is awkward.
DAWN. I’m totally good with that. But I don’t care, I’m a competitor, and winning means more than love, right? So back in high school that was my big thing, sports, and then I went to an accounting class when I was, I think, a Junior. It was the only accounting class they had probably East of the river of Hartford. So I took it and they gave me this package and said, “OK, you’re in business and you need to make sure you’re up to date on all this and this T account has to match this one over here,” and I was like, “wow! This looks like fun!” I’m not a big puzzle person, but I always want things to be completed, finished, and tied up. That minute Mrs. Demarcko, I remember her name, my teacher, and I knew immediately I was going into accounting. I even looked at an accounting school in Maine, Thomas College.
DAWN. Yeah, they scouted me for basketball and they were a business accounting school. I ended up going to Eastern, which I’ll never forget, because everything that I believed in and lived I found there that it was all totally true and just amazing.
JOHN. Right. I know from meeting you and talking with you, you were on the softball team there in Eastern Connecticut right?
DAWN. Right, and soccer too actually.
JOHN. And soccer? Wow. But the softball team won the championship?
DAWN. Yeah, Division 3 Women’s Fast Pitch Softball Championship out in Storm Lake Iowa. I scored the winning run, which is also a cool little trivia thing. This little ball player, accounting nerd from Windham Connecticut that nobody’s ever heard of ended up on a National Championship Team. Didn’t even go there for softball, but the coach was like, “hey,” my nickname is Poke, and I’ll let the listeners try to figure out what that meant. So he said, “Hey Poke, you’re really fun,” because I played basketball and soccer, and he was like, “come play softball.” I was like, “dude, I’m not good enough to be on your team. You guys are like super awesome, amazing.” And he was like, “yeah, but you’re really fun.” Then the killer, he says, “we’re going to Hawaii on Thursday.” I was like, “I am a good softball player.”
DAWN. That’s how I played softball at Eastern.
JOHN. That’s so great, so great. And just attitude and being fun to be around is way better than just that star athlete that can play shortstop.
JOHN. What a great story and lesson for the future, type of thing.
DAWN. It really set the tone for my life.
JOHN. Yeah, oh definitely. I mean, I have to imagine now with Powerful Accounting, and when you’re dealing with clients, I saw you in action. That’s certainly your M.O. It’s like, here it comes, it’s all fun, it’s all energy, and you’re not going to know what the heck just happened, but it’s going to be right.
DAWN. You will have fun doing it, and you will wonder why later.
JOHN. And here’s your invoice, so thank you very much.
DAWN. Here’s your invoice, pay up front, thank you very much.
JOHN. That’s so great. So I know that running your own business takes a lot of time, but what sort of hobbies and passions, I assume playing sports, things like that, take up your nights and weekends, and some of your free time.
DAWN. Yeah, absolutely. Actually, you know, I’m moving on in my age you see and so I don’t…
JOHN. 25, come on Dawn. Really?
DAWN. Yeah, 25? You’re not dead. Come on Brolin.
DAWN. I do love, I’ve been playing Summer softball, I’ve helped the Old Lady League for a long time, and I enjoy doing that just to get out in the field and run around. I built a quarter quart basketball right outside my office so that we could shoot around. I tend to hire athletes, if I can, and there’s a reason behind that a little bit. I’m not saying if you’re not an athlete you’re not a good accountant, that’s not what I mean. I definitely believe that if you’re a motivated person you can learn anything, if you have the motivation inside of you and at least half a brain you can learn anything. I truly believe that. But I also, of course, love to watch football. I love football season, it’s one of my favorites. I’m going to a hockey game tonight with my uncle, before the holidays. I love just watching the game, picking a team, and just being like yelling at the TV, getting fired up, it’s all about playing sports. I do love to spend time with my family, of course, who doesn’t love their family? It’s my hope that everybody loves to spend time with their family. I have a great family, my husband actually had surgery yesterday and one of the things is we can’t really make him laugh and my daughter said to me, this is so funny that you and I are talking today. She said, “Mom, what do you mean we can’t make him laugh? That’s our dynamic!” Our whole family, we always want to leave people better than we found them, we want to make them laugh, we want to make them feel good about themselves. I am who am I am whether I’m on a field, whether I’m in an office in my clients, with my team, I call my staff my team I think employees is a rude word so I say team. I believe, be who you are all the time, and be true to yourself. If you’re a good person you’ll be successful, and if you’re not a good person you won’t be successful, you can’t fake your way to that. Period.
JOHN. what gives you the confidence to just be you all the time? Was it always that way? When you first graduated college and started work? Or is it something that came on later?
DAWN. It’s interesting that you ask that. I’ve always been somebody who’s been the life of the party. In college I was always the life of the party, people wanted me to be everywhere. I don’t mean that in a cocky way, it’s just that people love fun people, it’s just a fact. Who wants to bring Eeyore and drag that guy around? I have for the most part of my life been that. I have been in a business situation where I was, I’ll say, programmed a little bit in a way to be somebody that I’m not, when I was in the office. I didn’t like that, so I ended up leaving that situation and that’s when, basically, when Powerful Accounting started. So it’s basically my third rendition of a company, because I just couldn’t live with myself anymore. I’m acting myself outside of the office, but inside the office I’m a totally different person, I’m miserable, this isn’t going to work. So I said, “I’m out.” I called my husband and said, “Honey, we might be living in a box, but I ain’t going back there again.”
JOHN. I love how you called it a situation.
DAWN. Don’t you like that?
JOHN. It wasn’t a job or a career, it was a situation. Just trust me, it was the right word for it. Yeah, so what made you, I guess, first of all, what made you want to just fall into line with everybody there? Then, what was the turning point that made you be like, “I can’t do it anymore and I got to go”?
DAWN. In the beginning it seemed so right. I’m somebody that always believes, and I’m sure you do too, you always surround yourself with smarter people.
DAWN. That’s what you do.
JOHN. Which is not hard for me to do, to be honest for you.
DAWN. I was going to say, my level is pretty low, so there’s a ton of people out there.
JOHN. I just go into the grocery store and go, “these are my people. This is good.”
DAWN. “Here I am, can I help bag your groceries please?” That’s me no matter where I am. So I kind of did that, and then I was excited about the opportunity of being a part of this situation, and then there were circumstances and things that happened that, almost like the rope kept falling down and it was harder to hang on. It got to the point where it was like, if I’m not going to have fun, be happy, and really feel like I’m really delivering who I am to my team, my clients, my family, and I just said, “you know, this is just not who you are. You need to get out of this and just be who you are.” I said, “you know why? Because money doesn’t mean anything.” We all need it to survive, but if money drives you you have the whole wrong perspective, in my opinion.
JOHN. It’s a never ending chase.
DAWN. It’s a never ending chase. It’s a rat race, I don’t care if you’re a billionaire or you have $0.05 in your pocket. It’s the thrill of the chase that is what it should be about. If the thrill of the chase sucks, sorry I said that on your podcast.
JOHN. No, it’s OK.
DAWN. If the thrill is not fun, then you must make a shift, make a change, and then make it right. I just, that’s truly what I believe in. We here, we shoot Nerf guns in this office. Amanda and I, she’s a really bad influence on me because I’m always playing with her, we’re like, “what can we get into now?” It’s almost like we’re five year olds.
JOHN. “We’re actually trying to finish something here. Who’s in charge? Oh you, never mind, sorry.”
DAWN. “Whatever, do your thing.” That’s what I believe in.
JOHN. Right. I think a lot of people, especially people listening. If they’re new or they just fall into line with the culture or what they think the stereotype is, and what have you. It’s encouraging to hear that you did do that, but then at some point realized, “look, I got to get out of this.” It’s got to be exhausting, I’d imagine, to be not yourself.
DAWN. Yeah, totally. You know, what you have to also understand, or at least I always had to remind myself, what was important was if a client called me and we just didn’t click, it’s OK for them to go somewhere else. That’s totally OK, and I tell the client, “this is who we are, we’re passionate, we’re observant, we have our core values, these are the things that are important to us as the professionals. One of them is Fun, it’s going to be fun.” But if they’re looking more from a corporate, which there’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re not the match. We’re the ones who are hardcore, we’re passionate, it’s the first word, and I want to get fired up, and I want to win. I want to be competitive, it’s about winning and being the best that we can be. We all make mistakes, and I’m not going to say that I haven’t made 10,000 this morning already, but you always have to be true to who you are, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy the path you’re on.
JOHN. I’d imagine that when it does click it’s way better than when you were holding yourself back. Did you find that working with clients and even coworkers, once the gloves were off and you were who you were, that those relationships changed?
DAWN. Oh yeah. So, interesting, they changed one way or the other.
DAWN. They either dissolved and just didn’t continue, and mutually beneficial, or the relationship got tighter. I’ll tell you, there are so may stories I can tell you about each one of my team members, and there’s only six so it wouldn’t take too long. Each one of them have a quality that I wouldn’t trade them for anything. My core values, they have to fit into that mold. Until I defined who I wanted Powerful Accounting to be, from a value perspective, I was failing on hiring in some cases. I was failing in taking on clients that just didn’t fit, really, who we were. Once I defined that and figured that out, it’s been amazing. I’m not saying there aren’t bumps in the road, because there are in every journey. You’re going to hit a pothole, happens.
DAWN. The relationships have grown closer and closer, the loyalty and respect just gets deeper and deeper.
JOHN. That’s where it’s at, when it comes to you being able to serve your clients much, much better, you’re able to serve your team much, much better. That’s so great to hear that I’m not crazy, that it works.
DAWN. Well, you are.
JOHN. I am, but for different reasons.
DAWN. Who ‘nother list, that’s a whole ‘nother hour.
JOHN. That is a whole ‘nother hour, you’re right.
DAWN. Oh, you’re so funny.
JOHN. That’s impressive. I guess, sometimes I think about when it comes to firms or companies, and the people that are listening might be in situations that are really, really great, or the opposite, that are really, really miserable and no one is allowed to talk about anything personal, hobbies, or passions. Where do you think on the spectrum that it matters as far as, do you think it’s more on the firm to create that culture, or do you think it’s on the individual to be willing to open up and share?
DAWN. I think it’s a combination. I think that the firm itself needs to allow for the opportunity for those relationships to cultivate naturally through. We have Amanda, Amanda is the director of the Fun Department in our Firm. She is in charge of making sure that we are doing some fun stuff as often as possible, even if it’s playing the game Psych on our phones on Friday at four o’clock, or tomorrow we’re having a brunch for Thanksgiving. We went on a boat, we chartered a boat and went across to Long Island over the Summer so everybody could be together. You have to try to create those cultures, and we do have remote team members. We have three who are remote, and the other four, including myself, are the main headquarters. You have to develop that culture. If you develop that then they’ll develop something together one on one, or they won’t, but I think it helps them realize that they can. People say, “you’re the CEO, you’re the owner, you can’t be friends with your team.” I’ve said, “well, you know what, I just don’t believe that.” I think there has to be a respect, there has to be a line where when I get to it I expect what I say, but at the same time I don’t see why. You spend the most time with those people, I hope they’re people you want to be with, because you spend more time with them than you do with your family, because if you think about it, sleeping has got to be 8 hours or I’m really grouchy, then you’re at work for 8-10 hours and you’re with your family for 2. So you better really like those people that you’re working with.
DAWN. It’s my responsibility to hire the right people, and then to give them the opportunity to learn about each other and have some kind of connection outside of work.
JOHN. I think it’s really interesting as a partner, if you will, or as a business owner, that you’re not always focused on the billable hour and the charge codes, things like that. Why is it that you want to have fun, and are even at the center of all of it?
DAWN. I’m usually the instigator, and I don’t behave. They call me the “giant toddler”, which is totally legit and fair. I just think that you spend so much time with your coworkers that I truly believe that there’s got to be some fun involved. I want really happy people, I want them happy. I think people are more productive when they have a positive attitude. We have enough negative in the world that the last place I would want my team to spend their entire day, five days a week, is in a morbid situation. I think it’s important.
JOHN. I remember when I was working, those people that you have those connections with, if it’s a bigger firm, then you’re just clicking with them so much better. Like you said, those relationships are deeper and deeper, and then the people that you just have the work relationship with, “I know what your job is, but I don’t know about you or what makes you tick.” I think that’s great, and that’s so cool, especially that you have a basketball court outside, Nerf guns, it’s all like minded.
DAWN. And BB guns.
JOHN. And BB guns, of course, of course. And eye patches, so when you shoot your eye out it’s all good.
DAWN. We have mace, because we just want to see what it’s like. There’s all kinds of stuff we do around here at the office.
JOHN. There’s going to be so many more remote team members now after people here this. They’re going to be like, “how do I get in on this mace game?”
DAWN. So funny. I told Amanda, “I want to shoot you once with a BB because I want to see if it hurts.” Most of the boys do that when they’re teenagers. She and I, a little bit older, we just want to test it out. Can’t be worse than a paintball.
JOHN. Nah, come on. If she whines about it, then shoot her again and say, “see, didn’t hurt as bad the second time.”
DAWN. If she’s crying I’m going to shoot her like ten more times.
JOHN. This is all excellent. Do you have any words of encouragement to some people that maybe are on the fence, or are not quite sure. Maybe they’re like, “hey, I played softball in college but nobody cares in my firm because no one else played softball in college.” Or something like that. Do you have words to show where it does matter and how much your career boosted from that?
DAWN. I think that question, as far as exposing yourself a little bit. You’re kind of opening yourself up to say, “hey, I played softball in college,” or “I played soccer in college,” or, “I’m still best friends with my friend from college.” “I went to Eastern Connecticut State University.” Even just making simple, blank statements to other coworkers, you’d be surprised at how much more you have in common than you don’t. Some of the fun things, like if you think about it. I’m always about the sports, and I apologize. If you’re a Green Bay Packer fan I feel really bad for you right now. So you find out about the other people around you, so who are they a fan of? What’s their team? Are they a Giants fan? Of course you feel bad for the Giants.
DAWN. Or, what if you are a Giants fan and somebody else is a Giants fan? Now you have a buddy and now you’re going to team up against the Green Bay guy, and on Sunday you’re going to have something to talk about. Or what if you’re like, “oh yeah, my kids in dance.” And they’re like, “oh yeah? I was just thinking about putting my daughter in dance, where are you going? That’s great, can you give me any recommendations?” Just being open with them, being willing to do that, without that initial conversation and just throwing something out there and taking a little bit of risk that you’ll look stupid, which I’ve done numerous times. I’m comfortable with looking stupid. Just being really open and having conversations with people, this is another really interesting point, you never know, sitting next to somebody in a cubicle, in an office, or wherever you might be, on a subway, I don’t care, asking someone, “hey, how was your day today?” You’d be very surprise at a response you would get. I think you would be surprised, “oh, my wife had a baby yesterday.” Or they may say, “oh, well, my daughter’s really sick, she’s got pneumonia, just trying to make it through.” Or, “you know, my daughter’s getting married!” You never know what someone’s going through on a daily basis. We call that being observant and understanding in our company. Just be observant and understanding of other people. Just being genuine and actually asking someone, because you really care. I think those things, if you can get past a barrier and put yourself aside, and your anxiety about that conversation, “today I’m going to ask somebody how their day was today, look them in the eye, and really listen to what they say.”
JOHN. Like you said, it is at the risk of looking stupid, but I have to imagine that 99% of the time that’s not the case.
JOHN. It’s almost like you’re fighting yourself. No one else thinks this is stupid, except for you, so get over it. It’s not what a lot of people think it is in their own head, type of thing. Another key point that you said, it’s got to be genuine. It’s not the partner or the manager needing to check a box of, “OK, I asked three people today how their day was.” It’s actually, genuinely caring about someone and what they say. They can tell, and they’re not going to tell the truth if you’re like, “how was your day?” Whatever. “Oh, fine.” Meanwhile, inside they have all kinds of stuff going on.
DAWN. That’s what’s truly important.
JOHN. So great, such great words of wisdom to everyone.
DAWN. I don’t even know if I have any wisdom other than that.
JOHN. That’s it, you used it all up, that’s why we can’t go any longer. No, I’m just kidding. This was really, really awesome Dawn. Before I make the trip up to Connecticut, hang out, and shoot some hoops with you and your team, I do have a rapid fire 17 questions that I have to run you through. Which, I recommend you just use them next time you’re hiring someone, this is a lot faster.
JOHN. Do you prefer Sudoku or crossword puzzles?
DAWN. Neither. Word Search.
JOHN. Do you have a favorite color?
JOHN. Least favorite color?
DAWN. Probably black.
JOHN. Black, interesting.
DAWN. No, actually it’s orange, orange! I changed my mind.
JOHN. Are you more of an early bird or night owl?
DAWN. Night owl.
JOHN. Do you have a favorite Disney character?
DAWN. Ariel, because my daughter sings just like her, just a beautiful little thing.
JOHN. Nice, very cool.
How about, Star Wars or Star Trek?
DAWN. Neither, ever.
JOHN. Ever, alright. Any sort of movie trilogy or series of any sort?
DAWN. Hunger Games, love it.
JOHN. When it comes to computers, PC or Mac?
JOHN. Both, look at you, ambidextrous, I’m impressed.
DAWN. I’m an animal.
JOHN. When it comes to a mouse, right click or left click?
DAWN. Right clicker, I like to right click.
JOHN. Do you have a favorite TV show of all time?
DAWN. Modern Family.
JOHN. How about a movie that makes you cry?
DAWN. Oh, um. Shawshank Redemption.
JOHN. Yeah, absolutely.
JOHN. When it comes to financials, balance sheet or income statement?
DAWN. Always balance sheet.
JOHN. When it comes to books, Kindle or real books?
DAWN. Real books.
JOHN. What did you have for breakfast?
DAWN. I had a soft boiled egg, 6 1/2 minutes.
JOHN. That’s about as brief of an answer as it takes.
Do you have a favorite number?
JOHN. Why’s that?
DAWN. 6 and 15. They were my sports numbers. I have to pick 6, because in softball somebody had 15 so I add the 1 and 5 and get six.
JOHN. Look at you all smarty pants. That’s impressive. That’s really good.
Do you have a favorite band?
DAWN. Genesis. Phil Collins, baby.
JOHN. Not Phil Collins by himself?
DAWN. Nope, with the band.
JOHN. Favorite actor or actress?
DAWN. Melissa McCarthy is my girl, please someone, someone help me meet her! I’m her sister and she’s making all this money off me, I’m a little ticked off.
JOHN. Favorite thing you own, or favorite thing you have?
DAWN. Of course the favorite thing you have is your family, but I’ll say my Jeep Wrangler.
JOHN. Oh, very cool.
DAWN. I love my Jeep Wrangler.
JOHN. How long have you had it?
DAWN. I’ve had it since 2013, I had one before I had the kids, but they were really bouncy back then, so I traded in for a minivan. Now I have my Jeep Wrangler and I love it.
JOHN. Really cool, this was great Dawn, thank you so much for being with me on the Green Apple Podcast.
DAWN. Oh my goodness, tell me how many more I can come on? You just let me know when you need me.
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