Episode 271: Shaping the Future of Accounting with Technology Insights from Sarah Langham

April 17 , 2024  |  By Brent Williams

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This week on the Be Epic podcast, Brent welcomes Sarah Langham, a partner and office managing partner at HoganTaylor and an alum of the Walton College. They delve into Sarah's journey from her education at Walton College to her professional growth in accounting, highlighting her transition from Ernst and Young to HoganTaylor. Sarah discusses the significant growth of HoganTaylor, her engaging role with diverse clients, and the evolving landscape of the accounting industry influenced by technology and automation. She emphasizes the shift from mundane tasks to critical thinking in the field, and the potential future changes in the structure of accounting careers. Join them as they explore how modern accounting practices are adapting to new technologies and preparing the next generation for a dynamic workplace.

Podcast Episode 

Episode Transcript

Sarah Langham  0:00  
Take advantage of the opportunities and do a lot of things. But don't feel like you have to do every single thing or that you're comparing yourself to other people like enjoy the experience for what it is because this is a special time that you don't get to go back and, and redo.

Brent Williams  0:14  
Welcome to the Be Epic Podcast brought to you by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. I'm your host, Brent Williams. Together, we'll explore the dynamic landscape of business and uncover the strategies, insights and stories that drive business today. Well, today I have with me, Sarah Langham, and Sarah is a partner with HoganTaylor, and is the office managing partner in the local office in Northwest Arkansas and alum of the Walton College. So Sarah, thank you for being here today.

Sarah Langham  0:50  
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Brent Williams  0:52  
Well, I've known Sarah for quite a while. And she has been not only engaged with engaged within the community, but engaged at the Walton College for years. But maybe before we kind of get into some of what you see happening in your industry, maybe a little bit one about your background, and then some about familiarizing our listeners with HoganTaylor.

Right, so as you mentioned, I am a graduate of the Walton College two times. So as a CPA, I have a master's in accounting. And it was great to be able to stay here for a fifth year and learn from some of the best, I think it really helped us. And at the time, Dr. Pincus was the accounting department chair, and she told us she was preparing us to be future partners. And so I appreciate all the effort that they poured into us at that time. But I graduated and started with Ernst and Young in the Rogers, Arkansas office, which was great experience worked on, you know, some of the usual suspects here in Northwest Arkansas and great teams learned a lot. But I had an opportunity to switch to a regional firm, after about a year and a half. And for me, that was a great fit, working on smaller clients, but still really high quality clients and just getting to see maybe more variety. And so came over to the firm as an experienced staff, and then I've stayed so that was in December 2007. I've been with the firm a long time. It's grown a lot. And when I joined the firm, there were 74 people, and HoganTaylor now, which through some mergers has about 350 professionals, so large regional firm, and based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then Oklahoma City, Little Rock and then Fayetteville.

Well, you know, I know you I know, you still serve clients, and you have the opportunity to lead the local office, what's, you know, in, in in your role? What's what's some of the things you enjoy most about working with clients?

Sarah Langham  2:46  
Well, I think that my job is not boring. 

Brent Williams  2:49  

Sarah Langham  2:50  
And I get to serve a wide variety of clients. And it's really interesting to see the really different challenges that they're facing, and to get to be a part of brainstorming or sharing best practices with them. Just some really motivated, really interesting individuals that I get to work alongside with and see their businesses grow, and see their teams grow. It's really neat to see people that I, when I was a staff, and they were maybe lower, you know, in the ladder, and they've grown up and in their respective companies, it's, it's just really fun to see everyone grow and get better together. It's, it's been a fun ride.

Brent Williams  3:26  
Well, you know, Sarah, when I, when I think about our students here, our accounting students, and we have several, as you well know, we have a large number that are really following the exact same path you did so undergraduate, going into a fifth year graduate program, and then and then they'll find their way into, you know, into a firm, or they might end up on the corporate side, and amongst other things, you know, but I'm sure they're wondering, and I know, there's conversations and engagement in the classroom on this, but like your perspective, you know, so much, but when you when you think about audit, you know, there's a lot of conversation out there about what can technology automate, what can it not? How're you thinking about that? Are you all at HoganTaylor thinking about?

Sarah Langham  4:15  
Yeah, so we're really lucky, we have a partner of innovation and who's helping us, you know, stay abreast of all the current changes, but just a couple of concrete examples of things that have changed from the time I was a staff, you know, in 2005 2006, to now, as a first year staff, one of your jobs used to be to look at two different documents and see if the numbers were the same between those two documents. As you can imagine, after five years of college, that might not be the most exciting thing and you might not feel like that's the highest and best use of your brain power. And thankfully, with technology, there's a lot of times now where that can all be automated. And so we've sped up some of the learning curve because you're not having to necessarily pay your dues by looking at two pieces of paper to say that they agree. Yeah, you get to jump past that, to start analyzing it and say, what are the outliers? What makes sense? Let's flip through these and and see does it does it match my expectations. And so I think harnessing technology to help us all level up and take out some of the routine or mundane tasks that really didn't add value to anyone. If I was a student coming out, I'd be really excited about that, to hear that I'm gonna get used for my critical thinking skills, and not just my ability to compare two numbers. So I think that's great.

Brent Williams  5:37  
So as you're bringing, you know, younger people, younger professionals into the organization, you know, how are you preparing them for that interaction, I guess, with with technology and with automation, do you feel like, like, oh, it's just natural? Or do you have to prepare them for that?

Sarah Langham  5:55  
No, I think it's so natural. And it's and it's really exciting. That's why we love having interns, you know, we bring new staff in every year, because they're not afraid, they're not afraid to break it, they're not afraid to experiment and try new things, that's, it's probably harder for me sometimes to embrace some of those things. And I have to work to overcome maybe that fear, and where the students coming out, it comes just so naturally to them. And, and what's interesting is that if you empower them, and you say, hey, if you're doing a task, and it doesn't feel like this is the most efficient way, you have the freedom to try it a different way. And they they do and it's really neat sometimes to see what they can come up with.

Brent Williams  6:30  
Yeah, you know, the, you're right, like, like, getting to use what humans are best for critical thinking, communication. And getting to use that off the bat, I would assume, probably changes the longevity and career and probably maybe even affects long term trajectories as well.

Sarah Langham  6:51  
Right. And, and we're so early, you know, in the industry, they talk about it used to be in public accounting, which is my space and it for so, so long was a pyramid, you know, where there was lots of people at the, you know, entry level doing those tasks, and then it gets smaller and smaller. And there's talk now that maybe it would be more like a diamond, you know, where there's a few people that help input documents, and a lot of the, maybe the more routine tasks are automated, but then it gets broader in the middle. And that narrows again, at the top, I think we're still early in it, I don't know how that's all gonna play out. I think that I've seen people's careers be more enriching, I see people learning and asking good questions, and maybe being able to go deeper, because they get to see more, and they, we do expect a lot of them. And because, you know, we need you off the bat, like you said, critical thinking, I need you to tell me if it makes sense, not just tell me if the two numbers are the same.

Brent Williams  7:51  
Absolutely. Well, you know, I tend to have a bias in the direction of like, I feel like humans tend to adapt to the technology, and then, you know, tend to be able to make higher level contributions because of that, but I do know that, you know, the, the field of Accounting has been one of those right, that has been put forward as an area that could be disrupted.

Sarah Langham  8:15  
Right. Yep. I think pieces of it will. And, and I think that's okay, if we see the pipeline, you hear about, you know, some accounting numbers are going down. So, okay, then let's repurpose, you know, let's focus our attention to the areas that maybe are more fulfilling and more exciting, I can appreciate that there are certain jobs in accounting that for students coming out now would not be particularly attractive, you know, and because it's, it's not engaging their sense of their highest purpose. And I appreciate that. And so I'm excited that if we have a limited number of staff that we can deploy them in ways that they feel like they're, they are contributing and in helping their organizations.

Brent Williams  8:56  
You know, accounting is interesting, it as a, as an element or function of business, in that, you know, I'm sure you've heard this said many of you listening have heard this said that accounting is the language of business. And so we encourage even, you know, non accounting majors, we would like them to have some accounting so that so that they can communicate and interact using that language. And I am sure you see that working with clients every single day.

Sarah Langham  9:25  
I do yeah. And, and I think the clients that have people in house that not just know their numbers, but can interpret it can tell the story can not just live in the past, and that's a hard thing about being an accountant, but pick up on trends and predict what that's going to be like in the future or the companies that are really doing exciting things, you know, because they're not being reactive, and they're they're really trying to be forward thinking and strategic and, and the ones that are doing that, it's just great to see their results and and see the power that being able to distill that information and tell a story with that information really elevates their whole organization. It's a super skill, know accounting and be able to explain it to other people. It's a super skill.

Brent Williams  10:12  
I haven't heard it said that way. But now I'm a I may borrow or steal that, you know, having known you for some time, I know innovation is an area that you are particularly interested in. But, you know, you refer to micro innovation. And I just wondered if you might double click on that a little bit and kind of talk through that concept and how it applies in your world.

Sarah Langham  10:39  
Yeah, that really distills down to empowerment, you know, and to not being okay with being stuck and not being okay with being frustrated that when we say micro, it's just little tweaks and little changes in your approach or the way that you go about, not just your work, but your life. And it's been so encouraging, so exciting to me, when I see team members embracing that, and like reach a new breakthrough, you know, or the ripple effect of, they've been frustrated with something and they're fed up. And so they figure out a better way and share it with others. And then everybody, you know, saves time, you know, as accountants, as much as we hate it the billable hours important. And so, you know, the more efficient that we can be, the better we can are, you know, the better results we have, the better we can serve our clients. And so, for us micro innovation is is just being willing to get better to try new things and, and to not accept the status quo.

Brent Williams  11:34  
Yeah. Do you all have specific ways or maybe they're your own, or maybe they're more systemic within the firm, to celebrate those micro innovations and kind of call them forward so that it encourages more?

Sarah Langham  11:50  
Yeah. So as someone that shepherds it in the firm, that's a big thing, right is to show people because it's a squishy topic. 

Brent Williams  11:57  

Sarah Langham  11:58  
And so to call out and celebrate the wins is really important. So if we have a department meeting, we'll talk about it in a medium like that. You were on teams all the time. And so we'll be in a team's meeting, and someone will make a comment. That's total micro innovation. And someone in the chat, I'm sure we're all familiar with the chat, got the side chat going, we'll say hashtag micro innovation, and to just continue to keep that in our language. It's interesting. Some people in the firm use the term get better, instead of micro innovation. I don't care which term they use, as long as we're all doing it. And I see it on a daily basis, which is really, it's good when you're working on something to see it in practice.

Brent Williams  12:38  
Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, you've you've been successful inside HoganTaylor. And I know you've recently taken on, you know, I mentioned this at the beginning a new role of the office managing partner. But that's an interesting role, I want you to talk some about, at least outside looking in what I see interesting about it is that, you know, you're managing an office that that is made up of a set of peers, 

Sarah Langham  12:38  

Brent Williams  12:40  
and in many ways, and so, one, maybe talk a little bit about what you do in that role, but like, and I think you've only been in it for, you know, for a few months or so. But what have you learned thus far?

Sarah Langham  13:17  
Well, I think that maybe you've learned this too, that you don't really know exactly what you're doing until you're really doing it for real. So. So I've learned that Todd Wisdom, who had the role before me did a lot of things behind the scenes that he was very quiet about, and I didn't totally appreciate. So thank you, Todd, for doing all the things she did behind the scenes for so many years. And but really, a big part of it is shepherding our culture, you know, being a point person for someone on the outside that has questions for the firm, and then helping make some decisions about things that are going to enhance our employee experience or things inside our office. You talk about working with peers, I think one of the reasons I love public accounting is because I work with all professionals. Yeah, everyone is CPA eligible, everyone treats each other with respect, that's the kind of company I would want to work for. And so it's, it's fun being in the role, because I'm working with people that I really respect, and it's not a situation that I'm having to, you know, be a mean person at any point in time. You know, I'm working with people that that are motivated and want to do great things, and I just get to help support them in those roles. And so, so far, so good. 

Brent Williams  13:21  

Sarah Langham  13:27  
four months, and, you know, I'll report back.

Brent Williams  14:34  
Well, I keep talking about all these roles you have and so I want to spend the last few minutes that we have together focused on another role, but first, you know, let me kind of go back to partner you've taken on this Managing Partner role, you know, knowing you right now, I know a role at home, wife, mom, but kind of in our world in the in the College and University alum, alum alumna is a role that you play and you play it really well. And and that's part of what I wanted to talk about today. You know, so just observing all your interactions, you're very deeply engaged here hasn't been that long ago, I was walking through a building and and saw you and you were guest lecturing in a class. You're here today on the serving on the Dean's Alumni Advisory Council. So maybe talk about that role. And it's clearly a role that you've taken seriously and embraced, maybe a little bit of the why behind it in case others are thinking, how could I be engaged more?

Sarah Langham  15:42  
Right. Well, I think it goes back to the experience I had when I was here as a student. Yeah, it makes a difference in your life, when you get an opportunity to be exposed to the type of leaders that I was exposed to, when you get launched off into a career, like I was launched off into that just set me up for so many opportunities. You know, Cathy Gates was in EY, she was the office Managing Partner of EY Tulsa. And she was on campus and interviewed me for my first job. She's someone who's still engaged.

Brent Williams  16:13  
I actually didn't know that. But it makes sense now.

Sarah Langham  16:16  
Yeah. And so, you know, she's someone that from the time I was a student I looked up to, of course, I would come back and do things, Cathy did it. Yeah. And she's someone I would love to emulate. And so, you know, I had that those really good examples. And I enjoy my days on campus. You know, I think now I'm qualifying as like an older younger alumni based on some some schedules I saw today. But it just gives you energy when you're here. And it's so exciting, to see the things that are happening at the college to see the growth of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville overall, and to see us moving the needle on really important metrics. So I want to get back I enjoy being here and, and just appreciate opportunities where I can plug in and, and feel like I'm adding some value back to somewhere that gave me such a great start.

Brent Williams  17:09  
You know, as the Dean's Alumni Advisory Council, we're talking about and spent a good bit of today talking about alumni engagement, and in ways that alumni engagement can really move the needle for the Walton College, as you mentioned, growth. Certainly a big part of our story as of the last several years, about 9000 students we'll, we'll get to 10, you know, at some point in the near future. And you know, and for us, we think about, we think about experience in the classroom, obviously, is a core critical part of, of what we offer, but it's all these other experiences around it, like internships and, you know, sitting in on a panel that you might present on. So how do you kind of as someone that has been engaged, how have you found many different opportunities to provide those experiences.

Sarah Langham  18:06  
Right. Well, I think you know, anyone in a company with influence to be able to hire interns, like I would say, interns have been just a, for our firm, a great talent pipeline. And just like when you're on campus, campus, you get different energy and enjoy being around the students. You know, having those folks embedded in your teams is fantastic. And so I think anytime you can capitalize on that opportunity, that would be fantastic. You know, I like being on campus, because I like to keep in touch with some of my professors. And anytime there's an opportunity that works with my schedule, I want to be here because not only am I learning from the students, you guys are always doing new cool things, I get to learn new things that are happening and, and so I think it enhances me professionally, just as much as I might be able to give back.

Brent Williams  18:55  
Yeah, you know, when you you've you've had several interns in your office, any particular points of wisdom that you would give to our listeners about how to two things, get the most, right, because you want to get the most out of those that resource, but also provide the best experience any tips?

Sarah Langham  19:17  
Yeah, I think for our firm, it's been a balance over the years. And I think every everyone takes a different approach. Our goal is for it to be a real experience where they're embedded in teams and they're doing what the real work would be. You know that they have some special days they get to do some special fun things but it's it's more doing the real work versus a super fun curated experience. So sorry interns where you do real work for us. But I think that that's helpful. I think that that equips them and in any time I encourage our interns to do multiple internships, see what it's really like in different companies and what what you like and the only way to know that is to do the real work. So we just tried to get them plugged in. And

Brent Williams  20:04  
Well, and we want them, you know, to the, to that point of the internships providing real work like, you know, for, for us from like a pedagogical learning standpoint, you know, I talked about this all the time, I'm someone who I learn in context, but outside of context, it can be a little hard for me to learn. And so when I, when I learn and apply, you know, and then what I saw in the application I bring back to the classroom or back to the book I'm reading and studying, it's that kind of back and forth between learning and application. And we do that as professionals for the rest of our lives. So I think it is actually really important that the experience be real, because I think the learning will be more real.

Sarah Langham  20:50  
I agree. For example, we had an intern sit in a planning meeting the other day. And in accounting, you know, understanding what the risk assessment process is, you can read about it in a book all day long, but for that student to get to sit and listen to us debate back and forth and decide how are we going to test different balances? What's the real risk? You know, he'll be able to apply that when he is in his auditing class, I think that it will set him apart and give him a head start to understand the concepts like you said, when you when you have the context, and it's not just an abstract thing on a page.

Brent Williams  21:23  
Yeah. And internships derisk, the hiring process for the employer?

Sarah Langham  21:27  
Certainly, yeah, we've had some fantastic interns convert over the years. I've had some fantastic interns that went other places. And so you're welcome to whatever company they ended up at. And, but yeah, it's been it's been great for us. And, and it's something we'll continue so.

Brent Williams  21:42  
Yeah, well, you know, when you will kind of think about our students, you know, and I always, every time I walk through, you know, these buildings, you know, I'm reminded that we have so many young people that are about to enter their professional life, and can make a difference in business and in their communities for a long time to come. And so, you know, as you look back over your career thus far, what is one piece of advice, that from what you've learned, that you would give a student from the Walton College?

Sarah Langham  22:23  
I would say that there are so many opportunities that are here, that you need to just tackle as much as you can tackle. And, and I think the flip side of that is, as a college student, you're at a really special time of your life. And I think I see from students coming out now that they put a lot of pressure on themselves. And so I think the balance is take advantage of the opportunities and do a lot of things. But don't feel like you have to do every single thing or that you're comparing yourself to other people, like enjoy the experience for what it is because this is a special time that you don't get to go back and, and redo. So I don't know how to hold that tension. But I think that that, that would be my advice to them is do what you can but then don't fret over not doing everything.

Brent Williams  23:09  
Yeah, that's right. You know, we careers in life are pretty nonlinear. You know, and but I couldn't agree more. I think when you think about this Walton College experience, it is exactly that. It is an experience, and there's so much that a student can take advantage of. And that was usually one of my first piece of advice to incoming freshmen as well, as a freshman get involved in something. And if that's not the thing, find the next one. And, you know, if you do enough of that, by the time you leave here, you've done some internships, you know, you really are on the path, like hopefully doing something that gives you lots of joy.

Sarah Langham  23:54  
I agree.

Brent Williams  23:54  
Well, Sarah, thanks for spending a few minutes with me today and thank you for the way that you give back. Alumni Engagement is so important to the college it helps us in many ways, including internships in placement and, and many, many other but you're such a prime example of that. So thank you.

Sarah Langham  24:14  
Thank you. Appreciate it.

Brent Williams  24:15  
On behalf of the Walton College thank you for joining us for this captivating conversation. To stay connected and never miss an episode., simply search for Be Epic on your preferred podcast service.