Build Your Community and Pay It Forward

Eric Fischer BDO

We know that a successful career begins with meaningful connections. Everyone you connect with intentionally will have something of value to give and offer a different angle to the same problem. The reality is that doing things by yourself is tough! We need to focus on becoming the best for our community, to learn to truly listen to what’s going on out there, to hone our public speaking skills, and to build effective teams! Today’s guest is Eric Fischer, a tax partner with BDO out of Grand Rapids. During our conversation, Eric shares his thoughts on what it means to build your community and how you can go about paying it forward. We hear different strategies on how to build your network, what skills are important, how to invest in other people to help them grow, and the concept of passing on your knowledge and opportunity to help others.

Key Points From This Episode

  • Eric shares some of his thoughts around building community and community involvement — what that means to him and how he’s applied it in his personal and professional lives.
  • Why public speaking and being able to communicate is a critically important skill to hone.
  • How giving to, and helping other people grow makes you grow in return.
  • Eric shares more about the idea behind his Pay It Forward group.
  • Building your network from different angles: Your own personal board of directors.
  • How to get out and actually build your network: Overcoming common challenges.
  • The importance of hearing problems from many different angles to find solutions.
  • As leaders we need to help our teams grow and reach their full potential.
  • The importance of finding your team’s internal strengths.


[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.

[00:00:22] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Branch Out. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today’s guest is Eric Fischer, a Tax Partner with BDO, out of Grand Rapids. Eric shares his thoughts around building a community and paying it forward. I really enjoyed our conversation and I’m excited to be able to share it with you. I hope you all enjoy.

[00:00:41] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.


[00:00:49] AD: Eric, welcome to Branch Out. Looking forward to our conversation today.

[00:00:52] EF: Me as well, Alex. Thanks for having me out.

[00:00:54] AD: A few weeks ago, you and I were talking about this idea of building your community and community involvement. Would love if you could share with our listeners some of your thoughts about what that means to you as a professional and how you’ve applied it in both your personal, but also, professional life.

[00:01:09] EF: I moved back to the West Michigan area, moved around a while for my career. Things were going okay, but when I came back to West Michigan, I really started to focus more on the community. I think that was a necessity for me, continue my career, because I felt like I was missing something.

When my wife and I decided to come back to West Michigan, we were really – we have to dig in. What I realized by doing that that was filling another bucket that I needed. I’ve spent a lot of time doing all I can for, I try to say the greater good of the community. That’s led to a lot of other things. I just started with needing a little bit more than what I had, before I came back to the West Michigan area.

[00:01:56] AD: Well, what I liked that I hear you saying there, Eric, is you went out to fulfill a need and a personal need in some ways of if you want to build a community, you want to have a set of friends and of people around you that you call your community, but you’ve also done a really good job doing that from a professional sense. I’ve seen you do it, in your case in particular, it’s the ACG community is one that really jumps out. Particularly, ACG cup within West Michigan, you’ve been a strong leader and advocate for that program, but in other places as well.

Do you have any stories you can share where you sit back and say, “Hey, I joined this just because I wanted to do something to get involved. I just wanted to build a community”? Then, you look forward today, you’re like, “Wow, that really helped my career and that really helped me out professionally and building my network and building out those important relationships to help my career accelerate.”

[00:02:42] EF: Yeah, absolutely. I think you hit it with the ACG and specifically, ACG cup. Actually, the story I’ll tell you is when I was at Michigan state many moons ago, I participated in a competition very similar to ACG cup. I’m a tax guy, a little nerdy in that space. I remember freezing. I remember getting in front of a group of people and I remember freezing and me thinking, “Maybe this isn’t for me.”

Ironically enough, when I came back, I connected with a few people in the community who were said, “Hey, we should do this ACG cup.” I realized, I started getting a cold sweat again, just thinking about that day. I thought, that’s not a game-changer. That was the first time I did it. First time I presented in front of a large group and I was thinking, “Hey, maybe that’s something that I could help out with.”

What I have been focused on is talking to a lot of those maybe less than confident public speaking members and did everything I could to work with those groups and bring even introverts to the table, this overall group of people. What I loved about it is that we’ve seen that the non-typical people that you’d think would excel in this space have. I’d like to think that maybe there’s one more uncomfortable person that can help publicly speak and are okay with it.

That was one of the things. We talk a lot and I know the podcast. I’ve been listening to it for the last couple weeks. What I love about this is everyone comes at this from a different angle. I love the fact that you can build a network in so many different ways. What I’ve been able to be fortunate to be able to do with the support of better mentors, people like yourself, Alex, that are willing to come to the table with the common focus. Then, who knows what will ultimately happen in this space as we have one common goal? Who knows what we’ll do in terms of work in the future? You have no idea.

I’ve had a lot of good mentors. I’m not a big name dropper, but I will drop Rich Noreen. He’s been a guy who’s always told me to be who you are and don’t fake it. He’s like, “If that’s the way you’re going to do it, just go, man.” It doesn’t mean, just because you’ve seen it done one way, doesn’t mean if you lead with who you are as a person, your community and your network will build.

[00:04:57] AD: There’s a lot to unpack there. That was really good. First, I want to go back and touch on the public speaking aspect in the ACG aspect and just say to our listeners, being able to communicate and whether that be in a broad public speaking sense, or in front of a small team, standing up in a board room with a client, whatever it might be, that ability to really communicate a message and communicate a train of thought with other humans is a critical element of what we do. You have to be able to do that.

As with everything, we’ve talked about this in other podcasts, practice makes everything better. Looking for those opportunities. You said it well, Eric, your first time when you’re at MSU, you froze. Look at the difference of you now and then. It wasn’t a light switch where one day, oh, you’re better at it. You went and you found places to go and develop those skill sets.

ACG cup is a great plug for ACG cup here, because I think it is such a phenomenal program to do that. I would recommend everyone to go and search out that development. Now, you also brought up the fact that you like supporting that, you like helping others do that. I want our listeners to take away that as a professional, when you find ways to get involved and to give back in a way that is helping someone else strengthen their skill sets, or overcome challenges that they have, that maybe you have dealt with yourself, not only are you helping people, but you yourself are growing.

[00:06:18] EF: Oh, absolutely. It was very much something that when you see other people grow, or just have a little bit more comfort, or you find the person who froze and you’ll be able to go up and tell them that story, not that an end all be all, but you can see where it’s taken me out of my comfort zone to have you grow. I just like to pause and have those people, or have anyone who has had that struggle to see that growth.

What I’ve found too and I know that from an accounting standpoint, I’m going to keep going back to my roots here and it’s great to see and be able to bring other people from either your profession, or maybe the ACG cup has always been something where you have people earlier in their career, to see the growth and bring them to the table and see that there’s other things to do outside of maybe just grabbing a cocktail with somebody after work. You never know how somebody is going to find their community and their network.

[00:07:14] AD: Now, when you sit back and we talk about ACG cup and whether it’s cup, I know there’s the CFA challenge. There are other case study competitions that exist like this. What I would really encourage people to do is get involved in them. Again, this is you give back, you help others grow, you grow yourself. When you step back as a professional in building out that network and that community, think about the people you’ve met through cup and how close you’ve become with them.

I mean, you and I, a lot of our relationship has circled around ACG cup. How many more people in your professional career tie back to that? You didn’t join cups saying, “Oh, let me go meet these people.” That’s what happens when the right people come together and they’re all working towards a good cause.

[00:07:54] EF: Absolutely, Alex. I mean, I think that was one spot where I started and I didn’t want to make this all focused necessarily on that one opportunity. It’s amazing how everything’s interconnected. Maybe it is one person and then they have some cause that they’re focused on too. When you see somebody in that light, knowing what makes them tick before what they do, there’s something just beautiful about that, for me personally and that’s just an awesome – like I said, just been fortunate to have the support of people, because that’s I would say, a long-term focus. Without the support of a team, that might not be the best way, but just been really fortunate to be able to attack it from that angle.

[00:08:34] AD: It’s so great to be in that position as well. You’ve shared with me before, I think you have a pay it forward group that you’re involved in. Can you share a little bit about that?

[00:08:42] EF: Yeah. Yeah. Pay it forward was just something. I still have a mentor at BDO. I was fortunate enough to move into a partner ranks last year. I’d ask them, I really feel like you did me a solid in the sense of, hey, you gave me that support. You went out of your way to say, “Hey, Eric. I know that you like education.” You said, “Hey, look. Here are all the maybe non-profits, or other opportunities that there are within the community that focus in that education.” I view that as the only way I can really give back is by doing the same thing for others in my organization too.

Not just in my organization, but that’s where I focus a group of four members of my team that, or I should say I’m a member of their team. In all honesty, they do all the work. Four team members and what we do is we look for what drives them, what’s the energy around them. I try different committees within different organizations and what one really resonated with you? It resonated with you, why did it resonate? Then, are there other places that we can go to find that excitement, that positive energy that you can bring back, either to BDO, or wherever it may be?

That’s just been in all honesty, is paying forward from the standpoint of what someone did for me, but it’s one of those things, I think you feel good about it. I know I get excited even talking to you about it. I’m smiling more just thinking.

[00:10:10] AD: What I love that you said there is you ask someone else, what do they want to accomplish and how can you help them? Really looking and not saying, what do you need done, or how can this benefit you, but looking at your teammates and saying, and I think that’s the role of every leader is to look and say, “Okay. My responsibility are the people that I work with and saying, how can I help them grow and develop into their best professional and personal self?”

When you approach it that way and you ask those questions, that is the pay it forward mentality. That is this idea, I want to go and help them, because it’s the right thing to do. Yeah, you feel great about it and you know that long-term, the more people you can help raise up and improve their lives, the better everyone is in the end.

[00:10:53] EF: We got a core purpose and the core purpose is to help people thrive. That’s it. If you get that, a lot of other things, the little tactical management things that you’re trying to figure out, that goes by the wayside if you’re doing everything you can to help people thrive.


[00:11:08] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast.


[00:11:18] AD: Eric, you have mentioned the idea of having a good mentor. We talk about mentors on the show a lot. I believe very strongly in having mentors, but you actually put it in a phrase that I thought was pretty relevant the other day. You said, the value of building your personal and professional board of directors. Share some thoughts around that.

[00:11:36] EF: You’re talking about different angles. This podcast is all about building network from different angles. I thought, maybe we look at this from your own personal board of directors. You’re a company. Maybe you are a CPA, but you have a lot of blind spots. Who are you going to call? Who would you call if you’re running a company, who’s going to be your legal side point? Maybe it is restructure. Maybe it is buying and selling of a company. Maybe it’s your banking relationships.

You have this group of people that you would call. You should have that as any good advisor. You should have that group in which you can call, that will pick up. I saw this comment the other day. I don’t know where it was in social media, but the people who will pick up, or people you can call without setting a meeting. I have those people and I love that I have that and they have that with me. I’ve done everything I can to continue to develop that and being as inclusive as I can and update over time, because everyone shifts their jobs, or their focus, but I think that’s something really important for people to pull together.

[00:12:39] AD: I like the way you think about that. Put yourself, we’re all professionals, we understand business very well and you think about what is the role of a board with a company. It’s to provide oversight and accountability. It’s to provide some outside points of view and new thoughts to help that company thrive and the company go where it is trying to get to.

Think about that in your personal life, in your professional life, the same thing. You want to have those close relationships of people that you can look to that can hold you accountable for what you’re trying to do, that can help you think new ways, help you solve new challenges that you might not be able to solve on your own. The way you get that is you spend time building out those relationships. They won’t happen overnight.

Listen, you don’t know where they’re going to come and they’re going to be – some will be more intentional than others, some will have more structure than others, but you brought the great point that people you can reach out to, those people that you just know that you can reach out to and you are immediately going to be able to find time to spend with each other, those are so valuable to have in your network. They don’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time to build that up. Then once you have it, it takes time to continue to grow and foster those relationships. Being conscious of that and putting focus on it is so important.


[00:13:50] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle-market professionals.


[00:13:58] AD: Let me ask you this now, Eric. For our listeners, we are obviously targeting middle-market professionals, some of those being accountants and CPAs. I think all professionals, at times, and myself included, we struggle with how to actually get out and network. I mean, that from the sense of either social anxiety, or a lack of desire to spend time in those situations, or just a misconception of what networking in general means.

At times, especially younger professionals, we always here, “You got to network. You got to network. You got to network,” but people don’t want to, or they don’t necessarily know that. Can you share some thoughts around one, what does networking mean to you and then two, more importantly, how did you as a young professional with a heavy, technical approach to your work overcome some of the common challenges that we all face and ultimately become better at networking today?

[00:14:47] EF: It’s a great question. I think that again, focusing on my angle. I have this CPA focus and I brought it, I’ve referenced it a few times where you have someone who’s generally, most would be introverted. I really think that there’s a – I think there’s just a bad taste in people’s mouth with the word, either business development, or networking.

I mean, our job is to go out and find issues and make sure that we can advise on them. That should be the top of mind. Our job is to problem solve. The only way we’re going to know and have a pulse on what our community needs is by going out and talking to people. It’s one of those things that if we just said, “Hey, do you want to go out and talk to the community and try to find out what their problems are and just get rid of this comment of business development and networking? Maybe just changes.”

I try to just debunk those words in general, because with that in mind for whatever reason, I think that sales people, that just has a bad connotation to it. If it’s a problem solver, or if it’s someone who’s just trying to get ahead, so that we have the resources to support a community, it’s just better. There’s probably different ways of how people view it. Sometimes, I spent a little bit of time teaming with people. We talked a little bit about this pay it forward.

The thought is much like this podcast is let’s just keep trying to get a pulse, because we have skill sets and everyone’s going to have a different skill. We need to have everybody out there, hearing it from different angles, because Alex, you and I, we have one way of hearing things. As good as we may think we are, someone else would be able to hear that problem better and differently and we’ll have a better solution than we will. That’s what I just – I try with the team. Again, I don’t know if I’m doing it right. I just think that the more ways you can hear it, the better.

[00:16:49] AD: Again, very powerful there what you just said. A few things, one, as a professional, our job is to be a problem solver. In the end, that’s what we’re doing for our clients. We are solving problems and helping them overcome challenges. Some of that may be technical knowledge and technical skill that you yourself possess, or that you can reach within your firm to solve. In many cases, that’s having an ability to step back and say, “Okay. Here are the dynamics. How can we overcome this?” Leaning into other people in your network and saying, “Hey, have you ever seen this before, or have you ever thought about this? Or hey, I’m bumping up against this and how can you help me figure that out?”

It’s reaching out and being a sounding board for people and having others be a sounding board for you as well. If you approach and this goes back to even a play on our brand, the Connection Builders, and our idea that connecting first is so important. If you just build connections with other people, not with the intent to do business, or to convert anyone, but just simply because you realize that everyone has something interesting to add value, you can ultimately use that to service your clients better on the back-end. It makes you a more valuable professional.

Now you also touched on sales there and I want to spend a minute just sharing some thoughts in my opinion as a professional, we don’t convert business in the sense of let me use tactics to convince someone to take my meeting and convince them that I’m the right person to do their audit. You build relationships and you build them over the long-term, you are positioned well, so when that decision-maker is ready to make a decision, they know you, they have the relationship and they ultimately decide to move forward with a partnership with you.

With all that said, in the end, a lot of what sales talks about, whether it be personal branding or building relationships and staying in front of people and having a sales pipeline, things like that, those are really important if you want to really excel in business development. To your point, there is no one-size-fits-all. There is no one way. I as much as you am learning daily in how to do this better. We focus on it. We get better at it, but everyone can approach it from their own way.

[00:18:55] EF: The reality is doing things by yourself is tough. Whether you have a external network. I know that a lot of other content on the podcast here is focused on internal network too. Understanding your team, their skills and their drives is very important too. It’s all about how you become the best for your community. I think that if that for whatever reason, that’s always resonated with me. You spend the time with your team internally and then if your team might have a gap and not want to go out and find and understand everything that’s out in the group, then that’s fine.

They’ll handle something more internally and you know what? I’ll shift and because I love figuring out what’s going on out there and I’ll bring it back to the team and say, “Hey, how are we going to attack this?” You mentioned technical a few times on this and made me laugh, because a lot of my team’s going to be saying, “Eric can be technical, but we might need him to not be technical on some days and just need him to find the issue, so that we can bring it to a team and attack it from different angles.” I think you hit it on the head, man. The team mentality works well.

[00:20:04] AD: It’s putting other people first. It’s working on building that team around you. Whether you’re direct co-workers, or your broader team of people that are helping you accomplish what you’re trying to do.

Now, last thing, Eric, I want to jump into is we talk about the value of you said it in networking and doing things a different way, but I also assume as a leader and as a manager of people and being in a position where it is your job to get work done, while helping people excel in what they’re trying to accomplish in their careers, share some thoughts around how maybe there’s more than one way to do things and how you can approach your – from a leadership position, in a more open mind to helping your team excel in what they’re trying to accomplish in the workplace.

[00:20:47] EF: Lucky to have a lot of really good managers in my career. I get managed daily. I’ve got an amazing lead partner in our office too. The way that I find, or I see the most success anyways is you don’t manage as a group. Turns out when you’re in a consulting company like an accounting firm, we’re not robots. They’re not machines. Our team is our team. Everyone got up that morning and got dressed maybe in sweatpants, who knows these days, but the reality is we’re all trying to get better and we’re all doing it the best we can.

If we start there, the fact of the matter is when you sit down and just talk to your team and say, “Hey, this is all the different things that needs to happen in a company like this.” How are we either attacking, or protecting these certain areas? Find your own internal strength.

If you get together with your team and you understand that, that’s how it all works. The best part about it is if you understand everybody’s strengths, then it’s okay to talk about weaknesses too and where you can get some help. It creates a little bit more of a vulnerable atmosphere. I don’t pretend to know it all, but I know that if we all understand each other a little bit more, maybe we’re a little bit more comfortable to bring the things we’re not good at. You just open up a little bit more and the team gets, I think a little bit better every time we do it that way.

[00:22:10] AD: Eric, that was so well-said. We could talk about this for hours and I would love to find time to continue talking about it for hours. For today’s episode of Branch Out, we are going to wrap up here. I really appreciate you being on. This is a lot of fun and hopefully, we’ll find time to have another conversation like this soon.

[00:22:26] EF: Alex, I can’t thank you enough and keep up the good work in this space. The more that we can do just to give different examples of how we do things. No wrong ways and keep growing. I mean, I’m going to get me all excited. I got to have too much caffeine, or this is a passion place. Keep doing what you’re doing, man. The more examples, I think you’ll just provide different opportunities for everybody.

[00:22:47] AD: Awesome. Thank you so much, Eric.

[00:22:48] EF: All right. Take care. We’ll see you, Alex.


[00:22:52] ANNOUNCER: Thank you for tuning in this week. Share this podcast with your professional network to help others connect, grow and excel. Like what you hear? Leave us a review and don’t forget to subscribe now.