This week we get to look into the journey of Melissa Diaz, High Rock Accounting’s CFO + Partner. She started her career in public accounting and chose to take the leap into entrepreneurship. See how her path and outlook has changed as she shares the real truth behind the veil:
To fully understand my transition from risk-averse, Kool-Aid drinking, public accounting enthusiast to risk accepting, multi-business owning, cheerleader for entrepreneurship, I want to first share a bit about my background. I was raised in a very conservative household. Within my family, there were only three acceptable industries for gainful employment: financial, medical, and engineering. I was taught to believe that security came in the form of Fortune 500 companies and firms of more than 5,000 employees. Also, once you were an employee of one of those big companies, you NEVER left. Success only came from 40 years in the same organization, clawing your way to the top. Debt was never an option personally or professionally (no joke – my parents even paid for their house in full). And the next recession was always right around the corner, so hoarding cash was the only way to ensure financial stability.
Not surprisingly, considering my background, I went to college, got an undergraduate and master’s degree in accounting, and started with a large, international public accounting firm right after graduation. The first couple of years in public accounting were exciting for me. I felt a great sense of personal pride in the prestige of the “Big Name” firm, I was young with lots of energy, and I had a strong desire to succeed. I listened to the rhetoric, did what I was told without question, and found success.
However, right around year three, something shifted. I had enough experience to feel confident in my opinions and started to express them. I wanted to drive improvement, which often meant change. I learned very quickly that big organizations DO NOT like change. The momentum of my success started waning, and I found myself in more than one contentious discussion with management who kept telling me, “that’s not the way it’s done.” The more I pushed back, simply trying to explore other options, the less favorable the response became. I started to realize that success in organizations such as this one had less to do with talent and insight, and more to do with professional politics and not rocking the boat.
The final nail in the coffin came right around year five. I was passed up for a promotion early in the year, and management told me I needed another year of experience. Despite being understandably disappointed, I was willing to accept the company’s decision out of a false sense of loyalty. Fast forward to just four months later, and my direct superior put in her two weeks’ notice. Within a few days, the partner I worked with most closely came to offer me the position. Now, most people would be happy for the swift reversal. However, it became apparent to me that promotions were not being awarded based on qualifications and merit, instead of based on the company’s current needs. While this specific situation resulted in a positive development for me, the message was clear. If the powers that be did not feel a “need” within the company, I would not get promoted regardless of whether or not it was deserved. My self-imposed loyalty suddenly felt very foolish, and the next day, I put in my own two weeks’ notice.
Over the next two years, the series of events reset the trajectory for my entire life in a very unexpected and beautiful way. I joined High Rock Accounting as a manager and, fortuitously, got the opportunity to become a full partner shortly after joining. I jumped at the chance with a massive amount of naivety. I had no idea what it took to run a business! This was the first of many terrifying and exhilarating decisions.
Becoming a business owner overnight is not for the faint of heart. It was (and continues) to be a vast learning experience for me. No day is the same, and I am always faced with new challenges. I am also incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic mentor and business soulmate in my business partner, Liz Mason. Since becoming a partner in High Rock, I’ve co-founded three other companies with her and play an active role in each.
Here is the real truth behind the veil:
- I work more now than ever in any professional position, but I have more passion and control around that work than ever before. This makes my work feel much less like…well, “work.
- I need to be available more now than ever before in any professional position, but I have complete autonomy around where I can be available. This may be in my office in Scottsdale, AZ, or from a beach in Bali. As long as I have WiFi, I can work effectively. However, this is due to the way my partner and I decided to form our companies. Remote working capability is non-negotiable.
- When you are the business owner, there is no one above you to ask for guidance. Being the final decision maker is simultaneously empowering and terrifying. There are days when I feel like the architect of the organization’s future driving toward world domination, and others where I feel like I am the tail trying to wag the dog.
- Being adaptable is potentially one of my most important traits for filling this role. Curveballs come out of nowhere all the time, and business owners must be flexible, creative, and quick to respond. The real secret is recognizing that there are always opportunities hiding within each curveball.
- Self-improvement must be cultivated, invited, and continuously pursued. Whether I am getting feedback from my business partner, employees, literature, or clients, there is no concept of “resting on your laurels” while building businesses.
- Taking risks in business is GOOD. This is entirely different from my natural inclinations. However, once you experience the big payoff from taking a calculated risk, you never want to turn back!
- Yes – I get exhausted. But I have also never felt so energized and motivated. Having been a business owner now for about four years, there is no way I can see myself working for someone else again.
If you told me even five years ago that I would be not only an entrepreneur but also a multi-business owner today, I would have laughed. I was the person who would tell you adamantly I never wanted to own a business and always wanted to be “secure” in a big organization. I have learned since then that business owners come in many different forms, and “secure” is a relative term. Particularly as the world is witnessing mass layoffs at substantial companies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this inclination is stronger than ever. For those out there who feel like they are not the right type to be an entrepreneur, I enthusiastically ask you to re-evaluate. Really – what do you have to lose? I know it is a bit cliché, but I leave with the poem, “What if I fall,” by Erin Hanson:
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?