Beth Wood, State Auditor for North Carolina, on why you should never let anyone else define who you are or what you can do

Never let anyone else define who you are or what you can do. When I decided to put myself back through college at 29 years old to earn my accounting degree, everyone around me told me it would be too hard. People told me I would never finish I had the pleasure to interview Beth Wood, […]

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Never let anyone else define who you are or what you can do. When I decided to put myself back through college at 29 years old to earn my accounting degree, everyone around me told me it would be too hard. People told me I would never finish

I had the pleasure to interview Beth Wood, of The Office of the State Auditor for North Carolina. Now in her third term as North Carolina’s elected State Auditor, Beth Wood is a long-time public servant with nearly three decades of auditing experience. As the first female to hold office and only the second Certified Public Accountant to be elected, Wood works with one mission in mind: to strengthen and improve state government by monitoring state-run organizations for wasteful spending and potential savings.

Thank you so much for joining us! What’s your backstory?

Some people learn fiscal responsibility in a classroom or from financial advisors. I learned fiscal responsibility from the fields of my family’s tobacco farm — those are fundamental life lessons that cannot be learned elsewhere. Raised in a small town nestled in eastern North Carolina, the lessons I learned on our family farm taught me the value of money and the necessary importance of making every dollar and every dime, count. That has been the foundational element that has carried me forward and prepared me for my role today as the North Carolina State Auditor.

My entire focus is on serving as the eyes and ears of state taxpayers. That might sound simple, but it’s not. With more than $40 billion running through North Carolina annually, it falls on my shoulders to ensure that red and blue dollars are audited equally and fairly, and that wasteful spending is exposed. It’s a tough job and it doesn’t win over a lot of friends, but it is important work that makes our world better, and that is satisfying enough.

Why did you found your company? (Why did you run for office?)

I never had dreams of owning my own business; I never started out with aspirations of a career in politics. My dreams hinged on finding a way to make my part of the world better, and a little easier for others.

After many years of auditing state-run agencies, I knew North Carolina could do better, but it needed the right, non-partisan leader to make it happen. In 2008, I ran my first political campaign and won. And in 2009 I was sworn into office as the first female to ever hold the position of North Carolina State Auditor.

Those days on my family’s farm taught me just how detrimental wastefulness can be, but not everyone understands the risk of wastefulness. Many believe the greatest risk to our tax dollars comes from fraudulent spending, but that is simply not true. The greatest risk to our hard-earned tax dollars is wasteful spending. The only reason I threw myself into the political lions’ den, was because of my unwavering conviction to either step up and do something about the wasteful spending in our state government or to shut up and stop complaining.

That’s the motivation behind what I, and so many other state auditors, do every single day — to work tirelessly to stop the bleeding and wasteful spending, so that our states can put more of its money into our teachers, and our roads and into becoming self-sufficient.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Disruption is part of everything we do as state auditors. While we work to uncover inefficiencies and wasteful spending, that work requires us to expose hard truths and shortcomings of state-run organizations.

For me, disruption began when I took office as the first female to lead the Office of the State Auditor. The disruption propelled when I took the non-partisan political stance to hold office and audit red and blue dollars equally, fairly and with the same rigor.

Now in my third term as State Auditor, the disruption continues in the approach I’ve taken to deliver irrefutable findings through the audits conducted by my office. I have promised the public that the audits delivered under my leadership are accurate and credible, with irrefutable findings that will stand up to any and all scrutiny.

The concept of irrefutable findings is disruptive and distinct to the Office of the State Auditor, under my leadership. This office has never had someone guarantee that the audits reported would have irrefutable findings. And while some may think that is a risky approach, I’d disagree. To me, it is the only approach.

We cannot improve our state without removing the gray areas and taking all the questions off the table. I’ll never waver on my promise to deliver irrefutable findings, and that’s because I will never waver on the fact that every dollar counts, and every dollar wasted is a dollar that cannot be spent elsewhere for North Carolina citizens.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

Over my career, I’ve had a front row seat view into many outstanding leaders, but none compare to my dad. He is unequivocally the greatest mentor I’ve ever known. As a farmer, he worked harder and longer than any farm-hand or any family member. I never saw him hurt anyone, lie to anyone or ask any man or woman to do anything he himself wasn’t willing to do. It was his life’s mission to look out and care for others, and it was that level of hard work and dedication that showed me what true perseverance and service looks like. All those years of watching him set that great example instilled in me the desire to serve others, giving me the qualities I needed to run a non-partisan office.

How are you shaking things up next?

My job is to protect the money of tax paying citizens — to be their watchdog. That is no easy feat and requires my office to audit more than $40 billion in state spending. While the job is significant, I am not comfortable just performing financial statement audits.

These days, our office has taken a public stand to continue performing those audits, and to also identify state agencies that are not spending our taxpayer dollars as effectively and efficiently as you and I would expect. We are on a mission to do more than just report findings. We want to enact change, to alleviate wasteful spending, to create spending best practices, and to make our state self-sufficient.

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example of each?

Never let anyone else define who you are or what you can do.

When I decided to put myself back through college at 29 years old to earn my accounting degree, everyone around me told me it would be too hard. People told me I would never finish.

When I decided to run for State Auditor, there were many who tried to quiet my confidence. Those around me said that I lacked the political and financial connections to make those dreams a reality. And when I decided to campaign in counties that were deemed “not in my party,” many advised against it.

Yet, even with the noise rising from those who didn’t believe in my goals, I continued to press forward. I refused to listen to what others thought I could or could not do. I believed in myself and chased those unattainable goals, because I was confident in what I could accomplish. I made those dreams a reality, but it would never have been possible if I allowed myself to act based on what others assumed of my abilities.

What’s a book/podcast that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

That book has had the greatest impact on my leadership style and is a reminder that success cannot hinge on my work as State Auditor alone — 40 billion taxpayer dollars are impossible to audit alone.

To safeguard our taxpayer dollars, I have to rely on a deep bench of talented auditors who hold my same vision and mission for North Carolina. This book taught me the power of team dynamics, how to lead well and how to succeed by overcoming the biggest team hurdles.

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