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Karen Silhol Bell

Setting Financial Controls in an Industry on the Edge: Karen’s Leadership at RIAA     

Karen is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and has worked there for more than 18 years. While she’s always been focused on finance, Karen has experienced dramatic changes in the music industry and built many bridges along the way.

How did your time at Calibre drive you in the direction of a music industry association? Can you talk about the journey?

I feel like I really lucked out landing at RIAA. When I left Calibre, I was at the Senior Accountant level. It was a great fit and an incredible place to learn early on in my accounting career. The perspective and expertise of the Partners at Calibre taught me how to do things in an efficient and effective manner. We worked with many different clients to set up and optimize their financial controls. When I moved into my first role at RIAA, I realized I could make an immediate impact because of what I had learned at Calibre.

What has kept you at RIAA for almost two decades?

One of the reasons I’ve been at RIAA so long is it’s a very interesting industry. Recording industry issues have always been in flux from physical products to downloads on iTunes to streaming services. We’ve had to adapt, and it has trickled down to everyone including the accounting department. I also love that it’s a work-hard-play-hard environment. The workplace culture is very positive, and like Calibre they have an open-door policy and collaborative atmosphere. There’s also been opportunities for professional growth, and I’ve earned numerous promotions leading up to my current role as CFO. Because we’re small you have an opportunity to get involved in a lot of things and that has allowed me to establish a breadth of knowledge.  Although I oversee some major decisions now, I still value and rely on a community of people here to provide input.

What do you like most about working in your current role? What is most challenging? Most rewarding?

Most challenging is getting everyone to understand the financial impact of their decisions. Some managers are very plugged into this and others are less so. Open lines of communication are very important; people need to know enough to ask about things when there are challenges. Sometimes we are an afterthought in the finance department. I’ve worked hard to build relationships with other departments so I can plan and get ahead of what could have been a budgetary issue.

I like the work environment and the people that I work with. The most rewarding part is when we come in on budget. Also, I appreciate getting positive feedback from leadership and my peers. They trust me to make recommendations and offer my opinion. They trust me to make sure we are fiscally responsible. That trust is truly rewarding.

Are you involved in any professional development groups?

I was accepted into a program called Leadership Music that’s based out of Nashville. We all learn about different facets of the music industry and work to break down barriers within the field. Our goal is to build relationships across the sector so when there is a difficult industry issue, we have a human-to-human connection and can understand each other’s perspectives. I’m also involved in the Greater Washington Society of CPAs (GWSCPA) and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

Why have you remained in the accounting field?

I think the evolution in my career has kept me in it. Excelling in each role opened doors to move onto the next level which brought new challenges and opportunities. In my specific job, the industry has changed. Even though accounting is accounting, in higher roles you get more into strategic analysis and projection. You start implementing your skills in a different way. As I’ve been able to grow in my career, I’ve also been exposed to new areas such as our recent office move, which I played a major role in. I toured the space options, undertook a market analysis to choose the best building that not only fit our branding but also fiscal needs, worked closely with the third party project manager and made key decisions on construction and branding that kept us within the project budget. This experience has been a fun challenge! As I’ve gotten to different points in my career, they’ve each opened the door to more than just the day-to-day stuff.

Back in 1998, why did you choose to work at Calibre CPA Group?

I knew I wanted to work in public accounting coming out of college; it was ingrained back then to do that. When I interviewed, I liked that Calibre was smaller but still a national firm. I didn’t want to be another number to corporate; a name without a face. I knew it was small enough that everyone knew each other but there was still a breadth of clients.

What are some skills you learned or honed during your time at Calibre? How did you develop professionally?

I think teamwork. At Calibre, you’re assigned to a client as part of a team that consists of staff, a manager, and a partner. You need to work collaboratively to get the job done and communicate efficiently. I was required to interact with coworkers and clients and be professional from day one. These skills have stuck with me throughout my career.

What are some of your favorite memories/most positive experiences during your time at Calibre?

The social side was a blast. We had a recreational softball league and I always looked forward to our game. One time, I even got injured right before we had our big company outing to go the Baltimore Orioles game. Even though my eye was half swollen shut, I put on giant sunglasses and went to the game. It’s a testament to how much I liked my co-workers at Calibre. Everyone was down to earth and had a good sense of humor. Partner Derek Strosnider was my mentor and he was truly fantastic.

What brings you joy outside of the office? What are your passions or hobbies?

I love to travel. I’ve traveled all over the world- probably to more than 20 different countries, as far as Australia and Asia. I love experiencing different cultures and seeing different architecture. My husband and I like to travel across the U.S. with our dog and see all the small lake and mountain towns. He helped me appreciate all that our country has to offer. I’m also a self-proclaimed gym rat. Exercise helps me relieve stress and stay healthy.

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