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Sep 09, 2019

Never Underestimate the Value of Firm Culture

How does Sandra Wiley, president of Boomer Consulting Inc., define firm culture? As she tells us in the latest episode of CPA Conversations, it’s more than getting a half-day Friday every other week. In fact, it could be the thing that turns your best and brightest from one-year wonders to long-term employees. Get her insight on hiring, retention, training, and more.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor



Podcast Transcript

How important is a firm's culture to its success? How important is culture to the individuals entering the new workforce? How important is training to firms looking to shape their culture for future success? All of these “important” questions and more will be answered today by Sandra Wiley, president of Boomer Consulting Inc.

What is your definition of firm culture?

[Wiley] I get asked that a lot, and what I oftentimes tell people is it is who you are. It's how your employees will describe you when they are talking to their friends, when they're talking to people at a recruiting event. Sometimes, it's what they say about you when you're not in the room.

I asked that question at my Next Generation leaders and my Leadership Academy leaders. And oftentimes I hear things like, "Oh my gosh, we're such a family-friendly culture," and sometimes people call us the clan culture. You know, it's this clan of people and they all like each other. They get along well. The framework around it is you have to fit within the family. There's other people who say, "Man, our culture is just dive in, work really, really hard, and then play hard. Get the heck out of there." It's work until you just don't have anything left, then you can go and enjoy your life.

Some are still in that whole hierarchy culture. You know, you hear people say things like, "Well, our culture is whatever the boss says we do." They make all the decisions. When you hear that, unfortunately, what I also usually hear in the next breath is, "I'm looking for another job."

So that whole culture of innovation, forward thinking, looking at the future, really what we call kind of an ad hoc marketing kind of culture is the one that seems to be thriving today. When you go into firms that are growing fast, that have really good profitability, they're the firms that have the most innovation going on. They really are looking at a balanced approach for their firm. They know that it's not just about the financial outcomes, it's about the people outcomes too. So I would say that when I think about firm culture, that's what I think about.

Is firm culture something that a firm can define on their own, or is it something that needs to be developed over time?

[Wiley] I think that at the onset, when you first meet a firm, they have a culture. They may not like their culture, but they have one. Everybody has a culture. Usually, if I go in and do day interviews with firms where I will meet with pockets of individuals within the firm and I ask them just a few questions, one of those questions is going to be something around "How do you define the culture of your firm? What is it that you love, and what are the things that you're not so in love with?" Usually, you can get a baseline for what the culture is today. Now the reality is if the leaders of a firm say, "That is not who we want to be," I mean, if they really take a look in the mirror and go, "We need to be something different."

You can absolutely change the culture of the firm. It is a lot of work, and it takes time to get the employees or the team members of the firm to believe that you're really changing. Recently, I was in a firm and they've always had ... they call it, it wasn't just me, the Kumbaya culture. They all get along well. They all like each other, but they've stopped growing and they're kind of flattening out. And it's almost like they've forgotten that there's a business side of this too. So now they're going to have a new managing partner.

He is very driven by the numbers, by the performance, by the profitability. Everyone knows the culture is going to shift when he takes over. It could be a tsunami of problems because they're so used to having one thing, and now they're going to have something diversely different from that.

So what we're trying to do is correct back to the middle just a little bit, trying to help him understand that yes, you are right. You have to get farther over toward that side of financial stability, but you've got to leave some of the things the same or you're going to start losing people in droves. It's a balancing act, but you can absolutely change your culture if you see a need to, and you decide you're going to make that change.

As you mentioned with reshaping the culture, how important is proper training for firms if they're looking to do that?

[Wiley] When I think about training and I think about culture, I think there are a couple things to think about. I always believe, and I still believe that the firm culture is driven from the leaders of the firm. That usually means when they look at strategic planning and they look at how they're going to administer their compensation, and they look at how they're going to do their hiring, all of that kind of flows down from the top, right?

The training has to start there. Some people don't look at strategic planning as training. I do. I think that when you go in and do a real solid strategic plan for a firm, you're teaching and training the leaders of the firm on what is most important.

That's going to drive their culture. I think strategic planning is probably the first thing. Then I think that there are leadership skills that you can teach that will also drive firm culture. So, really getting people to understand once you figured out this is the culture that we want, then getting people to understand how to work within that culture is going to be important. I think that is leadership training, and it very seldom has anything to do with the technical training. It has to do with core skill training. Some people would call soft-skill training. How you communicate together, how you innovate together, how you work together on a team, how you make decisions. All of those things are core skills that can be taught. I think it used to be, and we still do this, where the leaders of the firm partners will say, "Hey, go teach our managers about these core skills."

And we will, we have leadership training out there that lots of different companies do. And what I hear in every class is "Why aren't our partners sitting here? This is great for us to learn this, but where the heck are the partners?" So the most successful leadership academies that we have run have been the ones where we say, "Look, we will teach. Here's all the things that we'll teach your managers and your seniors. But how about you guys sit in the room too? It'll add good conversation, it'll add some flavor to the conversation, and it is always great." Those are the ones that have solid lifelong learning culture, and a culture of true looking forward. That's what I would tell you. On the training side, absolutely. But I wouldn't leave out very many people. I would let everybody get involved.

Are most partners amenable to the situation, to doing that or do you find pushback?

[Wiley] On the partner side, when it comes to training, there's actually two categories. There's the category that says, "Look, I'm just two, three, four years from being out of here. Why would I want to do that?" To them, I would say, "You may not." We might segregate them out and not have them be a part of it. But for the younger partners, our partners that are going to be there for the next 10 to 20 years, they're excited about it. They know that they haven't been given that kind of training before. They know that they need to learn more. So they're very open to it. It all depends on how much time you have left in the firm.

Clearly, if you want to develop the right firm culture, hiring is going to play a pretty big part in that. So what new skills and personality traits do CPA firms need to look for in new hires when addressing the needs of the marketplace?

[Wiley] This has been an interesting topic this year. I've done a couple different presentations on new skill sets that are going to be needed in the future, and new jobs that we'll be hiring for. I think it's going to come down to what position you are hiring for. If you're hiring for a consultant, in other words, I need people who will get out there and they will learn how to talk with people. They will interact with people. They'll be relationship people, they'll be what we would call front stage people, people that are face-to-face with the client, no matter what their age. If they are right out of school or whether they're already in the firm and they're in their thirties or forties, then that's a profile that we're going to look for: someone who has got the ability to be outgoing.

Now outgoing could be outgoing one-on-one with people, or outgoing in a crowd. It doesn't have anything to do with introverts or extroverts. It's more about are you comfortable having conversations with people? We're going to look for people who are excited about becoming a thought leader in whatever niche or segment they might be in. That's a profile we might look for. We might look for a profile for someone who's going to be very technical, because we're still going to need technical experts in tax and audit and certain consulting. That's another profile we might look for when we're hiring. Another profile we might look for, guess what? Data analytics and financial analysis is huge right now. You don't have to have a CPA behind your name to be able to do that work. That profile might be very different than anybody we've ever looked for before.

So you can see where I'm going with all of that. What you have to do is figure out what's the problem we're trying to solve, and who is the best person for that position? Let's profile that person and now let's go out and hire. What we used to do, what we've done up until now and a lot of firms still are doing, they go to ... when you talk about recruiting, they do it one way. They go out and look for interns that are accountants. They go out and look for the same profile they looked at for years, and they're hiring the very same way they always have.

Unfortunately, that is not the person we're going to need in the next five years. We need somebody a little different than that. And so I do think the profile of who we are hiring is going to have to be different, and I think it's going to have to be broader than we've ever seen before. So I run a talent circle, which is all HR directors. Firms that are a hundred-plus people in them, or a hundred full-time equivalents and above. It is interesting. They are really starting to profile different positions within the firms to start hiring differently, which means they have to recruit differently. They have to train them differently. But their jobs just got a whole lot more interesting because of what it looks like in the future.

Once you have the right people in place, you've done those profiles, you know who you have to get. How active does a firm need to be in identifying those people who have value and working to retain them?

[Wiley] We are a people in this profession that I believe put a lot of emphasis on recruiting. We've tried to find experienced people, we've tried to find great interns, and we put a lot of emphasis there. We haven't done a great job as a whole of really caring for and taking care of the people internally. What we think has happened, what we think is going to keep them, is doing things like massages during tax season or giving half off Friday every summer. Something like that. Those are all good, and there's nothing wrong with those. But here's what they really want. If you really get down deep into what people really want about their jobs, they want interesting work. They want important work, they want to work with people who inspire them and people who care about them.

I think we have to put a whole lot more emphasis on connecting with the relationship with the people that are in our firms, the really great superstar people. The ones that I think are the saddest are when we don't take care of them, and we have an amazing person who leaves us and goes right down the street to another firm or to another company.

We've lost that talent. We did it because we just weren't paying attention. I think firms are going to have to spend ... they need a culture of spending more time cultivating and taking care of people internally. Then the recruiting will become much easier because those people will all talk about it. We've got to take care of the intro…and stay away from thinking that the tangible stuff that you give them is what they really want. I mean, that's part of it. I won't say that's not part of it, but what they really want is you, they want your time, they want your energy. They want your knowledge and your expertise, and they want to do stuff at a higher level faster.

Right. For the longest time it was about the ping pong table in the boardroom and everything, but now it's more about giving people's work value.

[Wiley] Yes. I heard somebody say the other day, really quickly, a young manager said, "Look, if I came in every day and I did work that was really exciting, and I had to work a little overtime to get that done, but then I got to go home and really spend time with my family," she goes, "I would give up a lot of the benefits and the stuff that we do in order to get that." She goes, "It's just great work, where I work really hard and do a great job for the firm and then I get away from it." I thought that's pretty typical of a lot of people.

When you hire someone, you're always thinking that you found the perfect person, of course. But if you discover that you were wrong, how important is it to make sure you move on quickly, and what could be the damage to your culture if you don't?

[Wiley] It used to be that we would tell people, I would tell people, "Please hire slowly and fire fast." Today, I would actually tell you a little bit different spin on that. Hire quickly, because if you've got somebody that's experienced and they walk through your front door, if you don't hire them pretty quickly, they're going to be down the street and somebody else will get them. So I would say hire pretty quickly, but also fire quickly. We hang onto people way too long. One thing that I guess I've learned in my lifetime is that I used to think everybody could fit in a job if they just tried hard enough and if we did enough training to get them in there. That's just not true. There's people that are awesome people, they're amazing, they have amazing talents, and they just don't fit with us, right?

They just don't fit with your firm or with the work that they're doing there. We're actually doing them a disservice by keeping them because they know they're not doing a great job. We know they're not doing a great job, that it's like a standoff. We just kind of stand there and look at each other like, "Will you leave or should I let you go?" Your job as a leader in the firm is to let them go. I do believe that. Now the other side of this is make sure that you're looking at the unique ability of that person and make sure that you're using them appropriately. Because the other thing I have seen that is sad is when somebody is working for you…and I will give you a story that just emphasizes this with an exclamation mark at the end.

There was a young woman who worked for a CPA firm and she was in her community, everybody knew her because her father had a really strong business. She knew every player in town, and she got her CPA from the local university. So she has her CPA, she goes to work for a firm. Their way of training was like many other firms out there. For the first year or two, we just need you to do the work to learn how to be an accountant. So they put you in a cubicle and they say, "Here. Work." She was doing that and about three months in, she went to the managing partner and said, you know, "Could I just sell? Could I just go out and meet with people?" And, of course, the managing partner said, "Look, I love the fact that you're excited about that but you have to learn how to be an accountant first. Go back and do your work."

So she did. Another three months went by. She came back again and said, "Okay, how about just part-time? I'm dying. I hate sitting in that cubicle. I just want to go out and meet people." Nothing. Nope, you've got to go back and do it. She made it one more month. She made it seven months at the firm. She quit and went to work for the local university in their endowment association. She started going out and selling basically endowments for the university today. This was five years later. She's one of their top salespeople.

She is bringing in millions of dollars for the local university. If you look at the firm, you go, why? Why, why, why didn't you at least let her do part of that? Because that's the personality that we need. That is the skill set we need, and they let it go. I would encourage anyone listening to this podcast, make sure you're not being too narrow in your focus of that person. So what if they can't do some of the analytical tax work? If there is a gift that they have in marketing or financial analysis or in some other piece of what you need, data analytics, then maybe you just switch them to a different kind of path. Right? Be careful about letting people go before you know what their great skills are.

Don't put the square peg in the round hole, it sounds like.

[Wiley] Exactly.

How important is firm culture to the individuals entering the new workforce? What could be the consequences for firms if they don't put enough concentration into having a positive firm culture?

[Wiley] I think that young people today are coming out of college and they're looking for culture ahead of career path. I think they are absolutely looking for where to go, that it will fit who they are. If your firm doesn't fit them well, then they simply will keep looking. They are fearless in looking somewhere else. Somebody said to me one time, there's no loyalty left. I said, "I actually think there is loyalty left, but it's loyal to the people who have the same kind of culture that they want and the same kind of values that they want." Then, I think they stay for a long time but they have to have that. Bottom line is I think it's horribly important. I think the consequence for firms is a firm that I just saw two days ago that said to me, "We have 35% turnover in our audit department."

I said why, and they said, "I think we're just trying to work them too hard." I said, "Well, what do you do for them?" So when we started talking about culture, I can almost guess that the reason that they left was it was a culture that they did not want anymore. And the firm is trying to stay where they've always been. This is the culture we've always been and we're not going to change it. Well, guess what? If you don't evolve and change, you will continue to lose. You're going to lose the best and the brightest people and you're not going to be able to pull good people into you. I think the consequences are huge. I would encourage anyone listening to this to really take a hard look at their culture if they can't figure it out quite by themselves.

By the way, most of the time, people in the firm are a little bit hard. It's a little bit hard to get them to tell you what they think, especially if it's not positive. If you have a great culture, they'll tell you all day long. But a lot of times they won't tell you what they're telling their friends. So having an outside person do those interviews and really seek to find the right answers or the real answers might really help. Then, listen to what they say. You have to listen to the results. I would encourage everyone to explore and to identify what they love and identify what needs to change, and then take action on it.

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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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