Team-build­ing tra­di­tions that make a firm stand out

Accounting Today - - Contents - BY GER­ALD HERTER

CPAs of­ten re­mark that their achieve­ments stem from em­ploy­ing an ap­proach that dif­fers from their com­peti­tors. How­ever, my years of ob­ser­va­tions tend to show that the pub­lic looks upon most CPA firms as be­ing re­mark­ably sim­i­lar. The ex­pec­ta­tion is that all will be ex­perts in the fun­da­men­tals of ac­count­ing, au­dit and tax. Con­se­quently, in or­der to stand out, CPAs need to reach be­yond the ba­sics to dis­tin­guish them­selves.

Tra­di­tions are one way firms can set them­selves apart. Tra­di­tions can per­form a two-fold func­tion, help­ing to es­tab­lish a firm’s dis­tinct per­sona while de­vel­op­ing pride and loy­alty among team mem­bers. Sev­eral tra­di­tions, some se­ri­ous, some ad­ven­tur­ous, and some just plain fun, have par­al­leled the growth of my firm, HMWC CPAs & Busi­ness Ad­vi­sors, which just cel­e­brated the 50th an­niver­sary of its found­ing. One of the old­est and most en­dur­ing of these tra­di­tions marked its 40th year in 2018: the Death March. This re­mark­able an­nual event has im­parted a unique dis­tinc­tion to the firm.

It be­gan 40 years ago. One day shortly af­ter I had joined the firm, col­leagues and I were talk­ing about what it would be like to hike to the top of Mount Whit­ney in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, the tallest moun­tain in the lower 48 states. Be­fore long, one of us said, “Let’s just do it!”

We knew noth­ing about back­pack­ing, or hik­ing at high al­ti­tudes. We were ter­ri­bly out of shape. But off we went. What was sup­posed to be a 20-mile hike to the top of Mount Whit­ney turned into a 45-mile death march! As we hiked out to the trail­head al­most half dead and never hav­ing made it to the top of the moun­tain, we swore we would never do that again. Sev­eral months later, we had for­got­ten all the bad ele­ments and just re­mem­bered this spec­tac­u­lar sense of be­ing in the wilder­ness with these ma­jes­tic moun­tains. We started to plan the “Sec­ond An­nual Death March.”

We low­ered our sights to more re­al­is­tic lev­els. Again our ob­jec­tive was the High Sierra, just not as high. And our packs would be lighter. Get­ting in bet­ter shape was called for also. How­ever, this time we learned the hard way that one does not hike into the High Sierra in June. Be­fore long, with the trail and moun­tain pass cov­ered with snow and ice, we re­al­ized we would not get very far and turned back, cut­ting the trip short. As we hiked back down, we hoped we would glean from this ex­pe­ri­ence the im­por­tance of do­ing the re­search be­fore forg­ing ahead.

The third year would be the charm, or so we thought. We de­cided to re­turn to the same High Sierra lo­cale as the prior year. We would be fa­mil­iar with the ter­rain and know to go a month later. The shift in tac­tics worked. We were re­warded with vi­brant blue lakes, snow only in the high­est moun­tain crevices, and a stream rip­pling vig­or­ously through the val­ley. We were so ex­hil­a­rated by the scenery that we didn’t no­tice un­til too late that we had gone three miles out of our way. The lessons learned that year were the need to have good maps and the sense to fol­low them closely.

Hav­ing con­quered the High Sierra, we were ready to broaden our hori­zons the fol­low­ing year. The Grand Canyon beck­oned us for the Fourth An­nual Death March, and then we pro­ceeded to river raft­ing, se­lect­ing the Kings River for the Fifth An­nual Death March. This time I talked my wife Lori into join­ing us. One of the firm’s val­ues is the im­por­tance of fam­i­lies, and fam­ily mem­bers are en­cour­aged to join in. Fam­i­lies come in dif­fer­ent sizes. My sis­ter Karen of­ten comes by her­self, while the par­tic­i­pants from my col­league Steve’s ex­tended fam­ily some­times num­ber in the teens.

Clients and friends are wel­comed as well. On a re­cent Death March to Yosemite, the group in­cluded four clients, two doc­tors and at least one pas­tor. All pos­si­ble con­tin­gen­cies were cov­ered.

Over 40 years, the Death March has taken us to many beau­ti­ful places: Yosemite; Se­quoia; Zion Na­tional Park hik­ing in the river through the Nar­rows; the Grand Canyon; Crater Lake; Lassen Vol­canic at places like Boil­ing Springs Lake; the Chan­nel Is­lands; and Banff Na­tional Park in Canada. We rafted on six dif­fer­ent rivers, in­clud­ing kayak­ing on the Rogue River, and run­ning the grand­daddy of them all, the mighty Colorado through the Grand Canyon.

As amaz­ing as the Death Marches are, they are not for every­one. Climb­ing steep rock faces can be un­nerv­ing, and long, chal­leng­ing trails, like the Kalalau in Hawaii, can take a lot out of a per­son. There are some at the firm who can­not see them­selves on a Death March, no mat­ter how good the bond­ing and team-build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Even so, when asked if that can be a lim­it­ing fac­tor for a per­son’s ad­vance­ment, my an­swer was no.

Flex­i­bil­ity is an­other im­por­tant value for the firm. The part­ners re­al­ize that while every­one is en­cour­aged to go and all are wel­come, the Death March does not work for every­one. Choos­ing not to go shouldn’t de­tract from a per­son’s ad­vance­ment in any way. Dif­fer­ent things get the blood flow­ing for dif­fer­ent peo­ple. The firm en­cour­ages every­one to seek out those things for them­selves.

For in­stance, my part­ner Su­san, an out­stand­ing pro­fes­sional, just can’t see her­self on a Death March. But Su­san is also an ac­tress who stars in roles in com­mu­nity theater pro­duc­tions from time to time. That’s her out­let, her way of ex­press­ing her­self and us­ing her cre­ativ­ity to get out of her ac­count­ing per­sona for a while. Other firm mem­bers take part in a va­ri­ety of pur­suits like that. The firm tries to lift those up and rec­og­nize peo­ple for their own unique forms of cre­ativ­ity.

Tra­di­tions can help a firm stand out. The Death March is a great one for us, since we’re sit­u­ated in Cal­i­for­nia, close to all these places. But there are other tra­di­tions that can work for a firm.

Sport­ing tra­di­tions are great. Char­i­ties are an­other. HMWC does a lot of char­i­ta­ble work, and has set up tra­di­tions around them. The firm sup­ports a home­less shel­ter called Fam­ily Prom­ise. Thir­teen con­gre­ga­tions each take a week a quar­ter, pro­vid­ing hous­ing, food and sup­port. Reg­u­larly, my part­ner Su­san brings din­ner, my wife and I help set up tents, and my part­ner Jodi and I stay overnight with the fam­i­lies.

What­ever the ac­tiv­ity, if firm mem­bers are en­cour­aged to take part, the out­come can be­come a mean­ing­ful tra­di­tion.

A few fi­nal thoughts on the topic:

We learn from ob­sta­cles in our path.

A change of scenery can help in ac­cess­ing our cre­ative, in­tu­itive side.

The con­fi­dence that comes from trust­ing re­la­tion­ships forged on jointly shared wilder­ness ad­ven­tures can have a last­ing im­pact.

Each ex­pe­ri­ence taught us new ways to work to­gether, de­pend on one an­other, and value the spe­cial bond that deep­ened with each pass­ing year.

Ger­ald Herter served as man­ag­ing part­ner for HMWC CPAs & Busi­ness Ad­vi­sors for many years. Now semi-retired, he re­cently be­come new mem­ber man­ager for In­te­gra In­ter­na­tional’s Amer­i­cas, Asia, Aus­tralia & New Zealand Chap­ter, and is the au­thor of “From Ledgers to Ledges: Four Decades of Team Build­ing Ad­ven­tures in Amer­ica’s West.”

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