Team-building traditions that make a firm stand out
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.”