Culture is the number one aspect that can be developed by accounting firms to build teamwork, retain employees and weed out the bad ones, according to one CPA who helps lead a 100-person firm.
Speaking at the CCH User Conference 2017 in San Francisco, Wesley Middleton, managing partner at MRZ LLP, a Houston-based CPA firm, said that accounting firms can emulate the type of culture found in technology firms like Apple that have built a strong following among its employees.
“Culture in our firm is our number one [priority],” he told an audience Monday at his session, Creating a Cool Culture. “You can be the smartest person, the best CPA on this planet, and if you don’t fit our culture, or we can’t find a way for you to add to our culture, then we’re not going to work together, because we value, and we protect, and we define our culture. And we hold it near, near our hearts.
"And while it sounds real sappy — I know it does — it’s what’s evolving,” Middleton said. “And what other organizations, what other professions, and what other companies have figured out way before us as CPAs is how important culture is. We saw it first with maybe, with the Googles and the Apples, and the tech world have really defined culture in a way that we’ve been hesitant to adopt. It’s been very, very slow to be adopted in professional services.”
“But what I’ve found in my experience is that there’s nothing that Google or Apple can do that we can’t also do,” he said. “That there’s no reason that we can’t have the same great culture in our organizations as those types of companies have.”
Middleton’s definition of a cool culture can be outlined by five P’s: place, people, passion, purpose and practices.
“It’s the place in which we work, it’s the people we work with. It’s the passion and energy which we walk around the office and have with each other. It’s purpose. And it’s the practices, or the things we do, the steps we take, our actions every day,” he said.
“Those 5 P’s, every decision we make in our firm, we have to make sure that somehow it fits into all the things that define us. And we do define those things.” Middleton said.
In the firm’s offices, there are no walls or cubicles, and his desk is in an open layout plan that makes him approachable to everyone. The kitchen area is near the entrance of the office to help clients to coffee, though the goal was to build a place that suited employees, not clients.
“It has to be fun, it has to be collaborative,” Middleton said of the office culture. “People want to belong and be a part of something.”
He told of a story of letting go a partner because she wasn’t nice and no one wanted to work with her. He stressed that while the individual can be productive for the firm, culture is more important. Middleton cited low turnover and high job applications as evidence in his approach to culture.
For Middleton, changing the cultural attitude at work had to start from within, in which he needed to change for himself the negativity he faced and the dread of heading into the office each day. He added that CPAs can take charge of leadership opportunities and becoming a leader is a process that takes time.
“I set the temperature at the office” and that affects the atmosphere of the office, he said, adding that an angry attitude can influence other people. “Unfortunately, as CPAs we’re not trained to be leaders. We’re trained to be rainmakers, or something else."
Middleton said that he listens a lot to what people in his firm have to say in trying to solve problems, and people have to accept failure of many efforts, which is how they learn.
“Failure is okay at our firm,” he said. “You’re going to fail more times than you’re going to succeed.”