In November 2012, I started a new firm after leaving the one I co-founded and ran for 25 years. On that same day, I registered for an Ironman competition. Ten years earlier, when I turned 50, I did a half-Ironman as a midlife adventure. As I looked at 59 slipping away and the challenges of a new firm, I knew a physical challenge would be good for me. The Ironman seemed like a worthy goal.
I crossed the finish line at 9:59:56 p.m. after swimming 2.4 miles, bike riding 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. My body was exhausted. I could barely stand, and my feet were covered with blisters. However, when the race official handed me my medal and said, "You are an Ironman!" the pain went away and it was replaced with a sense of accomplishment that will live with me forever.
Over the next days, as my body returned to normal, I started to think about the similarities of running a successful accounting firm and completing an Ironman. Many of you may think trying to compare an Ironman to running an accounting firm is crazier than doing the Ironman, but those with vision, imagination and an attitude of "continuous improvement" will get it.
Here are my top similarities:
1. You need a plan. Competing in an Ironman takes a big commitment and there are many details. Which Ironman and when? Each is a little different from the rest in the elevation, the type of water, the terrain for the bike ride and run, and the overall weather. Figuring out the logistics of getting there, how to train, and how to balance your normal daily responsibilities with training are all obstacles to overcome. Running an accounting firm takes planning, too. If you don't know where you are going, how will you know when you get there? What type of firm do you want to be? Full service or a specialty practice? Single partner or multi-partner? In addition, the same way an Ironman requires the right equipment such as a bike, wetsuit, helmet, biking shoes, running shoes and a variety of clothing, a successful accounting firm needs the right tools. Document storage, tax and research software, computers, and printers form a technology infrastructure, while marketing materials such as brochures and a Web site tell your firm's story.
2. Three events/ three practices. An Ironman is a combination of a swim, a bike ride and a run. You have to do all three to get the medal. I believe a successful accounting firm needs to focus on building three types of practices: a practice aimed at helping individual clients achieve financial security, a practice where the firm becomes the trusted advisor for their business clients, and a consulting practice where they add real value by solving problems in a proactive manner.
3. Training. To finish an Ironman takes months of training. Some days it is five to eight hours, and most weeks it is a minimum commitment of 15 to 20 hours. The quality of an accounting firm is very much in proportion to the quality of its staff's training. The firms that try to get by with the minimum hours required to maintain a CPA license will never achieve greatness. The firms that achieve greatness are those that combine technical training, processes and procedures training, and professional development training into a well-coordinated, long-term plan for their employees.
4. Support. Without support from family, friends and colleagues, the Ironman would have been much more difficult. An event that starts with registration a year ahead of time, covers more than 140 miles and usually has over 1,000 participants needs a significant community effort, as well. Between the race officials, the public safety officers, and the hundreds of volunteers, it certainly takes "a village" to run an Ironman. An accounting firm needs the same type of support. Over the course of a year and certainly over many years, it is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It is those CPA firms that make community and teamwork the building blocks of their firm that will cruise through setbacks and achieve a higher level of success.
5. One bite at a time. Probably less than 0.1 percent of those physically capable of doing an Ironman actually give it a shot. About 25 percent of the people who start are unable to finish. You will never get there if you let the journey intimidate you. When the gun went off and I started the swim, my mind broke the swim into sections: to the bridge, to the white buoy, to the next bridge, and so on. I repeated this process until I was on the last five-mile leg of the marathon and I realized, "In an hour, I will be an Ironman!" It is amazing how, if you break down the three events into small pieces, each minor step brings a sense of accomplishment. An accounting firm is no different. There are basically three seasons, January 1 to April 15; April 16 to about August 15, and August 16 to December 31. There are a certain number of hours to bill, a certain amount of revenue you need to make your numbers, and a certain amount of new business needed to grow the firm and replace clients who have left. If you approach the year "one bite at a time," it is always manageable.
6. Competitors. I know that at the highest level of performance, the competition is quite fierce, but for 95 percent of people who complete an Ironman, your fellow athletes are not competitors, but rather colleagues who constantly offer encouragement and support. My number in the race was 639. I must have heard, "Great job, 639" or something like that 500 times during the race. I have always encouraged my employees to become friends, rather than competitors, with other CPAs in their community. Everyone needs help. Nobody is an expert in all matters. Building a strong base with CPAs in other firms shows respect for others, but more important, it shows the competition that we are all in this together and we have to help each other.
7. Numbers. Finishing an Ironman is the objective, but getting to the finish line is about the numbers. The obvious ones are the 2.4-mile swim, the 112-mile bike ride and the 26.2-mile run. However, there are many more to be concerned with, such as the 110 lbs of pressure in your bike tires, consuming 300-400 calories per hour during the bike ride, drinking a quart of liquid every two miles, and other such numbers and stats. In a CPA firm, the numbers include rate per hour, realization, productivity, gross margin, average dollars per client, fees per tax return, and so many more. The CPA firms that manage their numbers against reasonable goals and budgets and have accountability with their staff and partners will do better than those that don't.
8. Continual improvement. During my training I lost about 25 pounds, took 30 minutes off of my swim time, improved my average bike speed by over three miles an hour and strengthened the muscles in my knees from not being able to jog without incredible pain to being able to go for 26 miles. None of this happened overnight. It took many months of training and conditioning, but week by week, I steadily improved. I believe that an accounting firm needs to have a total focus on continuous improvement. During busy season, each tax return a person prepares should be a little better, and each busy season the firm should challenge its processes to see what can be improved. Unless you are committed to a philosophy of continuous improvement, complacency will settle in throughout the firm. Employees and clients will notice, and slowly processes will break down and your competition will pass you by.
9. Being a cagy veteran. After completing an Ironman, I have earned the right to give practical advice to just about anyone who wants to give an Ironman a try. In an accounting firm, the best knowledge is experience. If you have never done a nonprofit audit or a litigation assignment or a consolidated tax return, it is hard to know where to start. However, after completing even one special type of assignment, you now have a certain level of expertise to build on. You can give advice to others trying to follow in your footsteps, because sharing experience will only lead to more success.
I don't know if I will ever do another Ironman, but the experience was terrific. From registering to crossing the finish line, I learned a lot about pushing myself to the absolute limit of my physical and mental ability. The training, the support from family and friends, and the joy of participating was an incred- ible experience.
I also know that public accounting is a very noble profession. People trust you with their money and rely on your advice to help them make crucial lifelong decisions. Just as there is a great feeling crossing the finish line in an Ironman, there is a similar feeling knowing that you made a significant contribution to a client's financial security and helped them achieve their business goals. There truly is a lot in common between an Ironman and an accounting firm.
Steve Mayer is the founder and managing partner of San Francisco-based SD Mayer & Associates LLP.
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