Team-building traditions that make the firm stand out

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During 2018, HMWC CPAs & Business Advisors celebrated 50 years in business serving the Southern California community and beyond. The firm has come a long way in that time. Starting with a sole practitioner pioneer opening up an office in 1968, the firm and affiliates have reached the milestone of 100 in personnel.

A number of factors account for success and sustainability over that period of time. 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.

One challenge that gives international firms an advantage over smaller firms is the array of resources at their disposal. In recent years, the gap has been narrowed by the rise of associations of independent firms. HMWC is a founding member of Integra International, which has grown in 25 years to over 100 firms all over the world, serving most regions, industries and specialties.

Traditions are another 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 HMWC’s growth. One of the oldest and most enduring marked its 40th year in 2018: The Death March. This remarkable annual event has imparted a unique distinction to the firm. Along with more conventional accomplishments, it has helped the firm stand out in the community and the marketplace.

Traditions can happen in various ways, not always by plan. My wife Lori is a writer of fiction, with over 20 novels to her credit. She has lamented at times that the question most often asked when we are about to embark on an exotic vacation is: “Will you be looking for ideas for a new book on your trip?” She has to reply, “That’s not how it works for me.” While travels may be good for research, ideas come at the oddest times, and often in merely mundane circumstances. That was the case for how the Death March tradition formed as well, yet many unplanned and unexpected benefits emerged from its humble beginning.

It all began 50 years ago, when the firm’s founder, Robert Sterman, left his home in New York and headed west to Orange County, California to start a new life and a new firm. Ten years later, I too left my home in Chicago and headed west. For us, it was like the famous newspaperman, Horace Greeley, had said: “Go west young man, and grow up with the country.” And so, the firm got its start in Orange County, California.

One day shortly after I had joined the firm, a couple of 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 trail head almost half dead and never having made it to the top of the mountain, we swore we would never do that again.

In retrospect, as I look back, we were starting to learn important team-building lessons even then that would apply equally in business as they did on the trail. The first one was “Be prepared.”

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. Right then and there, 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, giving the area time to thaw out. 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. Back at the office we also found that thoroughly developed plans that were well monitored succeeded best.

Having conquered the High Sierra, we were ready to broaden our horizons the following year. The Grand Canyon beckoned us. Traversing the 24 miles from the North Rim to the South Rim was the objective. This time, halfway down, staff accountant George gave out and sat down on the trail, refusing to take another step. My partner Steve and I had to use all of our accountant’s psychological powers and encouragement to get George moving again and into camp. Fortunately, after a good night’s sleep and a layover day, George was refreshed and managed to make it back to the top under his own power. His wife Kay was there to greet us. Kay had driven the car around 200 miles to the South Rim to pick us up. On the way, she was a little too anxious and got a ticket for speeding. Lessons learned: All team members matter and follow the rules.

With mountain and canyon adventures behind us, 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. Though not normally the adventurous type, she was a good sport, even tackling Class 4-5 rapids like a trooper. On a subsequent Death March in Yosemite National Park, she also held her own on the eight-mile trail between the Glen Aulin and May Lake High Sierra Camps.

One of the firm’s values is the importance of families. Family members are encouraged to join in. Just as firm members get to know colleagues in new and better ways on the trail, meeting family members also helps with the building of bonds. 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.

We don’t stop with just families. 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 where a freshly caught halibut made for a delicious dinner one night, 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.

We’ve gone on horseback, by ship over the ocean, stayed at a lighthouse, and spent a week with a National Park ranger, who taught us how to connect with nature.

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. There are different things that 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. In turn that helps develop camaraderie and retention.

Getting out of the office environment every so often is important for a person’s well-being. Accountants have always got “stuff” to do at the office. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Therefore, by getting out of the office, up into the mountains or the canyons, a person is given time when on the trail, where the mind can be free from all the stresses back in the office. That’s when ideas often come and the mind clears. There may be things that couldn’t get figured out when at the office. But with the mind in a different environment out on the trail, there come these “a-ha” moments. That possibility, in itself, is a reason, no matter what is going on, to take time to get away from the busy-ness, to let the mind be creative.

It's also a great way to really get to know co-workers. We all have different personalities. It seems like certain types mesh together better than others. Individuals may find themselves at the office gravitating more towards those that are easier to get along with. Yet, to be most successful, they need to learn to relate to all types of people.

On the Death March, when out on the trail, I've found opportunities to relate to others, sometimes even with someone at the office that I've had difficulty working with. The two of us find ourselves walking along together, and there’s a totally different scenario. Out there I’m not trying to impress anyone with my business acumen. I just want to get to know people.

For example, one of the newer staff members, Tristan, is a computer technician. At the office he stops by if someone’s Excel isn’t working, or something like that, and fixes it. That’s great. But, at the office, I've just seen him as a necessary person to get a job done. I didn't really know Tristan. However, a couple years ago, he decided to participate in the Death March to Crater Lake. There, walking along with Tristan, I discovered that he has a wonderful personality, he’s got goals in life and enjoys doing different things.

I started to look at him in a totally different way and realized that each one of us is important in our own way. One time I knew a pastor who gave a benediction that included, along with a number of other things, the directive “honor all persons.” I like to keep that thought with me, that each one of us is a unique individual with a fascinating story. That is so, even in this day and age when we're so polarized with our politics that we can hardly look some people in the eye who disagree with us.

We need to get beyond all that. When you're out on the trail, you do get beyond. You're just enjoying nature together and the beautiful creation. It makes quite a difference.

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 magnificent places. But there are other traditions that can work for a firm.

Sporting traditions are great. Whether it’s a golf tournament or running a 10K, traditions can be developed around those types of events. 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. Along with the firm’s financial support buying a table for the annual gala, we roll up our sleeves and feel like we are helping that way.

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

Another HMWC tradition that’s fun as well is known as the annual firm breakfast. The theme centers on a state of the firm report. After the busy season is over and everyone is trying to take a deep breath, the whole firm and their families go to nearby Disneyland, to spend the weekend at the Grand Californian Hotel having a good time.

On one of the mornings, the annual breakfast takes place where partners and managers report on firm results for the year and future plans. The managers give the report for their respective departments. A friendly competition has developed among them to try to outdo each other in giving the most entertaining presentation of how their department has done. Some use games or quizzes or questions. There is a sense of enjoyable involvement. And along the way, the managers are getting some valuable experience honing their public speaking skills.

The key to a successful tradition is finding something that has appeal to the firm and its location, wherever that may be. If it’s something a little different, then that can help the firm stand out. HMWC always enjoys putting out a press release each year of the latest Death March. Some noteworthy responses are forthcoming from clients and friends, which prove to be helpful. I encourage getting the word out, since the publicity is most helpful.

Also, know when to get out of the way and pass the baton to others. In 2008, at the annual breakfast, the firm showcased the 30th Annual Death March. Awards were given out with names such as “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Old Gristle-ly Bear Award.”

That was a nostalgic occasion for me, as I had just turned over the title of Managing Partner to my successor Steve Williams. At the breakfast, I presented him with the “Taking the Firm to New Heights” award. The award turned out to be prophetic, as Steve has since done just that. His foresight and persistence have made a good example of what needed to be done to see that a tradition got off the ground and sustained itself.

A successful endeavor needs a champion as well. Find someone who has passion and energy for the new tradition or service. About 20 years ago, HMWC wanted to expand services provided to physicians, to go beyond just accounting and tax. Someone was needed to lead the effort. Steve again stepped forward. A substantial effort was required on his part, backed by the partners who gave him the time and money to make it happen. Within a few years, a cradle-to-grave service to health care professionals had been created. Today HMWC is the go-to firm in Southern California for healthcare services.

Another fun-loving tradition at the firm is the “Where in the World is the HMWC Water Bottle” contest. Each person, when hired, is issued a water bottle inscribed in green with the firm name and logo. Fierce competition erupts every year as staff scour the world looking for the most exotic places to capture a photo of the HMWC water bottle. Winners have included an elephant in Thailand drinking from the water bottle, and a fountain in Sweden filling it.

While a lot of factors went into HMWC’s recognition in 2008 as one of the 25 best managed firms in the USA, I like to think that the loyalty and trust built up over the years of special traditions played a role.

In summary, here are a few final thoughts:

• We learn from the obstacles in our path.

• A change of scenery can create an atmosphere for accessing our creative, intuitive side.

• While many factors go into building a successful team, 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.

The Death March tradition is chronicled in the newly released second edition of my book, From Ledgers to Ledges, Four Decades of Team Building Adventures in America’s West.

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