John Randolph finishes his conversation with Accounting Today Top 100 influencer Randy Crabtree on Episode 30 of CPA Life, where they discuss non-traditional leadership in remote, but also in-office culture, the importance of building relationships, and of making your people understand you care about them as human beings. They both delve into the financial advantage imparted by low turnover due to healthy employee work-life balance and the power of saying “no.” They round out their chat by discussing the benefits to firm leaders of letting others do the things you do best, while leaders stay in their lanes, out of the way.
Thanks for tuning into CPA Life. We now rejoin John Randolph and Accounting Today Top 100 influencer, Randy Crabtree, for part two of their conversation against the grain of the accounting profession. They’ll discuss firm culture, looking after your employees, setting a true example in leadership, and more. Welcome to CPA Life!
It’s just the fact that in passing in a meeting, you hear something as a leader, and make a mental note of that and then go and say, okay, I’m gonna solve this problem for this person. But again, it comes back to intentionality. How do you do things like that in a remote culture?
Well, you know, for us, everything’s just on Teams. I’ll tell you this—two things. I mean, Teams has become a big thing for us, you know, for a while with Zoom, and now it’s Teams. But getting together—our head of HR just coordinates things as well. Team leads will coordinate things where we get together and do a pumpkin carving, or a meet your dog day, where everybody brings their dog in front of the camera, and everybody gets to share stuff with their dogs. But the other thing is, I think it is extremely important to still get together. That’s why we do that twice a year, you know. And that’s not cheap. You know, we’re gonna have close to a hundred people out in Orlando, and that’s not gonna be a cheap week.
But we don’t have a cost of replacing people. This is a lot less expensive than really replacing one or two people a year. And I think that we don’t replace people because of the way we treat them and doing these things. So we do it with the on-sites, we do it with remote, but we also do it, we as a group travel a lot, and often, we’re with someone else at a conference, or at a client. And so just keeping those relationships going. And even at 80 people right now, we do have smaller groups that get together quite often. We have a big group in Houston, and they’ll just have, you know, like, the Tri-Merit, you know, Friday night out in Houston. So they’ll get together. That kind of thing. And we have a big group in Denver, and in Chicago, and in Detroit. And so those groups will just take it on themselves to get together as well.
So I have a question about that. As a firm and as a firm leader, do you fund that?
So the funny thing is, I was just wondering that too! I think we should. I honestly don’t know if we do or not, but that’s because I stay in my lane, and my lane is not the financial end of things anymore. My lane is just making sure that, that—
Make sure they do get together, right?
Yes. And make sure they do. So but I had that exact same question, and I was thinking, “I hope he doesn’t ask me that!”
Well, I’ll tell you I’ll tell you why I asked that. My wife and I have been super intentional from our kids’ births about fist and foremost, we we were their parent. And we knew that there would be a day that, you know, we go from holding their hand and guiding them as they grew to walking alongside of them and hopefully one day them enjoying being with Mom and Dad, and not only with Mom and Dad, but enjoying being with each other.
And I remember talking to an uncle of mine years ago, and he was talking about being intentional—and that’s a consistent word, I think—being intentional with his kids that as we grow as adults, sometimes if you don’t have that tight family bond geographically, and nowadays, you know, kids are more spread out. But he said one of the things that he did with his kids was anytime they got together—dinner, happy hour, you know, whatever it was—send him the bill, and he would pay for it, because he knew how important it was for family to stay together. And so we’ve done that with our daughters, and it’s gotten to the point now where, you know, my daughter who’s not married will talk to me about meeting for dinner with my daughter who is married, and I’ll say to her, don’t forget to send me the, Venmo me the request for money when you’re done. And she’ll now say, dad, it’s okay. You don’t need to. I love spending time with my sister.
And so I asked that question because it intrigues me that how much of that is “Hey, we’re gonna go do this because Randy’s gonna pay for it” versus, “Hey, we’re gonna do this because we just love breaking bread together.”
Right. And I wanna say we pay for it, but I don’t 100% believe that’s true, so I have to—but I like what you said, the fact that they get together and it’s not forced because we’re gonna pay for it, is pretty cool.
It goes back to what you said a little while ago, the culture that’s built on rules.
Once a month, we will get together.
And we will go and do x or y or z versus just the impromptu, hey, guys. Next Tuesday night, you guys wanna do this?
Right. Well, you know what? I just thought of one thing that I wanna add to creating a culture, whatever, remote wise, or any type, because I think this is something—I talk about this all the time, and I just wanna bring it up here. I think as a leader, showing vulnerability is also huge, because then that shows everybody else that yeah, they can—it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to ask questions, you know, to not know everything. It’s okay, you know, if you’re feeling burnt out, it’s okay to come and talk about that.
And so for me, I try to be vulnerable, and I’m guessing I’m probably more vulnerable than most people. I’ll share just about anything, and I’ve gone through things in my life in the past. But I think that helps create a culture where people enjoy being part of.
I think that if you create that pressure release valve—and if memory serves correct, you had a stroke?
I did. Yep. Coming up on ten years. I got two more months, until my ten year anniversary.
So ten years as a stroke survivor—you know the importance of being able to have that pressure release valve that you can let off steam, you can ask a question, you can question why is something being done, and not feel like, you know, this is the last thing in the world that somebody wants to hear from me, but the reality is it’s not the last thing if the culture is built around vulnerability and honesty.
I was talking to, Mike Payne, who runs a firm called BOSS Advisors in Arizona, a couple of weeks ago, and that’s one of the things that Mike was talking about is that they are very vulnerable about not only what are we as a firm doing right, wrong, or indifferent, but what are we as leaders? And it’s one of the things that they specifically encourage in their meetings when they talk to people is there’s gotta be at least one or two things that you bring to leadership to say this is what we wish you guys could do better.
Yeah. That’s great. That’s part of our retreats is just getting everybody’s ideas on, you know, good, bad, you know, indifferent. What are we doing? What do we need to do different? And then the other thing you said earlier too, is when you do things like that, people aren’t afraid to bring up ideas and question the way you’re doing things. You know, one of our largest revenue generators for the last few years. Somebody who had been working with us for six months said, hey, I think we should look at doing this. And then it ended up being a huge part of our business. So, yeah, giving people the freedom to, you know, be open, I think, is so important.
I want to point out something you said a minute ago for any firm leaders that that may be listening and scratching their head and wondering about bringing their people in, going to locations, you know, or making investments in people, you know, and creating a culture that may cost you some money. You mentioned you’ve got eighty people, and a little while ago, you mentioned you’re gonna have five to seven people at your annual or at your semi annual meeting that weren’t there last year.
I think you and I may have been talking about it before we started recording. So you’ve added you had organic growth of 5 to 7 people.
Yeah. And that’s in 6 months, because we got together in May. So this would be December.
Yep. So I was gonna say, let’s just say organic growth of 10 to 15%. You know, 10 to 15 people somewhere in that number of growth over the last year. If you were the stereotypical firm—And I think the number that I heard on a previous podcast is, in the last five years, you’ve lost one person.
Yeah. And, honestly, it may be longer than five years, but when I just use my brain and don’t look at the actual data, there’s only one person I can remember leaving and and probably at least the last five, probably seven years.
So if you have 10 to 15% growth, but then you have the stereotypical 20 to 30% turnover that is occurring in most firms, you’re looking at having to hire—this year—somewhere in the neighborhood of, you know, count your growth in that, let’s just call it ten people for easy math.
If you’ve got 20% turnover, you’re looking to have to hire 26 people over the last year to maintain what you have and grow with the new. And when you take, you know, the fact that 16 people at at least 1 a half to 1.75% of total cost of that employee for turnover, you’ve more than paid for taking your people somewhere twice a year.
And embedding into your culture an intentional mindset of “leadership cares.”
Oh, yeah, no, that’s the way I look at it. And I don’t know if it was intentional that way that I looked at it from the start but when I saw the results that we don’t lose people, I’m like, yeah, we should get together four times a year, maybe!
You know, one of the things that as a podcast that we typically hear from a lot of either potential candidates or people that are in the industry, and the feedback we’ll get is, hey, I would love to find out, how can I help my firm leadership look at some of these things? Or I call it the Bigfoot Theory—I’ve heard that firms like this exist, but do they really? What are some things that you do personally or that you encourage your people to do throughout the day, throughout the week, to maintain a level of solid mindset—not burnout, not overwork, not press too much. What are some things that you do and that you do as an organization, to get your people to understand, we don’t need you all plugged in 16 hours a day.
Yeah, and that’s a great question because I talk about this all the time to firms. And do I specifically say it to our company? I think they hear me all the time say it, but you just got me thinking—you’re really getting me thinking on this podcast today! One, do we pay for these things? Two, do I go out of my way to just make sure everybody in the firm knows what I tell other firms that—I guess not what they should do, but—things that I think help. And so I think I do, but we do it’s internal to a point I gotta decide if we’re doing I gotta figure out if we’re doing it enough, but at least putting the message out there. But I think we live it so they see it through living it.
And so there’s certain things. We’re not on 24/7. You know, we encourage people when the end of the day is the end of the day, it’s the end of the day. You know, you’ll not have to be responding to emails at eight o’clock at night and text messages and Teams messages and whatever. And there’s a method that somebody else taught me, Brian Kush, on how you shut off at the end of the day, and it’s a three step process, and you just have to be intentional about about doing that.
And you, at the end of the day, you just set yourself up for success the next day by telling yourself, your morning self, where your evening self left off. So right now what you’ve done is you’ve trained your brain that I don’t have to try to remember, at three in the morning what I’m working on tomorrow because I already told myself what I’m working on when I get in the office.
So that’s one simple thing. Two, is have a plan. You know, instead of checking my emails and my text messages at eight o’clock at night, you know, just because I’m bored, my plan when I get home is to, you know, go out to dinner with my wife. I’m going to do this puzzle. I’m gonna read a book. I’m gonna exercise. I’m gonna whatever. Have a plan of “not work stuff” when you get home at night.
And then three, just be intentional about shutting down at the end of the day physically and mentally. You know, physically, maybe close your computer. Mentally, you know, say a prayer or meditate or do something that just trains yourself that the day’s over, I don’t have to think about work anymore. I don’t have to be worried at three in the morning what I’m working on because I already know when I get back in the office, I left myself a note. My evening itself was really nice and left my morning self a note. And so that’s one of the things I always tell everybody, take breaks, your brain just can’t work nonstop for even eight hours a day.
You need to—me personally, it’s on my calendar. I take a walk at 10 AM and 2 PM with my wife. We work out of the house, although I travel a John. But when I am home, we just go for a walk with our dog, 15 minutes. Just forget everything we’re doing work wise and just go out and relax.
And leave your phone behind, right?
And leave your phone behind. You know, I should admit this—sometimes I forget that part of it, so I gotta remember to leave the phone behind. Don’t eat at your desk. I mean, there’s all kinds of big things and little things that you can do, but we try to live it, and I think that’s as much as how we communicate it as, you know, having actual teaching sessions on it.
You know, I think living it is so critical that you know, they can hear you talk about it all day, but but when they see you put it into practice—you know, several years ago, before I started my firm again, I had a firm approached me about going to work as a as a regional VP for him and was interviewing with president of the company for the role. And anytime I had a question, he would never respond back to my email at two o’clock in the afternoon or three o’clock or four o’clock. But he would always respond to my question at eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, one o’clock, two in the morning. And it was a great opportunity with a great company, and after about two or three interviews, I went ahead and pulled out of the process, and I was telling my wife, the biggest reason why—I ended up telling them this—the reason I pulled out is every email you answered from me came at midnight to three in the morning.
And that tells me, you may not say you want me working at those hours, but if you’re doing it, there’s a part of you that’s gonna expect a response either then, or first thing in the morning when I walk in. And I’m typically not operating at my most, you know, highest level of mental capacity at eight in the morning or six in the morning. I’m just not.
Working at home creates a whole other challenge for for creating that separation, and I think that you touched on 2 things that are really critical: not eating at your desk, and getting up, walking away, taking a break, you know, like you said, you and your wife walking at 10 AM, 2 PM, and getting out of the house and and disconnecting. Those things are so important because that machine that’s running up here can’t just run incessantly eight, nine, ten hours a day.
No. That’s what I tried to do when I was a generalist and I had my firm. I worked crazy hours, and looking back, I just, the productivity you know, the first eight hours, I was probably okay. The next, you know, four hours or five hours that I was doing during tax season, I just wasn’t really anything done, and it was just stupid. If I just would’ve went home, you know, rested, went back in, managed my time better, I probably could have worked a lot less hours and got the same work out the door.
Yep. I was talking to a potential candidate, a gentleman that was referred to me a couple of weeks ago. We got on the phone. He was a great, great young man. Mid thirties was talking to him about a director level role with a client of ours that’s looking for kind of an heir apparent guy to take over the firm. And, he made a statement that I thought was so profound. He said, you know, John, I’ve been at this same firm for eight years, and I’m probably not going to leave regardless of what the future looks like for me in regards to growth. And I said, why do you say that? And he said, one very simple reason—I look at the owner of the firm, John, and for the first time in my career, I worked for a guy that I can look at and say, I want his life.
And I asked him. I said, tell me what you mean by that. He started to explain some of the things that you’re sitting here talking about. You know, how he unplugs, how he makes sure that everybody else unplugs, how he walks away from his desk a couple of times a day, and they’re in the office a couple of days a week and how he walks around the office and just talks to people, and he seems to enjoy what he does. And, you know, he’s the first guy I’ve worked for that tells clients all day long, no, we’re not gonna do that, I’m not gonna kill my people for you.
Things like that. He said, for the first time in my life, I look at a guy, and I know that there’s a career track for me here, but what I’m saying is regardless of if there wasn’t, I would stay here because I want that guy’s life.
Yeah. Wait. One thing you just said about the “no?” I have a friend who recently, and she’s in a public accounting, and she recently, I was with her at a conference. And she was talking about the fact that “no” is a one word sentence. So if you tell somebody no and they ask why, it’s like, well, no. I’m just saying I’m not gonna do that. You can just, you don’t have to explain why you’re not gonna do something. No, I’m not gonna do it because it’s not good for my people—that’s fine if you wanna explain it, but saying no is a skill that I think we need to be better at in public accounting.
Yeah. I think it’s something that most people in public accounting have a really tough time saying to people because as you mentioned as a generalist, there’s always that dollar that you’re going after.
When you enter a service based trade, and that’s what this is, you do it because you genuinely want to help people.
And the word “no” is really hard, in general, to say. And when you’re a people pleaser, it’s almost impossible to say. So, again, it goes to the very start of our conversation. The beauty of being a specialist, a niche player, is you’ve kinda got those bumpers that you can, if nothing else, even if you’re a two person firm, you can always blame it on your niche that you play in!
Right. Yeah. I love it.
And that’s not always an easy thing to do. I think that, one of the things that you’ve touched on is how you’ve been able to build into your culture the fact that people are more than just, you know, what’s on their business card. How do you guys continue to do that? Because, again, so much of what we do, we tend to define as who we are. You know, I’m a tax person, I’m an audit person, you know, whatever the case may be. I’m a partner. How do you, again, be intentional about getting your people to understand, hey, that’s not necessarily who you are. That’s what you do.
Right. And I don’t think our people have—I think they see it from day one that this is what we’re about, and everybody knows. In fact, it’s even on our—well, I’m gonna take this back. It’s supposed to be on our website. I think it’s up there now. Believe me, I stay in my lane! The website’s not my lane. But, everybody’s “and” on the website. And so from day one, that’s one of the first questions they’re asking before they come in about what their “and” is. And so they know that this is it. You know, again, their outside of work passion. And so they know, but I said, like I said before, we share on calls about it.
Honestly, when I think about people right now that I work with, what pops into my head is not their job. It is just, like, I think about our head of marketing. The first thing I think isn’t oh, he’s head of marketing. It’s like, man, I really wanna see some of his art. I’ve heard he does such a great job. I’ve seen them online, but I haven’t seen them in person. And, you know, one of our—now a partner—when I think of him, I think, man, that guy used to race motorcycles professionally. He must have been good at that. I mean, and so it’s just I think we think about people as their passions, not as their job. And it’s just, I think it’s just the way my brain works, but I think all of the people I work with brains are working that way. Maybe we’re brainwashing them to think this way! I don’t know. But it seems like we have a rule, and I think we’ve changed the rule, but—oh, boy. I just said we had rules!
What I mean is the rule is “No jerks allowed.”
And so it’s a hiring rule. And so just from day one, it’s just we find the people that just have that same personality from a standpoint that they just like to be inquisitive about others. But you don’t wanna hire everybody that’s just a clone of you because that won’t work.
Oh, God no.
And so we have such a variety of personalities and likes and dislikes and skills and everything, that I think that’s one reason we work so well. Because we actually did one of these CliftonStrengths Finders where we actually separated everybody in the company into—you know, this was a six month apart process. First, everybody figured out what they were. The next six months later, we got together and and you know, at the end of two hours, we went into corners of the room and and based on their strengths, not that anything was a weakness, but our stronger suits, and when you look around the room and you see everybody’s strengths and and what they’re doing in the company, and I looked around there and I go, I can’t do anything without that group and that group and that group. If everybody was over here with me, man, we’d be the poorest—we’d never be in business anymore. And so just that boy, I went on tangents all over the board on that answer!
Well, but the reality is I think that you’re touching on something that is so critical, and, again, you talk about living it. I think that you and your partner are a perfect example of living that, because you stay in your lane, he stays in his lane. Again, years ago after selling my firm, I was consulting with another staffing firm and when I first met with them, the two leaders, their titles were co-CEO.
And in my first meeting, I thought, okay, this is a recipe for disaster. There’s no way that two people can do this. They just can’t. And I worked with them for about a year, year and a half, and what I came to realize is I never came across an organization where those two guys held that title, but like you’re talking about with your partner—Dan, was the creative guy. Dan was the thinker. Dan was the, hey, I’ve got an idea. Dan was the, hey, I’m gonna go out and see a customer. Dan would speak at conferences. Dan would sell.
Ricky made sure that everything that Dan was doing out here was well oiled and taken care of back here. And there were times that through the course of conversation when I was consulting with them, I would ask a question of Dan, and he would say that’s a risky question. And what I started to realize is things that were operational in nature, things that were financial in nature, that’s a Ricky question. Things that are process in nature, things that are people in nature, things that are customer in nature, that was a Dan question. And when you start to realize, this is my lane, I’m gonna stay in this lane, but I’m gonna surround myself with people that drive in these other lanes so much better than I do, because I wreck cars in these other lanes.
Yeah! Nope. I agree. That’s so that’s the way I like that analogy because that’s what I look back. I’m like, man, I would have wrecked that car. I like that.
It’s interesting too because I went so far into the fact, gave up the managing partner role. A month later, there was gonna be an executive committee meeting, and it was like a switch with me. And they said, okay, here’s the meeting, it’s gonna be here on this date. And I go, I’m not going. You guys do all that stuff now. That’s not my role anymore. And so, but, we had the right people with the right personalities that had the right skill sets in place that, man, if I would’ve gotten in the way there, I think it would’ve, you know, I don’t know if it would’ve helped at all. And so I’m really glad I chose not to go to those meetings.
You know, I think if more firm owners would start to realize I don’t need to do everything, there’s some things that I can let go and then surround themselves with people that do those things exceptionally well, and not only give them the responsibility to do it, but give them the authority to do it, I think they’d be surprised to see what could happen if they just let go a little bit.
It’s scary to let go, though.
But for me, it was the best thing to do.
We had a saying in our family for years, that I adopted in business, and it fits about 90% of the time, and it is not wrong, just different.
I may not approach it that way. Doesn’t make it wrong. It’s just different. And I think that once you embrace that, and you tie that to understanding If I hire the right people, and I understand the hearts of those people, and I understand the motivations of those people, I can let go more and understand they’re different, and not get caught up in it because I know ultimately their intent is to do good. And I think that makes letting go just a little bit easier.
Yeah. I agree with that. There was one time where I started to question something, and I had said, okay. If this is going to hurt this aspect of the company, and that’s what I’m afraid it’ll do, I’m not gonna endorse it. And then they gave me some—it was part of putting EOS in place, and my concern was is that gonna hurt our culture? ’Cause now EOS is gonna have rules and meetings and things like that. And then they gave me this whole thing showing how EOS actually is about people and good for the culture. And I looked at it, and then I agreed. I’m like, okay, remember, Randy? Don’t get in the way. They know what they’re doing. So that was a little bit of and this was just six months ago at our main meeting. And I’m like, okay, just trust everybody knows what they’re doing and stay out of the way.
That’s a tough thing to do. I commend you for doing it. Like I said, it’s tough, but if you start to, if you know that you know that you know, that you’ve got the right people in the right seats driving the bus and sitting in the right seats on the bus, it makes that letting go process just a little bit easier.
Yep. For sure. And a lot less taxing on my brain, so I don’t have to worry about that stuff.
Well, and and it makes that shutting down at the end of the day a little bit easier. It makes that unplugging just a little bit easier as well when you know that it’s not all on your shoulders.
Yep. For sure.
But you’ve obviously got a great story, and you’ve spent a large part of your life building a firm that is really not your traditional firm when it comes to culture and people. So I congratulate you on that.
Thank you, but I’m a small part of it. It’s the people that’re the main part of it.
I would expect you to say nothing other than that just based on our talk just now.
If there are those that are listening who are interested in finding out more about you, about what you’re building, what you have built at Tri-Merit, they wanna learn more about the Bridging the Gap Conference that we didn’t even touch on—we’ll have to get together and talk about that another time.
You know, coming up in ’24. Or if there’s people that just wanna seek some advice and wisdom from a guy that’s been around the block a time or two, what’s the best way for folks to find you?
Oh, you said “advice and wisdom,” and you’re talking about me? Alright. So there’s a couple places that, you know, you can go to our website, Tri-Merit.com. Our marketing group does an awesome job with social media, so I’m apparently all over LinkedIn at times. And then we have a YouTube channel where actually some of these things that we talked about today, we’ve done as webinars and they’re out on the YouTube channel. And then you mentioned earlier, The Unique CPA podcast is out there as well. And, you know, we have fun just telling people stories on there.
You’ve obviously built a solid organization, a good following, and I wish you continued success in your endeavors.
John, thank you. I had a great time. Thanks for inviting me on the show!
You are more than welcome. And for the rest of you, thank you guys for joining us here today on another episode of the CPA Life podcast where we show you that yes, you can have both of those things. Until next time.
We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcasting app, leave a five star rating and visit our website for links and show notes at CPALifePodcast.com. We’ll see you next time on CPA Life.
About the Guest:
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host in the accounting profession, who was named a 2023 Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting by Accounting Today. Since 2019, he has hosted The Unique CPA podcast, which ranks among the world’s top 5% most popular programs. You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Advisor, and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Randy also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Following on from the success of The Unique CPA, Randy and Tri-Merit hosted the first annual Bridging the Gap conference in Rosemont, Illinois, in 2023, with the second edition scheduled for July of 2024.