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How Can You Build a Winning Culture at Your Organization?

February 19, 2024


During the October 18, 2023, WSCPA Member Exclusive webinar, Monette Anderson, CAE, WSCPA Vice President of Membership & Education, talked with previous WSCPA Business of the Year recipients about how they build a winning culture at their firms. Here is an excerpt from that conversation. Watch a recording of the webinar on YouTube, here.

Jason Mallon, CPA, Partner, Greenwood Ohlund

2022-23 WSCPA Business of the Year, Greenwood Ohlund sets a remarkable example of a firm with a strong culture, characterized by engaged staff and leadership. As a WSCPA Peak Firm, they actively participate in numerous committees and volunteer roles, and demonstrate a deep commitment to our student members through their recruitment and internship programs.  

Nika Toce, CPA, MBA, Managing Partner, 
Hutchinson & Walter CPAs

Hutchinson & Walter CPAs exemplifies a firm that has made the WSCPA a part of their firm’s culture. They won the award in 2021-22 and were one of the first firms to sign up for the WSCPA Peak Firm Program, which is a commitment to support all CPAs and future CPA (student) memberships. Hutchinson & Walter staff embody community leadership through their support and encouragement of WSCPA involvement at the volunteer level, with many of their staff serving on WSCPA boards and committees. They actively support their staff's professional development through WSCPA CPE and have been supportive partners in WSCPA student events including our firm fairs and outreach activities.  

Ed Ramos, CPA, Shareholder, DP&C

DP&C won the Business of the Year distinction in 2020-21. Based in Tacoma, they have supported the WSCPA with investing in staff memberships and encouraging their members to volunteer for many years. The firm also supports a named diversity scholarship. Ed also served on the AICPA’s original Diversity and Inclusion Committee and brought that commitment back into the organization. DP&C have a strong connection with their local community and often partner with nonprofits to help with fundraising and encourage their staff to volunteer and engage with organizations for which they have a passion. 

What initiatives have you implemented at your firm to encourage your staff to network and advance professionally?  

Toce: We have tried to help our staff make progress in their careers by documenting all the skills and expectations that we expect employees to take on at each level of their career. We want to help them understand when in their career they should also be networking. We provide examples of where to network and encourage them to explore different ways to network to find an avenue that resonates with them individually. The key is that we all get to demonstrate our dedication to our craft and our passion for what we do and be engaged with the communities that we serve.  

Mallon: We put the ownership in the employees’ court, but we also include networking (and all its different formats) as a component of the evaluation structure, which helps to incentivize networking. Our partners understand that it takes all different types to successfully run a firm and not everyone is going to be a rainmaker or comfortable with networking at events. Sometimes networking is showing up at work with the client base and providing exceptional service, deliverables, and communication. Networking and advancing professionally comes in many different formats, and that is why we put the onus in the hands of the employees themselves (i.e., let them choose their path).

Ramos: I remind our staff that as CPAs, our middle name is “public.” It's important to be out there in public. When networking, the advice I give is find something that you’re passionate about. It makes networking more interesting and more exciting to be able to go out and network and volunteer in areas that really mean something to you.

How does your firm support lifelong learning and continuous education for employees?  

Toce: One of the things that we've really found at our firm is the people who have the most satisfaction from their work are the people who love what they do the most, and people usually enjoy doing things they are good at. People will gravitate toward the type of work that they're really excited about, and as an employer, it's our job to help them figure out what those areas are, where they're particularly gifted, or where they really stand out in a group of 35 people. As a team, we really support each other, because you can't be an expert in all things. But we're big enough that when we help each other grow in the areas of our biggest interest, we can support each other with that knowledge. And we all love doing that. 

Ramos: Aside from the required CPE that everyone needs to take, we typically look for some CPE to help employees advance their careers (leadership, management skills that are outside of the typical curriculum). We feel that from a lifelong learning perspective, this type of training will help them.

Mallon: I agree with that, Ed. I recall one partner who showed a genuine interest in my growth and effectively told me to follow what interested me. This was when I was still contemplating industries I wanted to focus on, which led to me to begin working with wineries, breweries, and independent schools. I ended up leaving CPA land for several years where I ended up being a CFO at an independent school furthering my knowledge base outside of the firm lifestyle and culture. When talking with team members, I try to help them identify areas of interest to specialize in and encourage them to pursue their passions. It’s invigorating to work to become an expert. Even if you're focused on a specialized area, it's important to have that well-rounded knowledge.    

How has your firm adapted to support and develop programs in the area of remote work? How did your organization adapt during the pandemic and how has it evolved since that time?  

Mallon: I love remote work and only have one client in which I go to their office. I go into our firm office once a month, which is located in Ballard.  As baby boomers continue to retire and fewer graduates choose accounting as a profession, the firm has to remain flexible and pivot.  In order to recruit the best employees, there has to be flexibility.  Some organizations are requiring people to come back to the office for three days a week, which probably creates resentment for certain team members. For example, when employees do commute in, they may drive an hour fighting traffic only to arrive at their cubicle in time to log onto their Zoom meeting because not everyone has decided to come in that day. That is wasting that team member’s time!  Our firm has found that when we collaborate utilizing Teams or Zoom, we can still create that in-person vibe. There are some significant deficiencies with remote work that I think over the coming years we will be battling and addressing, training being a significant one, but you must pivot into this new realm because Pandora's box has been open, and I don't think you're going to see it get closed anytime soon.

Toce: Our firm has changed a lot during the last five years. It has been a tremendously fast pace of growth. Prior to COVID, most of our client meetings were in person. When COVID hit we all scrambled to learn how to use Zoom and Teams quickly, and, thankfully, that works really well for us. For a lot of reasons, I think remote work is essential and we as CPA firms must figure out how to make it work long term, despite the deficiencies that Jason mentioned. And then there's also a more important piece for me, which is equity. Our firm is in Bellevue, an expensive area in which to live, and I don't want my employee base to be restricted to either people of the socioeconomic status who can live close to the firm or need to spend three hours a day commuting.  

As employers, we have a responsibility to our employees to ensure remote work is an option. We do a lot to help the firm still feel like a team, despite about half of our employees working almost exclusively remotely. Some just work in the office, but we have weekly lunch-and-learn meetings where everyone can log in and ask questions. I also meet weekly with most of the remote employees, so I can be aware of where they are mentally and try to help them feel as if they're not just isolated in a bubble working by themselves, which is easy to do with fully remote work. And I'm sure I'm missing a lot of things where there is a lot of room for improvement, but that's something we're working on.

Ramos: I love remote work as well. At our firm, we require two days a week in the office and one of those days is Thursday. We want everyone to be there at one time, to continue to build our firm culture. We do have a few full-time remote employees, where we were able to work out an arrangement for them to be fully remote and it works great. It's just continuously evolving and even though we have a policy around it, we're still monitoring it and seeing if it works. It really is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some people work great under the remote environment, and some don’t, and from a productivity perspective, it’s evident whether the remote environment works for someone or if it doesn’t.

How do you handle the situation where there are positions that don’t lend themselves to being remote positions?  

Ramos: We do have a receptionist who's in the office and there isn’t the option for remote work in that position. For new staff, we are asking them to be in the office at least for the first year until they are acclimated to the firm’s way of doing things.

What steps have your firm taken to foster an inclusive environment for staff members of all backgrounds? How do you manage your personal bias when evaluating reports for career progression/promotion/ opportunity at your firm?

Toce: We have a diverse workforce. We have about 60% women and about 30% first- and second- generation immigrants who speak at least two languages. That has come easily to our firm as we focus on seeing an applicant’s skills and talent as shown on the resume, how much care they have put in their resume, and then interest level, as opposed to having a preconceived notion of the type of person we are looking to hire. We have employees at our firm who have been here for over 20 years. We have employees who have left and come back because it's a good place to work. I think is a good starting point for new employees too, where clearly a lot of people have had a good experience working here for a long time, and I hope that gives them the courage to carve out their own spot in our firm.

Ramos: There's a saying that I heard: treating someone equally doesn't necessarily mean treating them all the same. Everyone may have different needs. Maybe someone needs more leadership training or communication training than somebody else. It's important to recognize what everyone's needs are and treat them equally and really having an inclusive workforce and working all together. I think the key is to recognize that we all have biases and being mindful of that as we look at candidates and do the best we can to put those biases aside.  

Mallon: During our evaluation process, our partner group works with a facilitator to coach all of us to look for specific biases. The coach asks us pointed questions during this process. In addition, when we go through the evaluation process, our HR consultant reviews the evaluations and looks for bias and asks questions, such as, “Is there some recency bias here?” This helps us actively consider and try to address bias and ensures we're creating a fair workplace for everyone.

Toce: My best friend is a nurse and part of her nursing program required her to take Harvard implicit bias tests. Especially in nursing, if you have a bias when you're treating somebody, it can affect care. Similarly, if you have a bias that you're unaware of, it may affect how you treat an employee or a client. It’s important to be aware of your biases, whether you are in a supervisory role or are an employee.  

How do you keep firm staff morale high, especially during busy or challenging periods like during tax season?

Mallon: I want my team to work between 40 and 45 hours per week, and I mean it. From a CFO and accounting department perspective, I've created a capacity model that limits the staff and seniors to a certain number of clients each month. My department focuses on utilizing KPIs to make sure that individuals at home are doing what they say they're doing, and that the clients are then able to get the services that they need. If your team members are the number one priority, your clients automatically become the number one priority.

Ramos: During our busy time, including tax season, we have a Teams meeting every Monday morning, just to bring everyone together, and we do a drawing. On Thursdays, the day we all work in the office, we have lunch, or we'll have a happy hour, or something special going on. Hopefully that helps with some of the morale.

Toce: I make salads for my staff five days a week during tax season. I feed those who come into the office healthy, home-cooked food that meets their dietary restrictions. My staff joke that the reason they show up for work in the morning is because they know they're going to get lunch. I've done this since I was an employee here. I raised my hand in a staff meeting and asked if we could get healthier food in the lunchroom. They said, “If you can make it happen, we will reimburse you for the cost.” That's what I love about this firm. Employees who want to contribute to making their colleagues’ lives better have that opportunity. We all make lunch together every day now and it's nice to have that outlet. 

This article appears in the winter 2024 issue of the Washington CPA magazine. Read more here.

Learn more about the Member Exclusive CPE series here