Getting Your Life Back with Doug Brown
On episode 55 of The Unique CPA, Randy is joined by Doug Brown of Summit Success International. Doug and Summit specialize in helping professionals and businesses take control of their workflow and time in order to better serve their clients, their employees and coworkers, and themselves. Randy focuses his questions around burnout, and Doug shares his considerable insights, including a number of useful takeaways.
Today, our guest is Doug Brown. Doug is an executive business coach for business professionals and entrepreneurs. He is the chief learning officer of Summit Success International, an organization devoted to helping entrepreneurs and business professionals get control of their life. I told Doug I was gonna have a hard time getting through the word “entrepreneur,” but I think I’ve done it three times in a row, and I think it sounds better each time I say it now. So I think we’re good! Doug, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Hey, Randy, good job on the word “entrepreneur.” And thanks for having me!
That’s one of those words, every time I say it, I feel like I’m saying it wrong. And “inaugural.” And that, right there, I just said that again, I don’t think I’m saying that right either. I probably am, but there’s just certain words that I just don’t feel I’m saying right. But I got to keep practicing! So thanks for making me say that twice or three times now.
So Doug, I appreciate you being on here, on the show. What I’d like to do is, before we really get into the topic at hand, which is, you know, spoiler alert, it’s gonna be talking about burnout. But before we do that, let’s talk about your background, where you came from and how you came into this profession that you’re currently in.
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the work that I’m doing now is my story. I’m not a CPA—I am a recovering lawyer. I practiced law for many years before I went into—under the business side. And I have a deep affinity for CPAs, because my oldest son is a CPA, just got his third job, he’s now with Ernst & Young, and my youngest is also an accountant.
So I understand the parallels.
So when I started off as a younger lawyer, I had this vision of what the profession was going to be, and I was working in a big firm. And then it got really busy and overwhelming, and I had to—I realized that nowhere in our training, was there any training on how to deal with that. And so over the next 25 years, I kind of figured out what not to do, by doing the wrong thing a lot.
Because I went from being a lawyer in a law firm, to then in-house at a corporation that was growing from 30 million to $300 million. And I got involved in the business, and I was one of these guys, that always just takes on more stuff. And I put myself out there, because I feel passionate about what I do—about growing businesses. And I lead with my heart, and that means that my energy is all out there. And so I, over my career, I’ve had these cycles of huge productivity at gigantic personal cost.
And then as I got through my 40s, and into my 50s, I realized that the extended periods of stress like that were starting to have a real cumulative effect. What I used to get away with in my 20s, and 30s, and even my 40s, and like, I get to my 50s, and I’m like, “That’s not okay.”
So through my various careers, one of the—so I went, I taught for six years in an MBA program, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And then I was recruited to go become the executive director of the State Bar Association in Connecticut. So I had ten thousand lawyers as bosses. And we got them turned around. And if that doesn’t cause some sort of work-related PTSD, I don’t know what will.
Yeah, I can see that!
Except maybe being the director of an accounting organization.
Well, we’re gonna get into that in a second for sure.
So and then, I realized that all that I’ve learned—about how to grow a business and how to take care of yourself to be better for your clients—I mean, I’m not a mental health professional, I’ve lived it.
And so that led me to this job where I get to work with really smart professionals who recognize the need to take more control, so they can make more money and maybe have more of a life. And so it’s, that journey kind of led me to being able to do this and through a good friend, to find you and have a chance to share this with CPAs. I think it’s important because lawyers talk to lawyers about lawyer stuff.
And CPAs talk to CPAs about CPA stuff. And I think if you can cross that boundary and get perspectives from other professions, it’s a fresh look at things.
I think for sure. And CPAs—this is CPA speaking to CPA season right now. I’ve been at conferences nonstop since really about July, so I know exactly what you mean.
So let’s get into that because I mentioned, I teased a little bit we’re going to talk about burnout, and that kind of seems like it equates to your story, and where you were in business. But I’m going to give a little background and then let’s get into this.
So the background I want to talk about is that CPAs, in general, have been in about a two year tax season right now. It really hasn’t ended. It’s been nonstop from tax planning season of 2019 through today. We’ve got another five months before there’s any end in sight, and there’s new legislation coming out, so who knows what that’s going to be.
And in addition, just, you know, the pandemic we’ve gone through, every single piece of legislation, everything out there has been, “Hey, let’s help businesses, let’s help individuals.” And that runs through the CPA. That runs through the IRS, and it runs through the CPA. And so everything that’s happened in the last year and a half has really run through the CPA firm.
So they’ve had this, and you’ll have to tell me the difference, but they’ve had this stress, and I’m concerned that there’s burnout as well, because you can’t go nonstop for—I don’t think, I couldn’t, for two and a half years. And so what’s that going to do? Are we going to have a problem? Is there something on the horizon that’s going to be an issue that people are going to be dealing with?
But first off, let’s just talk: Burnout. Is that going to be a problem? Do you see that in this industry, and what really is burnout?
So, yes, I think it already is a problem. And I think it probably was a problem well before we got to the pandemic.
So let’s just talk about what burnout is.
The World Health Organization in 2019 actually recognized burnout as an identifiable medical condition. And it’s when you have chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed.
And so it has three dimensions: You’re going to feel energy depleted and exhausted; you’re going to feel increased mental distance from your job; and you’re going to have pervasive feelings of negativity or cynicism about your job.
And when I talk to lawyers about that, they look at me like, “Well duh! That’s what it means to be a lawyer.” And I think that accountants might be wondering, “Well, yeah, that’s what it means to be an accountant,” right?
And the problem with burnout, and it’s different than stress, is it happens to the Type As, who don’t want to admit that they could ever get burnt out, because up until the last couple years, maybe still today, if you’re burnt out, you are obviously defective as a person. You failed to manage yourself. And so why should I trust you with my accounting if you can’t even manage yourself?
Right.The problem with burnout is it happens to the Type As, who don't want to admit that they could ever get burnt out, because up until the last couple years, maybe still today, if you're burnt out, you are obviously defective as a person. Click To Tweet
And that’s the BS that we had been fed as professionals, that it’s somehow a character flaw, to not be able to successfully manage the firehose of information coming after you for so long.
And it’s only in the last couple years that the conversations about mental health are starting to become a little bit more normalized. And it’s critically important, because my personal experience—not a medical professional, but extended periods of stress without a break, and without effective strategies and a support system, will cause mental health issues. It’ll cause physical mental health issues. And you can’t just power through and say, “I’m going to just tough it out and try to recover from it,” because it’s this death spiral, Randy. You’re burnt out, you work harder. And then you’re less productive, so you work even harder. And you make mistakes, and you get down on yourself.
And then you separate yourself from relationships. And then your employees hate you. And you hate them back. We’ve got to interrupt the pattern.
Yep. All right. And so how do we do that?
Well, I think the understanding that stress and burnout are different.
You can have good stress. I’ve joked with my accounting friends that in normal time, you’re kind of like adrenaline junkies. It’s like, “Oh, quarter end, month end, quarter end, year end,” and then you get all the work done, and then take a deep breath, and then do it all again.
When you get the stress that is negative like this—when you’re accounting, and you want to have some certainty, and your clients want some certainty, in a totally uncertain world—that causes the stress to go off the charts. That’s what’s different about this, is it’s an extended period of time. So even people who are really good, have trouble with it. But the reason why they struggle to deal with it, and kind of the first step to dealing with it, is admitting that it might even be possible that it could be happening to you.It's hard when you're in the middle of it, you've got the deadlines looming, you've got all the stuff that you must do, to actually give yourself the space to slow down a little bit—to even be aware. Click To Tweet
Yeah, and I wonder if that’s easy to do, or when you’re in the middle of it, it’s just like, “I got a deadline,” because CPAs are all about deadlines—you just mentioned it—and how do you identify that this is I guess you named things, you’re gonna get down on yourself, and you get down, you’re gonna be crabby, you’re gonna get down on other people, but how do you identify? And then, you know, what do you do?
Yeah. It’s hard when you’re in the middle of it, and you’ve got the deadlines looming, and you’ve got all the stuff that you must do, and then all the stuff that you should do, to actually give yourself the space to slow down a little bit—to even be aware. It’s like you’re going so fast on the highway, the telephone poles are all, you know, are all blurring together.
I think the key thing is to recognize that it might be happening without worrying about labeling it, right? Because there’s judgment that comes with labels.
But when you wake up at three in the morning, and you’re like, “I just can’t keep doing it this way.” Then, it’s always better if you can find a little bit of time, just a brief period of time, just to take a step back. And then you’re gonna have to start making choices about what you do personally, and what you don’t do.
So it’s accepting, I guess, the first thing, the first big thing, and the first big problem I see lawyers, and I expect accountants would have, is accepting that it’s happening. Because if you’re not accepting the fact that it’s happening, and you’re in denial, then there’s no way to help yourself. So if you say, “Hey, I might be burning out here. So what’s the strategy to do that?” It’s the first thing is the very last thing that guys, that men do. Maybe women too. Is take care of yourself—like sleep, and take care of your nutrition. So those are two of the first things.
Yeah, I personally—I think you and I may have talked about this a month ago, when we first met. I personally talked about the fact that, you know, I felt burnt out four plus years ago. I honestly don’t know if it was that. I admit it now. But it got to a point with me—and people who have listened probably know this before—but I had a stroke seven years ago. And that stroke just kind of changed my mindset of how I looked at things. But I felt like I was getting burnt out.
And so something had to change, and we made major changes at our business where, you know, I stepped down as Managing Partner, I started concentrating on more “this stuff,” what you and I are doing today: Education, out just meeting with CPAs in general. And, you know, maybe not everybody can do that, just totally redefine the role in the business. But for me, that worked.
And also, for me, it wasn’t just the stress, it wasn’t just the burnout. I honestly felt that depression was kicking in, as well. And I’ve written about this, you know, I’ve published this in Accounting Today. And I put a big LinkedIn message out about this. But you know, like you said: mental health issues are a big issue, and I can see this turning into that.
So I was able to address it. I didn’t ignore it. I addressed it professionally with counselors, I addressed it in the business, but not everybody has that. I was very fortunate I had the flexibility to just completely redefine myself in the business. Not everybody can do that. So little steps. That’s the key, huh?
Yeah, I think that, you know, one of my private coaching clients, you know, I will have people that have come to me after we do a time mastery presentation, because they’re identifying the issue: “I gotta get more control of my time.” And usually they won’t come to me saying “I’m burnt out,” they’re saying “I gotta get more done in less time.”
Right, great. So when I start having a conversation, exploring what’s going on, I realize that they’re trying to be everything to everybody, all the time, they’re taking on all this stuff. So what we do with one of these examples I’m thinking of, I help them—we take a step back. We say “Well, what’s really important to you right now?” And we get granular—talk about each thing. Well, “taking care of my clients and being with my family.”
All right, well, so how are you spending your time right now? And then we work together on, “Alright, well, what things could you stop doing, or be put on a ‘get to it later’ list?” And a lot of times, there’s this heroic kind of quality where the person is taking on, “I’ve got to do it myself. I’ve got to do everything myself.”
And my clients have found just having someone to talk to to ask the questions, to help them focus on “What do I do next? Okay, you’ve got all these things going on. For the next two weeks focus on these two things.” And we don’t get into what projects you have to work on, but it’s how you’re showing up to work on the projects. I deal with a lot of clients who have a perfectionism problem.
And I know in accounting, right, there’s big consequences for being wrong and you’ve got to have somebody else review your work.
You’ve got to balance to the penny. You can’t be wrong at all.
Oh, yeah, you can’t, well yeah, right!
So we start there, and we try to figure out, “what are the triggers that are really causing the spikes of the overwhelm.”
And many times—I see this with lawyers and I imagine with accountants too—they need to learn how to leverage other people’s time better, for the little things that consume a lot of energy that can give them some space. Because I know when you’re working on somebody’s matter, much like a lawyer, you have to be laser-focused. You can’t go in and out of it a lot. So if we can help them create some time blocks during the day where they can be safe to focus on the project in front of them, and let the world swirl around outside, then they can start taking some more control. Because every time you switch a task, you lose twenty minutes of productivity.
Right. If you’re reactive, if every time the phone, you know, rings, you’re answering, and then all of a sudden, you’re changing. Yeah, I could see that. I could see that exactly. And what you just said is something that I, you know, it took me a long time to learn—you know, I’m 59 now. But doing the things that really you’re good at, and passionate at, and the other things, you know, again, not everybody has this ability, but have someone else work with someone else.You have to be laser-focused. You can't go in and out of tasks a lot. So if we can help create some time blocks during the day where they can focus, and let the world swirl around outside, they can start taking some more control. Click To Tweet
Like tax research—I used to do all that myself, because I wanted to do it. Now if there’s a project, I’m like, “I’ll ask someone else in the company, ‘Hey, can you research this for me?’” Now they’ll give me the information, then I’ll dig into it as well. But now I’m already ahead of the game, because they did a lot of the legwork. And I can keep concentrated on writing the next presentation or doing the next podcast with interesting people like Doug Brown or that.
So yeah, I agree with that. If you can concentrate on the things that really are the most important and your passion lies in there, boy, that just made a big difference for me too.
And a lot of it’s recognizing your need to be in control and this fallacy that you’re doing it yourself, it’s the best way to control it. Because if you have a proper process in your business, then you get more control by having somebody else do it, because it’s actually happening.
And there’s a huge trust issue that probably starts with the person not really trusting themselves. And it shows up as, “I don’t trust other people, so I have to do it myself.”
It’s been incredibly powerful when I had to coach myself and in the work that I do is just having that conversation and asking the questions: “Well, what if we tried, if you had your assistant, let your clients know where the status was, so that you could stay focused on working something?” “I don’t know if my system could do that.” “Have you trained them? Have you given them words they can use?” “No.”
So this is, it’s when there’s so much noise coming at you having a person to help you sift through what’s really important, so that you know what you’re working on matters is tremendously helpful. And that hour you might take can save you two or three hours a week.
Yep. Yep. So you can work less, be more productive, probably make more money, and be happier and see your family again.
And what’s so important—if somebody feels like they’re in this place, it is possible to have a different reality. And if you really feel like you’re having an issue with depression, then see a medical professional. See your general practitioner. Because they can help, because sometimes you get so much going on, but you’ve got some chemical things in your brain that need to be addressed so that you can get better control your life.
Right. Well, I could go on this too, forever. I could keep discussing this. What is like, you know, the one most important thing that really, our listeners should remember from our discussion today, or recovering from burnout?
I think the most important principle is you don’t have to accept it. That it’s going to happen unless you have some strategies. And that being intentional, saying, “Look this could happen. What could I do?” And slowing down just a little bit, maybe on a Sunday, can help you speed up. It is possible to make it better. You don’t have to accept the never-ending tax season and missing your family and burning yourself out.
Yep. So if our listeners want to hear more, or get any information additional from you, what’s the best way to get ahold of you or see you or contact you?
Yeah, I’ll put this in the show notes as well. My email address is email@example.com. And I’ve got a little guide I can make available if they go to summit-success.com/UniqueCPA, I have a guide on how to tame your to do list, and a few other time management tips that I can put up there that work and are simple to implement without taking a lot of time.
That’s awesome. We get our own Unique CPA link on your website, huh?
I am honored, and believe me what you’re saying here I think is extremely important, especially with what CPAs have gone through. And I personally, like I had mentioned, have gone through that in the past, and don’t want anybody else to, you know, let that go too far. So address it today.
Just one last thing, I just can’t help myself. Take some action now. Don’t wait until “Well, when this tax season gets over then I’ll do something.” Because there’ll always be something else. Take some action now.
Yep, I agree and make this deadline today. And you know, if we think of as a deadline, but deadline’s today, to take this action, so do it.
Alright, well, Doug, I appreciate you being here. I had a great time and I would love to pick your brain down the road as well.
Thanks, Randy. I really enjoyed it.
About the Guest
Doug Brown, J.D. is an Executive Coach and Chief Learning Officer at Summit Success International, which aims to help entrepreneurs and business professionals grow and scale their businesses in a sustainable, healthy way.
Doug works with successful executives and professionals to help them achieve more while reducing stress and the potential for burnout through time and workflow management, delegation strategies, successful marketing, and the use of operations and technological tools, all with the aim of taking stress and pressure off his clients.
Doug has a long entrepreneurial and legal career, having worked both as a law firm partner and as in-house corporate counsel, as well as serving as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Bar Association. He earned his Juris Doctorate from American University in 1991, graduating cum laude.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.
Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 5% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) 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. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.