With Brian Kush
On Episode 88 of The Unique CPA, Randy talks to Brian Kush, co-founder of Intend2Lead, about things leaders in the accounting profession can change to make themselves and their workplaces healthier, happier, and more productive. They discuss the concept of intentionality, the importance of being openly vulnerable because of the relatability and humanity that affords, the unique challenges to firm culture that have arisen with the rise in remote working, and more.
Today, our guest is Brian Kush. Brian is the co-founder of Intend2Lead, which is actually a leadership development firm, specifically dealing with CPAs, but I think other leaders as well. Brian, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thank you, Randy. It’s great to be here.
Yeah, I was very happy that you and I got to meet a month ago in Nashville. And I had been looking forward to meeting you, because I thought you’d be a great guest on here. So now I’m putting pressure on you. You have to be a great guest, because I just called it ahead of time. I have no doubt you will!
Alright. We’ll see—we’ll see if I measure up to your standards here, Randy.
Oh, my standards are low. So you got it. No big deal!
So this is good. One of the requirements is, we have to laugh. So we already got the laughing out of the way on this show.
So we’re good to go.
So you do a lot of coaching, like I said, with leaders, specifically in the public accounting arena, especially with accounting firms in general. And I was hoping we could discuss some of the things that you’re seeing that firms are struggling with right now. But really, before we get into that, I want to know a little bit more about Brian Kush. You want to give us a little background on yourself and how you got to this spot?
Sure, yeah. So I grew up in public accounting, I worked at one of the the international firms in Washington, D.C. for about five years. I then went to a consulting company called AuditWatch, which serves the public accounting profession. I stayed there nine years. It’s interesting, when I first started working in AuditWatch, I would actually go back and do some audits during busy season for the first couple. So yeah, we were always busy in the summer as a consultant, and then in the wintertime, I would go back and do audits.
And yeah, that was fun. I really enjoy doing consulting to the profession, I really feel strongly that we have an amazing profession that attracts really amazing people. I kind of found in my time at AuditWatch that my best value to people was in challenging and working with people, and especially in one-on-one situations. At the end of my tenure at AuditWatch, I hired a coach, and he helped me. I was tasked with running a new team—it was IT auditing—and I was not great at business development, I hired a sales coach, and he helped me to be better at sales, more intentional in my life, and helped me to be a better everything—brother, a colleague, entrepreneur, everything. Son, a better husband, a better father.
One of the reasons why I do coaching now is because I think what it’s afforded me to do, which is basically jump out of your life and uncover what you care about, right? Get on the balcony of your life, start observing and saying, “Hey, what do I really want? What brings me meaning?” You know? And then “How can I show up for others that way?” And so, yes, I then became a coach. AuditWatch was bought out by Thomson Reuters—I was one of only two people that decided not to go with a new firm. You know, I had zero clients, my wife was pregnant the next week. And I put up a shingle and my coach told me—I went back to school, I went to Georgetown and got a degree or a certificate in leadership coaching. And, you know, at that time, that was 2008 or so. Coaching wasn’t as big as it was now. So I just did a lot of reach outs to the accountants I know and said, “Hey, what do you think about coaching? And, you know, do you think you can benefit from it?” And yeah, 14 years later, here I am. And I feel like my job now is a fantasy camp, because I just get to help people become more intentional in their life. I provide them the space, structure, and support to figure out what they want, and then how they get there. And so yeah, I guess that’s the background of me. Yeah, I’ve grown up in the profession.
Nice. Yep. That’s funny, because as you’re saying that I’m going “Yeah, yes, yes! Everything you’re saying!” I personally feel like I followed my passion years ago—and my passion was public accounting—but it wasn’t in general. But when I started Tri-Merit, and we were able to do this specialized tax, and then five years ago, when I decided that Managing Partner was not my role, and what I liked doing is really going out and educating people, and then that’s where what you were saying was just resonating with me. It’s like, I don’t work a day at all right now. Nothing I do is work. It’s just, I feel very, very lucky, and very spoiled. So it’s great to hear that you feel like you’re on that path too, which is nice.
Yeah, Randy. I mean, the word is the word that comes up for anyone I hear you say that just learning, right? When every day we can learn and we can learn with other people. Like, yeah, how great is that, right? That’s just, work is fun. I hear ya.
Yep. And I learn every day. And which I mean, you’re going to teach me something today. Every time I’ve talked to somebody on the podcast, I learned something new. And then I steal it—I borrow what they say. I use it to help educate others wherever I can. So you’ll hear me quoting you probably somewhere down the road based on something you say today. And I think borrowing people’s ideas, or whatever it is, is a good form of flattery.
Right? It’s funny, I’m like that too. Sometimes I will share a quote with someone and I’ll have to say, “Hey, this isn’t my quote. I can’t remember exactly where it came from. But it was somebody else.”
Yep, yep, I don’t always give myself credit. Very seldom do I do, on that.
But alright, well, let’s get into this. Because what we’re doing is, we’re saying, not everybody is having as much fun as you and I, and there are things that they are struggling with. So, public accounting in general—we know, I mean, it’s just if you look at the last three years, it’s been crazy in public accounting—but not even the last three years. So when you’re out doing your one-on-one coaching now, when you’re talking to leaders within the public accounting industry or profession, give me—let’s start with one, what’s one of the biggest struggles that they’re dealing with right now?
Right, yeah, and there are several, I would say the one that’s paramount, the one that’s probably in the largest percentage of the clients that I work with, is just their own self wellbeing—anxiety and stress and burnout. I mean, Randy, you know, we’ve always said words in our profession like “I am overwhelmed,” right? Like “I am burnt out.” And I think those terms get too normalized, I think we expect it, and I think we’ve modeled that too much. But I think because of the pandemic, I think, because people feel in some ways a little more isolated, you know, and we’re finally starting to look at mental health—that has become a huge issue, right?
Which is, you know, we always say, “Hey, how can I be a great leader? Or how can I even be a good leader, if I can’t be a healthy human being first?”
And so I think I’m very optimistic that we’re getting out of the mindset of, as a good account, just trying to help everybody else—help everyone else around us, right? I think, you know, when we think, “Oh, it’s selfish if I look at myself, and it’s selfish if I prioritize my own well being and self-care,” that word selfish is a bad word. We shouldn’t be using it. What we need to be doing is we need to be intentional about how we create real boundaries, how we become a healthier leader, by becoming, first, a healthier human being. And then how do we model that for other people as well? Because when we have a negative or an unhealthy lifestyle, and we’re someone people look up to, what they start to think is, “Okay, this is what I have to go through in order to make it here.”
And that is, I think, something that’s being challenged now, right? And, you know, with turnover being what it is, and that type of thing, that’s just not going to work anymore, I think into the future.
So yeah, that idea of anxiety, burnout and stress, right? And truly knowing what burnout is. And, you know, at Intend2Lead we do some polling in a lot of our webinars, and the numbers that have come back to us is 70 to 75% of the people that we work with, are either experiencing burnout right now, or they have in the recent past. And that just shouldn’t be acceptable. It’s too normalized and too accepted, but it shouldn’t be.
No, I agree. It’s very fortunate, I’ve got to speak about this subject a few times this year. And I’m very excited I get to do it a few more times. So I didn’t know where we were going with the first topic. But I think that is one of the biggest issues to deal with. And I’m going to add a little to that, because I’ve been—and you can comment on that where you see if I’m right, or I’m wrong based on what you see.
But I was in public accounting for a long time as Managing Partner for a firm. We were very tax heavy. I was way too busy to the point in time, every tax season, I dreaded and every tax season, I would stress, burn out, too many hours, seven days a week, getting home at ten at night, and it just couldn’t continue. But that was burnout, that was stress, and if that continues, that can actually lead to mental illness—which is going even a step further. Unfortunately for me, I think that’s one of the reason I ended up selling my firm, was just, I couldn’t take it anymore from that burnout level. And it worked out well for me, but some people just don’t get out of it, and they can’t get out of it. So is there anything we can do to help that? I mean, any ideas you have?
Yeah. Yeah. And let me just add to what you said, yeah, it can lead to mental illness, but it can really also lead to physical illness. You know, one of the things I started doing, or I learned early in my coaching career, is that I’m no doctor for sure, but I had to understand where my clients were physically, right? Especially those that have been in this a long time—what has been the overall, the cumulative impact of you doing what you just said, you know, during busy season, and putting everything second. What is the cumulative impact? So yeah, what can you do with that?
Well, first of all, it’s funny, you know, it’s amazing how many clients I hear that say something similar to what you do. “Brian, I can’t have another 9/15 like I just had, I just can’t go through it anymore. I can’t have another 3/31 Just like I just had, or 4/15. So actually being a little bit angry about it, actually saying, hey, you know what that is my status quo, right. And I actually have to be able to believe that I can make change. I think that’s one of the hardest things here, which is that I think it’s a cultural mindset that we have, that that’s the way it should be. That’s the way it has to be. And you either accept that and conform to that mindset, or you have to get out of here. And I think, you know, all change has to be preceded by changes in thinking, and so I think we have to first think as an industry and as individuals, that I can actually live the busy season I want, and I can change my lifestyle in a way.
And then what do I do in order to do that, right? And so how do I create the healthy habits that actually renew my energy? Because so much about busy season is typically “Oh, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel, right? It’s a marathon, right?” Well human beings don’t work that way, we are better at sprinting, you know, and using energy in ways where we can expend good energy, but then renew our energy. So to actually have an energy renewal plan during busy season is huge. And a lot of times what’s important to that is, it’s hard to start during busy season—you have to do it, usually, when you’re out of busy season. And so a lot of times when we get out of this season, we tend to relax and stuff. But that’s really when you should be challenging our habits and say, “Hey, what can I do on a daily basis so that if I have a really tough day, I can still take care of myself,” right? And then the simple things, right, like prioritizing hydration, nutrition and sleep, you know those three things? Which accountants don’t do a lot of times, or they just have them be second, you know, second fiddle when it comes to crunch time. Yeah, how can you prioritize those three things every day in your life? So that the habits are there so that when you get to busy season it isn’t insane.
Yep. And I would add exercise to that as well.
Exercise is always a renewer for me, and I’ve been on the road right now for five straight days, in five different cities, and I’ve gone five days without hitting the gym—which I never do. And I could tell. I could tell when I woke up this morning, I just have not worked out. And I seriously, I started to—that almost causes me stress is the fact that I haven’t got to the gym. So before we started today, I got down there for an hour and I pushed hard and man, my energy level is so high right now. It just feels so great. So I think that’s extremely important as well.
Yeah! And Randy, let me just add to that, you know, I think as accountants, we tend to think about time management, right? Like if I do something, I’ve taken time away from something else, right?
So “I don’t have time to go to the gym. I don’t have time to do this energy renewing activity,” even if it’s just taking a quick little walk, something like that. But when you look at it from an energy management perspective, that can shift a little bit, right? By you getting that hour in at the gym this morning, what does that do in terms of your efficiency or productivity, your mood,
You know, the way you might be able to connect with other people here, you know, in a way that, “Hey, it’s not so much about trading time, it’s more about renewing my energy, so that you just the world gets the better version of me that day.”
Yeah, it definitely works for me for sure.
The other thing we’re doing as a company, and I’ll just add this because we were talking about mental health with the burnout, and all that—and then I’m going to transition to somewhere else I think might be interesting to talk about—but with mental health in general, and the burnout and the stress which could lead to mental illness, which is very serious, they’re all serious, is what we put together a month ago, and we’re still in the process, is a mental health committee, in our company, that we’re trying to figure out ways that we can make sure that everybody knows that we are open to talk about whatever is bothering somebody, whether they want to talk to somebody internally, or we’re gonna give ‘em an opportunity to talk to, let’s say, a counselor, or just give them tools to be, you know, more meditative, and relax. In our office, there is a gym, but we don’t have a lot of people in the office.
So we’re starting to do that. And we’re coming up. We’re in the middle of coming up with the program right now, but I’m very excited, but we’re going to roll out pieces during that time. So I think that’s something that more firms, I think are looking at, and I obviously think more firm should go. Destigmatize the burnout, the stress the mental health and mental illness.
Right. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I think that could be helpful as a resource to your people. But it also sends a message right about you prioritizing that. And I agree, I think firms are starting to do that more, and they’re having programs and giving, you know, giving their staff more resources that they need.
And I love your term about destigmatizing it. One thing I found is that there’s a little bit of vulnerability around this, right?
I think this is where leadership comes into play, right? Where we need to be able to say, as leaders, whether it’s the higher ups or whoever it is, you know, that and again, in the past, and the old mindset, as a leader, I got to show other people that I always have it together, right? That I’m working, and this is all great, and I have this work-life balance and all that. But that’s not—first of all, that’s not true for most. And secondly, that’s not real, that’s not raw, that’s not authentic, that is not being vulnerable. And I think what people want to hear more than ever now, is that they’re not the only one. And guess what? This is stuff that leadership struggles with as well. And maybe that brings more of a sense of belonging, because we’re all in this together.
So I’ve heard from younger staff, especially, that say, “Hey, when the leaders tell us that they’re struggling with this too, or they have a personal anecdote or story around it, that actually makes me feel more empowered,” which is kind of weird, but it does—it connects us together, and people realize they’re not the only one, and hey, maybe when we’re in this together, we can do things better, and we can be real, and we don’t have to hide and put a mask on, but things are better than they are.
Yep, yep, we don’t have to, you know, buck it up, you know, keep it inside, you know, don’t let people see that you’re having this issue, because now you’re gonna look weak or whatever. No, that’s not the way it is.
What’s the old saying? Don’t let them see you sweat, right?
Well, I want to go one more thing on this, and I could talk about this all day. And but what you just said, is one of the ways we’re going to kick off our program of mental health within our company, and we’re going to do an entire company, and our company’s spread out around the country, and so we’re gonna do an all company Teams meeting, where we’re going to ask for everybody’s ideas on what we should do as a company, because it’s not just, you know, the committee, but we want to, you know, we don’t know everything—there’s five of us, or four of us on the committee, but there’s other people.
But we’re gonna start that with a 15 minute presentation that I’m going to do, where I’m going to talk about, you know, my struggles with mental illness in the past, which was something that affected me after I—and people on the podcast have heard this before. Probably getting sick of me saying this. But it’s an important issue!
You know, I had a stroke eight years ago, and after the stroke, I went through bouts of depression and PTSD and panic attacks. I love being able to share the journey that that took me through with other people, because again, I think vulnerability is—you have to be vulnerable. I think people resonate with that if you’re open and you’re gonna share, and you’re honest.
And so like, everything you say today. I’m like, 100% agreement. Are we the same person or what’s going on here? But that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna lead off with that presentation, and just so people feel open to share whatever they want to share.
Right. Yeah. And in this topic, it’s really important for sure, but I just think as a leadership mantra, as a leadership mindset, the idea of “How can I be actually more vulnerable, as a leader?” I think, yeah, we tend to, you know, we tend to like people’s confidence, and we admire people that are really strong, but I think we connect more with people that are human like us. So the idea of making vulnerability be a part of your leadership, I think we’re starting to get there as a profession. And I love that. And I love your example. And that’s probably the best way you could kick that off. Good stuff.
I think so. And I’m excited about doing that.
Alright, so let’s—I can get another hour on this. But let’s talk about some other struggles that firms or leaders are dealing with right now.
You have a second in line that you’d like to discuss?
Yeah! I think one of the biggest challenges that we see a lot of is the idea of “Who do I have to be as a leader for others?” Let me share a little bit more about that. So how do I show up in a way that empowers other people? And I think, in some of the traditional, older ways, we tend to think, “Hey, you know what, people need to learn from me, people need to be told, always, what to do. I need to solve people’s problems, right? As accountants, I think we really like solving problems. Whenever you look at the AICPA surveys, that’s actually one of the things accountants tend to say that they enjoy about their job, which is solving problems. And that’s great! And we need to help people solve problems.
But one of the biggest challenges we see, especially in our coaching, is when we start to create dependent relationships, where other people tend to have us as the owner of all the problems of a department, or of a team, or on this audit, or this client, or whatever. And so—sometimes we call it the savior complex, right? “Hey, I am so great and I am so knowledgeable and I’m experienced, that I need to be able to save my clients, I need to be able to save my staff.” And that mindset can create dependence, because when we are so enthralled with solving people’s problems, giving them the answers all the time, then we tend to create a reinforcement around that, and people come back to us.
So we have a lot of people that come to us for a coaching opportunity where they’re saying, “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not creating real owners within my staff. I’m not creating that ownership that’s needed. I’m struggling with everyone coming to me all the time. And there’s a cost to that. I’m not doing the things I know I could be doing. I’m not doing my best use items. I’m not adding as much value to my clients as I can, because I’m always putting out fires. I’m always saving people. And yeah, so that is hard. And I don’t get to do those other things I want to do.”
And, yeah, it comes from a mindset, and it comes from just a lot of experience of continuing to do that. So yeah, that’s a huge one. And I think even through the pandemic, people have talked about that more. “I don’t know, where people are as much, and I struggle and, you know, it’s, how do I know what they’re doing? And because of my mindset, I’m used to telling them what to do. And if I’m not with them as much, right, I struggle in getting them to buy in on the things they need to own.”
Right. Well it almost sounds a little bit like micromanaging is involved in some of those mindsets, for sure. And my philosophy is just, you know, give people the knowledge they need, and let them go. I mean, it’s gonna be small things to correct and put in the right direction, but trust that people can do the job they’re doing.
Yeah, but Randy, the idea of trusting, the “let them go,” right? I think that comes from a mindset of “Hey, I believe in their creativity,” right? “I believe in their resourcefulness.” And that’s a mindset, we sometimes call that the coaching mindset, which i, Instead of me believing in my own powers, instead of me believing how much I can help others, I actually start to believe in them.
Not that they’re ever perfect, by any means.
But hey, they can be creative, they can be resourceful. They’re whole people. And what if I show up as a believer, right? How does that get different? Instead of me throwing answers down their throat, right? Instead of me telling them what to do, if I show up as a true believer, and I show it more as a coach, I start to ask questions, I start to listen, I start to get really, really curious. And in that way, people can sense that, right? And instead of me having to have the tough answers, I instead have the tough questions. And when I have the tough questions, it makes the other person who’s really the performer anyway—that’s what a coach does. You have the performer do the hard work, right? And when you start to have that mindset, you start to get curious about the toughest questions, you’re going to ask them so they can solve, you know, the problems and go forward.
Yep, I agree. And then again, going back to my history of public accounting, I was that—the wrong way first. aT least in my mind the wrong way. You know, I had to review every single number on every single tax return that seemed like because I, you know, everything had to be perfect. And I had very good people that were getting good jobs done and getting the work done, and it took me a long time to get past that. even when we started Tri-Merit I was still way too much in that mindset. And really for me, at age 54, when I gave up the Managing Partner role, was when I really started to realize that I don’t know everything—I don’t have all the answers. I honestly love it right now when people come and pretty much argue with me, you know, “Hey, no, no, that’s wrong. You’re doing that wrong. This is not it. You know, this is what I believe.” And I’ve learned so much over the last five years when people come to that because I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know everything. You’re right. And you guys do! You are awesome.”
And so it’s, for me, it took a long time, and it’s it’s later in life, but man, I that’s why I’m having so much fun now.
Yeah. Yeah. But that is a mindset change, right?
Now you’re more curious about what you can learn from others and getting their input and believing in them.
Unfortunately, in our profession sometimes, we do tend to reward the other way a lot, right? Hey, if you’re a savior, if you’re putting out fires, that’s the person we need. And I’m not saying we don’t need those people, but we also really need to reward and reinforce those that truly develop others, right? And can do that mentoring and coaching in a way where “Hey, I’m moving other people up, and I’m gonna personally benefit from that, because I don’t have to put out all the fires all the time. But yeah, my value can now be derived, instead of me having the answers of actually soliciting them from others.”
And that is a shift, right?
That is a shift that you went through. And a lot of times it’s a shift, unfortunately, people come to me to want to make, but it’s because they’re so much later in their career and they’ve just, they’re struggling in getting their work done. And they’re struggling in getting other people to own what they’re doing.
Right. So it’s just you help them with that mindset change, put tools in place and steps in place to get to the level which is going to be the best for them. I assume that’s the way things go here. Right?
Right. Yes. Yeah, so you change your mindset, and then you start to show up more as a coach, as a curious person.
“My skills are going to be much more about being a really deep and active listener and asking you really tough questions,” instead of “My communication skill is to give you the answers a lot,” right?
Yep. Alright. How about the next one? Should we move on to another one, or? How many we got here?
Yeah, well, I’ve written five or six down here. I think another one, and I think this is related to the first one we talked about a little bit, but just the sense of belonging that people have right now. “Hey, we’re, we’re in this hybrid environment, and sometimes it’s a totally virtual environment, and how do I truly connect with people in a way where, hey, I’m used to, before the pandemic, being there physically with them, you know. And so how do I know not only do I just know what they’re doing in terms of their work and stuff, but how do I know how they’re doing?”
You know, and I think we’ve realized that it’s the whole human being that does accounting work—it was always that way, but I think we’re now realizing that. So what do I do as a leader, as a manager? What do I do, that actually can create true belonging of my people in today’s age, where we’re so dispersed, right? And so much is done via Zoom, or whatever? So how do I truly create that belonging?
So I’m going to keep going with the things we’re doing, and you can tell me if we’re in the right space or not.
Sure, I’d love to hear it.
Because we’ve been remote, pretty much from the start. We have a small office, but not a lot of people there—we have people all over the country, and we’re about 50 people now. And, and so, you know, like you said, we’re on Zoom all the time, which is great. Little things we’ve done on Zoom to just build more community, more camaraderie, is we get to know people outside of what they do for work.
So let’s say we’re on a business development call. At the end of that call, it’s one person’s turn, to spend ten minutes telling us about themselves, sharing pictures, sharing objects, sharing—bringing their kids into the room, whatever it is just to get to know them deeper, and so nothing about work at all. It’s just “Hey, who are you, you know, outside of what we’d just been talking about for the last hour?”
And so that’s one thing we’ve done. And then the other thing we’ve done, just because we are all over, is twice a year, we just all get together. We just did it in Chicago last month. We’re doing it in San Diego in November. And so we think it’s extremely important for all of us to get together in one spot—which we do education at that time, but then, oh, we let loose every night too, and have a lot of fun. So any other ideas?
Yeah, those are great ideas. I’ll just piggyback off those first two ideas. So the first one I heard is, hey, at the end of meetings and stuff, we let people share something—something personally, right? You’re kind of checking out, giving them that opportunity to share something about themselves. I think that’s huge, right? I think people do want to bring their whole self to work, and when you give them that space to do that, to share something that people might not know, right? That’s huge.
Yeah, just doing even little check ins and check outs during meetings, right. Hey, how are you doing? How are you doing? Check in with us, share with us anything you want to share? Maybe you had a really rough meeting—let us know that. Be real with your emotion, you know, to be able to check in and check out as a human being I think is awesome.
Yeah, the idea of getting together, you know, in person and actually having events like that. One thing, Randy, I’ve learned over the last, probably, just 90 days, you know—a lot of firms are starting to do that more. That actually creates a little bit of anxiety for some people, because they’re not used to it as much, right? Some people, especially some of the introverts, have thrived in some of this. And so just realize that, right?
One of the things that you can do, and maybe you know, three years ago, you didn’t have to do when you had an in person event, but they can call people in. So I was surprised to learn that. But yes, some people have some anxiety around that.
And I’ll tell you, yeah, even myself at times where I get into a big group now, it’s just I’m not as used to it as I was, many years ago. So yeah, let’s just realize that.
I love that point, because I didn’t even—sorry, Brian—but I didn’t even think about that. And I was talking with someone a week ago, and talking about, “Hey, some of this stuff, I just make assumptions. I mean, we all talk about this, but somebody might have a different thought than I’m thinking and not feel comfortable, whether it’s the mental health issue or something else. And so how do I know what they’re actually thinking if they don’t feel comfortable to bring it to me?”
And I think they should, but don’t always. So they just said, “Do anonymous surveys, or just permanent and I’m an area where somebody can post whatever their ideas are, what their thoughts are, what their concerns are”. And so, we started that with the mental health portion and that’s part of it, but just overall I think that’s going to be key, is just let anybody share anything that’s a concern to them anonymously. What do you think?
Yeah, no, I think that’s just another way to get some feedback that you might not have done in another format. So I think that’s great. Yeah.
I think that’s a good starting point with different feedback, yeah.
Um, so one thing we’ve started to help some of our clients with, and we’ve even started to do some training on, is the idea of actually being intentional about designing your working relationships, right? I know that sounds all formal and things like that, but as a leader—and a lot of our relationships, I think are getting split off into one-to-one relationships versus team—now we still do Zooms and Teams and all that—but we’re doing a lot of interacting one-on-one with people, maybe even more so now.
So how do you intentionally design that working relationship so that both parties can thrive? Right? And it can be things like asking just questions about what other people value in working relationships. You know, it’s simple little things that maybe we already should have been doing about how responsive do we need to be to each other? Just asking questions that draw the other person in on how we best work together.
And I think that sounds really simple, but I don’t think we’ve done that formally. And I think there’s a great opportunity to do that, to actually show up in a curious way and ask the people that you work with questions around how the relationship can thrive for both people. And so that’s something that we’ve had some people really work off of, and done really well with that, and it can draw people in.
But one learning point we have learned from that though, is that doesn’t always draw people in right away. Sometimes accountants aren’t used to being asked questions like that. And so some of the leaders have had to keep at it, right? “Hey, I’d like you to think about this. What is—maybe, what is one thing that I do in our relationship that you value the most?” Something like that, right? But sometimes accountants need a little bit of space to process, and come up with an answer. Or maybe they just have a little bit of an awkward silence, and they don’t have an answer to that, you know? When I think of navigating relationships, I think we need to be a little more—far more—intentional about it.
No, no, I agree. We talked about, you know, putting in like mentoring programs, which there’s, you know, probably pros and cons to that. And so, you know, we talked as a group last time we got together, and there was like, not all buy-in which I can completely understand. And I don’t know if I’m buying in with all of that completely, either. But yeah, being able to somehow—because the key was that, you know, you might not be comfortable, for some reason, sharing those, you know, concerns and we want people to be comfortable, but they’re not gonna always be. So I don’t know if there’s a way around that.
Right. Well, we just need to meet them where they are. And that’s not easy, because there’s not one answer, you know, that you can just say, “Hey, do this for everybody.” But I think keeping at it, you know, and even as a mentoring program example, what can the mentor and the mentee do in that relationship where every once in a while, they can actually just step outside of the mentoring conversation and just ask each other, “Hey, how is this going? Is there anything we can be doing?”
Yeah, when we do mentoring, you know, mentoring is about providing lessons and providing good advice and stuff like that, but if we could just step outside the relationship, just every once in a while and just say, “Hey, what could we do to make this mentoring work better for each other?” And when you get to that place, you get to a real human connection, and you start to really—you’re learning together, you’re figuring it out together. And I think that, because this world is so unknown, and all the different things we have to navigate now, to be able to have that place of conversation where you can say, “Hey, how can we just roll up our sleeves and think about getting a little bit better at what we do and how we interact?”
I think people like to be drawn in that. Like I said, some accountants may be a little hesitant at first, but I think when you give them the space and the structure to get there, they do. And that can create a good sense of belonging, right? It can create a “Hey, you know what, this person not only cares about being the mentor, because they were chosen, but they actually care about how this mentoring relationship can best benefit me.”
I think that’s great. These are all awesome. I could sit and talk about this all day, but at some point, I’m gonna have to go back to the conference I’m at! So let’s go through one more thing that you’re seeing firms struggle with, leaders struggle with, and identify ways that they can deal with that.
Right. So one of the most common topics that the coachees that we work with brings up, is just the question of “How do I fit into my firm, and how do I fit into this industry?” So a lot of times, especially what you might term as emerging leaders, right? They’re starting to look into their future. They’re starting to ask themselves, “Do I want to be an executive or do I want to be a partner?”—things like that. And what they’re doing is they’re struggling with figuring out how they fit in. And usually that’s because they’ve created a perception about what that leadership lifestyle, or that model ahead of them, looks like. And what do they see? And do they see people that are five, ten years ahead of them? What’s the lifestyle they live? What’s the healthy lifestyle that they live or not healthy lifestyle they live? What’s the leadership style that is rewarded around here? And so they struggle, and they want to talk about, in the coaching, “How do I fit in?”
A lot of times, if they see a model that they don’t like, they think, “Oh, I have to conform to that.” Or they sometimes get a little brave and say, “Hey, can I be the partner or the leader that I want to be, and can it work around here?”
And so they really, they’re at that crossroads of “I don’t know, you know, I don’t know, is it worth it for me to get promoted if I’m going to have to conform to that style of what I see?” And sometimes I in the public accounting profession, especially, they’ll call it the “billable hours lifestyle.”
Where it’s like, okay, the amount of billable hours that you have, that is the true worth, the value that you bring. And that’s what’s exclusively rewarded around here—that’s the thing that will always get you, you know, some kudos from people around here, and especially leadership.
Yeah. And that’s—well, I think, well, at the smaller firms, I think that is changing—and I think it’ll take longer at the bigger firms, you know, because they are all tied to that billable hour. But, you know, if you talk to Ron Baker, or somebody else, you know, it’s the more value billing, the more subscription pricing, and I think that’s huge, and just the more advisory service.
But I’m gonna, again, relate back to us of what we’re doing. And this is probably to me personally, but I am a huge proponent—and I love talking about—finding your passion and role in the business, and combining those two, if possible. And even if you don’t have that role existing currently, you know, hopefully, you have a leader that will listen to you about, “Hey, this is what I really enjoy doing. And hey, we don’t have a division or a portion of our firm that is currently working with… craft breweries. But I love everything about craft breweries, and I’d love to be able to, you know, go out and be the expert in this industry and try to, you know, build my passion of craft breweries into my passion at work with advising clients.”
And so from a leadership standpoint, I think people just have to be open to the ideas that everybody in the firm has. And I think sometimes they’re not. It’s like, “No, that’s not how we do things. This is the way we do things.” That is probably something you personally see and probably have to help with, correct?
Yeah, it is. And I think that’s where you look at the older, traditional mindset, and you look at the more evolved mindset that we need as an industry, right? Under the old traditional mindset, “We have a hierarchy here. You know, if we’re going to even talk about succession, it’s about people doing what other people are already doing here, and fitting into that chart” kind of thing. Under the newer, more evolved mindset, we get curious, we ask people, we ask our next set of leaders—especially those people that we want to keep, right?—we ask them, “What is your vision for yourself? What do you want to do?” We get curious around that, and then we say, “Hey, you know what, we can navigate this together. This doesn’t have to be—we don’t have to have the scarcity mindset where if you want to do something that’s not exactly what we’ve already programmed into our structure, you know, that we can actually make that work.”
In fact, by making that work, we might even become a better firm. We might be able to do some new things that we weren’t able to do before.
Well, I think that asking about what your people’s visions are for themselves, and doing in a way that actually lets them dream a little bit—that actually lets them to get most excited—your word passion, right? Don’t we want our people to be tying what they do to the things they’re most passionate about? Isn’t that where their greatest capacity, where their greatest potential lies? Right? And why would we be afraid of that? Why wouldn’t we actually want that? Why wouldn’t we want to sit in those conversations and talk about how that can work?
Yeah, it’s funny, because when five years ago, when I transitioned from Managing Partner to the role I do today—and I kind of fought that a little because in my mind, my identity was managing partner, “If it’s not who I am, then what am I?” And that’s completely the wrong mindset to have, because what my identity is, is what I do today, and I can’t imagine being anything else. But at the same time, my partner who took over the Managing Partner role, his passion is running and growing a business.
I have a passion for starting a business, I have a passion for other things, but not the running part. I don’t. He is just—that is his thing. And I personally didn’t know that before we did this and I should have. So asking the questions, like you said, is something that—hey, I’m 60 now. I’ve learned so much in the last five years that I wish I would have known a long time ago. So you are now educating people on this, but for us, it’s been unbelievable with what has done for our business. We’ve just gone through the roof in the last five years, because now he’s in a role he’s completely passionate about, I’m in a role that I can’t imagine ever doing anything else, and don’t know how I did anything else before. And it’s just great for the business. So being that open leader that is going to listen to people, their ideas, I think that’s probably one of the most important things in my mind out there.
Yeah. And just asking the questions, you know, Randy? Just like you ask the question of what what do I derive my value from. That was a great question.
But asking the questions of what people are wanting, what are they looking for? And what gets them most excited, right? We all love talking about that. And your story is great, right? Because we might work with people for years, or, you know, we grow so much experience, but do we really sit down and learn about what other people’s passions are? I think we need to do that more.
That’s what I do now—I try at least—whether I’m right or wrong. Every time I hire a new—we. I don’t even get involved in hiring—anytime we hire a new person now, because hiring is not a passion of mine, management is not a passion of mine, processes and procedures is not a passion of mine. But anytime we hire someone new, my goal is to within a week or so, get on a Teams call and talk about anything but work. Just talk about “Hey, what do you do? What do you enjoy?” Like we talked about at the beginning. So I’m not trying to say that I’ve got this all figured out, because by no means I do. But talking to you at least I feel like I’m on the right track. So I appreciate you making me feel better about myself, Brian.
Yeah, there you go! Right!
Alright. Well, I think those are all awesome advice for firms. Before I ask about contact information from you, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t ask you what do you love doing outside of work? What are your passions? What is fun, when you’re not advising people and have one-on-one coaching, whether they’re fun things that you do, the fun things that you enjoy doing?
Yeah, so I am a huge sports buff. So I love—this has actually been put on hold a lot, but I love attending the different sporting events that I have not been to before. My wife and I, we talk about all the stadiums we’re going to visit, you know, around the country and things like that. And so that is one of my big things. I’ve moved around a lot, so I’ve been able to see different sports teams and things like that. But yeah, I love traveling to new cities, seeing a sports team in a venue that I have not seen before, and there’s a lot that I have to go to do. So that would be one of my passions.
I also just love working out. Like you, or similar to you, my first hour of my day, every single day, is at the gym. And it’s just fun. It’s actually addictive for me.
And the energy, right. And it’s about, it’s a part of my morning routine, you know, and without that, I don’t think I’d probably be here because it’s been so important to me. So those are the two things I would say that come up the most for my outside activities.
Okay, well, I got to ask you a question. And I know you and I live near each other. I’m guessing you’re not a native of the Chicago area. If you are or aren’t, are you a Cubs or Sox or some other baseball fan, or a no baseball fan?
I grew up in the Northern Virginia area, so I’m a Washington Nationals fan.
And yeah, and the Nationals the Cubs before, you know, they’ve had some playoff series. So especially where the Cubs have beaten the Nationals, and so that made me hate the Cubs pretty quickly. And actually, when we came here it was, when we first moved to the Chicago area, it was when the Cubs were winning the World Series that year. And I didn’t even know how many fireworks could be shot off in this area of the city, but I found out about that. And actually, here’s another part—I lived in Cleveland for four years, so I was truly rooting for the then-called Indians, now the Guardians, yeah. So I definitely have not liked the Cubs now.
I like to watch teams have to rebuild. So when we first got here, the White Sox were terrible. They were one of the worst teams, and to have watched them rebuild over the last four or five years has been interesting. So I would say I’m an interested White Sox—not fan—but I’m interested in the White Sox more than the Cubs. So does that answer your question?
It does. Well, the Cubs are in a total rebuild right now too, so you can watch that. I’m hoping that’s not too long.
Right, I hope they realize how much of a rebuild they’re in. They really need to start over and I think they are, hopefully.
Yeah, we’ll see where that goes.
Do I hear from that, are you a Cubs fan?
Oh, I’m a fourth generation Cubs fan. So yeah, it’s my great grandfather started with, my grandfather, my parents, us, my kids—you know, it’s a family tradition. And we went to more than the handful of games during the 2016 playoffs. So it was it was a lot of fun.
Yeah, yeah, what a special year for sure.
Yep, it was. Alright. So, again, honestly—this has exceeded my expectations, not that I had them at the beginning, mine were low for what I can contribute as well. But this has been amazing. I think the information you’ve given out—the ideas, the advice—has been awesome. So if anybody is also moved by what we talked about today, is there, how can someone get ahold of you or find out what you’re doing?
Yeah, yeah. So, you know, they can go to Intend2Lead.com. We just started our own coaching community. We realized executive coaching can be really expensive for people, especially becoming a healthier leader and human being, so we just started our own healthy leaders coaching community, which is very, very cheap and very feasible, and it’s a monthly subscription that people can join and actually get some coaching support, and really connect with like minded leaders from firms across the country. So we’re really excited. We already have 50 people signed up or so, to start in July. But yes, Intend2Lead.com. Please connect with me on LinkedIn, Brian Kush. I’d love to do that as well. That’s how you can find me.
Alright. Well, Brian, again, thanks for being here today. I look forward to seeing all the feedback we get on this one. I think it’ll all be positive.
Well, thank you, Randy. It’s been fun and a pleasure. And I really enjoyed talking with you, and hearing what your firm is doing in a lot of the areas we talked about. So good stuff.
About the Guest
Brian Kush, PCC, CPA, is the founder of Intend2Lead, a leadership development firm that specializes in leadership coaching, consulting, and group learning for those in the accounting profession. Intend2Lead stresses cultivating a sense of belonging and love for people and work.
Brian formerly spent over a decade at AuditSense, where he provided leadership, professional, and other critical skills training and consulting to hundreds of CPA firm clients across the United States. He formerly served as Vice President of AuditWatch, and was a senior auditor at Ernst & Young at the start of his career.
Brian earned his bachelor’s in commerce and accounting from the University of Virginia in 1994. He earned a leadership coaching certificate from Georgetown University in 2010.
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.