For Love or Money? Attracting and Growing Top Talent is Key to EKS&H Success
In thinking of a public accounting and tax firm, is the first word that comes to mind “love”?
More likely, “Predictable,” “necessary,” “the people who keep us out of trouble.”
EKS&H LLLP is a surprising breath of fresh air committed to redefining what it means to serve in the service industry.
A nationally recognized Colorado-based business advisory firm, EKS&H’s corporate culture has been its compass for 38 years. Grounded by a mission of “serving others and building trust,” partner retreats forego traditional PowerPoint-laden financial reviews in favor of dialogue about love, company culture, and how to strengthen the firm’s hallmark: servant leadership.
The company culture page on their website opens with this statement:
Focusing on your vital interests is our honored obligation.
This statement is immediately felt and consistently brought to life daily. From top to bottom. Millennial employees Trace Wollner and Rachel Sweeney speak openly about why they chose to work at EKS&H:
“I interviewed with some of the Big Four,” says Consulting Staff Rachel Sweeney. “In the end, what we do is the same no matter where we work. What matters is the people. If you’re going to spend 60 hours a week with them, you’d better like them. This was a big reason I came to EKS&H.”
Tax Staff Trace Wollner says, “I faced family pressure to join the Big Four. When I was going through my interview and recruiting process, what I was hearing from EKS&H seemed too good to be true. I thought ‘everyone is vying for candidates and trying to sound amazing.’ So I tempered my expectations when I joined the firm. From day one, and every day since, I’ve been blown out of the water by the truth of what I heard during my interviews.”
The firm’s founding partners set out to build “a different kind of firm” from the beginning, grounded in mission and principle more than the quest for profit.
Firm CEO Bob Hottman says, “Culture has played an amazing role in the firm’s success. Everything we are today hinges on purpose and values.”
“What produces the special alchemy of successful growth and client loyalty depends 100% on our people,” says Senior Partner and Chief Culture Steward Kreg Brown. “While that sounds cliché, I hear all the time from clients how different we are to work with from other accounting firms.”
Brown continues, “Our clients say to us ‘we’d like to have a stronger culture, how do we do that?’ I believe it takes a genuine focus on people and a consistent approach. One that centers on foundational non-negotiables that never change. In an era of constant change, values are what people count on to stay the same.”
Where words name a culture, actions make it real. EKS&H puts its money where its mouth is, investing real resources (time and money) in maintaining its strong and unique company culture.
EKS&H’s hallmark “people systems” reveal a culture that stays true to its roots:
(1) Hiring to Your Company Strengths
Millennials are value driven. The younger generations want to work in a company where company values match their personal values. Since EKS&H wants to hire people who also have the choice of going to a bigger firm with quicker upward mobility and name recognition for resume building, the firm heavily plays to culture and values in recruiting.
“The people who choose EKS&H tell us the fact we articulate our values and live them is key,” says Brown. “We talk in interviews about how our priority is to serve our clients and build trust. How we provide 5-star service internally and externally.”
“We don’t recruit with an eye on who will be the best accountants,” says Wollner. “We’re looking for people who are like minded. A big question we evaluate is ‘does this person want to be here, are their values a match?’ We’ll teach them to be good accountants.”
“The first round of interviews is for culture fit (not job fit),” says Senior Campus Recruiter Molly Weiss. “A recruiter may meet students two to three times on campus before inviting them on site for interviews. We want to see the student in their element, get a feel for who they are as a person, their values.”
One of the Partners says, “When I’m scheduled for an interview, I don’t assess GPA and which school they went to first. I look at the person: their extracurricular activities, what’s important to them. I start the conversation there. Being successful here is not about their resume.”
(2) Onboarding Starts Day One
On your first day at the firm, everyone is assigned a buddy and a coach. The buddy is close to you in age or level so there’s commonality in the relationship. Your buddy is charged with answering day-to-day questions and checking in on how it’s going for you. Lunches and happy hours are part of introducing new people to others in the firm and promoting networking opportunities. The coach is there for technical training and development as well as ensuring proper workload and work/life balance.
Wollner thinks the buddy and coaching programs are key to its success in attracting and retaining Millennials. “It’s tough, your first years in this industry. What’s unique here is EKS&H knows that and makes sure you’re not lost. After a new hire makes connections in the firm, they are asked to choose a mentor — someone you trust and confide in. A person who, personally and professionally, is where you’d like to be in five to ten years. Their job is to guide you to achieve that vision … or create a new one.”
Each new associate spends two weeks in an immersion training of company mission, vision, and values. This “purpose training” is seven two-hour sessions based on James C. Hunter’s The Servant leadership principles, the 5-star service model, and Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust framework.
(3) Continuous Mentoring is the Core of the Culture
In addition to every associate having an active coach and mentor, the organization is very team oriented. There are no true direct reports. Every staff member has a partner coach and a manager coach. The partners all have coaches as well. Every project utilizes 360-degree feedback.
If a person, team, or project is off track, it is caught early and handled right away. Manager coaches are like the quarterback of feedback that needs to be shared directly with a person. They are trained to gently but firmly ensure honest, constructive dialogue and clear direction happens in support of building trust, one of the firm’s essential core values. Because there is constant communication and feedback at every level in the organization, it’s not personal.
“The mentoring program is the core of our culture” says Weiss. “At the same time, it’s smart business. The typical path in public accounting is people leave within two to three years and go to work in easier jobs. The future of the firm’s growth depends on growing leaders who understand this culture.”
Sweeney tells of her struggle in her first year as an associate: “Our team was not communicating praise and gratitude, the why, with each other. We were not on target with the stated company values. There was a lot of confusion: ‘What is happening, we don’t get it, we don’t have buy in to this.’”
“What happened next was the most incredible part,” says Sweeney. “One of partners learned how I was feeling and approached me, asked my view, listened to my feedback. A partner! After listening carefully, he said, ‘OK, let’s try your ideas and see if they make a difference.’ We changed our team meeting format to add appreciations — for one another, from clients. One simple change helped us create a better team culture of great pride in what we do.’“
“The world-class training program here is a big draw,” says Wollner. “There are many training opportunities, mandatory and voluntary. Once a year, we conduct an off-site training/networking retreat for recently hired or promoted employees. They focus on firm culture, open floor discussions, and team bonding through scavenger hunts or ice sculpting competitions. Our culture creates many to continuously network, learn, and connect people across the business at similar career levels.”
(4) Leadership Walks the Talk
How does their culture sustain the “tone from the top” over 30 years of tremendous change and growth? Hottman is an active steward of the firm’s culture. He meets with every new employee, including interns, during their first year and talks to them about the culture, the company, and their future.
“It’s very exciting, when you start a job to meet personally with the CEO, hear his experiences, what he’s passionate about, what creates a good employee at the firm,” says Weiss. “He genuinely cares about people. It shows in every interaction you have with him, even unplanned encounters in a social setting. That authenticity filters to everyone.”
The firm promotes growing employees into leaders. “It’s all about how to deepen relationships through trust, and, more importantly, practicing those behaviors: keeping commitments, transparency, apologizing for mistakes,” says Brown.
Anyone can volunteer to be on a culture committee or the purpose committee, which cuts across service areas and gives associates exposure to other opportunities in the business. Their role is to sustain, maintain, and enliven the company’s culture during growth. In addition, the firm hosts several volunteer “Days of Service” annually and all employees are given one full day off per year to volunteer with an organization of their choice. (See photo.)
Maintaining the “family feel” and personalized culture is a huge priority and never left to chance:
- Annual cross-practice meetings are done at every level, associate to partner. One person from each practice area will usually stand up and share what they do on a day-to-day basis so everyone gets to know what everyone else does.
- Each floor is divided into four neighborhoods. Each neighborhood does fun stuff together, such as happy hours, bowling, and ice skating. The partner/manager coaches do the same thing with their teams. There is a lot of social time together — a work hard, play hard mentality.
- “Purpose thought of the day” cards with inspiring, thoughtful quotes are delivered to employee desks.
An essential core value that keeps leaders honest is “direct, honest, open communication.”
“During my internship, we had a rocky fall,” Wollner recounts. “The partners and leaders in our group, sat us all down — every person, from intern to partner — and spoke openly and honestly to shed light on what was happening. No one was left out. There is not an elitist culture here where the partners are above us. If something doesn’t go right, our leaders step up, own it, apologize, and say, ‘Let’s figure out how to do better so this doesn’t happen again.’ It’s not a couple of individuals making these decisions. Everybody is able to take ownership in the business we’re growing. I could see myself spending my career here, which says a lot.”
“I never feel the hierarchy, even though it’s there,” says Weiss. “I feel like I can talk to partners and the CEO as any other person.”
(5) Career Paths Not Left to Chance.
Selflessness infuses every decision and interaction between employees and leaders.
“Your career at EKS&H may not look like a straight hierarchical climb,” says Brown. “The partners are here to serve employees, fellow partners, clients, and the community. Thus, they regularly ‘give up’ some of their best people for the benefit of that person or another team. That’s what servant leadership is about — ‘What can I do to help you?’ versus ‘How can you help me achieve my goals?’”
Weiss received her degree in accounting and worked in the audit practice for two years before making a bold and non-traditional move into recruitment for the firm. “Everyone here — and I mean everyone — wants you to follow your passion, whether it benefits the firm or not.”
Weiss’s enthusiasm for EKS&H was the inspiration for moving out of accounting into recruitment. “College grads today, Gen Z, these guys are hearing from their parents, teachers, professors — ‘Follow your passion, and do what you love,’” she says. “But it takes mentoring to figure that out. Having a manager with real depth of experience who sits down and talks with you about your dreams is huge. You can’t love your job every day! But here, you get to love the people, the culture. Most of my peers work in companies where mentoring is luck of the draw or focused just on their job or a specific project.”
There are approximately 60 partners at EKS&H today, and every one of them is mentoring five to ten people, often on a monthly basis.
Another hallmark of the culture is in the absence of what is talked about. For a company steeped in finance and the bottom line, profitability is not the central conversation. Instead, the central conversations are: Service. People. Leadership.
“That’s what creates the culture, and that is our focus,” says Brown. “We just had a partner retreat and spent three days talking about mission, values, servant leadership, and love. Not the financials. Our profitability is well within the benchmark for our industry, but we don’t necessarily seek to be the most profitable. That comes with a cost to employees, to trust. We give a lot back to our employees and community and intend to keep it that way.”
The organization has been honored for its commitment to culture through numerous Best Place to Work awards, including from the Great Place to Work® Institute and Fortune magazine – where winners are selected based on a randomly distributed employee opinion survey about the organizations’ workplace cultures and a firm culture audit. The commitment to being a “Best Place to Work” company (versus simply winning the award) is the core of EKS&H’s brand that attracts and retains top talent as well as its clientele.
“The culture now is very obvious and predominant, but we’re not done,” Keefe affirms. “If you don’t take care of it every day, you’ll lose it. The bottom line is we want to be known as a trusted business advisor. Do I want to be your tax guy? Yeah … but what I want more is to be your trusted business advisor. That’s where we’re in our element. That’s when we’re the best.”
Denver Business Journal, February 1994, “Marriage of CPA Firms a Natural.”
Private interviews with Kreg Brown, Rachel Sweeney, Molly Weiss, Trace Wollner.