Alan Whitman, CEO at Baker Tilly, joins Wayne to discuss what happens when you allow tax accountants (and other professional services) to be innovative in the world of remote work. They discuss some of the things that his company has had to change and adapt to in order to continue growing the company.
Name: Alan Whitman
What He Does: CEO at Baker Tilly US and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Baker Tilly International
Notable: Named CEO and chairman of the board of partners in 2016, Whitman previously led the firm’s Michigan market and developed the organization’s robust international services practice. He joined Baker Tilly in 2003, having spent 15 years with another national CPA firm where he led the middle-market tax practice.
- Accounting firm CEO challenges outdated talent paradigms to declare an organizational purpose
- It’s Not About the Office
- Baker Tilly
- There is a better way: Breaking the mold of public accounting
- Learn more about Wayne Turmel
- Connect with Wayne Turmel on LinkedIn
- Purchase a copy of The Long-Distance Leader
- Purchase a copy of The Long-Distance Teammate
- Pre-order a copy of The Long-Distance Team
- The Kevin Eikenberry Group
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Remote leadership experts, Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel, help leaders navigate the new world of remote and hybrid teams to design the culture they desire for their teams and organizations in their new book!
00:00:08:12 - 00:00:39:14
Hi everybody. Welcome back to the Long Distance Work Life Podcast. This is where we try to make sense of remote work and hybrid work and all of that stuff without letting the weasels drive you insane. My name is Wayne Turmel. We have a good news bad news situation today. The bad news being we are Marisa less because the good news is we have a really terrific guest with us today and is going to be an important conversation.
00:00:39:19 - 00:00:58:13
I am going to bring our guest in here. This is Alan Whitman. He is the CEO of the accounting firm firm Baker Tilly. And Alan, maybe you can do like a quick introduction on you and what your company does, and then we'll get down to why we're having this conversation.
00:00:59:10 - 00:01:27:23
Yeah. Well, Wayne, thank you for having me this afternoon or this morning. I don't know when this will play. It's exciting to be with you and to talk about the subject that that you'll you and I will discuss. I'm the CEO of Baker Tilly us. We are a global CPA firm. We serve middle market, upper middle market clientele in the in the areas of assurance or test, audit and assurance, tax and advisory.
00:01:28:07 - 00:01:44:08
We've got approximately 6500 people worldwide. We're about a billion and a half dollars in revenue. And we've been at this since 1931. I've been our CEO since 2016, and I'm very, very lucky to be in the position I am.
00:01:44:15 - 00:02:08:22
Now we are talking because you have been making some noise out in the blogosphere and and the world of Baker Tilly has taken a very different approach to remote work than a lot of your colleagues. I know I've had more than one person tell me they don't want their accountants being innovative. They want their accountants to keep them out of jail.
00:02:09:19 - 00:02:23:20
And and yet you are really an advocate for remote work, which is not universally the case in professional services in general, but particularly in tax accounting. Tell me what's going on there.
00:02:24:12 - 00:02:46:02
Well, one foundational concept is things don't have to be either or. It's not that you're either innovative or you keep your clients out of jail. If you say you can be both, it could be a both. And so we do want to be innovative. We want to come up with with new solutions, creative solutions, because our mission is to enhance, to protect our clients value.
00:02:46:05 - 00:03:20:12
That's what we're here to do. We do that through a myriad of things, whether it's assurance, tax advisory or what have you. And so we think of both and versus either or. And so as you say that we've been, you know, making some noise. Look, I I believe that the last few years, you know, with all the horrible things that have happened as a result of coronavirus, COVID, and we all know about them solid being, isolated death, economic ruin, if you will, or economic situations.
00:03:21:08 - 00:03:40:14
This has been nothing more than a time machine. We stepped into the time machine in the winter March, I think 16th or so of 2020, and we stepped out of it some time in 21 or 22, whenever people felt that they can go about their their lives. And when we got out of the time machine, what? Well, the calendar said 22 to 22.
00:03:40:17 - 00:04:04:02
It really was 20, 35. I'd say from all the things we're dealing with, we were moving along the continuum to virtual work. We were moving along the way along the continuum of maximum flexibility for our workers, for our employees, for our colleagues. And so this is one of those things that was happening gradually and suddenly when we stepped out of the time machine, the COVID time machine, it was upon us.
00:04:04:11 - 00:04:23:11
And so one of the things we need to realize is going back to where we were is is impossible. And it's not about normal or abnormal. It's about where we were. And if we're not looking forward into the future, we're going to be hampered by where we were. And that's really no way to live a life. That's no way to run a company.
00:04:23:19 - 00:04:30:19
And so we've embraced the idea that we need to find a new way. We need to define our new normal, if you will, and our new future.
00:04:31:18 - 00:04:50:11
Now, let me let me stop you there, because I'm I'm agreeing with that said. And the question is, was this something that you were giving serious thought to before we got pushed across the Rubicon, or did you kind of get surprised by it?
00:04:51:14 - 00:05:24:13
Well, if if if I say anything other than to surprise all people would challenge me. Look, COVID was in one way. It was a black swan. And so let's take advantage of the black swan again, knowing that it was horrific, it was horrible, and we can learn from it. And so I do remember August of 20 excuse me, August of 21, I sat down with my leaders of our human resources group, our people we call people solutions and said, listen, we knew we needed a new environment.
00:05:24:19 - 00:05:49:23
We did a new way of doing things. And so that was the genesis of Break the Mold. That was the genesis of us saying, you know what, enough's enough. We've got an opportunity here and we have got a responsibility and an expectation from our people to do things differently. So all the things that we knew that we thought were table stakes, that were unmistakable aspects of our profession, I said, You know what?
00:05:50:01 - 00:06:07:13
Why, why do we need to do it this way or that way? Why can we not do it a different way? I didn't have the solution. I just had the question with to my to my colleagues of let's think of a different way of doing things and let's break from the past. Let's not forget the past. Let's use the past to fuel the future.
00:06:07:19 - 00:06:37:06
And so I remember sitting there with my lead people Solutions executive and, and our director of People Solutions and really just spitballing on, on a on a flip chart, all the things that were holding us back. And it was generated by COVID. It was generated by the Black Swan and the change in dynamic, whether it be how we operate and whether and whether it be the way that people expected to show up and come to work.
00:06:37:07 - 00:06:51:23
So there are 100 ways I can take this questioning and I'm trying to keep it on track here without going too far down the rabbit hole. But what was your first big aha.
00:06:51:23 - 00:07:10:16
That the way I grew up in this profession. I started this profession in 1987. That's the way I grew up in this profession. Doesn't mean that the person isn't the same as the person growing up in the profession. That excuse me. We all knew a new puppy in the house. That's that's the that's the the reverb of of working from home.
00:07:11:10 - 00:07:25:01
So I just said just because I did it that way doesn't mean that the next generation is going to do it that way. I have a 19 year old daughter. You know, the first sign that things were different was they were studying and working with headphones in their ears. I never did that and so I knew something was wrong.
00:07:25:01 - 00:07:48:10
And so watching my daughter and listening to her let's see her friends told me that there's got to be a different way. And to get them to be excited about our profession, we need to we need to change. And so we reached out to those that we were making not policies, but principles and making the way of work for to get the answers.
00:07:48:10 - 00:08:08:05
And so we brought in we had inner circles, as we like to call them. We brought all 6000 people, invited all 6000 people to small groups of inner circles to to kick the tires of this concept, to break the mold. What do we need to do to break the mold of public accounting, where by will be a different place, a different workplace into the future?
00:08:08:05 - 00:08:15:01
Because in the end of the day, when, while I may be the CEO of the firm, it really is there for it's their firm of the future.
00:08:15:21 - 00:08:42:18
Yeah, I, I'm intrigued a little bit because one of the things I know about professional services in general and, and not that I'm an expert in accounting, but I know that culture and a culture of mentoring is a big piece of that. You know, you mentioned your daughter. We have about 15 to 20% of the workforce who came into the workforce during COVID.
00:08:43:01 - 00:08:45:16
And so they don't remember the before times.
00:08:46:04 - 00:08:47:02
00:08:47:02 - 00:08:57:05
So so luxurious your inner circles. How do they tackle the idea of onboarding, mentoring, bringing people in and making them part of the culture?
00:08:58:00 - 00:09:20:01
Well, one of the challenges that we face is not knowing, not recognizing what you don't know. And and you're right, whether it's the apprentice model, whether it's the mentor model, etc.. And the question is, how do we mentor in this new environment? And and how do we apprentice in this new environment? Not the only way to apprentice is the way I did it.
00:09:20:11 - 00:09:41:15
The only way to apprentices proximity. And so we've we've coined the phrase in our firm, we've got to go from proximity being two feet away from somebody being at the next office to intentionality. And so maybe it maybe it doesn't matter whether you're two feet away from somebody or 200 miles away from somebody, you still need to be intentional.
00:09:42:01 - 00:10:02:13
You can't just assume that somebody is going to pick up on what you're saying because they're listening to you. You've got to be intentional about mentoring them. You've got to be intentional about building connections. That's what we're focused on. One of the things we're concerned about and so this isn't this isn't like we've got it all figured out and voila, we've got a new way of making making a soup or making a cake.
00:10:02:15 - 00:10:26:06
We are very concerned with people developing at the same pace they were before, and we're concerned about people being promotion ready when it's time to consider them for being a promotion. Did they develop? Did they take on the learnings as quickly as we had? They would have or they did before whereby they'll be ready for promotion or is everything pushed back a year or two?
00:10:26:13 - 00:10:49:01
And if that's the case, then we need to reexamine how we're developing people, not put them back to where we were, because that's the only way to do it, because think about it in a shorter period of time, I'll be out of the working world or I'll be out of Baker Tilly, then the next generation. And so just because I knew how to do it my way back in the eighties and nineties and into early 2000s, the next generation didn't learn the way I did.
00:10:49:01 - 00:11:16:09
So we really need to modernize the organization for the future. Let me give you an example. So I was a tax guy growing up and in my growing up in the firm, production was the only thing that mattered. Of course, development was, but it was all about how many of this or that can can I do? How many individual tax returns should I do in a year predicated by how many billable hours should I have in a year?
00:11:16:23 - 00:11:38:23
And I bet you I did four or 500 individual tax returns growing up. I probably stopped learning after 120 530. Why did I do the next the next group of tech of individual? All because that's the way we ran the organization, because the work was there. We needed to get the business out and we need to do the tax returns and service our clients well, what what about my development?
00:11:39:11 - 00:12:01:05
What about I wasn't learning, you know, the law of diminishing returns? Why can't we think about taking that 350 returns, tax tax filings and give them to somebody else that they can learn? And then you can build me into something different by giving me different experiences. That's what I mean by being intentional rather than just fill my day with work that is in the in the system.
00:12:01:11 - 00:12:26:21
Why don't we fill my day with developmental opportunities to unleash and amplify my talent? That is our purpose as an organization. We are here to unleash and amplify even my talent being the CEO. And so we need to be very intentional. Proximity is is not the solution. Many of many executives in the United States and frankly in the world believe that the office is the solution.
00:12:26:21 - 00:12:46:05
The office is not the solution. The office is a place. It's not just because you come to the office. Does that mean you're going to learn? Just because you're sitting next to somebody doesn't mean you're going to learn being intentional about learning and development, being intentional about developing connections. I don't care if it's under a tree. I don't care if it's in a park.
00:12:46:12 - 00:13:03:14
I don't care if it's at the YMCA. Let's connect with our people to build collaborative teams, to enhance and protect our clients value and buy in. In order to do that, I need to unleash and amplify in each individual's talent. So again, we're going from proximity to intentionality.
00:13:04:09 - 00:13:36:11
I love that question. I'm thinking about this as somebody listening to this podcast. And so is there something specific that I almost said to you? But I know it's your people have instituted in order to begin that development pipeline that was different from what it was before? Is there a a a policy, a way of learning? A it's something concrete that we can point to that says, look what they're doing.
00:13:36:11 - 00:13:37:03
00:13:37:16 - 00:14:03:16
Okay. So we've built an innovation hub, innovation lab, and every individual is when they're hired, goes to that lab for a week when they get hired. Well, that's not audit in tax. That's innovation. That's learning how to think differently. That's one too. We've started identifying the career non value added tasks that everybody does and we're best getting them together and figuring out where should we put those in the organization to have somebody else do it?
00:14:04:07 - 00:14:28:04
Who is better, better equipped to do it so that the associate isn't mired in all of the administrative layers that go into being a public accountant? Here's a prime example building and collections entering time building collections. People didn't come into public accounting to do billing and collections. That's an administrative task. It's very important. Let's put it with the person that actually can do that.
00:14:28:04 - 00:14:48:20
That is designed and and learned and taught how to do that versus having the the technician, the consultant spend their time with things that aren't is things that are not going to unleash and amplify talent. It's not about being better or worse than that. Work. It's about having the right work for people. There's there's just an endless supply.
00:14:48:20 - 00:15:15:09
So all of those things are actually happening. We're also instituting short term assignments where people are going to go through a rotational program to learn different things in the organization. Now that happens a lot. And companies like P&G, their management training program, where there's one of my partners, Chris, who runs our Wisconsin practice, her son joined an organization outside of public accounting, and he was put immediately put into a five year rotational program.
00:15:16:02 - 00:15:32:15
And he said, well, I'm not going to leave. This is wonderful. I'm getting a wonderful experience over my first five years I'm seeing so many different things. Well, in our profession we could we say, Well, we can't do that because of their billable hours. They're not going to have as many billable hours. We're not going to make as much money in the long term.
00:15:32:15 - 00:15:52:18
You can have a better professional, you have a more a better trained professional. And so let's make the investment in unleashing, amplifying their talent so that in the future they're better, a better professional, better able to enhance and protect our clients. So we need to break from the past. We need to go from a production based organization where all it was was about hours, hours, hours.
00:15:53:11 - 00:16:23:06
All you were graded on was hours. You didn't know if those hours are good, bad or indifferent. Let's go to an output based organization production to our output based or value. Let's go from proximity to intentionality. And so there is a huge shift in our organization to modern size us and become more of an output based organization or be solely an output based organization rather than the be handcuffed by our accounting policies.
00:16:23:17 - 00:16:55:09
You just said something a minute ago which I have been obsessing about, and I haven't heard anybody in a big boy position say this out loud. So I want to run something by you, because our careers are of a similar age. And when we were young workers, there were assistants and administrative professionals, and there were people who handled things like billing and recording time and doing all that.
00:16:55:09 - 00:17:19:02
And then with the invention of the PC and all the software, suddenly we got to do everything ourselves and everybody made that sound like it was a really good idea. And I see you nodding, so I know you know where I'm going with this. You know, all the sudden we were making our own schedules and writing our own letters and doing all the stuff that we were doing.
00:17:19:02 - 00:17:30:19
But it wasn't the work that we were supposed to do. And it sounds like you've had a little bit epiphany about this.
00:17:31:07 - 00:17:57:20
Yeah. So look, it's some of it's administrative and some of it is redundant assignments. My thinking about individual tax returns or, you know, small projects that that are repetitive and you know, you've got 3 hours. We'll do these five because you're going get your billable hours. Well, that doesn't help me. It helps the production of the organization. Okay, then let's focus on if I'm not going to do them, how are we still going to get them done?
00:17:57:20 - 00:18:16:18
Let's not focus on the fact that you didn't do them. Let's focus on redeploying you to something different. Because I have an obligation, given our purpose as an organization, to unleash and amplify Wayne Turbo's talent. That's why I'm here. And if I don't do that, I'm not living our purpose. And so you're right, it's both administrative type things.
00:18:16:23 - 00:18:52:01
The layering, it's like it's like painting your walls, right? You paint it and you paint another color, then you keep painting it. And pretty soon you've got ten layers of paint on the walls, and pretty soon you got to take the entire thing down and start over again. That's that's the layering effect of all this. And so, yes, we are going to we are not going to we are actually identifying now all of those career non value added tasks, both administrative and just redundant assignments moving aside so we can build a bespoke unleash and amplified talent development program for our 6500 people.
00:18:52:01 - 00:19:08:12
Look, it's going to take some time. It's going to it's a journey. We're not going to snap our fingers and have it happen. But we have set out, of course, we've been working on this and we have 1% buy in in the organization. And it's fun to see people doodle and and debate and innovate new ways of doing things.
00:19:08:12 - 00:19:14:07
So it's a we've got the power of the organization behind us on this. It's it's a lot of fun to watch.
00:19:14:07 - 00:19:41:04
Now, it is often said that a profit is without honoring his own land. So you have plenty of people in your industry who are coming to some of these realizations very slowly. If there's one thing that you could tell, the one piece of wisdom that you could share before we leave with your fellow CEOs and leaders, what would it be?
00:19:41:04 - 00:19:51:20
Well, I'm a little ashamed to be giving wisdom to people maybe that have a lot more experience than I do. But since you ask the question and you're the host of this podcast, I'll I'll answer the question.
00:19:51:21 - 00:19:53:05
I'll take the heat. Don't worry.
00:19:54:03 - 00:20:16:02
Look, many of us, especially in the technical sense, you know, technicians, et cetera. We think that we need to start perfectly until we have it perfect. Don't start. My advice is you don't need to start perfect. You just need to start. You just need to start. You're not going to get it perfect. And perfect is not the goal.
00:20:16:16 - 00:20:42:11
The goal is to get it going so you can continue to improve on what you've set out to do and getting the people in your organization to join the band, so to speak. That's a huge step. Get it going. Start. Don't start. Perfect. You'll be surprised at how much you'll accomplish if you just get over the over the over the required it self-imposed requirement of being perfect.
00:20:43:09 - 00:21:01:22
Allen Whitman, CEO of Baker Tilly, thank you so much for being with us. This is a great conversation and I could geek out. I've got a million things that I know we could talk about. Thank you for raising your head up and talking about these things. We we really appreciate it.
00:21:02:13 - 00:21:09:23
Well, my pleasure. And thank you for allowing me to share it. And I love your excitement about the topic. So appreciate it. And happy holidays and happy New Year.
00:21:10:14 - 00:21:39:09
And of course, all of Alan’s information is going to be on our website. Long distance work life dot com on the page for this episode. Our new book, The Long Distance Team. If you are interested in starting a team from scratch or reorganizing how your team works. Kevin In my new book, The Long Distance Team will be out February 28th.
00:21:39:09 - 00:22:07:15
We are very excited about that and of course you want to ask us a question or have a topic that you want us to discuss. You can reach out to Marisa and I, Wayne@KevinEikenberry.com Marisa@KevinEikenberry.com. Again, we will have links to some of Alan's articles and and information about Baker Tilly for those who are interested.
00:22:08:17 - 00:22:46:11
As always, we are very, very proud and excited that Kevin Eikenberry group to bring you information like this. You know the deal if you listen to podcasts there like and subscribe. That's it. My name is Wayne Trammell. Thank you for being with us on the long distance work life. And don't let the weasels get you down. Hey.