Knute Rockne photo

Knute Rockne, 1921

A typical Friday night in high school would find me hunched on a bench in the locker room anxiously awaiting the kickoff of that night’s game. Our football team, many of us lifelong friends since kindergarten or younger, was ready to listen to the inspiring words from Coach William McElveen. We anticipated something profound and motivational, along the lines of a good Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi speech.

At the close, Coach would ask us a simple question, “Where would you rather be?”

William McElveen was not only our coach; for many of us he was our hero. He would pose that question to us as our families and friends were in the stands, waiting to cheer us on to victory. Pumped with adrenaline, we were ready to take on any opposing team. At that moment in time, there was nowhere else we would rather be.

Coach McElveen emphatically made the same statement; in fact, he told us he wished he could be right there on the field with us. We were all where we wanted to be and where we expected we would be at that point in our lives. Those words and that vision have stayed with me my entire life.

As the end of each year approaches, we have a tendency to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. We look back and measure the year in days, weeks and months. We list accomplishments, we measure growth and we quantify successes, and if all of these numbers add up, we assume we are in the right place. Those are good disciplines to pursue.

But, suppose we also ask ourselves, “Are we where we expected to be?” and “Are we happy with how we got here?” If the answer is still a resounding “yes,” then we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and enjoy it.

But what if the answer isn’t a resounding “yes”? What if there are some doubts, or some yearnings for something different? “Where” isn’t just a physical space – it is a mindset, it is a time frame, it is our dream. Our level of passion for what we are doing should be a part of the answer to those questions. If the answer does not come quickly and assuredly, then it is time to make a change. It is time to determine “where” you really want to be.

Coach McElveen assured us on those Friday nights that there was nowhere else he would rather be. Teaching and coaching were his passions and he was making an impact on so many of us. It was obvious he was where he was supposed to be. At the conclusion of his pep talk, with a bit more serious tone, he would say, “Let’s take a minute.” He wanted us to take a minute to reflect on where we were, to give thanks for what we had, and to make the commitment to give 110% on the field.

Coach McElveen’s high school teaching and coaching career is not the end of his story, though. In 2008, an article by Roy Roberson appeared in the Southeast Farm Press. It stated, “After a short but successful tenure as a high school history teacher and football coach in Bishopville, S.C., McElveen came to understand he was living the wrong professional dream”.

Coach McElveen was also a farmer, starting out with a few acres and a John Deere tractor. Twenty-five years later, he was honored with the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Upper Southeast States. His farming operation had grown to thousands of acres of peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. William McElveen was still the same person, but he decided to adjust his “where” to realize his full potential and utmost satisfaction.

“Where” do you really want to be? Think about it before you answer. If you can honestly say it is in the here and now, take the time to appreciate it and live it to the fullest. If you come to realize your “where” isn’t where you expected to be, then I challenge you to make the change that will bring you to the place where you will thrive, where you will be happy, and where you will be willing to give 110%.

Happy holidays to all.


Note: William McElveen died on December 17 after an extended illness. Thanks for the lessons, Coach — I’ve never forgotten them.

You’ve read it – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

You’ve heard it – “Culture is everything.”

You’ve said it – “It’s all about the cultural fit.”

Firms and organizations are continually in search of team members, clients, people, and groups who are the perfect fit for their corporate culture. Cultural fit is discussed and analyzed and put through the strainer every day.

There is no doubt that a good fit with our corporate culture is a key ingredient for success when bringing on a new team member, when welcoming a new client, or when aligning ourselves with an organization or group. But does the fit truly have to be perfect or do we need to consider what other factors might make a good fit close to perfect?

When we are in the market for a new pair of shoes, we know the size we need and we can pick out a pair that appeals to us. It might be the color or the style that attracts us, but the determining factor in whether we make a purchase is whether or not they have our size in stock. And if they do, we try them on – we walk around the shoe department for a minute making sure there are no pinches or other red flags that warn us they might not be the perfect fit.

With people, however, we have to follow a gut instinct and hope for the best that they are, indeed, a perfect fit for our culture.

Or do we? Is the perfect fit always a necessity with people?

For a shoe purchase, we have to have the right fit, and we have to like the color and style. Why? Because those attributes are going to enhance our wardrobe. We need those shoes to match other items in our closet. We want them to add flavor to our attire.

Part of the process of interviewing potential team members or clients can parallel the process of shoe shopping. There may be something that interests or strikes us initially. It may be the way they dress, an interest or hobby of theirs, or their rhetoric during an interview. We make a connection and we try to determine if they will indeed be a fit for our culture. But unlike those shoes, we don’t get the opportunity to try them on before we make the offer or sign the contract.

We may indeed find out that although they are not a perfect fit for our culture, they have the ability to enhance it. Whether it is a unique skill set, credible experience, or innovative thinking, we find that their contributions make our culture shine a little brighter. Like that new pair of shoes, they are a quality addition that complements the other wardrobe items.

Perhaps when we are assessing people, whether a new team member or client, we need not ask if they will be a perfect fit for our culture, but rather if they will add something. Will they be an enhancement to something great that we have already developed? Will they bring their own brand of sparkle that improves our product?

If we have developed a good culture, we will always be looking for ways to make it better and stronger. So although someone might not be the perfect fit with today’s version of our culture, they just might be the enhancement that results in the new and improved version.

In the midst of a horrendous storm in Washington, DC, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, laden with ice and snow, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport. I can remember being glued to the television, watching live coverage of the recovery efforts. Passengers were floating in the bone-chilling waters, struggling to survive.

Priscilla Tirado was one of those passengers and though a helicopter line was dropped to her, she couldn’t hold on as she succumbed to freezing waters. Lenny Skutnik, an employee in the Congressional Budget Office, routinely drove over that bridge every day. On this day, he stopped at the scene of the crash and watched in horror along with hundreds of other onlookers. When he saw Priscilla Tirado’s struggle, he impulsively dove into the ice-clogged river and pulled her to shore. He didn’t think about it, he just knew a human life was about to be lost and he was compelled to save it. It was the right thing to do.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Regan gave his State of the Union address to our nation. As always, first lady Nancy Reagan sat in the balcony, this time with Lenny Skutnik by her side. The President pointed everyone’s attention to the balcony and spoke about the heroic act. He used this as an example of what was right with America and that our best days were ahead. It was the beginning of a presidential tradition and every year since, during the State of the Union address, there is a “person in the balcony” who is singled out and recognized for their actions.

Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts every day. We see it here in our firm – team members putting others first because it is the right thing to do. It may be going above and beyond for a client, it may be an act of community service, or it may be mentoring younger staff to help them achieve their goals. As leaders, we need to have individuals in the balcony and to recognize them for doing the right thing. These individuals don’t do the right thing for glory or recognition, but because they share common values and are fostering a culture from which we all benefit. We need to let them know they are recognized and their acts are appreciated.

We should always seize the opportunity at every meeting, gathering or event to be pointing to someone in the balcony. Who will be sitting in your balcony the next time you have a meeting?

When I look at the accounting and consulting industry, I see plenty of tough challenges ahead. A stringent regulatory environment, the ever-changing global context and technology complexities are just a few. But one of the biggest challenges I see is the necessity to help young professionals envision their career opportunity and path for what it can be, rather than what it used to be.

Our industry has a reputation for grueling hours, tedious work, myriad regulations and a poor work-life balance. Firms who mentor young professionals in the current environment of specialty practices and burgeoning opportunities are going to experience a substantial talent advantage. That advantage, meaning the recruitment and retention of exceptional people, is going to be a primary differentiator in this industry.

Companies striving to recruit and retain great employees must focus attention on building a corporate culture which achieves that goal. A mission to have a positive impact on our clients and our communities provides the basis for such a culture. But expanding that mission to include having a positive impact on our people is what will set us apart from the competition. Creating a culture where people want to work and choose to stay sets us up to thrive in the long term.

What aspects of your corporate culture create a talent advantage for your firm?