Wesley jams his way to being a better business leader
Wesley Middleton was young when he learned that he could play the piano by ear. He began to play in church and even picked up the trumpet when he was in high school. Now he’s followed in his father’s footsteps and plays the organ in his church’s band. They have several YouTube videos that he will share with others in the office so they can all see his passion for music.
In this episode, Wesley and I talk about how his being in a band has made him a better leader at his firm. He’s learned to make sure that his instrument isn’t too overpowering, so the band can come together to build one sound – similar to his accounting firm coming together to have one voice to serve their clients. He also talks about how they try to get everyone in the firm to open up with how they have fun and where they go on vacation, because “there’s no question that everything we do outside the firm directly impacts how things are conducted inside the firm.”
Wesley Middleton is the managing partner at MRZ, which has been named one of the country’s fastest growing firms and was named one of Houston’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. He’s also the author of the book “Violent Leadership: Be a force for change”.
He received his Bachelor’s Degree, Accounting from the University of the State of New York.
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Welcome to Episode 128 of the Green Apple Podcast. This is John Garrett and each Wednesday, I interview a professional who’s just like me, known for a hobby or a passion outside of work, making them standout like a green apple in a red apple world. To put it in another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “and” as in my guest, Wesley Middleton is an accountant “and” plays in a band and as you’ll hear his passion for music and being in a band has actually helped him to be a better team member which in turn makes him better at being a managing partner.
This isn’t unique to only Wesley as most of us have a hobby or a passion that sharpens some aspect of us that can benefit our careers whether it’s a long distance running for mental toughness or maybe music to help make the numbers on paper come to life or community theater, standup comedy for presentation skills. I mean these are just a few of the examples of hobbies and passions that actually make you better at your job but only if you let them.
I’ve got a quick favor to ask you, if you like the show and are listening on iTunes or your favorite Android app, please don’t forget to hit subscribe so you don’t miss any of the future episodes because I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week and this week is absolutely no different with my guest Wesley Middleton.
He’s the Managing Partner at MRZ which has been named one of the country’s fastest growing firms and was named one of Houston’s best and brightest companies to work for. He’s also the author of the book Violent Leadership: Be a Force For Change and right now, we’re in the middle of season, Wesley, so thanks so much for taking time to be with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Wesley: Absolutely, John. Love being here. Appreciate this opportunity to get along with the family.
John: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean I’m a huge fan, been following you on Twitter and read the book so I’m just excited to have you on and be able to share your story with everybody.
Wesley: Oh, that’s awesome.
John: Yeah. I gave everyone a little bit of your background in the introduction but maybe in your own words, just a little bit of where you’re at now and kind of how you got there.
Wesley: Sure. I guess where I am today is first of all, I’m 48 years old and a managing partner of a CPA firm in Houston, Texas and we have offices in Austin and Spring. We started five years ago with about 18 people, a little over $2 million in revenue, we’ve grown it in five years to I don’t know, about a hundred people and around $13 million revenue and so it’s just been a roller coaster ride and it’s been fun, it’s been a lot of hard work.
John: Right. Is there a secret to that massive growth? I know that along the way, you’re really big on taking care of the people and kind of the green apple message on accident. It’s pretty awesome.
Wesley: Yeah. I wish I had a secret sauce and I think it’s yeah, it’s your culture, it’s your people, it’s the way your client experiences, your firm, your organization, and when you get all those things sort of mixed up and you have a purpose on what you’re doing, I don’t know, good things happen.
Some others just I don’t know, so we’ve been lucky, we’ve been intentional about it but we didn’t have a recipe. We know we mix all these things up, brownies come out so we didn’t know that. We just kind of give it our best shot and do what we believe is right and good things have happened.
John: Yeah, and you got a cake. You didn’t even get brownies, you got a cake. You got way better.
Wesley: Yeah. We got a cake, no doubt.
John: No, man. That’s awesome. That’s so cool, really cool. I guess I look at culture of a firm kind of from the outside-in, the people that are there, a function of the people, but also a function of what they’re bringing in, their hobbies and their passions and their things from outside. How do you look at the firm culture? Is that something that you think is a factor?
Wesley: I absolutely think it’s a factor. It’s the people, it’s the place that we have here, it’s the things we do everyday, how we act and react, and it’s what we do outside the firm and then how we bring that in the firm and how everybody interacts. I mean look, we spend a lot of time in our lives that the place that we work, right? It’s a huge amount of time with our lives and to somehow pretend that it doesn’t cross paths or intersect in some way, each area affects the other and there’s no question that everything that we do outside the firm definitely impacts how things are conducted inside the firm. We’re all human, have fun, and do things that matters.
John: Yeah and that’s awesome but before we get going too far down that road I want to talk more about you and one question that I love asking everybody because I’m only just curious, is just how did you get into accounting? What made you want to go into that?
Wesley: The crazy thing about the whole accounting story for me is some people look at me today and think I’m this extroverted, outgoing whatever person. Truth is I’m completely the opposite. When I go to conferences, I just go into my room and like surf the net or something else. I don’t want to be interacting and so for me, the timing was just a natural fit. I was good at math and that was how it started in business.
I was like I don’t know what else to do. Why don’t I do accounting? So I did it. I just ended up there and then so I went to college for that, graduated and passed the exam and realized along the way that I had to do some other things to be successful or felt that I did and it’s evolved over time but it wasn’t really intentional other than I don’t know what else to do.
John: Right. Yeah. But the weird thing is, is when you’re in the moment it feels like a zigzag and it’s crazy and whatever but when you look backwards, it’s almost a straight line for me anyway, it’s nutty.
Wesley: Yeah, you’re right.
John: But clearly you’re where you’re supposed to be so that’s great and making a really huge impact on people’s lives in the profession which is awesome, just showing people that the stereotype isn’t the case, it’s not the answer.
Wesley: Yeah. Definitely ended up in the right place and you’re right, the stereotype, what people think you are, that’s probably the number one comment I get when I go to a client or wherever I go is like, “Are you sure you’re an accountant?” You know what? Deep down, it comes out every single time. I’m an accountant deep down.
John: Right, absolutely. It’s so frustrating to me especially when the people that believe that stereotype the most tend to be accountants themselves and it’s like, “What are you doing?” I mean you’re killing us and it’s frustrating.
Wesley: Yeah. We talk ourselves into we should be these types of people that somehow don’t have a life and if we’ve got one, we can’t possibly share it and then oh, by the way while at the firm we can’t possibly talk about things like purpose and culture and I mean what business do we have talking about that kind of stuff?
John: Well, there’s no charge code for that, Wesley, so I don’t understand how you can do that. It’s hilarious. It’s so funny, man, so funny. But I know you’re busy being a managing partner down there and all that but when you have some free time, what sort of thing do you like to do?
Wesley: Well, I used to say work was my free time and I just spent so much time here and I think that’s probably generational. I’m a Gen X so I don’t know, it’s like work hard and it’s all we know. But then you have kids and there are these things called millennials, right? Then they start going, “Dad, what are we going to do for fun?” And so I do a few things. I’m a musician and so I love doing that and I play in church, play the piano in church and it’s always been a big part of my life all the time. I spend a lot of time on weekends doing that at the band in our church, it’s a lot of fun.
John: Yeah, still playing the keyboards? Piano?
Wesley: Yeah. Well, today in the band I’m actually on the organ and so yeah, we do a lot of things live and so even on YouTube, you can go look at it and see us out there, we publish it out there, it’s a lot of fun. So I spend every Sunday just — it’s relaxing. I’ve got a focus on that, and you think about anything else, and it’s something people don’t think like, “Really? You’re a musician?” “Yeah, that’s what I do.”
John: That’s awesome, man. That’s so great. Yeah, because I mean it’s not often you come across an organ player because I mean it’s not often that people have an organ to practice on.
Wesley: A lot of people when they think of organ, they think about maybe pipe organs or things like that but it’s not really, it’s more contemporary type situation. But yeah, it’s an interesting part of what I do.
John: Yeah. No, I mean that’s really awesome and just got into it from playing piano as a kid and then just kept at it?
Wesley: Yeah, grew up at it. My dad actually played the organ and somewhere along the way when I was young I just figured out that I could just hear the music and I could sit down and play it a little bit. So my dad gave me — we got me into lessons so I learned the actual music and I played. In high school, I played the trumpet so all throughout my life I learned that so now it’s just fun. Now, I just get to show up and be part of the band which is a lot of fun.
John: Yeah, I know that’s awesome. Yeah. When I was younger, I play the piano and then in high school, played the trombone and actually in college as well. Yeah, band’s awesome. It really teaches you a lot of things that’s for sure. Have you guys done any like big concerts or is it mostly just the Sundays playing at church which is awesome, I mean that’s really cool?
Wesley: Yeah. We play at a high level and so it’s a very professional type setting that we have in terms of the band and so actually every weekend feels like a concert because the time and effort we put into it, I mean it’s a solid performance and we’re sitting there and they’re videoing it, they’re making a production out of it to put on the internet. Yeah, it’s pretty interesting what it ends up and the way it sounds and the quality of it. It’s fun just being part of something of that level and that quality to go, “Wow, we did that? That sounds awesome.”
John: Right and as a team, as a collective.
Wesley: As a team.
John: That lends the question is do you feel like there’s a skill set that you’re learning by being in the band that translates to you being a managing partner or you being better in the office?
Wesley: That’s a really good question. Never really thought about that but just sort on the cuff as I’m thinking about it and looking back going, you know what I learn is? In the band, I’m not the leader and so I’m following. We got a guy that leads our band that’s incredible, he’s half my age and he’s just incredibly good.
Curtis leads our band, at that point, I’m in a different role because I’m now listing and following and watching how they’re doing and being a part of the team and making sure my voice, my instrument is not overpowering other instruments and how we, together, make one voice and that’s important in an organization that we talk about it a lot, the one-firm mentality and operating like one organization and have multiple voices, you got to have one consistent message so just as comparison, those are some things I do, look back and go, yeah, those are the things that are parallel in music and where we’re at today.
John: Yeah, absolutely. Especially when I think back to my music playing days, you’re in the moment. There’s no like, “Okay, everybody stop. We’re going to start all over again.” It’s we got to be adjusting on the fly and making this magic happen while we’re going down, you’re changing the tire while you’re going down the interstate sort of a thing.
Wesley: Oh, yeah. This is live. You don’t get to replay, right? This is it. You got to perform. It’s an awesome, it’s a satisfying experience, and I don’t know, it’s a lot of fun.
John: Yeah. It’s exactly like being at work. It’s like well, we don’t get a timeout here, it’s go time. Let’s make this happen.
Wesley: Yeah. No question about it.
John: Yeah. That’s great. That’s really cool. Is this something that you talk about at work?
Wesley: Probably not a lot. I think everybody knows. Every now and then, I’ll send a link to one of the YouTube videos and go, “Hey, check this out. We’re playing this song.” They may know it and so I’ll share it. So people kind of realize I’m human too. I do things. Yeah, I like for people in the firm to share their experience, what their life is about, share that.
John: Right. Is there a specific thing that you do to encourage — I mean obviously you’re leading by example by saying, “Hey, here’s a YouTube video of me in a band” but are there other things that MRZ to get people to open up anything specific or is it more of just part of the culture?
Wesley: Yeah, there is something we do, it’s very intentional. You know the finger hands, the phone hands, and the big finger. We have a miniature version of that and like a small version and it’s like red, MRZ number one finger, and so here’s what’s started. It’s become this sort of this crazy thing that everybody does. So if you go to our Facebook page, when people go on vacation, they take a selfie with the finger.
John: Oh, nice.
Wesley: They’ll be like in I don’t know, Rome. Somebody goes to Rome and there’s the MRZ finger showing up. One of my guys this last year I remember, he went scuba diving, he’s seriously under water, I don’t know, like way underwater scuba diving he’s got his camera and he’s taken a picture of the finger in the camera, it’s so awesome. So like when we go on vacation with the kids, they’re like, “Hey, dad, you have the finger. We got to get the picture.”
It’s just a good way of getting people engaged and like, “Hey, show us how you’re having fun, where you’re going and what you’re doing” and it’s become a pretty cool thing. I love to see it come up and go, “Oh, wow. They’re where? Doing what? How cool.” Yeah. So they’re sharing the MRZ finger wherever they’re at. It’s turned in to sort of this sort of thing that everybody — the unwritten rule, you just do it because it’s fun.
John: Yeah. No, that’s fantastic, man. The conversations after when people come back and then “I’m thinking of going there. Tell me about the restaurants or whatever” and just get people creating that connection that’s on another level besides that work superficial level.
Wesley: Yeah, it’s important. It’s important to connect with people for sure.
John: Yeah, that’s awesome, man. That’s so fantastic. One thing that I think about sometimes is just the whole stereotype and why it exists and where it started from and how big of an influence it has on young people and their careers? Why do you think that that stereotype prevails and still exists even though I mean my research shows that 91% of people have a hobby or passion they regularly do outside of work?
Wesley: I do think there’s a — I don’t know. I have no empirical or statistical data to share for sure it’s just here’s what I think. But there is a generation and a group that in the past that came into accounting, maybe they had more of that true accountant mindset and just pertaining to the culture of CPA firms where you just didn’t do these things.
I think as that new generation comes in and we’re seeing more of that, it’s becoming more common, social media has introduced it right and made it more acceptable to sort of see what everybody’s doing in their life. And the profession, in it of itself, it’s having to evolve from this true compliance cranking out work into something where clients are truly looking at you is that trusted adviser and playing that type of advisory role is different than what we did even ten or 15 years ago.
John: Yeah, no. That’s true. If you try and be a perfectionist when I speak to firms and conferences, I just tell them you got the adviser part down but you’re really struggling on the trusted side. The trust isn’t developed by spouting more certifications and more degrees and more FASBs and I’ve memorized all this, it’s like that doesn’t make me trust you. Being human and showing who you really are and some passions in life behind that is what really develops that trust.
Wesley: It does and I think we’re finally learning that to connect with people, it really is about relationships and it becomes more and more important as time goes on and as we evolve. It’s becoming the mainstream of, I believe, is becoming more mainstream to our profession and that we recognize it. You know what? It’s okay to let people know that yeah, I get out on the boat a lot. It’s like you almost want people to think, it’s like we used to almost want people to think that we work all the time. Yeah, man, 20 hours a day I’m just working away. Well, now on Saturday when I can, I’m going to take the boat out on the lake and have a good time. I’m going to share that and it’s okay to share that. It’s okay to have a life.
John: Right. Yeah, because it’s almost like the millennials sometimes overshare. I mean it’s more than just passion, it’s dramas. And then the older generations, they act like they don’t even have a hobby or a passion. I mean like it doesn’t even exist. So like one side admits or doesn’t act like they have anything and then on the other side doesn’t want anyone to tell anyone they do accounting. It’s the younger generation like, “What do you do?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s somewhere in the middle is the right answer.
Wesley: Maybe we just grew up like I was saying, I think when I went through the earlier parts of my adult life, I don’t know that I really had — I don’t know want to say anything fun, but it was ingrained in me to just work and that’s all I did. In the hindsight, it was a mistake and I should’ve spent more time with family and having fun and enjoying a little more.
So maybe the pendulum maybe had swung a little bit too much to one side and just somewhere in the middle. I think as a generation for myself, I think I see people in my generation realize you know what? Yeah, I do need to learn from this and spend more time with family and things outside the office and things that matter.
John: Right. I mean that’s so perfect, I mean the way you said that and for any of the younger people that are listening, that are graduating college or getting new to the profession, I mean no matter what professional services job you have, that’s the answer right there is just having a life, that’s really important.
Wesley: Yeah. We do get a little bit of a bad wrap where for us, there’s probably about eight or ten weeks out of the year that we really just I mean we do put a little hours in and we’re getting sort of nuts, but tell me one professional organization that doesn’t have peaks and valleys. I mean you look at retail. What do they do every December from Thanksgiving until the first of year?
John: That starts in October I think. I see Christmas trees up in August, it’s like what’s going on?
Wesley: Yeah and those guys are working 60, 70 and 80 hours a day. But the point being is you know what? Everybody has their peaks, everybody has their moments, and as a profession we’re really no different than many other organizations. Maybe we’re different at the times of the year that we have it and the way it happens, I get that but overall, it’s pretty much the same as everybody else.
John: Yeah and then when you have the downtime, you can develop those bonds and those relationships such that when it is that busy time then it’s not as bad, the lows aren’t as low, your brain chemistry helps out and norepinephrine and oxytocin and things like that and yeah, the brain science, you create these connections with people that really help out. So it’s fantastic.
Wesley: And that’s one of the reasons we went down the path early on of having what we call an open PTO. We don’t really — no, not really, we don’t have PTO. When we’re busy, let’s work and let’s work hard and then when there’s not a lot to do, go have fun. We had that this year. It was one of the guys. He really sort of gets this whole open PTO thing and this guy works hard when it’s time to work but then this October, I think was right after that October 15th deadline, I believe he took like three or four weeks and went to Vietnam and just totally had it coming, a young guy, that’s sort of how it was — like you know what? Hey, when we work, look, we do work pretty hard and there’s a lot expected but when it’s time to go have fun, go have fun, checkout have fun.
John: And that’s awesome and as a managing partner, I mean what made you have that change in perception because I mean clearly, that’s not a popular opinion amongst your peers, if you will? A lot of them don’t even let you work from home or have any sort of flex time so what makes you think that that’s the way to go?
Wesley: Well, as a firm, we do want to focus on what we want people doing not what we don’t want them doing. Now look, I’m not going to say it didn’t come without a challenge, don’t get me wrong. You know when you’re saying those expectations like okay, here’s want we want you to do and not how much PTO do you have to carry over, how much did you earn? Oh, you can’t take it in January because you got to borrow from February. What in the world are we talking about? Really guys? How much time do we spend trying to figure out — I just don’t care. Here’s what I need you to do, if you do it, I don’t care what else you do. It doesn’t matter to me.
John: I love that, man. It’s so awesome.
Wesley: Don’t call me and pretend you’re sick. Just say, “Hey, I’m not coming in today because I don’t want to.” You know what? Sounds great.
John: That’s so great. I remember when I got out of school, I was in Big Four and I remember why I got promoted to senior associate, they had expectations of your chargeability rate but then they gave you more PTO but actually calculated that if you took all your PTO you would get below the chargeability rate that they wanted you to be at. I was like why are you doing this to me? What’s going on?
Wesley: Yeah, can’t actually take it. Look, it’s not easy. We struggle with it because I mean this is what we deal with, this is the downside of having to learn to deal with it is then when you’re pressing on what they need to be doing it starts to come off as you’re counting on me all the time. We’ve had to go, “Oh, okay. Didn’t really see it that way. We got to change the way you message this” and so as an organization, we’re having to learn how to manage it because I’m going to tell you, it’s not easy.
John: No, it’s a lot harder to manage I would believe, a lot harder.
Wesley: Yeah and you want people to take time off but then you also need to know as an organization, we have an economic expectation that we have to have to exist, right? Sometimes, everybody didn’t get that so it’s not easy.
John: But I think the way that you’re going about is awesome. It’s just that open communication, it’s that culture where somebody can say, “Hey, this is kind of driving me crazy” and you can be like, “My bad. I thought I was telling it to you in a nice way” so you’re able to have that open where other places it’s really closed off and somebody just snaps and quits and then they’re out. Kudos to you guys for making it work. That’s really fantastic.
Wesley: It’s never perfect but it’s a work in progress and we can try and get better and improve on it.
John: Yeah. No, that’s awesome, man. That’s awesome. Do you have any words of encouragement for others that are listening that are maybe on the fence of no one cares about what I do outside of work?
Wesley: Have the courage. Have the courage to speak up and share and just have a positive effect on your organization, people around you, and good stuff happens when you do that.
John: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. So perfect, man. So perfect. Well, thank you, man. Everybody, I’ll tell you again at the end but you got to check out Wesley’s book, Violent Leadership: Be a Force For Change. I love it. It’s so great and I love that story about where you created a pizza delivery service and a VHS rental which I thought is genius.
Wesley: It was for a little while until it wasn’t, right?
John: Right. Until it wasn’t, right.
Wesley: Yeah and Netflix and all that craziness shows up and we all know what happens after that.
John: Absolutely, man, but you’re clearly on the forefront of the momentum this time. So it’s very cool, very cool.
But I do have my 17 rapid fire questions that I’d like to run everybody through. Mix them up a little bit, have a little bit of fun, get to know Wesley on another level here. Let me fire this thing up here and all right, here we go. I’ll start you out with an easy one. When it comes to toilet paper rolls are you more over or under?
John: Over, good answer. Good answer. Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?
Wesley: Night owl.
John: Okay, all right. Do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Wesley: Harrison Ford.
John: Nice, yeah. That’s a solid answer. Totally. How about a favorite color?
John: Okay. How about a least favorite color?
Wesley: I like all colors.
John: You like all of them?
Wesley: I like colors.
John: Just in case they’re listening we don’t want to offend any. How about pens or pencils?
John: Okay, nice. How about more of Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: Okay, all right. How about more Star Wars or Star Trek?
Wesley: Law & Order.
John: Law & Order? Okay.
John: That’s perfect. How about when it comes to computers more of a PC or a Mac?
Wesley: PC, yeah.
John: PC, yeah, and in your mouse are you more of a left-click or a right-click?
Wesley: Right-click. I didn’t think about that one, right-click, yeah.
John: Right-click. Yeah. It’s kind of an abstract question but it’s fun. And then pizza, I got to ask you, favorite toppings on a pizza, load it up.
Wesley: Just pepperoni all day long.
John: Just pepperoni. There it is. Nice. All right. Are you more of an oceans or a mountains kind of guy?
John: Oceans, yeah. Now when it comes to financials, are you more balance sheet or income statement?
Wesley: Balance sheet.
John: Okay. I’ve got four more. Four more. More of khakis or jeans?
John: Yeah. How about do you have a favorite number?
John: 7 and why is that?
Wesley: God’s favorite number.
John: All right. Two more, two more. Do you have a favorite Disney character?
Wesley: Mickey mouse.
John: Mickey, yeah. Go for the boss.
John: And the last one. The favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have.
Wesley: Well, outside of my family, my car.
John: Right, okay, all right. And what kind of car is it?
Wesley: It’s a BMW M3.
John: Oh, nice.
Wesley: Just love them so.
John: Yeah. That’s a sweet ride, man. Very cool. Well, thank you so much, Wesley. This was really, really fantastic. Thanks for being with me on the Green Apple Podcast.
Wesley: Absolutely. I really appreciate the chance to talk to you, John.
John: Wow. That was really, really fantastic. I loved how Wesley said, “There’s no question that everything we do outside the firm directly impacts how things are conducted inside the firm.” Even though it seems like it has nothing to do with your job it’s your “and.” Those passions and interests outside of work that actually affects everything you do in your career.
If you like to see some pictures of Wesley playing in his band or maybe see some of the YouTube links, the videos, connect with him on social media, and you could even get a link to his book Violent Leadership: Be a Force For Change, be sure to go to greenapplepodcast.com.
While you’re on the page, please click that big green button and do the anonymous research survey about green culture. It will really, really help for the book I’m writing.
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