Rebecca travels the world for better client relationships
Rebecca Kelley grew up taking one big family trip a year — to Mexico every Spring Break. Since then, she has visited a total of 14 countries, even studying abroad in India while she was in college. She’s hiked in Inca trails to Machu Picchu in Peru and hiked the Alps in Switzerland, all while working hard to become a Partner at EKS&H. She feels that these trips allow her to totally disconnect so she returns with a fresh perspective.
In this episode, we talk about how it’s important to find a place that shares similar values as you. If you feel supported by the culture then you’re more likely to share, making work more fun and relationships more meaningful. A lot of us feel the pressure to know everything when we start, especially at a larger firm, so it’s up to management to tell them it’s okay to ask questions and feel a little vulnerable. In the end, Rebecca says, “It’s not about the accounting… it’s about the people.”
Rebecca Kelley is a Partner at EKS&H, where she’s spent her entire accounting career.
She received her BS in Accounting from the University of Denver.
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Rebecca Kelley graduated from the University of Denver, went straight to work in public accounting at EKS&H. She’s been there ever since. Recently promoted to partner, and now she’s with me today here on the Green Apple Podcast.
Rebecca, it was so great meeting you after my session at Clickbooks Connect. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Rebecca: Love what you’re doing. It’s really, really fun. It’s easy to explain. I’ve already been telling some of my staff about it just in that concept of what makes you different and not letting professionalism suffocate who you are and things like that.
John: Wow. That means so much. Thank you.
Rebecca: It’s been a really fun message to also re-deliver. I really appreciated hearing you at Clickbooks.
John: Cool. One question that I love to ask everyone is just how did you get into accounting to begin with?
Rebecca: It’s kind of funny. In high school, I really wanted to letter in academics. I was really focused on that. But I really wasn’t interested in calc or trigonometry. I said “What else can I take to letter in academics, because I need an additional math credit?” Accounting qualified, so I took an accounting class, and I really liked it.
I said “Can I take another?” Nobody else was interested, but they let me do it as an independent study. I did that and came out of high school going to colleges as a declared accounting major.
John: Wow. It’s just that high school class got you.
Rebecca: Mm-hm. It did.
John: Then it was all – yeah, you’re stuck in the rut, and there’s not coming out, and now you’re a partner.
Rebecca: There’s no going back. Yeah. That’s right.
John: That’s so great. Do you ever look up your high school teacher and be like “Thank you so much. Look what you did.”?
Rebecca: You know, I haven’t. Actually, she was one of those generalist teachers. I think she taught keyboarding and business and the accounting. She kind of taught this whole hodge-podge of things. But I haven’t looked her up.
John: Right. That’s funny. Just to see the monster that she’s created.
Rebecca: Yeah. That’s right.
John: “Look what you’ve done!”
Rebecca: Who knew, right?
John: Right. Yeah. Definitely who knew. Well, that’s cool. That’s so cool. Clearly, being a new partner keeps you very, very busy there at EKS&H, but what kind of hobbies and passions do you love doing when you have that free time?
Rebecca: Yeah. When I have the free time, I definitely – I follow a way of living of work hard and play hard. On any given day, usually, when I get home, I look forward to cooking or singing, things like that, but what I really look forward to, what I really work hard for is travelling. Having that down time to go, totally disconnect and go see the world.
John: Yeah. I think that’s so great how you said just totally disconnect, because it can be really intense at work. Yes. When you travel, you just unplug for the most part. “I’m traveling, and I’m not working right now. That’s how it’s going to be.”
Rebecca: That’s right. Yeah. Usually, the best way to do that is to travel internationally. That’s usually what I try to do is go as far as I can in different places where internet and cell service and things like that might be a little spotty, so you can’t get ahold of me.
John: Right. Yeah. “It’s not my fault.” That’s very cool. How did you get into traveling? How did that start up? You said in pictures that we have on greenapplepodcast.com of all different countries. How did that get started?
Rebecca: Well, it got started really by my dad. My dad instilled kind of a passion and a sense of travel in me when I was a kid that – we didn’t have a lot of money, but it was that we’re going to do one big thing every year. Every spring break, we would travel down to a little town in Mexico where we rented a small home, and we would spend a week down there. That’s what we saved our money, and that’s what we went and we did.
From eight years – maybe even younger, but – from eight years on every year into my 20’s, we would go to Mexico. I really got to embrace and love the Mexican culture and language. That’s really where it started. Then it was just kind of a snowball from there in the sense that I have an older sister. She was obviously part of that, as well. She became my primary travel buddy. We started going different places together.
I travel with her, but I also now travel with my husband. That’s kind of where it started. It’s just kind of grown from there.
John: Right. What was the first country besides the Mexico trip that you guys went to?
Rebecca: The first country was Canada. I went to Vancouver. That was as a family. That was a lot of fun. Not too extreme, but that was the first place just starting off the United States and got Mexico and Canada out of the way.
When I was in college, I really wanted to study abroad, but being the accountant that I am, I really wanted to start my accounting program on time and not late. I kind of waited and said “Well, I guess I’m not traveling abroad. I’m going to start my accounting program on time.”
I did that. But DU offers a really interesting program where you have six weeks off really between Thanksgiving and New Years before you come back to school. During that period, they offer what they call interim courses. They had an interim course for a credit I needed for cultures and communities. The class was in India. I applied for the program, and I went to India while I was in college. I was there for a month. It was a really incredible opportunity.
John: Wow. Yeah. It’s double whammy. You get your credits, and you’re over in India. That’s great. That’s so efficient of you. I don’t even think you needed the accounting classes. It’s just in your DNA, it sounds like.
Rebecca: That’s right. It was very efficient of me. I killed two birds with one stone. I got my credit. I traveled abroad. It wasn’t for a while semester or quarter, as it may be, but it was for a month. It was an incredible experience.
John: The only more accounting you could have done is used a coupon to pay for it. That would have been the ultimate – just get a discount for it. That’s very cool. I guess what would be some of the favorite places you’ve been? I’m sure that that’s an impossible question to answer, but I guess some of the ones that stick out as maybe most rewarding or maybe one of the more exciting trips that you’ve had?
Rebecca: For sure. I’ve been to I think 14 different countries. I would say that some of my favorites – India was definitely one of my favorites. It was the most out-of-the-box for me. I had been to parts of Mexico that were pretty third-world and pretty rough areas, but India and what we were doing there just really spoke to my soul and really was just a life-changing experience.
Then beyond that, I did some different traveling for fun, but I really loved Switzerland, Iceland, and most recently, Peru. Switzerland was just beautiful. It was a lot of fun. Then Iceland was just so interesting. Peru was really challenging. When I travel, I’m always kind of looking for different pieces like that and categorizing the places I go. It’s not a vacation. It’s traveling. It takes a lot of effort.
John: Right. In Peru, did you do the Machu Picchu trail and what have you?
Rebecca: Yeah. I traveled to Peru with my sister. They have a five- or a seven-day hike that you can do. My sister and I did a one-day hike on the Inca trail where you hike into Machu Picchu and actually get on a train and they drop you off the train in the middle of the woods in the jungle at a stop, and they say “Okay, cross that bridge over the river, and your guide will meet you there.”
It’s just like “Okay. Sure.” Off you go. Here you are in the middle of the mountains getting ready to go for this incredible challenging, scary hike. We dropped off there, and it was an all-day hike. We hiked into Machu Picchu. We got to Machu Picchu at about sunset. We came back the next day, took the bus up the next day to actually explore Machu Picchu.
John: I imagine after hiking in, it’s like “We just want to sit down for a little while.” It’s harder to explore it after you hiked it in. That’s so great and clearly not doing any internet while you’re in the middle of the jungle in South America.
Rebecca: Definitely no.
John: That’s so great. All over the world. You have some Europe and Iceland and India and Peru. Some of the other – Spain. Some of the other pictures that you’ve sent in. Such amazing, breathtaking shots there that are just really exciting and completely removed from the daily office grind, if you will.
Rebecca: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s important to disconnect and to take a break from it. It is easy to get so ingrained in it and wrapped up in what you do. You just kind of get into a routine. It may not be the best routine. For me, I found that even if it’s a couple weeks, that’s kind of my ideal, but if I can go longer, I definitely love to do that.
But to just step away from it and go see something else that’s not accounting – although I do keep a budget. I keep track of all the finances on the trip. I’m sure I can split things with my sister or however that works out if I’m traveling with my husband. It’s easier. But in looking at that, I do plug into that a little bit.
But then when I come back, I’ve just got kind of a clear head, and I can kind of look at things from a different perspective. That’s what I really enjoy about getting away.
John: That sounds so refreshing. But as a partner, as someone that’s working on the partner track, a lot of people think “Well, I just have to work harder and work more to be a partner.” How were you able to balance that or to make that happen? Do you feel that this enhanced that career track?
Rebecca: I think a little of both, probably. I think what it is is kind of going back to my dad, my dad was an entrepreneur. He kind of set his own schedule. He worked really hard, and then when we took that week off or whenever we’d go to Mexico, he was really able to disconnect and really separate himself.
In those days, he didn’t have cellphones and things like that. He had a great team of people he worked with. They took care of things while he was gone. Then he came back and plugged right back in. I think I employed a lot of those same things in my career of saying “I’m going to work really hard, but I’m going to take the time and build that into what’s important to me and find a place where I can have that be supported.”
That is the nice thing about being in public accounting is that you work with a team of people. I work with some really great people who, when I go out on my trips, they take care of my clients. They’re their clients, too. I know that they’re going to be taking care of. That’s a luxury and a benefit of working at a public accounting firm.
But you know, I’d also tell my clients “Hey, I’m going on this trip. I’m doing that.” Even my clients, they would say “Well, where are you off to this year?” They would just kind of know that it was the same time of year and wondering where I was going, because I have to tell them “Hey, I’m going to be gone for a few weeks. This person’s taking care of things while I’m gone.”
It was a way for me to talk to my clients about that. They kind of knew what I was doing. But I think even if you’re a solo practitioner, even if you’re doing your own thing on your own, that’s where I think if this is a passion of yours or something that you want to do more of, you don’t have to work for a big public accounting firm where you’ve got people to support you and back you up.
I think going back to what my dad did you just worked hard, and you have either a good team of people if you’ve got a few employees working for you, or you’re just really honest with your clients in letting them know “I’m going to take care of you, but here’s how that’s going to look”, and then setting that expectation with them.
John: Right. I think that’s great that you’re able to be so open about it. Some people tend to be scared that, oh, well, if I take more than three days off, then they’re going to skip me over, or if I actually say that I really love something besides accounting, then people will look at me as less of an accountant or what have you.
I think it’s very cool that you’re able to be so open about it. If anything, it enhances everything. I have to imagine that your co-workers and clients really glob onto your stories and just where you’ve been and where you’re going next.
Rebecca: Yeah. I think it definitely does. When your conversations are just about their work and the accounting and the numbers and the financials and what it means, even if your client’s high-growth and lots of stuff is happening and it can be really fun and exciting, I think it’s always nice to connect with people about things that are outside of that. That’s a conduit that that’s something that of course we’re going to talk about. It’s part of our engagement. But we’re people. We’re accountants, yes, and we’re doing the accounting, but we all have really interesting things going on in our lives, theirs included. If I share a little bit about myself, maybe they’ll share a little bit more about themselves. At EKS&H, we’re really focused on building deep relationships with our clients. I think the only way we can really do that is to talk about those personal things and to talk about what we love and enjoy and what’s important to us, and not just about the accounting.
You can talk to an accountant about accounting anywhere, anytime, any accountant, and you can talk about the same things, but it’s really those other things that make those relationships that much richer.
John: Yeah. Definitely. Have you ever, with clients or co-workers, have any shared travel tips where they’re getting ready to go or where you’re getting ready to go somewhere where they were or something along those lines?
Rebecca: Yeah. Definitely with my clients or with coworkers where I’ll hear somebody’s going to Peru or somebody’s going somewhere that maybe I’ve been or if they’re sharing something with me saying someplace that they recently went if it’s somebody else has got the travel bug, I’ll add that to my list of “Oh, I might have to move that one up and go there before I go someplace else” and sharing tips and things like that.
I think at first in some cases I was a little hesitant to, just because I didn’t want to seem like “Oh, well, I’ve just got this life where I just go and travel and have it seem like some frivolous thing”, because I know for travel for some people it’s a really big deal for them. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime deal for them. I felt kind of weird at first talking about that with clients or with certain people. I didn’t want to make them feel bad.
I think what I realized was just that this is what I’ve put as a priority in my life. This is how I structure my day and my career and what I do, because traveling is so important to me. I bought a house. I bought a really small house that had a really low mortgage, because I wanted to save my money for travel. I just prioritized things in my life differently in order to support the habit or the passion of mine.
John: I think it’s really fantastic and so refreshing to hear. I guess maybe can you remember early on in your career when you first started with EKS&H? What did that feel like when you had to go ask somebody for “Hey, I need two or three weeks off of vacation to go travel” or what have you? How did that conversation get started or what have you?
Rebecca: That’s a little weird. I’m trying to think of when I did my first big trip. But I know one of the things – one of the core values of EKS&H is continual self-improvement and self-renewal. To us, there’s a piece to that that means training and technical stuff like that, but there’s also things that refresh you and that self-renewal piece of things. Turns out that’s really the travel piece for me. Built into our core values, the firm I think supports those things that are renewing for you. I kind of built upon that.
The other nice thing that they offered which I loved when I was interviewing with them was that they allow you to buy an additional four weeks of PTO time. It’s called the eleventh-month year.
At first, I was like “Is that really a thing? Let me just buy a week.” I’d maybe go out a week and tested that out. I took an extra week of vacation, no big deal. One year, I bought four weeks. My sister – she’s a high school art teacher – she was taking a group of students to Europe, and she said “Do you want to go to Europe?”
They were going for three and a half weeks. I said “Yes. Yes, I do.” I had the vacation time. I just put it in. I told my coworkers “Here’s what I’d like to do.” They just kind of said “Well, make sure your clients are taken care of and that you plan it appropriately and figure out who your backups are and do the work to figure that out and it won’t be a problem.” It wasn’t.
I got my team in place. I got everybody to support me. Off I went. It was incredible, because this is the first time I had taken that kind of time off since I was in college on a summer break.
John: That’s very cool that the firm does that. I really love how they include that self-renewal part, because that is important. You don’t always have to be going a hundred miles an hour forward on the work front. There is time when you need to refresh and renew and come back with that new perspective like you said. I would go broke if they let me buy PTO.
Rebecca: Well, they cap it at the four weeks.
John: Oh, okay. All right.
Rebecca: That’s good. You can’t work a month and….
John: Right. Exactly. The one month a year.
Rebecca: No, it’s not that.
John: Then you wouldn’t even have a job. That would be the opposite.
Rebecca: That really wouldn’t work out.
John: That’s called being a temp. That’s what that is.
Rebecca: Yeah. It’s be really hard to build a relationship with your clients.
John: Right. When you’re never there.
Rebecca: You need those connections.
John: My new client is the flight attendant on Delta Airlines, because that’s who I see mostly.
Rebecca: That’s true.
John: Those are my peeps. I think this is a perfect transition into EKS&H as a great example, but how much is it on the organization to create this culture where it’s okay to share for the staff that are working with you to be open about what their passions are, or how much is it on the individual to step up and initiate that conversation?
Rebecca: I guess I think it’s both. I think you need to be in an environment either working in an environment or working with clients who share similar values as you. It really is built upon what’s important to you. You can have a person who’s open and wants to share and has this colorful life. If they’re working in an organization that doesn’t support that and the only focus is on the billable hour and just work, work, work, and that’s all that’s important, then there isn’t that time to connect with your coworkers or to spend that time talking to your client, because you’re spending an extra 15 minutes talking to that client about something that’s not chargeable.
You really have to be I think in an environment where that’s supported, otherwise, that person who wants to share will either, if they stay, will just be completely suffocated, which I think is a term that you’ve used for some of the things you’ve said, and they’ll just be suffocated in that, and that’s not – eventually, that’s not going to work out for them.
I think also if you have the right culture that’s open to that and that fosters that and encourages that, then I think people are more likely to open up and to share. In doing so, you build a stronger and better relationship with your coworkers, with your clients. That just makes your work more fun. That makes those relationships deeper, more long-term.
I have clients I’ve worked with for the full time I’ve been here at EKS&H. I still work with them today. I think in a different place, again, they can get accounting anywhere. It’s not about the accounting. It’s about the people you work with and the relationships you’ve built.
John: Yeah. That’s so great. Not about the accounting, but the relationships. That’s exactly right. Because otherwise, it becomes a commodity. You’re competing on price. They don’t even care who they get their accounting services from or their consulting services from. That’s really, really cool.
When you first started, what were some of those barriers that you felt or maybe when you see some new hires come in, what do you see them as some of those barriers and maybe some ways that you can overcome those?
Rebecca: Some of the barriers I think the track that we fall into is that “Oh, I’ve been hired for a job. I need to do that job. That’s about it.” Here, you’re trying to prove yourself that you went to school and you learned what you were supposed to learn and you got your degree. Maybe you got your CPA. You’ve got all those technical pieces.
I think you – especially at a large firm – I think you feel like you need to come in and improve yourself no matter the culture. We come to this as well, myself included, just in working with new people. Not going to have an expectation, but I think they have the expectation that they’re supposed to know everything and have all the answers.
We always have to come back and say “No, this is a learning opportunity. We’re here to help. We obviously don’t expect you to know everything.” I think it starts there in breaking down that barrier of saying “Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.” Encouraging them to open up in that sense to maybe make themselves vulnerable, but in a safe place that if you make a mistake it’s going to be okay. Recognizing that piece of things.
Culturally, again, just with our firm, I think we have a lot of different avenues for people to connect with different people where we have a large firm, so we break our office space into what we call neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods get together and connect on a neighborhood level so that you can hang out with different people.
Maybe those neighborhoods will go do an activity outside of the office. Just offering different ways for people to connect that feel comfortable for them. Some people are introverts, and that’s totally fine. You don’t have to be coming out and sharing everything about what you do and what you’re passionate about. Some people are pretty protective or they just kind of keep that in. But I think if you show an interest and you take an interest in your employees and who you’re working with and who they are outside of EKS&H or outside of their work environment, people are really open to talking about what they love to do and sharing what’s cool about them. That’s way more interesting to me.
We have a coaching program here where everyone gets assigned a coach. In those coaching meetings, we’re talking about career and career development and things like that. We have a goal process. You put down your technical goals and all of that.
But then there’s also a section for what are your personal goals? That’s another way to just say “Hey, we want you to be focused in on what’s important to you personally. You want to learn to speak French? Great. You want to go travel to a couple of different countries? Great. What are your goals personally, and how can we help support those? Making that part of our culture so that it’s not forgotten.
John: That’s very cool. That’s really great. So much wisdom in just that little piece right there. You should be running this podcast. Good Lord, this is amazing. Very cool. Just how the firm supports that and how that’s not just something that they brush off and they put on a sign of their goals or their motto or whatever. It’s “No, we actually live and breathe it.”
You’re proof. You started there. Now, you’re a partner. That’s just so great. You’re able to have this passion, and it doesn’t interrupt your work. I know when I started, I started with PWC. You come in, and now, all of a sudden, I have a career. This is my real thing. I’m getting paid real money. I don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t teach you this. They teach you debits and credits and how to do the cost accounting or whatever. But that’s not how to do an audit or how to do something when you actually get to the real world.
People are just so afraid to say “Hey, I know of don’t know what I’m doing right now.” It’s cool that – “I’ll explain it to you once, and you should get it.” But you can’t be messing up repeatedly. But it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to show that you’re more than just your career. That’s part of it. Kudos to you for being a good example of that.
I imagine that that has to help as well when people see you. Then it’s like “Oh, well, clearly, it’s okay to take four weeks of vacation, because Rebecca just did it.”
Rebecca: Yeah. It’s supportive of whatever’s important to you. We share those stories, too, in some cases with others. Cool things that our employees are doing. I think that that’s important to celebrate those things, recognize those things, because what makes me interesting or what drives me is not the same as what drives my manager or my senior or my staff on my job. We’ve all got something that’s driving us. Maybe there’s a common thread there, but what makes us different is what makes us better.
John: That’s so good. This has been awesome, Rebecca. Really, really fun. But before I volunteer to come along on a trip with one of your extravaganza world tours, I have my 17 rapid fire questions that I always run by everybody. Maybe next time you’re interviewing someone, this might be a quick and dirty way if you’re running out of time. Just fire these 17 questions at them, and you’ll get to know them pretty easily. Let me start this thing up here. We’ll have a little bit of fun here. Get to know Rebecca.
The first one I’ll ask you is do you have a favorite color?
Rebecca: Yes. Tiffany blue.
John: Tiffany blue. Uh oh. Yikes. Do you have a least favorite color?
Rebecca: I’d probably say orange.
John: Orange. That’s a good answer. Do you prefer Sudoku or crossword puzzles?
John: Sudoku. Sure. Absolutely. How about heels or flats?
Rebecca: Probably flats.
John: Probably flats. Yeah. It’s easier for traveling.
John: Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?
Rebecca: Early bird all the way.
John: Early bird. Okay. All right. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?
Rebecca: Star Trek.
John: Star Trek. Okay. When it comes to computers, a PC or a Mac?
Rebecca: I have a Mac at home. All things Mac.
John: All things Mac. Okay. When you’re at work on a mouse, more right click or left click?
Rebecca: Left click.
John: Left click. Do you have favorite toppings on a pizza?
John: Mushrooms. All right. Do you have a movie that makes you cry?
Rebecca: All of them.
John: All of them.
Rebecca: One of my favorite movies, if I had to say, is Shawshank Redemption, though.
John: Okay. When it comes to financials, more balance sheet or income statement?
Rebecca: I have to say both, because you can’t have one without the other.
John: Good answer. Do you have a favorite sports team?
Rebecca: Favorite sports team. Probably the Broncos.
John: Sure. Okay. How about a favorite Disney character?
Rebecca: I would say Alice. Alice in Wonderland.
John: Alice in Wonderland. I could see that. That’s a good answer. How about do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Rebecca: You know, I’m kind of in a comedy bit right now, so I really enjoy watching Jimmy Fallon or Kristen Wiig. Anything that they do.
John: Very, very funny. Very talented, as well. That’s for sure. Three more. How about a favorite number?
John: Three. Why’s that?
Rebecca: It just speaks to me from a numbers perspective. Three times itself times three is nine. I love that power of nines thing where you get a multiplication and it adds up to nine. It’s just kind of all over that connective.
John: Right. It’s a fancy number. All right. How about a favorite animal?
Rebecca: Favorite animal. Pig.
John: Pig. Really?
John: That’s interesting. Is there a story behind that, or it’s just always been?
Rebecca: It’s just always been. I think they are cute in real form. I think that they are cute in all sorts of different –
John: Like Charlotte’s Web type of stuff?
Rebecca: Oh, yeah. Totally. Love that. The pig.
John: That’s great. The last one: favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?
Rebecca: Going back to the favorite animal, I do have a collection of pig figurine things. Noisemakers, salt and pepper shakers, tissue boxes, all sorts of things that I’d probably say that my pig collection is something that brings me joy.
John: Okay. That’s awesome. That’s so cool, though. Nothing that you would have expected when we started this conversation. It’s like “Yeah, I bet she’s got a pig collection.” Wow. That’s so great. That’s very cool. Well, thank you so much, Rebecca, for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast. This was so much fun.
Rebecca: Thank you. I had a great time. It was good talking to you.
John: That was really great. I liked how Rebecca said that you need to find a work culture that shares similar values as you do, because it’s not about the accounting. It’s about the people. I think that’s something that we all forget.