The Tax Gene

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My Grandfather, Jerry Mason, passed away last week. He was 92 years old and up until a month ago he was strong, vibrant, mentally still brilliant, and always kind. While his actual age made his death expected, his perceived age made it sudden. During the funeral service, the Rabbi implored us to focus on the positive influence and memories that left every individual he influenced in a better place.

Grandpa Jerry was a CPA who after starting his career, was drafted into the U.S. Army. He worked for a big eight, he ran his own firm, and he worked at multiple corporations. He had an extremely successful career and was the patriarch to an accounting-minded family. Besides myself, my aunt runs a practice focusing on business management for musicians, my uncle is an EA, my dad has his PhD in accounting and was a professor of tax for twenty years, and my three-year-old son corrected me on his age (he’s 3.8) so he is basically a baby accountant.

Jerry Mason taught me strong lessons through the almost 40 years I was lucky enough to know him.

1. Humans First. Always.

In professional services, without the people on the team, the firm is nothing. I called him a couple years ago for advice when I was considering changing our compensation model. He asked me three questions:

  1. Will your team be fairly compensated?
  2. Will they still have opportunity to grow and learn?
  3. Do you believe this is what is best for them?

He spent years challenging me to see the underlying humans that make up our profession and encouraging me to find ways to give them more.

2. Gratitude is Contagious.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Thank you for helping shape the future of our profession.

My Grandfather was always grateful for all that he had. He would frequently tell everyone he was grateful for his family and for the relationships we all had with him. He was thankful of his professional career in that he built a better life for our family. He did not just say thank you, or express gratitude with words, he showed it in his every action. He might say “thank you, sweetheart,” but at the same time he made eye contact, put his hand on my arm, and smiled at me (this happened quite frequently when I brought him vodka on the rocks). He would then in turn show kindness and generosity to everyone he was grateful for. Jerry would practice gratitude in everyday life. He took the time to consider what he was thankful for and shared it. In turn, everyone around him became more aware of what they were grateful for.

3. Work with Ethically Aligned People.

Years ago, when I first opened High Rock, I called Jerry, telling him about this big new client that we won. It was a fintech company that agreed to pay us over $10k/month for accounting services. They built kiosks that hooked into their system and provided immediate lending approvals to finance furniture, pets, household goods, and random stuff. He said to me, “Sweetheart, I’m glad you won a big client, but they do not sound like the type of client I would want.” I took a step back and realized I completely agreed with him. This client perpetuated debt in an unhealthy way and took advantage of people for convenience of material acquisitions. Ethically, I felt disgusted and ashamed that I was momentarily blinded by a great contract to remember I do not want to support immoral endeavors. I now learn about the business models of every prospect before accepting them as a client. He opened my eyes to the fact that I could choose my own clients.

4. It’s Not About You.

Back in my former life as a tax manager in a large public accounting firm, I was frustrated. I was continually made to do lower level work than I was ready for. I was not given the same opportunities to learn as other managers and I felt like they were holding me back on purpose. I called my Grandpa and when the inevitable question about work came up, I said something like, “Honestly, it sucks. The partner I work for is not giving me opportunities to learn more, I feel like a servant, I am constantly given a ton of low-level work to get done. I’m bored. I’m frustrated and I feel like they don’t think I’m ready or something.” He responded (and I can still hear his voice in my head), “It’s not about you.” He then went on to tell me that if I took everything personally in business, I would not last long. He told me to instead focus on how I was helping the clients with the work I was doing, and how I was helping my staff learn more. It is never about me personally. I now always look at situations from a perspective outside of my myopic self-view before reacting.

5. Read Everything.

Jerry Mason consumed books at a rate that was incredible. Even in his last few months of life, he was consuming multiple books a week. He told me about the enjoyment it brought him and the amount of knowledge that he gained through the years by reading. If everyone spent their days in scholarly pursuit, our world would be a better place.

6. Practice is More Important Than Talent.

When I was a little kid, my grandparents drove me to a soccer game (I was not a talented player). I sat on the bench for more than half the game, and when they put me in, I missed a kick and landed on my butt. The ball only came to me once in the 10 minutes I was allowed to play, and I messed it up. I was a sulky kid walking back to the car and Grandpa stopped me, with his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What’s wrong, Elizabeth?” To which I started tearing up and told him I sucked, and I was not good enough for the team and I should just quit. I remember looking up at his face clear as day as he smiled and told me, “If you quit now, we will never know if you could learn to be good. Practice is more important than talent.” The following year, I was captain of an all-boys soccer team.

7. Failure Doesn’t Matter; What You Do with it Does.

“What did you learn? What will you do next time?”

He used to ask me these simple questions every time I admitted to him that I messed up. His perspective was always from a lifetime of experience that told him that failure is inevitable. It only matters that you learned something and that you are prepared to do better in the future.

I wish everyone had the opportunity to learn from a Grandfather as I did from mine. He joked that he passed down the tax gene and loved having that connection with me. I think I may have loved it more.

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Liz Mason
Liz Mason is a serial entrepreneur, a giant nerd, and an involved accounting vanguard. She is CEO and Founder of High Rock Accounting, TheDepartment.Tax, and a few other related brands. Liz speaks on a national stage, guests stars on podcasts, publishes a YouTube show (The Hot Accounts), and writes frequently. To further her passion for the advancement of the accounting profession, Liz currently serves as a Xero National Ambassador and as the Content Strategist for Tax Practice News. Liz started her career in tax at Grant Thornton (at 20) and automated a portion of her job landing her in the national tax practice. She spent a decade in large public accounting firms working on highly technical tax consulting before branching off on her own. Liz utilizes her creativity and passion at her company to uproot traditional practices and replace them with innovative concepts. She finds joy in efficient technology and her core belief is that everyone and everything can continuously improve (she says "be better" too often). When Liz isn't planning world domination in accounting, she is a die-hard skier, down for any adventure, plays the ukulele, reads everything, and has a good sense of humor. If you're looking for her, you can find her traveling the world and enjoying new food and cultures with her husband and young son. Follow Liz and High Rock Accounting on Twitter at @LizzyNorMa and @HighRockCPAs.