Up the Ladder – A Narrative of the First 10 Years as an Accountant
Many people choose to go into accounting because they’re “good with numbers” or have a passion for finding answers. It’s rare for someone to choose accounting because they envision a life of teaching. And it’s rarer yet for someone to choose accounting because they’re a great networker with a knack for sales. Yet both teaching and selling are integral job responsibilities of many successful senior-level accountants.
Teaching and selling are often omitted from accounting classroom conversations. Professors are generally known to advise students to start in public accounting, as it’s known to be the fastest path to earning a CPA credential. But it could be said that a faster path upward, at least in public accounting, could be to have a side hustle as a bartender. Learning how to handle multiple personalities, have conversations with different types of people and complete multiple tasks simultaneously all while keeping customers happy can prepare a new accountant for a faster accounting career trajectory. Instead, new professionals are often challenged with acquiring these critical skill sets later in their careers.
In some ways, it’s true that starting out in public accounting gives one the broadest outlook on the expansive world of accounting opportunities, whether it be in a sole practitioner’s office, a small, midsize or large size firm, or a boutique firm that specializes in specific areas of accounting. Still, the most important aspect of a new accountant’s first few years is to learn. At this stage, performance is predicated on how well one can retain knowledge, absorb concepts and apply those concepts repetitively to projects. The less assistance one needs, the more likely they are to move ahead. Entry-level professionals can accelerate this timeframe by doing the following:
- Listen with intent
- Write down notes to refer to
- Repeat what they’ve heard back to the delegator for clarity
- Practice, practice, practice
Moving Up: Senior-Level Accountants
Whether a professional remains in public accounting or makes a switch to business and industry, in years three to seven, one’s role is to teach. These professionals are expected to be knowledgeable in basic accounting principles. They likely work with little supervision on core tasks, and entry-level accountants look to them to learn from. However, making the transition from learning to teaching doesn’t always come naturally. The pressure to take on more sophisticated work in private or more clients in public, coupled with training others and meeting deadlines, often makes or breaks the wavering accountant. Also, mathematically speaking, a senior-level accountant could be in a transitional life stage simultaneously (i.e., purchasing a first house, getting married, having children). This adds even more pressure to the role. Some accountants use this as an excuse to exit public accounting due to required overtime, however, the perception that work-life balance is better elsewhere may not always prove true. Nonetheless, accountants with three to seven years of experience are highly sought after and undoubtedly will land in a role where they are required to teach no matter the lateral they choose. A key to getting ahead during this time is having the ability to teach others what they have mastered and having capacity to take on additional work. The most successful accountants at this career stage are the ones with expert-level time management skills and patience while multitasking.
The Big Transition: Management
Management is a great place to be, especially for those who have the personality to hang with it. Roles in management in either public or private accounting require one to be a savvy salesperson, which can come as a surprise to some in the profession. Strength at this level requires you to be knowledgeable in what is happening in the business one supports or in the industries in which their clients own businesses.
In public accounting, firms no longer sell tax returns, audits or bookkeeping services; instead they sell the relationship of the person completing the work. In business and corporate settings, accountants sell their service to the other departments of the organization, justifying need-to-know information and making important decisions. In either scenario, accountants are selling themselves.
Along an accountant’s journey up the ladder, they may have been a great learner and even a wonderful teacher; but then realize that selling isn’t in their repertoire. This happens a lot, and it’s okay. Those who find themselves stuck at any of these transitional areas should take their time, leverage a mentor or a more senior accountant and ask for support in order to gain the confidence they need to move forward.
The way in which one grasps and incorporates learning, teaching and selling in the first 10 or so years of their careers will likely define the accounting role they’ll find themselves settling in for the next 30 or more years of their career. Those who are great teachers and salespeople may aspire to be a partner in a firm while those who are averse to selling may choose a specialty tax career in private. It’s important to note that not all people process new skills at the same rate and therefore the path traveled varies. Some accountants mature their careers at 10 years while others take 15. There isn’t a deadline on learning the concepts, just an acknowledgement that they are necessary. Those who find that there is an area in which they are lagging behind their peers should speak up, ask for help or take on the challenge themselves.
This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.