By Zach Shoaf, CPA
As young professionals first enter the world of public accounting, some may see the profession as merely a 9-to-5 job that provides a paycheck and benefits. However, public accounting is much more — the opportunity to become an expert and leader in the field and provide excellent client service. Accounting can be a career. I interviewed several employees at Dixon Hughes Goodman (a regional Charlotte, N.C.-based accounting firm) about their advice to young professionals on how to approach public accounting as a career and not just a job.
Expectation Vs. Reality
To fully embrace accounting as a career, consider the expectation versus the reality of the profession. For the most part, public accounting has a systematic approach to a career (associate to senior, senior to manager, etc.), with many firms maintaining guidelines for the years and objectives required for promotion. This model can be enticing to young professionals, many of whom may want, if not instant success, at least a roadmap in that direction. However, seasoned professionals, such as Perry Kessler, CPA, partner at DHG’s Tysons office, cautions new hires that there are no short cuts to hard work.
“Keep the hunger for upward mobility, and distance yourself from the expectation that success will come easily,” Kessler says. “Serving clients is very rewarding because it is challenging. It takes repetitions to achieve the level of experience necessary to operate at a level where a young professional is able to provide the value to a client that is commensurate with significant promotions/raises. This does not mean a significant amount of time needs to pass — but if you want to rise faster, more opportunities are needed in a shorter timeframe to provide the same amount of experience that would otherwise be gained over a longer period of time. Said more simply — more productive client service time spent now can result in rising faster, but you have to want it and be willing to work for it.”
Another struggle for young professionals (or anyone in accounting) can be work-life balance. But what can be a trigger for some is accepting the balance can tilt unevenly at times with busy season and other deadlines in a client-based industry. As a partner at DHG’s Tysons office, Lori Charlebois, CPA, has seen this struggle, but offers some perspective.
“As a working mom of 4, I have challenged the industry norms and help develop some of the first flexible schedules with the firms I have worked with,” Charlebois says. “The trick is understanding the needs of both sides and finding the right balance. The company has a requirement, and we get paid, to provide a service for a client within the required deadlines. At times this means there is a lot of work to do in a short period of time. However, with technology, the amount of hours and where and when those hours occur has changed and is more favorable to the employee. This has allowed me more flexibility to be with my family and still achieve client’s deadlines. By understanding both the employee and firm business needs, increased communication (due to working remotely or at different times) and a little creativity, we are typically able to find the right balance to make both sides happy.”
Owning One’s Career
Young professionals are also advised to take ownership of their own development, with many firms providing feedback platforms, including DHG, which has the Performance Enrichment Program, a tool that allows employees (regardless of their level) to request feedback. Jana Panneton, human resources manager for DHG’s Capital Market, believes this tool is valuable to enabling young professionals to own their careers.
“The entire premise of our Performance Enrichment Program is to facilitate and encourage our professionals to own their careers,” she says. “Our employees may request and provide feedback from and for anyone across the firm at any time and at any level, up and down. Employees are encouraged to schedule career conversations as needed with their performance coaches and we provide a tool for them to capture those conversations, set goals and review them regularly.”
Per Panneton, further programs in place include opportunities for employees to meet with their career coaches to decide specific trainings to meet their career goals. In addition, the firm has a number of special interest groups, one specifically geared towards young professionals new in their careers. “These special interest groups focus on subjects that are important to the employees including common challenges,” Panneton says. “We believe that networking with other professionals promotes and strengthens career development.”
Lauren Callahan, CPA, a senior manager at DHG’s Tysons office, offers another perspective on a more traditional measure to own one’s career. “I strongly encourage passing the CPA Exam within the first two years after college while all that knowledge is fresh in your brain and you have less responsibilities at work,” she says. “Even if you are not looking to be in public accounting, being a CPA not only gives you more career options but also increases earnings potential. You survived a really hard major, you might as well reap the benefits of all it has to offer. Your non-accounting friends may question why you can’t just cram for an exam. It’s tough, but you’ll set yourself up for success early on in your career by putting in some extra work early on.”
Finally, young professionals are also urged to develop their soft skills, with Gina Anderson, a director at DHG’s Baltimore office, offering the following advice. “If you are uncomfortable with public speaking, join Toastmasters or take a public speaking class,” Anderson recommends. “If asked to give a presentation, do so — your speaking skills and comfort level will improve with practice. In my opinion, there is no skill that will improve your professional advancement than being a good presenter.”
Dealing With Burnout
One concept that has permeated about young professionals is that they will change jobs frequently, sometimes out of accounting entirely, which can be counterproductive to approaching accounting as a career. An often-cited reason is burnout, with the hour requirements and drive to meet deadlines. Charlebois reflects on this challenge:
“Public accounting has a demanding workload in certain times of the year due to regulatory deadlines. You have to go into this career understanding that. However, there a plenty of ways to reduce that workload by planning ahead with your engagements, showing ‘urgency’ in the normal day to put yourself ahead of the game instead of procrastinating for another day. We are able to control some portion of our work by planning ahead with self-discipline.”
One tool to curb burnout has already been adopted by several firms, including DHG. “The firm has recently changed our vacation policy to be unlimited ‘my time,’” Charlebois says. “This allows us to take more time off when we need to recover and invest in ourselves. We strongly encourage people to use this benefit.”
Accounting is what you make of it. It can be a job, but given the right perspective and drive it can be a career as well. By embracing the opportunities and challenges provided by public accounting, you can have a successful and rewarding career.