Replace the career ladder with a career lattice 

Sometimes, young CPAs need both vertical and lateral movements to build a career. 
by Amy K. Cooper, CPA 

Amy K. Cooper, CPAOne of my family’s favorite movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In one scene, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is on a ladder, attaching Christmas lights to the roof of his house. For Clark to get all the lights up, he needs to move laterally—yet he is using a tool that only allows for vertical movement. The resulting physical comedy always makes my family laugh. 

Comedy aside, there is a lesson in this scene for young CPAs: Sometimes you need to be able to move a little sideways to eventually move up.

The traditional career path in public accounting looks something like this: Graduate, start as a staff accountant, move up through the ranks, and eventually become a partner.

If there is no forward movement of those in the rung right above you, your own progress can stall. That’s when you need to think in terms of a career lattice, which allows for both the vertical and lateral movement between jobs and skills that make up a career. 

Visualize a lattice: It has multiple openings in which to place your feet and hands. Instead of always focusing solely on moving to the next position directly above you as you would on a career ladder, you can move also move laterally on the lattice if needed.

Consider an example in which a CPA starts in expatriate taxation at a large accounting firm. To move up, the young CPA may need to wait until the senior in the group moves up. But maybe the CPA has an interest in state and local tax so the CPA asks to move over to the SALT group for a little while. That may be a lateral move in the short term that leads to more long-term upward mobility.

Building a career lattice is about finding new opportunities, broadening your skill set and making new contacts. Doing that eventually will help you take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

To start building your career lattice, do the following:

Let go of the rigid career ladder. Start thinking of ways that you can use and improve your strengths to create the different cross structures of the lattice.  You may think providing in-house CPE is only for those in a more senior role than you. Let go of that thought!

Align yourself with a mentor who will support you in your lateral and vertical moves. This does not have to be someone who provides in-house CPE at the firm. It should be someone who is willing to invest in your professional development and growth. If you do not have that cheerleader, creating your lattice will be harder.  

Take little steps initially as you start to build your lattice. Ask your manager or partner if you could lead a firm-wide brown bag lunch to discuss a specific, relevant topic. Volunteer for tasks—small or large. By taking on a new or more advanced task, you open yourself up to learning about your passions and strengths. 

Talk to others who are pursuing work that also interests you. There might be others in your firm who lead in-house CPE who can be a great resource. Attend conferences both to network and to earn CPE.

Champion your accomplishments. If you’re passionate about a topic that will benefit others in your firm and give you room to grow, do not be afraid to offer your expertise. Go to a partner and recommend an in-house CPE presentation for staff. 

Doing all these things will help you expand your horizons. You may find that the more in-house training you do, the more you like it and the more confident you become. You will start to look for opportunities to speak at conferences. Think of the benefits that can provide: You are able to work on a topic you are passionate about; you meet new people who help you move around your lattice; you discover new resources and opportunities for your firm. That will eventually help you move up, instead of getting stuck on that ladder like Clark Griswold.

To learn more about the career lattice and how it can benefit your career—or your employees if you are in management—come to Cooper’s session at the E.D.G.E. conference in San Antonio, Aug. 6–7, 2015. 

Amy K. Cooper, CPA, is an accounting instructor in the accounting program, School of Management, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and an AICPA Leadership Academy graduate.

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