Despite obvious similarities between the jobs, there are key differences between what it takes to be a successful CPA in business and industry and a successful CPA at a public accounting firm. But if I could make just one suggestion, based on my own experience, to CPAs making the transition to management accounting, it would be this: Whenever possible, roll up your sleeves, leave your office, and find out everything you can about how your company works in person.
Unlike someone outside the organization, a management accountant often has the opportunity to go down to the factory floor or the research and development lab or the storefront. Processes and equipment that read as line items on a balance sheet come alive when you interact with them and discover how they work and why they’re important.
That inside knowledge, paired with CPA skills, gives management accountants the ability to generate critical financial insights that can elude many business professionals. CPAs can understand the implications of relationships and backstories upon a business’s bottom line and can devise creative suggestions to improve profitability in good times. They also can help organizations become leaner and more efficient when market downturns occur. But to truly develop these insights, you can’t be afraid to trade in a laptop for a hard hat—or maybe some steel-toe boots.
Let me give you some examples from my own career. I once worked for an organization where management was bewildered about a poorly performing sub-business unit; the margins were minimal, even though the business itself was strongly marketable and in high demand. I visited one of the unit’s sites to talk with personnel about its equipment maintenance activity. The result: I identified an incorrect transaction that inadvertently forced the sub-business unit to absorb an additional $108,000 per month that belonged to another area of the company. My in-depth understanding of how those specific activities affected the financials and how they were being processed led to this crucial discovery. At another point in my career, my analysis led me to question freight and logistics costs. I spent some time in the shop with our shipping and receiving team and ended up identifying an inefficiency that ultimately led to $68,000 per month in savings.
Being able to garner results like these is extremely rewarding. You feel the pride of knowing you contributed to the bottom line simply by being engaged and focused. Internal clients also view you as business-critical, and not just as support staff, because they recognize specific examples of the value you brought to their business.
As a management accountant, you have many ways to get involved with the inner workings of your company. In some industries, like mine, you can take part in site visits that let you get close to the grass roots of the operation (where the magic happens) and open opportunities for dialogue. I keep my boots under my desk along with my hard hat and safety glasses so I am always ready to go if I need to visit a facility.
Another way to get engaged is to participate in the optional calls that discuss an organization’s business metrics. Taking part in these calls demonstrates your interest in understanding the business and often lets you identify an opportunity to provide a higher quality of support, which may come in the form of an added column in a report or adding clarification to the P&L impact of a transaction. Touring the business’ operations, listening to the earnings calls of your competitors, and participating in business performance review calls are all great ways to get integrated and tuned in. Not only do you learn about the business, but you get insights into management’s concerns—what keeps them up at night—and how you can offer some relief.
Being a successful management accountant requires stretching yourself beyond debits and credits and into the world of operations. Developing a broad knowledge of all other areas of your company will enable you to think more critically about topics that affect the entire enterprise, such as process improvements or margin improvement opportunities. Although this is a vastly different role from the one you would play in public accounting, it’s equally rewarding.
Misty L. Geer, CPA, CGMA, MBA, is an accounting supervisor with Halliburton.
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