A lot has changed in accounting over the last 30-plus years.
U.S. tax laws have been “reformed” multiple times. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act rewrote the rules for public company disclosures and public accounting practices. Technology continually changes how accountants work. And accountants are increasingly being asked to tackle nonfinancial reporting, from cybersecurity to climate change risk.
Nonetheless, accounting leaders say some insights they gained early in their careers are as relevant today as they were 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Here are four lessons learned early that still pave the way to success today.
Network and be flexible
Wendy On, CPA, is now a partner at Los Angeles-based Fineman West & Company. But she started her career at Arthur Andersen in the late 1990s, while completing her undergraduate accounting degree. She had received a scholarship from Arthur Andersen to earn a master’s degree in business taxation and was contracted to work there after completing it. But while she was still in school the Enron scandal was exposed, and the SEC decided to bar future audits by Arthur Andersen. Those sanctions decimated the firm and put thousands of young accountants on the market during the post-9/11 recession.
On found herself in a difficult position.
“Now I was a month away from graduation, with no job in a very competitive market,” she said.
Staying in touch with professional contacts was key.
“I maintained contact with my mentors and managers from Arthur Andersen, who continued to support and provide guidance,” she said. “I continued communication with my professors even after graduation in case they knew of opportunities.”
Those contacts helped On network while exploring career options and studying for the CPA Exam. Ultimately, she launched her career at Deloitte and later joined Fineman West.
“I am still grateful for the mentors and advisers who helped me,” she said. “While it is nice to have plans nicely set up, things are constantly changing and there may be events that are beyond your control that will affect you personally and professionally. You have to learn to be able to adjust to change and retool if necessary.”
Be a sponge
When Kristen Clark, CPA, joined national accounting firm The Bonadio Group — now a top 50 firm — 35 years ago, it was just a few years old. But the firm’s growth mentality matched her own.
“I sometimes think about the people I started with on the same first day, and why didn’t they stay as long,” said Clark, who is now a partner and practice leader of the firm’s Professional Excellence Division. “One of the big reasons was that I was totally open to doing whatever.”
To grow, the firm hired a couple of partners from larger firms, and those partners were anxious to find new clients and grow the firm.
“I had partners who would say … ‘Come on, we’re going to meet a new client,’” she said. “I was just wide open to that.”
Young accountants today should find ways to do the same, Clark said. “Follow people around. Figure out what they do.”
In other words, she said, “Be a sponge.”
That openness led her to new industry sectors, such as health care and not-for-profit entities. “I would have never even known that was an option from college,” she said.
Have a little patience
Bill Eisig, CPA, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1988 and ended up at a large regional firm — Aronson LLC, based in Rockville, Md.
He was doing well in his career and liked the firm and his colleagues. The firm made its promotions twice a year — in June and December. As a senior eager to be promoted to manager, he found out one June that he wasn’t going to be promoted then, but that he was on the list for a December promotion.
“As a young man, I was impatient,” he said. “I don’t know whether I was angry, whether I was disappointed. I just know that emotionally I decided to look for another job.”
That August he found one and made the leap to another firm — one that was not as good a fit for him, he said.
“It took me about three years to get back to the manager level that I would have gotten to had I stayed [at Aronson] for six months,” he said.
Later in his career when he again didn’t get promoted when he wanted to, he took his early career lesson to heart.
“Work to show people you’re deserving,” he said. “Life’s not always fair, but I’ve got to control what’s inside my ability to control — my input, my efforts, my results. Then the output and the promotions will occur — maybe not on my time, but when they’re supposed to occur.”
In the end, Eisig said, it has all worked out for him. He is now BDO’s national managing partner for assurance.
Think like an owner
Martha Sullivan, CPA, started her career at Virchow, Krause & Co. LLP (now Baker Tilly US LLP) as the first employee hired into the firm’s nascent management consulting practice in the 1980s.
In a performance review with the partner in charge of the consulting practice, “he shared the critical expectation that he had with everybody that he worked with that they think and act like a partner,” said Sullivan, who is now president at Madison, Wis.-based Provenance Hill Consulting. “He believed strongly that having the ability to ‘think like an owner’ was critical to bringing value to clients as a consultant.”
In later corporate positions as a controller and CFO as well as in later public accounting roles, the idea of thinking like an owner — whether of the company she was working for or the client she was helping — framed her thinking.
“Every step of the line, it helped me put the owner’s hat on and think about the work that I was doing and my responsibilities to the owners,” she said. In her current work advising business owners on exit planning and selling their businesses, she continues to think that way.
“Perspective matters. For any given situation, should I be thinking like an owner that wants to buy, invest in, and grow the company, or am I thinking like an owner that’s trying to sell their company?” she said. “It really comes back to that advice from my partner, Tom. Think like an owner.”
— Mark Tosczak is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an associate director with the Association’s Magazines & Newsletters team, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.