Art of Accounting: Advice to Someone Starting out in Accounting

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IMGCAP(1)]I was asked to provide advice to people starting out in accounting and am sharing my thoughts here. I get many requests to speak, write and comment on all sorts of areas of practice management. Here is one of such interview that hopefully you might find interesting and insightful.

What is the best career advice you received? Why do you consider it so?

“Listen to instructions, work slowly and deliberately. There is no way you can impress me, so do not try. If you do the wrong thing or make mistakes, I will get upset and think you are no good. If you do what I ask the way I ask you to do it, I will gradually build up confidence to give you higher-level work.”

The key to succeeding in accounting and anything else is to be clear about what you need to do and to work carefully without needless or careless errors. Once errors show up, wasted time results in trying to find and fix them. When your boss or supervisor finds them, you get a reputation for not being careful and thorough—not good for a beginner. Oh, it is always better when you find your own errors rather than your boss.

From whom did you receive the advice and at what stage in your career?

My first boss at my first job gave me the advice a couple of weeks after I started. The job lasted only seven weeks when I was fired for not being good. I didn’t listen to all of his instructions and tried to impress him by working quickly to get the work done. I made an unbelievable amount of mistakes.
Would you give the same "Best Career Advice" noted above to a young CPA today?

I give this advice to everyone. If you don’t understand clearly what you need to do, you should keep asking questions until you do. Your supervisor might get annoyed, but he will be more annoyed if you give him an error-filled project or if you do the wrong thing. Also work slowly and deliberately, and double- and triple-check your work to make sure it is error free. You might get a reputation for being slow, but your boss will build up a trust in you subtly and gradually, so you will advance more quickly because of your ability. The slow speed will be forgotten, while a reputation for making errors won’t be.

What action did you take after receiving this advice? What were the results?

At my next job I made sure I was clear about what I had to do and worked slowly. I then triple-checked everything I did. The results were that I actually finished my work under the allotted time since the previous people doing that work spent “hours” looking for their errors, which I did not have to do. I was advanced quickly because of my “ability,” which actually was because of my not having to redo much of what I did two or three times while looking for careless errors. Impressions are set many ways. Being an error-free careful worker is a better reputation than being someone that supervisors try to avoid having on their jobs.

Share any “worst career advice” you’ve ever received and why it was so bad.

“Switching jobs early on is a good way to advance and make more money.” Not good advice. When you do this, there is a lack of consistency in training and gaps develop every time you start a new job since the expectations for you are usually greater than your ability at that time. The gaps never get filled in since you are given work that is likely over your head. You spend a lot of time under pressure getting it done any way you can, which is usually not the best way, and your development doesn’t proceed as it should. Note that I did switch often but believe I was an exception because at each job I went to a larger firm where my previous experience was underappreciated, so I was hired at a lower level than I was actually at, not a higher level, which is what happens today.

According to a recent survey of New Jersey Society of CPAs Young CPAs, their top five challenges are:

1.    Expanding my network/client base
2.    Career planning/advancement
3.    Passing/studying for the CPA exam
4.    Work-life balance
5.    Time management

What is your advice related to any of these areas?

1. It’s very important to expand your network base. The more people you know and keep in touch with, the better it will be for you later in your career.

2. You need to manage your career. Never pass up an opportunity to learn new things. If you are at the right firm, you will learn new things daily. You need to become someone who takes “ownership” of what you do. After it is done, find out what happens to it, how it is used, and why it was done for that client at that time and how client the benefited from it. If other people are in the loop, trace the work upward to make sure they do not drop the ball.

3. Passing the CPA exam should be the highest priority and approached with the most seriousness you can give something.

4. This is a meaningless cliché. You are young. You are starting a career, not taking a job. Expend energy and work hard. Learn as much as you can. Do the extras and build up your knowledge base. Find out as much about your clients and their industries as you can, and the work that your firm does for them, and did for them previously. Whatever you learn, you own! Knowledge and experience are currency for a professional and a successful career. When your career is established and you have a family, then work/life balance becomes important. At our firm, we have part-time partners and many part-time staff who have young children at home. Work and life can be balanced successfully in public accounting.

5. Don’t waste time on unnecessary or unproductive actions. This means finding out how to do the right things the right way. Understand time budgets and realize that a budgeted due date doesn’t establish the last minute something is needed, but a framework for when the work needs to be delivered. Whatever you have to do, you have to do. It is much easier doing it sooner without time pressure than later with urgency and time pressure. Be realistic about what time you have to get work done and learn to say you don’t have time to do something (if you really don’t have the time to get it done) or to ask your boss to prioritize your projects. That is her job, not yours.

What books, blogs, magazines, etc. have made an impact on your career and why?

Magazines that provide an awareness of what is happening in business and successful management techniques. Today I recommend Fast Company, Inc., Success, Harvard Business Review and Strategy & Business and similar publications. A suggestion is to look at the business publications on the newsstands at least once a month and buy some that have cover stories that seem interesting. You can also go to a local public library and look at and read many current issues there. I do that every three or so weeks. Read novels and books for enjoyment. They expand your mind, create pleasure and establish a talking point when you meet with someone or someone new. Try to read at least three business management books a year. You can buy them, download them, or borrow them from your library. If you read this far and send me an email with your postal mailing address, I will mail you a free copy of my Power Bites book with leadership, management and life style advice I provide to my clients.

What type of work did you do?

I did everything a CPA could do in my 50-year career and have nearly every AICPA professional designation. I did audit, tax, forensic investigations, estate, succession and financial planning, cost accounting studies, and many forms of business, operations and management consulting. I was a team captain performing peer reviews of CPA firm audit procedures, argued cases at the U.S. Tax Court, testified as an expert witness in federal and state courts, taught in an MBA program and helped over 1,000 clients become more secure in their finances. I also consult with hundreds of CPAs a year on managing their practices.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or

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