When I was in high school, I spent a few winter Saturdays helping my father and "learning" what a CPA did.
His routine was to go to one of his clients twice a month and another once a month, and he spent the fourth (or fifth) Saturday cleaning up correspondence in his office. My work consisted of posting sales to an accounts receivable ledger and rechecking the arithmetic on the client's handwritten customer invoices.
The postings were interesting because I saw what was being sold, who the customers were, and how quickly or not payments were made to the client. I also got insight into the geographical makeup of the customers and was always surprised when an occasional sale from Midwestern states appeared. This was in the days before computers and actually even before electronic adding machines became common place.
My father used a comptometer, so that is what I used, although regretfully I did not learn it fully and had to look at the keys for my entries. The postings worked out well and I was careful to work neatly and slowly since the work was in ink.
I was afraid to make a mistake and my father cautioned me to be very careful. He didn't care how slowly I worked as long as I did not make a mistake. After a couple of months, my father told me he had been rechecking what I did and found that I was very careful and he was happy with the good job I did.
I was disappointed to hear that he did not trust me and felt the need to recheck my work. He told me that he was responsible for the accuracy and wanted to make sure there were no errors. He also told me at that time that he was a sole practitioner by choice because he did not like rechecking other people's work and wasn't good at delegating or teaching, feeling it would slow him up. If I wanted to be successful in business, I would have to learn to delegate and find a way to check the work without having to look at every entry my assistant would make, he added.
That was a valuable lesson that I took to heart, causing me to start paying attention to the way people worked. I wanted to see if I could find similarities in the way things were done. Doing this made me very process-oriented, and I became enamored with checklists.
I started making up checklists for everything, including packing for a trip and going to a friend's wedding. When I started working full-time as an accountant I discovered that there were checklists for most of what I had to do, but nowhere near what exists now.
Another thing I learned -- or, rather, observed while working for my dad -- was that the amount of errors I found in the client's additions declined as time went by. I didn't understand this, and one Saturday I worked deliberately slowly and found about the same amount of errors as I had when I had first started helping my father.
It took a while to register, but it dawned on me that my proficiency dropped as the work became familiar and routine. I was getting bored. Much later on, when I was in a position to supervise, I tried to shield my assistants from routine and familiar feelings by mixing up the work while trying to get them to work more slowly.
I actually learned why working slower is faster during my first job out of college. I started working for a CPA friend of my dad and wanted to impress him with my knowledge, diligence and "experience." I soon realized that the only way to impress him was to finish the work quickly. I was so anxious to get to work that I barely heard the instructions and wanted to delve into the work. It got to the point where I wasn't able to do anything right and not only embarrassed myself with my boss, but disappointed myself at my ineptitude.
Getting let go after seven weeks was a blessing and a relief. But it also caused me great consternation as to why I was so bad. I did a lot of soul-searching and came to two conclusions. The first was that if I was so bad, then maybe accounting wasn't for me, and the second was that I might not be so bad, but I just did not give myself a chance by not listening to the instructions and then racing through the work. I remembered what my father told me about not making mistakes and that I should work deliberately and slowly.
When I started my next job, I made up my mind that I would listen and make sure I fully understood what I was to do and that I would then do everything two or three times if necessary to make sure I made no mistakes. What happened then was a revelation.
I got my work done much sooner than the budgeted time and it was devoid of errors. I quickly earned a reputation for doing quick, accurate work, when in reality and in my own mind I was working super-slow -- double- and triple-checking my work as I went along.
These insights made me an excellent manager, since I worked to develop methods of instruction that took minimum time and held the attention of my trainees, imploring them to work slowly and showing them ways to self-check their work. There is very little in accounting that cannot be self-checked.
Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is a partner with WithumSmith+Brown PC CPAs, and the author of 20 books and hundreds of articles for business and professional journals and newsletters, as well as a twice-weekly blog. Reach him at (732) 964-9329 or email@example.com.
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