The three crucial questions for unhappy accountants

Several months ago, I got an e-mail from a young CPA asking my advice about whether he should stay with his firm, or leave to start his own. He was depressed. He had lost respect for his partners during the recession, when the firm made what seemed like overreaching layoffs. In addition, they'd stripped away perks like telecommuting that he and many of his colleagues valued. And at the end of 2009, the firm leaders quietly celebrated a "very profitable year." Deeply saddened by this behavior at a firm he once loved, he wondered if it was time to move on.

For every e-mail like his, I'm certain there are hundreds of other CPAs and support professionals considering the question, "Should I stay or should I go?"

Employee morale in many firms is at an all-time low. Employees feel uncertain, and uncertainty breeds fear. "If I'm not billing more," they wonder, "will I be fired?" But without more work, they can't bill more, so they feel trapped.

In an effort to help their firms - and themselves - they're heeding partners' advice to "Network more! Get out there and develop business!" But for many left-brained CPAs, doing right-brained "people stuff" doesn't come naturally. And the lights in the training department have been dimmed, leaving many on their own to figure it out.

And then there's the eerie silence from the CEO or managing partner's office. When leaders aren't sure what to say to their firms, many don't say anything at all.

Now the tide is shifting.

In 2009, Deloitte released a report on the impending "Resume Tsunami." In February of this year, the voluntary turnover rate in the labor force increased. This is generally accepted as a leading indicator that job seekers feel greater confidence in the market. Today, many firms are scrambling, trying to stop bleeding talent who've had enough and are leaving for other firms.

If you're considering leaving your firm, here are three questions to ask before you head for the exit.

WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?

Some CPAs just want to come into work, do a good job, and go home. They don't want to climb the corporate ladder. They don't care about becoming partner. They're quite happy to make senior manager, do good work, and sleep well at night.

If this is you, you may be happy in even the crappiest firm, as long as you're left alone. Cool.

But if this isn't you, you need to ask yourself what your career goals are and how you are going to power towards them. Every partner whom I admire proactively set themselves on a course to become a leader in their firm. They were clear about their goal, had a plan, and developed the skills and relationships to power them along.

So ask yourself, what do you really want? Can your current firm provide the experiences and relationships to get you there? If yes, get your plan together and start working it. If no, start looking for a firm that can ... and will.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU STAY?

Dreams of leaving your firm may be alluring - especially if there's a recruiter involved. The recruiter is painting the picture of a brighter future at another firm. It's their job.

Your job is to assess the merits of leaving versus the merits of staying. Ask yourself, "If I stay with this firm, what's likely to happen to me?"

Many times, how you've been treated in the past is a good predictor of how you'll be treated in the future. For example, if you're routinely asked to lead critical initiatives, you're likely to continue to be asked to do that. But if you work for a demented partner who treats you like crap and never gives you any credit in front of his peers, your fate may be sealed, especially if that joker is not going anywhere soon. (And really, what other firm would want him?)

WHAT'S REALLY EATING AT YOU?

This is a tough one, because by the time you reach the point where you're seriously considering leaving your firm, so many things have piled up in your psyche that it's hard to pull them apart.

Here are some other questions that can help you tease out the root cause(s) of your dissatisfaction:

When your stomach aches about work, what's going on? Who's involved? What's happening?

What would make you feel better about staying?

Who could you talk to who could help sort things out, and give you wise counsel?

Often, what we really need is clarity. And to get clarity, you have to get to the core issues that are making your situation uncomfortable. Once you've identified the core issues, you have three choices:

1. Accept them. This doesn't mean you have to stay, it simply means you accept that the people and situations in your firm are what they are. You could accept them and choose to move on, or accept them and choose to stay. Dealer's choice.

2. Change your reaction to them. Your tax partner is a lunatic? Stop letting his idiocy bother you. It's his problem, not yours.

3. Step away. Often, this means going to a different firm. Or a different department. Or maybe a different career.

I pray you work for a firm where you're in your happy place, merrily chugging along, having made it through the worst of the Great Recession with your esteem, work ethic and morale intact. If not, ask yourself these questions, and make a good decision for yourself and your career. The world needs more turned-on, smart CPAs doing good work in great firms.

Go and be that CPA.

Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps progressive firms develop and keep their top talent. You can reach her at (888) 922-9596 ext. 702 or rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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