Our profession is struggling to inspire young accounting graduates to pass the CPA Exam and stay in public accounting. And I wonder if some young people are attracted most to accounting’s plentiful career opportunities — only to find that the firm environment and the work itself aren’t what they expected. Disappointed, they leave public for industry, or for another profession altogether.

It seems to me that a significant element of the young CPA retention issue is failed expectations. That’s why I want to communicate clearer expectations for what life is like in the early years of public accounting to those entering the profession.

In this article, I’ll list my view of the imperfections, neutral realities and special elements of the early years of a public accounting career. I encourage you to customize this for your firm and begin to share these realities with your internal recruiters and your new recruits. You may cause some graduates to shy away, but this will allow you to avoid investing in someone who isn’t going to invest back. And by managing expectations upfront, you’ll experience a higher level of respect, trust and satisfaction from the recruits who choose their public accounting career with their eyes wide open.

So my “What to Expect When You Pursue Public Accounting” list for new accountants is as follows:

 

THE IMPERFECTIONS

  • Expect change resistance. CPAs are not usually at the leading edge of change and innovation. The profession tends toward the conservative and change is carefully scrutinized before it’s implemented. You can speed the process of change by constructively putting forward your ideas, building a concrete, fact-based business case for them and then offering to implement them, too.
  • Expect technology to lag some. The profession is not tearing up the world of innovation, so you may find your firm lagging in the use of technology. They may not have a mobile Web site. The senior people may not be active in social media. They may not be as app-savvy as you are. But they value efficiency — speed with accuracy. If you see ways to improve efficiency through technology, share your ideas with firm leaders, as this is a fantastic place to provide some reverse mentoring and hopefully make a positive impression.
  • Expect at least two heavy work periods. Depending on your discipline, these “busy seasons” could happen at any time of the year, but the typical busy periods are the winter months from January to April and then again from mid-August through October.
  • Expect an emphasis on time and timekeeping. Most firms still sell their services based on the amount of time it typically takes to produce a service and the hourly rate of the service providers. In addition, most firms calculate job profitability based on time and rate. Because time is tied to revenue and profit, it is important to firm leaders!

 
THE NEUTRAL REALITIES

  • Pass your CPA Exam to position yourself for growth. Get it done as soon as possible. Build a project plan for when you’ll study, work, exercise and have fun. Talk to others who’ve passed recently about their experience and take tips that feel right for you. The earning differential and credibility that comes with having your “letters” is critical — whether you stay in public accounting or move on to another field or business. Be relentless. Pass.
  • Expect an emphasis on technical skills, accuracy and quality. The table stakes to play in this profession are delivering the work you’ve been assigned with technical accuracy, on time and on-budget. At first, the focus will be on your learning the technical skills needed and using the critical thinking skills necessary to apply standards and rules to client situations and produce accurate work product. Expect to dig in and learn the specifics of your discipline.
  • Expect to first work on the basics and to experience some repetition. Like the medical profession, accounting is an apprenticeship model, where the new graduate spends years learning the nuances of the profession from those with more experience.

 

THE SPECIAL ELEMENTS

  • Expect to work with people who want to do the right thing for the client, the firm and for you. Integrity is the cornerstone of the profession. The commitment to follow ethical standards is part of the DNA of most firms.
  • Expect a professional yet fun environment. Most CPA firms take their responsibility to clients and team members seriously and they strive to provide a professional, business-like environment. That said, most firms invest in and encourage a host of social activities, encouraging camaraderie and fun.
  • Expect to fall in love with your clients. The most magnificent by-products of an accounting career are the sometimes life-long relationships you’ll develop with clients.
  • Expect an emphasis on learning and CPE. Most accounting firms invest in considerable ongoing education for their professionals. In the early years, much of that education may be technical in nature, although more progressive firms also invest in life-skills education early on, including leadership and communication.
  • Expect flexibility. While busy seasons have some intensity, the “off season” provides an opportunity for increased flexibility. Most CPA firms foster a culture that encourages flexibility and a balancing of your external commitments with those you have at work.
  • Expect virtually unlimited opportunity and excellent earnings during your career. With the number of CPA firm partners retiring over the next decade, licensed, experienced and motivated CPAs have a golden opportunity to be part of the leadership teams taking over these established firms and client bases. You and your peers will have a tremendous opportunity to affect change, impact others positively and make a great living. There has never been a better time to be an up-and-coming CPA in public accounting!

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management coaching, consulting and training firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success.

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