Art of Accounting: Advice to new accountants

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Why would a young person starting out in public accounting want to listen or pay attention to an old guy?

When I was young I pretty much tuned out whatever an old person said to me. If I had to sit near them, I would nod enough times to be polite, but I really wasn’t listening. When I was young, I was told that I needed to be polite to my elders, so I was just doing what I was taught to do. I also was told to wear a suit and tie to work, say thank you when someone gave me something (including advice), to show up on time and replace or return things I borrowed. Actually, except for the suit and tie, the other things are still important.

I was also told to follow instructions and then I never heard them because I tuned out. Anything longer than three minutes from an old person was too long. A few times, early on in my first job when I tried to pay attention for more than three minutes, I didn’t understand what my boss was telling me anyway, so tuning out didn’t seem like I was missing anything. Fix that three-minute limit in your mind and do not fall for it. Force yourself to listen so you will get the full instructions and make sure you understand exactly what you need to do. There is also nothing wrong with making them repeat something. If you do not get the instructions right, then it is your bad.

Old people have a lot to tell young people. At least we all think we do. I think I can tell young people a lot that could help them in their career. The problem for young people starting their careers is there is no one to really guide them and lead them forward. Everyone above you, which is everyone, is “too” busy working. The “too” is their interpretation, not reality.

Nobody should be “too” busy to help a newbie get settled in. After all, shouldn’t it be everyone’s job to make sure young staff get started properly, are clued in on how to approach their assignments, and taught a bunch of soft skills that it would be helpful to know? They are taught how to do time sheets, how to create a 42-character password for their computer, and how to reserve a desk to work on if they need to come into the office. Well, why not teach how to dress appropriately, how to engage someone on the client’s staff in a conversation, how important it is to follow up on what they are assigned, and how to learn what they need to do to move up to the next rung on the ladder of their career.

I even think they need to be excited about what they will be doing and the great adventure public accounting is. I mean, where can someone just out of school work on numerous projects for different types of clients and find out the following; how they do business, how they make money, how much they pay their employees, how often they give raises, where they get the raw materials or the products they sell, how they convert euros, yen and yuan into U.S. dollars, where they keep their inventory and secure it, how much they owe the bank, why one client pays a much higher interest rate on its loans than another, why the bank places crazy restrictions on its customers such as limiting the owners’ salaries or that they need permission to expand their infrastructure, why one landlord client has a 98 percent occupancy rate and another 56 percent, why some owners always fight with each other (and in front of you, at least when we were going to their offices), and why others offer to buy you a sandwich?

This is a very exciting business and that is why many people stay in the profession for their entire careers and really love what they do. It is also why many people leave it as soon as they can — they find it too exciting, too dynamic, too interesting, and they sometimes need to come up with ideas that can help their clients that have nothing to do with debits and credits. They find this stuff too hard — they would rather sit at the same desk every day and know what their schedule is each day of each month, and then get to repeat it each month thereafter. Ugh! I would rather take the gas pipe.

One thing old people have that young ones do not is experience. That’s supposed to be good, and I suppose it is; but do you know how people get “experience?” Working on something does not give you “experience.” It just means you worked on something. “Experience” comes when you work on something and remember what you did so you could either do it again or do it again in a better way. I cannot believe how many losers work on something and when I ask about it, they look like I spoke to them in Martian. You want to be good? Remember what you worked on and why, what you learned, how the client benefitted, and think about applying it somewhere else. That’s experience.

Another way you get experience is when you make a mistake. Not a terrible mistake. If you make a terrible mistake, you could cause a client to go out of business or worse, but mistakes are a great way to learn because you will then know what doesn’t work. If you figure out what caused the mistake and you are smart, you won’t make that mistake ever again. You might and that is regretful, but still not the worst thing in the world, although it is not good either. But if you make that same mistake again, then you will be a professional mistake maker. That is terrible, and anyone who does not fire you should probably get fired themselves ... unless the person making the mistake is the boss’s spouse’s favorite nephew, and then that business ain’t gonna grow too well.

I find that the most successful people have made quite a lot of mistakes. They did not repeat them; they learned from them. They became smarter because they built a database in their minds of what doesn’t work, and they likely aren’t afraid of making mistakes. They do not like making mistakes. They probably get mad at themselves for making the mistakes, but they ain't afraid of making mistakes because they know that is how they grow. They also know that when you try a lot of new things, they all aren’t going to work.

Let’s look at someone who does one new thing every other month and never makes a mistake; that’s pretty good. Six new things a year! Now let’s look at someone who does four new things a month and half of what she does doesn’t work. Well, she does 24 new things a year. She also made 24 mistakes vs. none for the other accountant. Who is doing the better job for their clients? If you want to be exceptional, you need to try new things, and accept that they all won’t work and that there will be some duds. Stop right here. Don’t go telling a supervisor who criticizes you for making a mistake that, “Ed said it was OK to make mistakes!” However, you need a reason why you tried the things that did not work. It doesn’t need to be a good reason. When you look back, no reason looks good, but you will still need a reason why you thought it might work.

Figure it out for yourself; I did. I am a great accountant, or rather was a great accountant and still am. (Full disclosure: I am presenting my opinion of myself.) [Second full disclosure: I could probably prove this, but not now because you probably don’t care and it also doesn’t matter.] One quality I have that you should adopt is to examine what you did when you complete a job. Some simple questions you should answer for yourself are:

  • Why did I have to do what I did?
  • How did it fit into the entire project?
  • Did I apply what I learned on a previous job to this one?
  • What did I learn?
  • Did I make mistakes that I found and fixed before I handed off what I did?
  • Did my supervisor find any mistakes I missed?
  • If they did, what caused me to make that or those mistakes?
  • Was I given proper instructions?
  • Was I clear about what I needed to do before I started my work?
  • Did questions arise that I was able to get resolved while I was working on that project?
  • Did the questions not get resolved and my supervisor needed to complete it?
  • Was the entire project completed on time?
  • How did the client benefit?
  • Did I do the best I could do?

In case you didn’t notice it, I just gave you a checklist to help you review what you did, how you performed, and what went right and what went wrong. You can keep this and use it or not. I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t care what you do. I know from my “experience” that very few of you reading this will get anything out of it. It’s regrettable, but true. If I paid attention to the duds, I’d never get anything done. However, I also know that three or four percent of those reading this will benefit, and those are the ones I want to reach. I can’t reach them if I do not do anything and do not try. So, this is my attempt.

In my firm, Withum, not everyone who starts becomes a partner, but some do. I don’t have statistics, but I do know that staff who started with Withum as interns have become partners. Two that come to mind in my office are Brad Caruso and James Berg. I also know that about half of the Withum partners started their careers at Withum, or joined with just a year’s prior experience. That means something happened that made them want to stay here, that enabled them to learn technical skills and develop professionally to become go-to people for clients and other Withum people, that they were well compensated, that they liked the culture and actually contributed to our culture, that they were well mentored and became great mentors to younger staff, and along the way they learned to develop relationships that led to them bringing in new business and having their clients engage us for additional services. It didn’t happen overnight. It happened as part of a plan that they and their supervisors — all the way up to the partners — participated in. And it happened enough times to prove it wasn’t by accident, but on purpose.

You are on an exciting journey. I want to contribute to that journey, and one way is to share some of my experiences and hopefully pass along what I believe is sage advice. I know that I will reach some of you, and feel good that I am trying and will have some success. Just as I know that you could all succeed if you get the right blueprint and are set on the right path, that you are not too stupid to ignore tips and suggestions from older people and, in particular, me.

Good luck and do not hesitate to reach out to me at emendlowitz@withum.com if you have any questions.

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, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. 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) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Training Professional development Ed Mendlowitz WithumSmith+Brown Practice management Mentoring