Art of Accounting: Specializing in being a generalist
This summer a couple of my columns dealt with developing a specialization, and I had a ton of feedback. One person I spoke to is a young accountant who is trying to figure out a career path with a specialization. She has about five years of experience and feels she needs to choose a specialization to be able to start the next phase of her career.
Her work within her firm is with smaller clients where she pretty much does everything they need and provides the partner with a full agenda and backup for her meetings. She loves the one-on-one relationship she has with her clients and would like to continue doing this, but is concerned about her future professional career.
She is right about the next phase of her growth. I believe that five years is the appropriate period to learn your trade and craft. You should have acquired all the skills you will need to grow and then it is time to start working on becoming an expert in something. In previous columns I identified many types of services and niches one can become an expert in. The problem with this person is that she has developed as a generalist and really likes it—every day is different for her and she craves that. So my conundrum is what to recommend to her. Is being an expert “generalist” a niche and can this distinguish her as a go-to person within a firm?
I have spent my career being an “expert generalist.” I felt I was pretty much better in every area than anyone else except someone that was a dedicated expert in a particular area of interest. Throughout my career this has stood me in good stead. I had (and still have) a partner who is a great tax person, Peter Weitsen; and another one, Frank Boutillette, who is a professional auditor, so I have had these two major areas covered.
At one point in my career I was the tax partner and another point I was the audit expert. I even had the credentials to prove it. I was a team captain performing peer reviews, am admitted to practice before U.S. Tax Court and have argued cases there. I am one of a very few people that have all five AICPA professional designations: PFS, ABV, CFF, CITP and CGMA. I worked hard at maintaining my skills and was able to recognize when I needed to bring in an expert—it wasn’t that often, but often enough to make me feel I wasn’t shortchanging my clients by trying to do everything myself.
My value as an expert generalist was a big asset to my clients where I could recognize varied situations and was able to integrate the many facets of services they required with their situation at that time: the client's long-term plans, personality and family dynamics. I also became a trusted sounding board and what I truly valued—the first person the client called when a new opportunity or problem situation arose.
Until I merged with Withum 12 years ago I had my own practice with one or two partners. One such practice grew to 50 people without any mergers or acquisitions, so we did pretty well there. Besides my technical specialties, I was the analyst, the overseer, the client contact person, the trouble shooter and the sizer-upper. Clients called me when they needed a calm head and wanted to hear a composed voice able to think objectively, creatively and prospectively. My training placed me in that position. In my own practice this was a valuable trait, and it created strong client loyalty and bonding and great growth for my business.
Now I am part of a large firm with experts in almost every discipline and industry. My value now is to recognize when someone needs to be consulted with and to introduce the client to them. This has happened myriad times and clients get the best of both worlds—a trusted advisor they can rely on and a technical expert for what is needed to be done. This works great. I think this type of relationship also exists at many small firms where the partners have relationships with larger firms that can provide the needed expertise for their clients. The Withum Partners’ Network actually facilitates this by providing CPE that introduce smaller practitioners to experts at our firm and makes available phone calling privileges for quick answers to many questions. I personally get over 30 calls a month from colleagues.
My question now is whether there is room at a large firm for an expert generalist as a specialization track. This is not presently done. There definitely is a need at a smaller firm where partners and managers are expected to deal with most of the situations that arise. At a larger firm chock full of specialists, I wonder if an expert generalist can become a go-to person and whether that can establish that person as a valuable part of the practice. I do not want to steer her in a direction she would like but that would not add the value to her she is capable of attaining. Helping her choose a career path is not like checking the niche specialty box on a career checklist. It is a decision that could and would affect her entire professional future.
I think there is a need for such a person at a larger practice. In such practices where there are specialists in many fields, there needs to be people who can interact with clients to discuss their overall situation. Right now the engagement partners do this. However, these are usually older people that have grown up in the previous model of accountants being an all-round generalist. Today the focus has changed to niches both in services and industries. Guidance is usually directed for a staff person to become an expert in an area that the firm is lacking in or that is strongly needed in large niches. I do not see direction in total client handling such as how the present partners developed.
Further, most of the opportunities for the training would be with smaller clients who initially do not need the full range of services the larger firms offer, but who have potential to grow. Given general fee structures, departmentalization of services, niche silos, and the cost of cross-disciplinary collaboration, many larger firms cannot service smaller firms on a cost-effective basis. An expert generalist assigned to those clients can offer what the client must have, the consulting they need and the promise of availability of expertise when it is needed as they grow and expand. A one-stop service can be offered to every business, including those in their inchoate phase. It can also be available to those in their ending stages where a full range of expertise is needed, just not at the top expert level (except in isolated situations).
There is a need. Whether that person will be viewed as a go-to person by the partners has to do with internal promotion and marketing by the generalists, by their collaboration with experts within the practice and whether their clients’ growth potentials are achieved. Additionally, clients present value beyond the fees they provide. They can be referral sources, be thought leaders in their industries providing their accountant with an aura of expertise that attracts additional business, can have the need of specialized services that the firm acquires through these clients, and can show the staff a growing, expanding and interesting client base. Having a generalist involved with smaller or perhaps more entrepreneurial clients provides the firm with a wider base with which to grow.
The generalist will be the training ground for tomorrow’s partners who will particularly specialize in client management and oversight. I believe there is a strong need and value for the firm and staff in this specialty—that of an expert generalist. That is how today’s partners grew.
My next column will address suggestions on how someone can become an expert generalist.
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 www.CPATrendlines.com 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 www.partners-network.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.