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Up the Ladder: A Narrative of the First 10 Years as an Accountant

The first decade of an accounting career teaches skills that are crucial to future success. Here are three core skills that all accountants should learn in those early years. By Rachel Anevski, MAOB, PHR, SHRM-CP | Digital Exclusive - 2022

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Many people choose to go into accounting because they’re “good with numbers” or have a passion for finding answers. It’s rare for someone to choose accounting because they envision a life of teaching. And it’s rarer yet for someone to choose accounting because they’re a great networker with a knack for sales. Yet both teaching and selling are integral job responsibilities of many successful senior-level accountants.

Teaching and selling are often omitted from accounting classroom conversations. Professors are generally known to advise students to start in public accounting, as it’s known to be the fastest path to earning a CPA credential. But it could be said that a faster path upward, at least in public accounting, could be to have a side hustle as a bartender. Learning how to handle multiple personalities, have conversations with different types of people, and complete multiple tasks simultaneously all while keeping customers happy can prepare a new accountant for a faster accounting career trajectory. Instead, new professionals are often challenged with acquiring these critical skill sets later in their careers. Here are the skills that accountants should learn at every level.

Entry Level: Learning

In some ways, it’s true that starting out in public accounting gives one the broadest outlook on the expansive world of accounting opportunities, whether it be in a sole practitioner’s office, a small, midsize, or large firm, or a boutique firm that specializes in specific areas of accounting. Still, the most important aspect of a new accountant’s first few years is to learn. At this stage, performance is predicated on how well one can retain knowledge, absorb concepts, and apply those concepts repetitively to projects. The less assistance one needs, the more likely one is to move ahead. Entry-level professionals can accelerate this timeframe by doing the following:

  • Listen with intent
  • Write down notes to refer to
  • Repeat what they’ve heard back for clarity
  • Practice, practice, practice

Senior Level: Teaching

Whether a professional remains in public accounting or makes a switch to business and industry, in years three to seven, one’s role is to teach. These professionals are expected to be knowledgeable in basic accounting principles. They likely work with little supervision on core tasks, and entry-level accountants look to them to learn from. However, making the transition from learning to teaching doesn’t always come naturally. The pressure to take on more sophisticated work in private or more clients in public, coupled with training others and meeting deadlines, often makes or breaks the wavering accountant. Also, mathematically speaking, a senior-level accountant could be in a transitional life stage simultaneously (i.e., purchasing a first house, getting married, having children). This adds even more pressure to the role. Some accountants use this as an excuse to exit public accounting due to required overtime; however, the perception that work-life balance is better elsewhere may not always prove true. Nonetheless, accountants with three to seven years of experience are highly sought after and undoubtedly will land in a role where they are required to teach no matter the lateral they choose. A key to getting ahead during this time is having the ability to teach others what one has mastered and having capacity to take on additional work. The most successful accountants at this career stage are the ones with expert-level time management skills and patience while multitasking.

Management: Selling

Management is a great place to be, especially for those who have the personality to hang with it. Roles in management in either public or private accounting require one to be a savvy salesperson, which can come as a surprise to some in the profession. Strength at this level requires one to be knowledgeable in what is happening in the business one supports or in the industries in which their clients own businesses.

In public accounting, firms no longer sell tax returns, audits, or bookkeeping services; instead, they sell the relationship with the person completing the work. In business and corporate settings, accountants sell their services to the other departments of the organization, justifying need-to-know information and making important decisions. In either scenario, accountants are selling themselves.

Along the journey up the ladder, an accountant may have been a great learner and even a wonderful teacher, but then realize that selling isn’t in their repertoire. This happens a lot, and it’s okay. Those who find themselves stuck at any of these transitional phases should take their time, leverage a mentor or a more senior accountant, and ask for support in order to gain the confidence they need to move forward.

The way in which accountants grasp and incorporate learning, teaching, and selling in the first 10 or so years of their careers will likely define the accounting roles they’ll find themselves settling in for the next 30 or more years of their career. Those who are great teachers and salespeople may aspire to be a partner in a firm while those who are averse to selling may choose a specialty tax career in private industry. It’s important to note that not all people process new skills at the same rate and therefore the path traveled varies. Some accountants mature their careers at 10 years while others take 15. There isn’t a deadline on learning the concepts, just an acknowledgement that they are necessary. Those who find that there is an area in which they are lagging behind their peers should speak up, ask for help, or take on the challenge themselves.

Rachel Anevski, MAOB, PHR, SHRM-CP, is CEO and founder of Matters of Management LLC in Wayne, N.J. This article is reprinted with permission from the New Jersey CPA Society.

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