insight magazine

GEN NEXT: Three Lessons for Leaping Into Leadership

Here are the lessons I learned along my path to making partner at age 35. By JOANNA FU SIMEK, CPA, MST | Spring 2020

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My first job out of college was in tax consulting, serving clients across the country. I was always on the road, traveling wherever I was needed, watching my airline and hotel points rack up. At first, it was fun—I got to visit friends and see new places. But after a few years, I got tired of the road warrior life and decided to make a change.

I shifted from consulting into public accounting. Yes, that is the opposite move most CPAs make. I knew this change would be difficult. Even though I knew how to work with clients, solve problems, and manage projects, I lacked the technical background demanded in public accounting. When I started preparing tax returns, I honestly had no idea what I was doing most of the time. What I did know was hard work would pay off. I leaned into my new career and the challenges it brought, accepting that I didn’t know exactly where the path might go. The path led me—a young, minority, female CPA—to becoming a partner at BKD CPAs & Advisors. Here’s what I think led to my success:

A PASSION FOR LEARNING

Learning is more than technical knowledge. In accounting, knowing your craft is par for the course. Learning about what makes an organization tick, what motivates others, how to build new skills, how to develop people, what’s important to clients—these are just some examples of non-technical areas which become increasingly important when you move up in an organization. Every time you get a promotion, you need to learn new skills that increase your value to colleagues and clients. What got you to where you are will not be enough to get you to where you want to go.

THE WILLINGNESS TO SPEAK UP

Over time, the willingness to speak up, ask questions, and offer new ideas will get you noticed. For me, it meant being asked to join or lead a task force or a special committee. This opportunity gave me a chance to meet people outside my daily interactions and to hear perspectives I may not have considered. This kind of experience can give you unique visibility and access to leaders that you may not normally have. Who knows, this might be how you meet your next mentor, sponsor, or career advocate! That said, knowing when to speak up is important. Being a rather opinionated person, I found myself sometimes on the receiving end of a reprimand for interrupting too much when I should have been listening. There is a time and place for speaking up, and there are times to listen and learn.

A FOCUS ON YOURSELF

Comparing yourself to others is natural, but it can be the thief of joy. Worrying about someone else getting a (perceived) better project, enjoying better work perks, or moving up faster than you can make you bitter or resentful. Choose your attitude every day. Channel your energy into making sure your strengths are indisputable instead of being distracted by others.

One last comment from someone who’s often the only female, only non-white, and youngest person in a meeting: Don’t use a crutch—the world owes you nothing. What I mean by this is that I never wanted to draw attention to the fact that I was female, Asian, or the youngest person in the room. I felt my seat at the table had been earned by being good at my job, not just given to me to fill a quota. I once asked one of my mentors if he thought my age worked against me. He told me that once I opened my mouth, people would realize I knew what I was talking about. Have confidence in yourself, and when you earn a spot at the table, know that you deserve it.

JoAnna Fu Simek, CPA, MST, is a partner at BKD CPAs & Advisors in Chicago. She is an active ICPAS member, serving on the Diversity Advisory Council Committee, State and Local Tax Committee, and Tax Executive Committee.

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