Hollywood has long stereotyped accountants as boring number crunchers. In my view, that is not the case. For the past 25 years, the accounting profession has allowed me to develop the skills necessary to fill a variety of roles. I’ve been an audit partner, a consultant and managing director, a board member, and a CFO. Career-wise, becoming a CPA is the best thing that has happened to me.
Students often ask me if it is better to go into public accounting or the private sector after graduation. I recommend public accounting because it not only helped me build a strong technical foundation, it also provided me with a holistic view of the various services that CPAs can offer—auditing, accounting, tax planning, business valuation, and consulting, to name a few.
For example, though I started in auditing, I later moved into transaction advisory services with a focus on financial due diligence and mergers and acquisitions. Admittedly, public accounting entails long working hours and intense busy seasons, but, in return, accountants can take advantage of various learning opportunities on the job.
In public accounting, hard work gets recognized and rewarded quickly. When you prove that you’re a reliable performer, you will be given the opportunity to work on complex client matters where you will be able to further expand your technical and people skills. As an auditor, I worked with clients across different industries and gained extensive experience in financial and management accounting, SEC reporting, business restructuring, process reengineering, internal controls, and system review and implementation. The skills I developed there are invaluable to this day.
My mentors not only taught me the importance of networking, they also encouraged me to take an active role at the NYSSCPA by joining relevant technical committees. By getting involved, I was able to enhance my technical skills, learn industry best practices, sharpen my interpersonal skills, and expand my business contacts.
Transition from Public to Private
The job market is always changing, and it is particularly important for technicians like us to stay ahead of the curve. That is, you should start acquiring the skills needed for the position you want to hold in 10 years. Change is good when you are prepared for it.
When I was in college, I knew that an accounting degree would get me a good job, but I had no idea how to become a CFO, controller, or even a vice president of finance in the private sector. Fortunately, my career in public accounting prepared me by teaching me not only how to handle pressure, but also how to interact with clients’ finance and accounting personnel, understand their duties and responsibilities, and get acquainted with the challenges of their positions.
Since joining private industry over a decade ago, I have held many titles, including VP of business acquisitions; VP and general manager of enterprise financial solutions; divisional CFO; and executive VP, CFO, and director of a public company. To succeed in these jobs, I needed to be technically solid, as well as a team player with effective communication and people skills.
Integrity should be the basis of every business decision CPAs make. As a former CFO of a public company, I needed to lead by example (i.e., set the right tone at the top). I needed to hold myself out as a problem solver capable of delivering viable and ethical business solutions. I learned a lot from the mistakes others made (such as earnings management), and I credit my success in the private sector to the on-the-job technical and ethics training that I received as a public accountant.
Success does not come easily, but nothing is impossible for a willing heart. Here is my advice for any CPA looking to succeed:
- It is a competitive world, and job security cannot be taken for granted. Companies promote based on merit and not tenure, and employees must grow their skills or risk being left behind.
- Success is 90% hard work and 10% luck. While you can’t control luck, you can control how hard you work.
- The journey of learning starts from listening to others and making good observations. Talk less and listen to what others have to say.
- Join a professional society to expand your network and learn from colleagues.
- Everyone should learn to be continuously broadening their skill set. Professionals with relevant technical knowledge and experience do better in the marketplace. Knowledge is something no one can take away from you.