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This Year, Resolve to Finally Decide What You Want To Be When You Grow Up in Public Accounting

As best I can tell, GC brought me on board for five reasons:  

  1. Sex appeal.
  2. Sex appeal.
  3. Sex appeal.
  4. Tax knowledge.
  5. Partner experience.

The first four are self-explanatory. As for the last one, Caleb and Adrienne seem to think that I might have words of wisdom to share with the unwashed masses because I’ve been down the road they’re currently walking. And perhaps I do.

Yesterday was New Year’s Day. And while I struggle to see how the arrival of January 1st provides any more impetus for personal transformation than say, August 3rd or April 16th, there’s no fighting the fact that people have long embraced the arrival of the New Year as a time for change. So if I’m ever going to provide life-altering career advice to young accountants, this is my chance. And here’s what I’ve got:

Invest in yourself.

If you’ve been in public accounting for more than a few hours, you’ve probably already identified the quickest way to get ahead in the industry. Shake the right hands. Play golf with the right partners. Parlay your winning smile and NFL knowledge into a vast network of clients and a book of business to call your very own. Money talks; bring in revenue, and you’ll be rewarded.

But be careful. While you’re busy shaking hands and putting for dough and wowing clients with Super Bowl trivia, make sure that you have substance. Become an expert on your chosen subject matter — if you’re a tax guy, learn the Code and regulations; if you’re an auditor, study whatever the hell it is that governs GAAP. Be good at what you do.

Short of floating around outer space untethered like Bullock in Gravity, there’s no more terrifying position in which to find yourself than showing up every day to a job where your title has outgrown your knowledge base. Take it from me.

Four years out of college, I was promoted to tax manager in the Big 4. What should have been a happy occasion was tempered, however, by the realization that I didn’t actually know a damn thing about tax law. Instead of celebrating my new promotion, it dawned on me that I was now a prisoner to it.

I was stuck. From that point on, the addition of “manager” to my resume would establish expectations of my level of skill and knowledge. In the event I wanted to leave my job in search of a quicker commute or higher pay or a less-rigid sexual harassment policy, however, my new employer would surely discover that my anticipated aptitude failed to match the reality. In short, I was a fraud.

That realization sent me fleeing public accounting and back to graduate school and a Masters in Taxation. When school was through and I landed at WS+B, I promised myself that even if my career didn’t go as planned in terms of promotions or compensation or recognition, I would make sure that if nothing else, I would have substance. I would learn the statute to the best of my ability, so that if the need arose, I could sit down with any client, coworker or competitor and feel confident in what I brought to the table from a tax technical perspective.

When young kids start out their careers, they tend to fall into the trap of believing that their allegiance lies with their employer and its leadership group. Make the right connections and play the game the right way, they assume, and they’ll make short work of the corporate ladder.

But the truth of today’s marketplace is that in all likelihood, they’ll be cashing checks from another employer three years from now. So while yes, they owe it to the people signing their paychecks to show up and serve clients and do an A-plus job, they also owe it to themselves to prepare for the inevitable.

“Not me,” you may be thinking….”I’m happy at my job and I’m going to stick this out and work 4,000 hours a year and kiss the right asses and build my network and make partner.” And maybe you will. 

But understand this – if you’re on the fun side of 30, the harsh reality is that you don’t know shit about what your life holds.  Maybe tomorrow you’ll meet that special girl/boy/Japanese body pillow you’ve been dreaming about and decide you have to move from New York to Sioux Falls IMMEDIATELY. What good do your clients and connections do you now?

That’s why you’ve got to have substance. Substance goes with you. 

You’ve got to accept that your best laid plans in life often don’t work out, and as a result, you owe it to yourself to possess skills that are readily transferable from one employer to the next. If DeNiro had been a CPA instead of a criminal in Heat, he would have made sure that if a coworker so much as looked at him wrong, he could quit on the spot and take his talents to a competitor. And in order to have that kind of confidence, you’ve got to invest in yourself.

And that ain’t easy. Investing in yourself means being willing to further reduce your already depressingly small allotment of personal time in order to build skills that may not pay off for years. Oh, and it means you’ve got to be willing to read. A lot.

To invest in yourself  means understanding that if it only takes two hours to find the answer you need for a partner in the Code or FASBs, but another five hours to really understand that answer, then perhaps you should be willing to spend those extra five hours on your own time. It means that if you want to grasp the finer points of Section 351, you may have to spend a few less nights with Jack and Jose and a few more with Bitker and Eustace. And as crazy as it sounds, it means that if you truly want to build invaluable expertise, maybe you owe it to yourself to open up that issue of the Journal of Accountancy that’s been supporting the leg of your night table and actually, you know…read it.

Make no mistake; none of this will be fun. You have to trust, however, that you’ll be getting something in return for your efforts –freedom. The freedom to look in the mirror and know that you’re not a fraud, and that if your circumstances change and you’ve got to move on, you can feel confident in the value you bring.

And even better, on the off chance that you should grow old with your current firm, I assure you that your skillset will be rewarded. Firms both large and small value technical ability to a great degree;  in terms of what we look for when adding a new partner, it’s neck and neck with – OK, a close second to – a hefty book of business. But from my perspective, you can’t build that book of business without substance; or perhaps you can, but you’ll risk it all on a daily basis if your business card is writing checks your brain can’t cash. If instead, you’re willing to crawl before you walk and build your technical base before your client list, well, the resulting combination of skill and revenue you’ll bring to the table is the golden ticket of the accounting world.

There’s obviously more than one way to the top of our industry. But in my humble opinion, if you lack substance, then regardless of how successful or lucrative your career may appear at a given moment, it is ultimately resting on a house of cards. I would encourage you instead to construct your career upon a solid foundation, and to begin that process by investing in yourself.