Here’s the career (and life) perspective your Firm isn’t giving you

By Kent Burns, CPA

Well, you made it.  Or, perhaps you’re not done, but you’re close.  At some point over the next few days or weeks, you’ll ask yourself if you want to do it again next year.  Perhaps you already know the answer.  You might not be sure.  You might even change your mind a few times as the fatigue and stress of the past few months slowly fade.

Most of you who will read this article have never changed jobs before.  This is your first real gig.  Ok, maybe you had a couple of internships and summer jobs during college, but things are different now.  You’ve developed opinions and perspectives on the working world.  Many are based on personal experience, but many aren’t.  How could they be?  You just started your career a few years ago.  So far, you have one professional point of reference.  It’s not bad, it’s just current reality.

Since 1999, I have helped literally hundreds of people just like you.  Auditors and tax professionals in CPA firms of all shapes and sizes.  From the Big Four down to firms of 20-30 people.  Some tell me they want to exit public accounting – tried it, got some good experience, want out.  Some tell me they like public accounting, but they aren’t happy.  Some think they are happy.  Honestly, most of them are just trying to figure it out.  Even the ones that seem pretty certain, often…deep down inside…don’t know.  And that’s ok.  Life and career are a journey.

Perspective is reality.  Perspective is rooted in experiences.  I’m about to share with you my perspective from nearly 20 years as a coach and a guide helping people just like you.  Before my recruiting career, I was one of you.  I was with KPMG and PwC.  Worked in both audit and tax.  Then, I was a Corporate Controller and CFO in both public and private companies.  So, I write from perspective that is rooted in experience.  And, I’ve made more mistakes that you’ve even thought about making…

The World as You Know It – Good Stuff

Let’s start with the positives of public accounting.  They are exciting, and are probably the reasons you decided to start your career there:

  • Professional growth; challenging and complex work
  • Working with smart, motivated people (just like you)
  • Flexibility and autonomy
  • Defined career path in terms of both levels and timing
  • Great raises
  • Seeing the financial picture from a holistic point of view
  • Diversity of industries, clients, assignments and special projects
  • Time off in the Summer
  • Professional respect from the marketplace

The first few years in public accounting are exciting.  Everything is new…the firm, the work, the clients, increasing responsibilities, the raises, moving from Associate to Experienced Associate to Senior Associate, learning to supervise people and review work.  Life moves fast, and you’re growing like crazy – personally, professionally and financially.  It’s very fulfilling.

The World as You Know It – Not So Good Stuff

You also get to experience the negatives of public accounting:

  • Too many hours
  • Poor work/life balance
  • Too much travel
  • Continual deadline pressure
  • Tracking your time; billable hours
  • Working in a specialty or doing work that doesn’t interest or excite you (Controls testing, benefit plans, tax compliance, anyone?)
  • Jumping from client to client and never really learning much about one company or industry
  • Lack of a predictable work schedule…no cadence or structure week-to-week (or day-to-day)
  • Working with clients you don’t enjoy
  • Internal competition for salary dollars and promotion slots

In addition to the above, the next few years in public accounting are less exciting.  Things plateau.  You run engagements until you make Manager…auditing and delivering financials…and doing 404 work.  You move from prepping returns to reviewing them.  Other than the type/size clients you may be assigned to, it is what it is.  Yes, there are special projects from time to time, but not a steady diet of them. Managers often are expected to begin selling.  Some see this as a positive; most see it as a negative.

Here’s the Perspective

Both public accounting and corporate accounting/finance are excellent career choices, and they will become what you make of them.  The universe has an amazing way of giving back to people in direct proportion to what people put in.  What follows is perspective that you probably don’t have at this stage of your life and career, and perspective that your firm isn’t going to provide you.  I don’t have a bias either way; my goal is to inform.  Only you will know what is right for you.

Corporate Accounting, Finance and Internal Audit

I talk to plenty of public accountants that are convinced that corporate life will be better.  And for some, it may absolutely become true.  Here’s the difference.  You have experience in public accounting.  You’re doing it.  You’ve not experienced a corporate environment.  Unfortunately, auditing clients in the field and tax consulting/compliance is not the same.  It’s like helping someone learn to ride a bike vs. riding the bike…like telling someone how to get fit vs. preparing the meals and working out at the gym.  Just like where you are now, there are advantages and disadvantages to corporate life.

Advantages of Corporate

The corporate environment does offer advantages:

  • Less travel
  • Fewer hours
  • Better balance
  • No time tracking, no billable hours
  • More and different career paths – finance, operations, sales, etc.
  • A structure and a cadence to life and work
  • Get to really know and work for one boss
  • A chance to dig in and learn a company, an industry and a marketplace.

Disadvantages of Corporate

Since we threw a bright light on public accounting, it’s only fair that we do the same for corporate.  The corporate side has its own set of disadvantages:

  • Not everybody is smart and motivated like you; some of them don’t even care. It’s a job.
  • The work is not always diverse, challenging and complex – it can be quite routine (monthly closing/analysis, forecast comparisons/updates, budgets, updating spreadsheets, standard reports, etc.)
  • Less flexibility and autonomy
  • Unless you’re a Controller or CFO, you won’t see the whole picture
  • Career paths are often ambiguous and without time frames
  • Raises are MUCH smaller (can you say “cost of living” adjustment?)
  • Less time off (especially in the Summer months)
  • Regular, repeated cycles (monthly, quarterly and year-end)

And Here’s the Big One That Nobody Thinks About

When you are a public accountant, accounting is the most important thing.  It’s the universe.  Accounting is the business model – it’s the reason your employer exists.  An interesting realty sets in for people who move to the corporate side.  Accounting, finance (and internal audit) are not the center of the universe.  They are cost centers.  It’s not the business model; it supports the business model.  And, executives want those groups to be as lean and inexpensive as possible.  When you’re the auditor in the field, the tax consultant, the tax reviewer, the preparer… you’re a big deal.  People are focused on serving you and getting you whatever you need.  You’re important; you’re expensive.  Not the same on the other side.  People inside don’t listen as closely or prioritize your requests as urgently.

So How Do You Know?  Answer This Big Question

Do you like serving clients?  In its simplest form, public accounting is a service.  It’s helping people.  It’s being someone who understands and takes care of complex things for clients who can’t, or who don’t want to.  It’s being a resource.  It’s relationships.  It’s people putting trust in you.  If you enjoy those things, that’s a big clue…if you don’t, then public accounting probably isn’t for you.

“Public Accounting Is Public Accounting” …Yes and No

If you have concluded that you like serving clients, pay attention that.  It’s very common to extrapolate the experience you’re having with your current firm to the entire public accounting profession.  Every year, I hear: “Well if I’m going to leave, I’m going to leave public altogether.  Public accounting firms are all the same”

All firms are not created equal.  Firms are different sizes with different specialties and different clients and cultures.  All can make a huge difference in the way you experience and enjoy public.  Culture is the horizontal gravity that holds organizations together.  It’s why people join and it’s why they stay. Public accounting will always have its negatives.  But great culture and the right colleagues can greatly affect how people deal with those things.

Conclusion

Sometimes public accounting is just not a good fit, and leaving for the corporate side is the right answer. Make sure you are being objective and are properly informed about each path. It may not be an issue of public accounting as a career – it may simply be a matter of finding a firm that offers a better cultural fit for you.

If you aren’t excited about serving clients and helping people… about being an external resource and a subject matter expert, then the corporate path may be a better option.  You can join a great company in a new role that demands that you learn a business and its systems, processes, leaders, locations and issues. You have career options beyond the next level at your CPA firm and beyond accounting.

As I said earlier, both corporate and public accounting can provide very satisfying career and life outcomes.  It comes down to alignment.  Which path aligns better with your personal, professional and financial priorities?

Change your perspective.  It will change your career, and maybe change your life.