As I enter the latter part of my career, I look back and see several mistakes I made. Here’s what I wish I had known about public accounting–before I started.
I thought I knew a lot when I graduated from college, but my education was just beginning.
In my first job, I went to work with a “big eight” public accounting firm in Tampa, Florida. As soon as I moved to my new digs on Tampa Bay, they shipped me out to Jackson, Mississippi where I remained for months (seeing my Tampa apartment twice in three months). Most days I did the expert work of pro-forming work papers—the thing they gave to newbies. Boredom defined. So I had this sexy job with a big firm, but I spent most days dawdling with routine duties. I kept thinking, “I went to college for this?” Surely accounting had to be more interesting.
I felt uncomfortable. This international firm was cold (even if this office was in Florida). I had grown up in a small town where you spoke to everyone and respected all. Soon I left Tampa and headed back home to Georgia.
What I learned: Work in a place that allows you to grow and one where you fit in. Firms have cultures. I needed one that aligned with who I was.
Back in Georgia, I landed work with a regional firm. I felt more at home. The work was more challenging than my former job, and my knowledge began to expand rapidly. This particular business had a strong niche practice and was very profitable. The firm used a pooled staffing approach, so I worked for one partner one week, another the next week, and another the next. I did not get a chance to start and finish audit engagements. It stressed me that so many different partners wanted me to complete their work. And each partner felt their work was the priority. After three years, I moved on.
What I learned: Firms that focus on niches perform better than those that don’t. As an employee, it’s better to work with one partner. You get to see engagements from start to finish, and the stress decreases since you know what your (one) boss wants.
My new firm was even smaller than the last, having about thirty people. Here I worked for one partner which was nice, and he worked in one industry which was also pleasant. When I interviewed with the firm, I was told that my assigned partner would retire in three or four years, and I would have the opportunity to take his place. Since I was the audit manager, I learned a great deal, but over time it became apparent to me I was doing most of the work and the partner was receiving most of the pay.
The partner was a wonderful guy, but after eight years (not three or four), the partner was still in plain sight (and had not retired).
So one day I screwed up my courage and asked, “When are you retiring?” The conversation was difficult (an understatement, he yelled at me). He wouldn’t answer my question. It was clear he had no intention of retiring (even though he was 68). I was angry. I had been duped (at least, I felt that way).
So I left.
What I learned: I like working for one boss. I knew what he wanted, and I delivered it. When someone makes you a partnership offer, get it in writing (clarify the timetable and how the transition will occur). Don’t allow years to go by without communicating.
The next step in my journey was to start a new firm. I bought a small company that was only yielding $200 per month (yes, you read that right—$200 a month). My wife was at home with our kids, so we had no other income.
About this same time, my two-year-old son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. I wondered how we would make it. I’ve never been so low in my life. And then three years into the solo practice, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (See my article, Audit Lessons from a Brain Tumor.)
We had an excellent opportunity to exercise faith, so we did, praying often. All I can say is God took care of us. At the end of the first year, my income was equal to my prior year of employment. The following five years were successful.
But after six years of being a sole proprietor (and then as a partner), my father’s health began to fail, and I was called to attend to his needs and…yes, you guessed it, another job.
What I learned: Going solo is one of the hardest things you will ever do. I quickly realized how important it is to have other professionals around me so I can bounce things off them and seek their guidance. Being alone is…lonely. (I brought in a partner in my third year. Having her there was wonderful.)
Without the economies of scale afforded to larger firms, my overhead ate most of my cash flow. I found it hard to get potential audit clients to take me seriously. They saw me as “small” though my skill level was no different than it was in my previous jobs. When it comes to marketing, perception is everything.
On to the next job.
I returned to my first Georgia employer (job #2 above) as their quality control director. I was 42 years old and had never been a quality control guy, so this was all new to me. But I enjoyed the challenge. While the firm had a niche practice, it still afforded me the opportunity to see a wide variety of audits, reviews, and compilations. I also began teaching more continuing education classes and loved doing so. When I taught, I felt “in my element.” The firm did (and still does) an excellent job of marketing.
After six years in this position, my father passed away, and my wife wanted to move back to middle Georgia to be near her mother. So we did.
What I learned: Exposure to a broad range of work expands your professional abilities. It is easier for niche firms to market themselves as go-to experts. A niche practice generates higher profits since a common client base allows a firm to build repeatable processes and train staff. Also, I was beginning to realize the importance of speaking and writing.
On a personal note, being there with my Dad was awesome. The conversations we had are some of my most treasured memories.
For the last ten years, I’ve worked as the quality control director and now as the quality control partner for our firm, McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. We are well diversified, but we have specialized niches within the company, so no one industry defines us. The diversity of work keeps me on my toes. I deal with accounting and auditing issues for banks, telecommunication companies, nonprofits, governments, small businesses and more. I continue to speak at professional conferences and to our staff, and, as you can see, I write.
One thing I have thought about as I look back over my career: I changed jobs too often.
If I had my career to do over again, I would find a good firm, and I would stay.
What I learned: Finding and staying with a good firm will provide you with significant opportunities.
Speak to groups and write professional articles and blog posts. Doing so will allow you to make new friends and great contacts.
Finally, let me say this: Finding balance and taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually are keys to success. Sitting at a desk for ten to twelve hours a day—without breaks—will only make us less productive and less healthy.
Praying and running (now walking as I’m older) have been my two biggest allies. At 6:00 every morning, I spend about 30 minutes reading my Bible and praying. I also walk five days a week with my wife and every Saturday with my twin brother (he blogs at ProjectRiskCoach.com). Praying and walking give me energy and stamina. (See my article How to Create Energy that Sustains You.)
By the way, I mentioned my son with cystic fibrosis. He was three years old when diagnosed. Today he is twenty-four and works as a data scientist at the University of Georgia. Most importantly, he is doing well. And I am so thankful.
These are some things I have learned. I’d love to hear about your lessons. Please share one or two career experiences in the comment field below.
Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty-five years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention, The Why and How of Auditing, Audit Risk Assessment Made Easy, and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.