We have heard that many of the tasks and duties that today’s college students will perform by 2030 have not been invented yet. The evolution of technology and AI is already changing how public accountants perform their work, and it stands to reason that younger professionals should expect an environment of continuous learning and mentoring in this industry beyond CPE.
So why it is that many younger professionals don’t ask their mentors or managers for support to explore new areas of the business? Is it personal fear? A rigid environment? Misconceptions about their career prospects?
Misconceptions are among the main reasons that students don’t pursue an accounting career in the first place. Top talent can choose careers that allow them to work from anywhere and at any time (e.g. digital nomads). The accounting industry cannot ignore that reality.
Continued expected fallout from the Great Resignation notwithstanding, the accounting profession has a grave issue with more professionals leaving and retiring than entering. Statistics from the AICPA tell us that 75% of CPAs will retire in the next 15 years. The 2021 Rosenberg Survey puts average staff turnover at 15% and the average age of partners at 53 years.
The truth is, by simply asking for new opportunities, younger professionals in public accounting have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But managers and mentors like me must be ready to listen, ask the right questions and take action on their behalf. We have to see the potential of the people right in front of us before we worry about attracting new staff. Here are a few opportunities to explore as a younger professional; these are areas that mentors should start talking to their team about right now.
Exploring a Specialty
If your degree encompasses a special skill set or you are noticing specialties in the industry that your firm may not actively practice, this could be a good way to stand out in your field and build a new book of business for the firm. Here are some suggestions to bring your interests to your firm’s attention:
- Do your homework and learn about trends and opportunities in the specialization, not only for your career but also for the industry. Is it a growth area in public accounting? How is it changing? How is technology impacting it?
- Find out if your interest area requires a special certification or additional education. Who is offering education? What is the cost and timeline? What would be your role or title?
- Talk to your mentor or manager about what you have learned. Ask them about how your interests can dovetail into the firm’s business goals and growth plans.
During regular check-ins, ask your team members about their ideal career path and what skills or services they imagine providing. Make sure that your firm offers a clear path for any professional, not just the high-potential leadership track.
If a mentee shows interest in a certain area of the firm or industry, ask your mentee to do some research on how other firms are pursuing it or if it could be created or expanded at your firm. Demonstrate your openness to explore each professional’s career potential.
Asking for New Challenges
There are several options to learn new skills and take on more challenging work. You could ask to attend client meetings to understand how your current work benefits the client’s business or personal goals. That experience could lead to ideas about skills you need to develop or new assignments to take on. You could cross-train in another area of the firm that interests you. You could also discuss the firm’s criteria for leadership development and the next set of skills that you will need to manage a team.
It’s impossible to overstate the value of developing staff with cross-trained skills. It leads to more well-rounded, marketable and confident professionals. Staff are able to make connections between the services that lead to a fuller understanding of the client, our role and how we can serve them. When managing workflow, be open to utilizing staff in any department if they have capacity, even if they are “assigned” to a different department than yours.
Allow a staff member to shadow you. It’s a great opportunity not only to train on technical skills, but to develop communication and client-service skills. Have them join you on a client call or meeting to listen and absorb. Follow up with a short debrief on their observations or any questions. They will develop those skills more quickly, and it supports team relationship-building too — win-win!
Enhancing Professional Development
If you are considering an advanced degree as a path forward in your career, make sure to discuss this goal with your mentor or manager. In many cases, firms provide study time and tuition reimbursement or other support to help you advance your skills.
While pursuing this education, talk about how to manage your current role at the firm. This is another area where the firm may make accommodations to keep you on the team even if you need to work fewer hours while studying and taking classes. The important thing is that you ask about it and find out how your colleagues and firm leaders can support your goal. Continue to keep an open line of communication with your team.
Flexibility and communication are key in managing any team. They become absolutely imperative when there is a team member juggling work and another time commitment, whether that is getting an advanced degree, studying for the CPA exam or otherwise. Often there are multiple team members in this boat. Remember that while it may create some strain, this other time commitment is important and valuable — not only to your team member but to the growth and development of the firm. Frequent check-ins can help you take the pulse and reset priorities, plans and expectations for your team.
When should you discuss it?
Don’t wait until a quarterly or annual performance review to discuss these opportunities. By that time, your star performer or high potential associate may already be looking at other paths. Sketch out a few talking points, and make sure you broach the subject of cross-training or venturing into specialty practice territory during these meetings. Make it personal.
The sooner you bring it up, the better. I’m talking to accounting professionals who want to advance their careers and leaders in firms like me who want to keep their talent. Talent shortages won’t go away, but solutions are everywhere if you talk about it.
Meg Hampton is an audit manager at Anglin Reichmann Armstrong, PC with more than 13 years of experience in public accounting. She advocates for economic empowerment through her involvement with The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship.