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Apr 17, 2020

Keys to Surviving and Thriving in Public Accounting

In a podcast related to her feature in PICPA’s Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape, this year’s digital-only special edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, Lauren Lear, manager of finance and accounting outsourcing for RSM US LLP in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., recounts her experiences in the public accounting field. She offers tips for staying organized, relieving stress, and taking advantage of all the benefits a life in public accounting offers.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

A life in public accounting can be hectic. In the midst of tax season with an unprecedented health crisis causing major complications, to say it becomes even more so might be the understatement of the year. Needless to say, thriving in public accounting requires the ability to prioritize, high-level organization skills, and the willingness to go the extra mile when it comes to client service. This is the message being sent by “Navigating a Life in Public Accounting,” a feature from the upcoming digital-only special edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal called PICPA's Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape. It is by today's guest, Lauren Lear, manager of finance and accounting outsourcing for RSM US LLP in Plymouth Meeting.

What are some of the factors that make work in public accounting difficult to navigate?

[Lear] I think there are just so many different things to juggle. We have client obligation, continuing education requirements, networking, business development, firm admin work, entering time. And the degree to how much time you allocate to all these different things is, of course, probably going to be dependent on your level, or your role, within the public accounting firm. But for most people, I think client obligations are the number one priority. And this in and of itself could be a navigational nightmare because we're all trying to manage four, five, six, maybe even more clients at any given time.

We have a ton of different competing priorities and competing deadlines, multiple clients emailing us about multiple different things throughout the day. And just being able to multitask and jump from one thing to the next across different clients, and across different topics, is a skill in and of itself, I think. The level of multitasking that we need to do in our jobs every day, I think it's pretty impressive. Not that I'm biased or anything but, really, they don't teach you this kind of multitasking in college and it's hard, managing, competing clients, competing priorities, competing deadlines. Everything's competing and it's just a lot to juggle, like I said.

What would you say are some of the key traits an individual has to have if they're going to thrive in public accounting?

[Lear] I think there are the staples that we've all heard countless times. You need to be well organized, you need to have good communication, attention to detail. We all know these things. And that's because they are crucial, of course. But I think there are a few others that are key that maybe we don't hear as often. Maybe a little underappreciated.

I think, one, we need to be creative, think outside the box. And two, we need to be proactive. So, we see a lot of different, from a client standpoint, we see a lot of different transactions, scenarios, situations in just our day-to-day work. Whether that be a transaction that happened at a client, or maybe it's just dealing with a lot of different people and personalities across different clients, we need to be creative in how we approach these types of things.

Maybe you have a client who is struggling to understand some type of financial data. Maybe you need to create an analysis that would be easier for the client to consume. Something maybe that illustrates a story behind the data, for example. You get to think outside the box to enable yourself to be the most effective. And what that looks like, quote/unquote "thinking outside the box," is going to look different based on every client you work with, and based on every person you work with. It's kind of always being able to think on your toes and shifting your mindset as you shift from client to client or person to person.

I think a public accountant also needs to be proactive. It makes life so much easier if you could stay ahead of things because you just never know when the next client emergency is going to pop up, or the next fire drill is going to pop up, and you know it will always come. I always try to block out time in the beginning of the week to prepare for the week ahead, you could say. I might look at meetings that I have scheduled, what do I need to prepare for them, what deliverables are due this week? And maybe this process passed a little bit with being organized. But nonetheless, I try to always stay one step ahead.

You talked about to-do lists in the article, and they're, of course, a hallmark of good organization. We've established here that obviously it's important to be heavily organized when in public accounting. And you went in on some tips for keeping organized, but do you have anything specific you could offer people as far as tips for staying organized?

[Lear] I think it would be very difficult for a person to be successful in public accounting without some sort of effective organization methods. I think we've talked about in podcasts before about organization. What works for me isn't going to work for you, and vice versa. I've worked with people in the past who were very, very smart, but just couldn't get organized. And I think it's very hard for them to be progressive and to be successful in this type of environment.

A few minutes ago we were talking about different competing priorities and competing deadlines. Well, I try to manage, or just think of trying to manage, that without organization. I guess it's probably possible for some people, but not without a ton of pain, I could imagine.

I know personally, sometimes I feel like I've lost control of my to-do list. I just can't get organized. I feel like I'm always playing catch-up. And the amount of anxiety that builds up as a result of this, it's just not a good feeling. Find a system that works for you, whether it be a paper to-do list, virtual to-do list, calendar invites. Some people like to use apps on their cellphone or on their computer.

One recommendation I've heard from a lot of different people – I'm not currently doing it, but I want to try – is this whole concept of, quote/unquote, "inbox zero." Try to get your email more organized. For me, it doesn't even need to be zero. Maybe if I could get it down to 50, even a hundred. Sometimes I can get way behind on my emails, as you could probably imagine. I do need a lot of work to get to this. But maybe you could keep me honest and check in with me in a few months. Whatever it is, it has to work for you. Because if you're not actually using it, it's pointless.

Speaking of keeping people honest, I'm in dire need of a to-do list. That might be something that I do once I get off of this recording. In the piece, you list a bunch of items that you have to do in a day, and you ran over them on the call even, so far. Internal networking, continuing education, building relationships, so many more. How do you squeeze them in in a reasonable time? Do you find yourself having to be heavily regimented? Are you able to freelance these things? It sounds like you'd be more along the lines of heavily regimented, but things always come along that you have to jump to.

[Lear] I think it's probably a combination of both. There has to be some conscious effort. But, realistically, if I block out time on my calendar to, say, go build a relationship with somebody in the office, I would blow that time off so quickly. It's just not practical. But say I attend a lunch-and-learn. I might show up to this lunch-and-learn five minutes early, chit-chat with some people who are also attending, a.k.a network with some of the other people who are attending. I might ask questions during the discussion, thank the presenters at the end of the lunch-and-learn. Now in this one hour I've just gotten some CPE credits, I've networked with some colleagues, maybe I started to build a relationship or set a foundation that I could build upon with whoever facilitated the class. Maybe there's some follow-ups, action items, I could take from it. And you could do this all , like I said, within an hour or so.

I think when you lay it all out there in a regimented way, and you say you need to do this, this, and that on top of X, Y, and Z, it can get overwhelming. But that, quote/unquote, "list" is just too long, especially for someone who may be new to public accounting, or they may not have a lot of experience. I think with practice and experience it becomes more natural and comfortable to just freelance and weave some of these things into your normal day-to-day. But that goes against that to-do list we talked about.

I think for some of the more professional client service type things, a to-do list and being more regimented may work. But then when it comes to some of the softer skills or things like that with the networking, continuing education, some of those which some people say low priority, but I think they're just as important, they may be able to be freelanced a little bit more than the client work.

One of the tips you offer in the article is that when you're in public accounting, you need to understand the priorities at any given time. Does that mean your priorities? Does that mean the firm's priorities? Or is it maybe a little bit of both?

[Lear] I think you always need to be looking out for yourself first and foremost. But most of us are probably working for a firm, so definitely a little bit of both. But from a firm perspective, the firm priorities may tend to be more focused on client service. I think a lot of the firms firm, for example, and other firms that I've heard where other people have worked, I think they also do try to focus on development, developing their employees, but I think client service probably tends to come first.

Let's just say the first few months of the year, audit season, tax season, their priority is just to get the work done and survive busy season. You may not be able to work on developing a new skill or getting out to events after work because your energy is just being exhausted on just getting the client work done. But it's important to remember to come back to where your priorities lie during maybe the slower times of the month, or the year, and just also having the right mindset and attitude. Because if you think just because you're heavily focused on client work at that time doesn't mean you're not also simultaneously developing your accounting skills or other skills during this time. Again, so it doesn't have to be super regimented in that way.

I found myself, as I was researching and writing questions for this interview, talking about squeezing things into a 40-hour workweek and things along those lines. I would erase them, thinking it sounded unreasonable. Is part of succeeding in public accounting accepting the fact that it might take some extra time, and then maybe moving on if it proves to be too much? Is a 40-hour workweek something that's reasonable?

[Lear] I think it goes back to understanding the priorities a little bit. Of course, there are going to be times where we have to work our extra hours to fit it all in. We're not going to be able to work a 40-hour week and go home. I don't think it's healthy to set this expectation that it needs to be done 52 weeks a year. But I think we all know before getting into a public accounting role that there are going to be times where we need to work more than 40 hours, sometimes much more than 40 hours. But you probably have heard the phrase “work smarter not harder.” I think that's very much true when it comes to public accounting. Find ways to balance all the things that we need to fit in to be less stressful during the slower client service times.

Maybe we can catch up on continuing education, CPE credits, go to lunch with someone you met during an internship, or someone you met at a happy hour two months ago. Just don't overthink it. Or maybe even take a few days off so that you can mentally recharge, because we all know that's well-deserved and usually much needed from time to time.

I think this is probably true in all business environments. It's not specific to just public accounting, and I think that's where some people get in this mindset where public accounting means I need to work 70 hours a week, but if I go to industry, it's nine to five and I get to go home. I don't think that's the case in all situations, but I think there is much more of an assumption around working these ridiculous hours in public accounting. And in a world where we're trying to promote a work-life balance, or work-life integration, there's just this kind of negative stigma around it. But I think it's all about, if you could try to work a little bit smarter, you can hopefully ease that burden from time to time.

Unfortunately, some people still have a perception that experiencing stress, it's a sign of weakness, but like many other jobs, there's certainly stress in public accounting and it's OK to admit it, and find ways to tackle it. What would you say are some techniques or strategies that can be used to manage stress?

[Lear] Similar to what we were talking about on the organization method, find a way to find something that works for you. But one of the best things about stress in public accounting, and I hate to say the best thing about stress, but one of the best things about stress in public accounting is that everybody understands what you're going through because we all go through it. Understand you're not alone, and that everybody else that you're working with has gone through it too.

I know, for me, I get stressed and anxious, like I said, when I feel like I've lost control. A technique that I use when I feel completely overwhelmed is I just stop what I'm doing. Maybe not in the middle of the day, but at the end of the week, maybe stop what I'm doing, recreate my to-do list, clean up some emails, just kind of freshen everything up and try to reground myself. I find that this works best for me, like I said, at the end of the week on a Friday, or something like that. Because then I get a day or two on the weekend to try to unwind and start fresh on Monday.

But there are a lot of other different techniques that work well for others as well. Maybe work out during lunch if you have a gym in your office or, if you don't, go for a walk outside or even inside, walk around the office. Just get the blood flowing because I think that always helps. Exercise. Or talk to somebody about how you're feeling. This doesn't always have to be a productive and professional conversation. Because sometimes as humans I think we just need to vent and complain to somebody that we trust, as long as the negative energy can be released and doesn't continue to circulate because that obviously would be counterproductive. A benefit of public accounting is that we have a ton of resources that we can talk to and rely on that can help us get us through the stressful or difficult times.

There's a lot of work to be done in public accounting. There's stress, but there's also a lot of benefits. What would you say the benefits are that keep you, and people like yourself, going in public accounting?

[Lear] There are definitely peaks and valleys in public accounting, especially if you're in tax or audit lines of business, which I am not, but I still can appreciate that there are some very, very busy and stressful times that come. But with all of these times, they always 100% of the time, come to an end. And when they do, we have the ability to take some time off or reflect on those busy times. I've learned – and over the years it's been difficult to learn – but I have learned to never feel guilty when I'm not busy enough. Because that time is probably short-lived and I need to use that time to my advantage to catch up on some things that are important to me, but that I deprioritize because there's not a client deadline or deliverable attached to it. It's easy to deprioritize it and it's hard to not feel guilty when you're not super busy because we're all so used to being busy that it just doesn't feel natural to us. It's just an uncomfortable feeling.

But I think we're fortunate to work with a lot, like I said a few minutes ago, we're fortunate to work with a lot of really smart and great people in this industry. I know that I get to work with, and learn from, a lot of different people. And all these people, they all have different styles, different perspectives that I could learn from. So this is hard to find, especially if you're in industry and you're working with the same few people every day.

I think this leads me into my next point. The learning opportunities are just endless. If I reflect on the past year, I can honestly say that I've learned so much, both on the technical front and the non-technical soft-skills front. If you think back three or four years, it's just completely different. There are continuous development opportunities that are always providing new challenges. I must say that I'm never bored, that's for sure. There are definitely, I think, some chaotic times, but they can be nicely balanced with all the great opportunities that we have and the flexibility that we have, not to mention that. I think that's probably what kept me in public accounting for almost nine years. It goes by quick.


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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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