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Aug 10, 2021

Mid-Career CPAs: Fighting Feelings of Burnout

For mid-career CPAs experiencing feelings of burnout, it can be natural for a “grass is greener on the other side” perspective to take hold. However, there are options for professionals looking to temper burnout without heading for the exit. To discuss those options, we met with Bobbi Kelly, director-in-charge, human resources advisory, for Kreischer Miller in Horsham.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

When you've been with an employer for a sizeable amount of time and you start to get that feeling of burnout, it can seem like the only thing you can do is to find yourself a hasty exit door. However, that's not the only solution. There are ways to fight the feelings of burnout, and today our guest will let us know what some of those options are. Bobbi Kelly is director-in-charge, human resources advisory, for Kreischer Miller.

What do you believe it is that causes burnout further for professionals in the mid-career level?

[Kelly] This topic I'm super passionate about and it feels more timely now than ever because everybody's heard this term that's out there right now called the “great resignation,” which is the time where everybody seems to be flying for the hills and everyone's burnt out.

But what is burnout, right? It's where you're spending more energy than you're gaining. So it's the same thing if you burned out your engine of your car, you're not filling it up with oil, right?

Burnout I think in public accounting has always been an issue. Public accounting is a really, really challenging industry. The demands are high, the hours are high, the pressure is high, the standards are high. So it's always been a challenging industry, but then now you add onto it this pandemic, which we're all still living in. All of the accountants I know keep talking about the 2020-2021 never-ending busy season, right? We had the extension of the tax deadline in July 2020, and then it got pushed back to May of this year. And just everybody I've talked to, it seems like they haven't gotten that break yet.

Then the market right now, that great resignation that they're talking about, the job market is hot and lots of promises of greener pastures, a lot of dangling carrots out there. Sometimes that can exacerbate that feeling of burnout that people already have.

You mentioned some of the factors there that you think are increasing burnout, obviously COVID-19 big in there. Are there any other factors that you think are out there that are increasing it at this particular moment in time?

[Kelly] I think those are probably three of the biggest ones that are new for this moment in time, in addition to, as I said, all of the burnout factors that public accountants experience all the time. Frankly, being mid-career is a time in life where there's just a lot to be asked of you. There's changes in your own personal life. There might be children that have entered the picture. There might be ailing parents. There might be big moves, all of that kind of stuff. It's just that mid-career time, there's a lot of pressure that people are under, and that energy tank just drains really, really quickly.

What is it that can be done to fight the feelings of burnout? What are some approaches people can take?

[Kelly] I would say that the two big components for me, number one is understanding your hard-wiring. So, who am I? What motivates me? What gets my feet on the ground in the morning? What fills up my cup? What makes me happy?

Internally at Kreischer Miller, we use the assessment called the Predictive Index, which has been incredibly, incredibly powerful for our people. It's been around since World War II. So, it's a very old tool, but very modern tool, very quick. It only takes 10 minutes to do. The reports that come from there and the conversations that come from there are so powerful, not just for the individual, but the people who are working with them and people who they are working for.

The Predictive Index and other behavioral assessments have typically or they're measuring what they would consider your drivers. Again, I'm a big fan of the Predictive Index, but there's others out there, and they typically are measuring things like your dominance, your extroversion, your patients, like how you're driven for predictability and stability, your formality. Whether you're familiar with the Predictive Index or something like this, they all are measuring the same stuff.

If you have access to one of those tools, start there. Knowing what it is in reality, not just what you think your drivers are, I think is really, really important. Then think to yourself, how does who I am in my hard-wiring, who I am at my core, what makes me the most happy? What makes me the most motivated? How does that fit with either the position I'm in right now or the position that I'm working toward?

Mid-career is the squeeze between where I was, where I am, and sort of where I'm going. It all feels very much happening concurrently. To gain understanding about, for example, if you are someone who has high attention to detail and high formality, things like business development might be something that you think you have to go out and shake hands and kiss babies and go to rubber chicken dinners, but maybe your version of business development is more toward thought leadership and writing and things like that.

So, what does that look like? Where are you looking to go? To understand how you're hard-wired, it makes that path much more palatable with all the other pressures that you're dealing with.

The second, and this is probably the hardest one to realize, is understanding that you don't have all the information you need, right? My big motto is – everybody at KM will tell you I say this all the time – if you leave the dots open, you will always connect the dots wrong. When we're in that mid-career stage, it's sophomoric in a way. Like, we've been doing this for a while, we think we have all the answers, everything seems very clear, but really the answer is you might not have all the answers.

A lot of times when people think about, all right, how am I going to get myself out of this jam, they think the only way out is changing jobs or even changing careers. People are like, "I don't even want to be an accountant anymore." Really, it's just understanding what that hard-wiring is, and then what could fill up our energy and what are the questions that you need to be asking?

Some of the things that people don't even realize are things like what are service lines that your firms are offering or thinking about offering? Who might be exiting the firm that might cause an opportunity? I think a lot of times when people exit, it seems like, "Oh, I'm just going to have to do all their work," but sometimes there's a real opportunity there to shift focus – shift industry focus, shift departments. Who might be changing departments? What new clients might be onboarded that might provide some interesting opportunities, special projects, etc.?

I think a lot of times what happens with burnout, specifically at mid-career, is people think about it in terms of “and, and, and, and, and,” and that's a very overwhelming feeling, rather than thinking about it in terms of, "Well, this or that," or, "If this, then that." So they think about, "Oh, well, if Joe's leaving the firm, I don't want his clients. I already have too much work." Well, did you ask the question, "If I took on this really interesting client of Joe's, could I get rid of these other three clients?" Sometimes, the answer is yes because there's some new hire coming on that would love those three clients that you're tired of working on, for example.

Part of the reason we experience burnout and want to switch those positions is we don't have all the information we need. You may have addressed it some in the last answer, but what is the information we need and how do we get it so that we can make an intelligent decision? Who do we need to talk to? Where do we need to look?

[Kelly] For me, I always advise our team it really is a three-step process. The first step is asking really good “what” questions. What should you be doing? What distinguishes you? What kind of clients should you be working on? What clients shouldn't you be working on? This might be a little bit blunt, but what do I suck at, right? What am I really just not good at? Things like, who speaks on my behalf behind closed doors and what do they say? What are they saying about me? What kind of work do I get lost in? One of the most powerful things is to find yourself doing work and you forget that it's even work because you're enjoying it so much.

So, asking yourself those kind of really powerful “what questions.” By the way, “what questions” are different than the whys and the whos and hows. What will get you the content? Asking those “what questions,” then you seek the answers, right? This is where you have to make sure that you're not connecting the dots wrong. Go find the information.

For example, my favorite question: “What do I suck at?” It is really easy to talk about all the things that you do that make you really good at your job, right? It's really hard to go to somebody and say, "What's one thing that I really, really just am not very good at?" Push those people to answer that question so they give you real good content. Get those answers and don't try to answer them just yourself.

Then once you have those answers, then you come up with an action plan. Who do I need to talk to? Maybe in cases of coming on and off clients, who's running that industry group? Who has a lot of proposal activity that I need to make sure that they know I'm interested in that kind of work? Or whatever the case may be. But come up with what questions, get the answers, come up with an action plan. I think that you follow those three steps, you should get to where you need to go.

Looking to summarize at the end with this question because we've been talking about it pretty much the whole time here, but if we can narrow it down, when someone's feeling burned out, why is it not always the best idea just to go looking for a new job? What are the pros and cons to that approach and what are some better solutions? It's stuff that you've been talking about, but I guess if we can narrow it down to what a couple better solutions would be to just going out and running off to a new place.

[Kelly] Probably the most transparent and easiest answer that most people are familiar with is the grass isn't always greener, but, let's be honest, sometimes the grass is greener. You have to sit back and say, "Okay, Bobbi, if I'm going to ask the ‘what questions’ and get the answers and have these conversations and understand my hard-wiring and all of that kind of stuff, and I'm already stressed out, I'm already burned out, I'm already pulled into many different directions, that just sounds like too much effort." Looking for a new job is a lot of effort, right? There's just a lot of steps in that process, everything from updating your resume, your LinkedIn, talking to recruiters, having first-round interviews, second-round interviews, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you still might end up in a spot that you're still feeling burnout and not real fulfilled by, right?

So, it does take effort, but I think the effort in this regard is actually more of a forward progression, not just that treading water feeling that people often feel when they're drowning or when they're feeling burnout.

If you're going to spend your effort, spend your effort on something that you've already built a really solid foundation on and understand what opportunities are in front of you that are in much closer grasp rather than starting all over. Because I think sometimes that pulling off the Band-Aid feels like the easy answer, but then you just realize that the wound is still quite raw, right? It's okay to take the step back. Look at the forest for the trees and step back from your day-to-day grind and see what the path looks like in front of you and what do you have to do to get on it.

I think that my biggest piece of advice that helps combat burnout is hope. Hope for different, hope for better, hope for new. It doesn't always have to be something external. It doesn't always have to be an about-shift, a right-hand turn. Sometimes it's just a gradual change that really brings that hope and fights off that burnout that so many folks feel in that really tough mid-career stage of life.

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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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