In this podcast, Amy Lewis, a partner with Maher Duessel in Pittsburgh, hopes to dispel some of the fears surrounding the path to partnership held by younger accounting professionals. She addresses such worries as whether it’s too stressful, how much personal time a high-level CPA might have to surrender, and, yes, how smart one has to be.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
For young professionals thinking of pursuing the path to partner, it's natural that they experience second thoughts and second-guessings. Is it going to be too stressful? Am I smart enough? Am I going to have to miss out on too much? Luckily, our guest today – Amy Lewis, partner with Maher Duessel in Pittsburgh – has thoughts on all of these reasons for trepidation and more.
For professionals considering leadership roles in a CPA firm, should they expect that it’s going to be more stress? Or would you say it's more along the lines of the same amount of stress just in different areas? What do you think the situation is?
[Lewis] A career in public accounting is stressful just by its very nature. We have to work with a lot of different people. We have a lot of different deadlines. There's a lot of tasks that are going on at the same time, so it just lends itself to a lot of stress in the profession as a whole. But I would say in your career, each level in the profession has a different type of stress and a different type of demand on you. As you move up in each level, you have new demands, you have new responsibilities, new deadlines that become part of your everyday task list, but you certainly lose some of the things that you were doing as a staff person. With new responsibilities, you lose some things that you are no longer the only one responsible to complete. It's an exchange each year as you grow, each level as you move up.
I wouldn't say it's always more stress every time. It just might be a replacement of different things. It can be manageable, you just have to find good ways to keep your task list organized, good time management skills, good ways to just keep yourself organized to make sure that you can tackle everything and have a good plan for each day as you work, to just make the stress less and just keep it under control.
What do you say to CPAs who have an opportunity to move up to a leadership role, but they feel like maybe they haven't learned enough to perform in the role or maybe have this fear that they aren't smart enough?
[Lewis] I think back to when I was a staff person. When I was in school, I always got good grades. Learning in school was pretty easy for me. I hate to say that, because I always feel like I sound like I'm boasting, but school was never too difficult for me. Then, when I first started out at Maher Duessel as a staff person, I was really the only staff person at my time. Most of the other people had at least one year or more experience that I was working with. I just really struggled that first year because I just felt I didn't know anything. I just really felt, what did I learn in college? I'm not sure if accounting is right for me. I don't think I can do this job. I really struggled over that decision to stay in the profession.
I just pushed through, and after a year, when I started to return to clients and started to do some things for the second time, I just started to really recognize that I had learned a lot more than I realized, a lot more than I gave myself credit for. Then, as more people, the next round of new hires, came on and I was working with them and teaching them things that I had learned, it just made me recognize that I am learning and you just keep learning as you go along.
I just think there's a lot of information in an accounting career. Standards are changing. Clients are doing new transactions, things that you have to learn about, and you're just always constantly learning, but it doesn't mean that you're not ready to take the next step. There's just always going to be something more that you need to know.
Even me now as a partner, I still spend time researching and reading and teaching myself different topics, listening to webinars, going to conferences, things like that, to learn more. You're just an ever-learner – it's just part of the job. You can't get discouraged about it because, had I taken my discouragement and walked away, I wouldn't be here anymore. Who knows what I would be doing? But certainly, you realize that you are learning as you go and you're developing more than you think you are.
I think a lot of people have a fear that if you're in public accounting and you move up to the partner level, then the next thing you know, you aren't going to be able to go to the kids' sporting events, you're going to miss out on some vacations maybe, that a part of your personal life is going to have to be sacrificed. Is that a realistic fear? How do you deal with those different things?
[Lewis] There will be times you're going to miss a sporting event, or a practice, or something because you have a client meeting and you're expected to be there and you have to show up. But honestly, the way that the profession is, there is a lot of flexibility, especially as you move up in level, to be able to make your schedule what you need both personally and professionally. If you have a lot of things going on in a particular week personally, then you might be able to move some of your due dates or task lists around to accommodate, so that week then isn't also the week where five reports are due. Maybe you can move that around and, especially as you progress, you have more control of your own schedule, so it makes it easier for that.
In my experience, I have two young kids. I actually did hold off on becoming partner because, when my kids were first born, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to handle both. But I finally realized that I was doing a lot of the same work that I would be doing as a partner, even though I wasn't a partner yet. I just came to the realization that I am able to do both. I'm raising my kids, they're healthy, they're happy, they're very active in sports and activities, and I'm still able to get to all of that and to do my own work. It's just about balance.
At my firm, almost all of our partners have kids. Two of them have four kids. So certainly, they have been able to make it work for them to be able to raise a family and still lead a firm and be successful. It's definitely doable. Again, it's just a matter of figuring out your schedule and making that work to fit everything in. It's definitely something that's possible.
I think it's also just about understanding your balance. I think you can work hard and work hard and work hard, but if you don't take a break, that's not going to make you better either. You have to make sure that you are taking those breaks and going to your kids' events, or taking a vacation, or taking a lunch break, things like that, all which make you just happier as a person, which then makes you happier as a professional.
Are there different skills and interest areas that CPAs in public accounting will be able to exercise more in leadership and partner roles that they might not be able to use if they remain in staff roles? If so, what would some of those different skills be?
[Lewis] Absolutely, because I think as a staff person, you find yourself doing a lot of repetitive tasks, things that you're doing the same. You might do it multiple times because of different clients, but ultimately you're basically doing the same tasks over and over and over again, and it can get old and it can get boring. As you progress and learn more and get more experience, then those tasks start to get different. You start seeing different areas of the client, you start doing different tasks in the engagement.
As you move up in levels, you start to do more non-client-related items, things like maybe helping with implementation of new software at your firm. You need an implementation team, people to test it out, see what works or what doesn't work, troubleshoot some issues. That might be something you could start to do. There's coaching and mentoring opportunities. There's training opportunities, networking opportunities, all kinds of other types of skill sets that you can explore. I think that is really what makes being promoted and continuing to be promoted most exciting because then you aren't doing the same stuff every single day. In my case, we're primarily audit, so you might spend four days doing audit work, but then there might be a day where you're spending on more soft skills type things that really don't necessarily tie directly to the audit, but just make you a better person, well-rounded, but it just helps to break up the monotony.
I find that to be the exciting part about becoming managers and becoming partners, because there's a whole other world of skills. I think if you can find something else that you're passionate about on top of your regular duties, it just makes the job that much more interesting and it just makes you more committed to wanting to stay and pursue that career.
Let's say that you make the decision that you want to pursue the role of partner. How do you inform leadership that you'd like to be considered for that role and what are the steps you have to take to make sure you're progressing towards that position?
[Lewis] It's a tough conversation to have, because it's tough to come up and say, "I want to be a partner." On the flip side, it's tough as partners to come to somebody and say, "We want you to be a partner," because there's a balance of, we want to inspire you for sure but then we also don't want to scare you, because for some people, that thought is just too scary and it might actually turn them away. It might have an opposite effect from what you're trying to achieve.
But I think, if you have a mentor program or a coaching program at your work, really take advantage of that. Use your coach, use your mentor, to talk to them about what is it that needs to be done in order to keep progressing? What skills do you need to have to ultimately be a partner? What is your firm looking for? What are the values, what are the expectations? Use that program to try to start asking those questions, because that's where generally you have a really close relationship with that person and are most comfortable to have more detailed conversations like that.
Using your evaluation process – so whether it's if you have programs throughout the year where you get continuous feedback, or if you do a mid-year or an annual performance review, use that opportunity to not just get the results of the review, but then take the conversation a little bit further and just say, "Okay, well, what do I need to do next? I'm almost to be promoted to this level, what should I be working on to make sure I get there? Then, what do I need to do for the next level." Use those forums because that's what that conversation is focused on, so that's a really great time to really get some understanding there, as to how am I doing and then what can I do next?
Honestly, I would say just work hard and make yourself noticeable, because if you're just coming along and doing your job and not volunteering for extra things, or not really being noticeable, then it's not that you wouldn't get the promotion, but you just won't be identified as a person who is maybe in the next bucket of people that the partner group is considering. I think if there are those side projects, if you will – firm management-type projects, the teaching, the mentoring, the implementation programs, things like that – if there's something that you're interested in, or just want to take extra initiative would just make you be seen as somebody who has the drive and the willingness to try to go farther. That's going to get you closer to that conversation where eventually we would feel comfortable coming to you and saying, "Hey, we really think you have what it takes. What do you think about us working toward you becoming partner one day?"
There are people who would rather not be a partner, right? Is it possible to succeed in public accounting if you don't really have that ambition? Does it make leadership think lesser of you?
[Lewis] You definitely aren't thought of as lesser unless the reason you're not looking at that is because you don't have that ambition, you don't have that drive, you're not being a very good employee. I mean, that's a whole different conversation, but certainly not everybody can be partner. Economically, there's no way that everybody that works at the firm could ever become partner. There's just not enough room for that. But there is value to having somebody at the firm who has that level of expertise, has that experience, can have some kind of niche that they can really exploit and use to the firm's benefit. Certainly, I think if you find what you're passionate about, if there's a particular type of client that you are really interested in or you have a lot of experience in, and you can work to be an expert in that field, if there's a particular other type of skill set or experience or interest that you have that you can use, as you develop, that can become something that becomes a really valued asset to the firm and they can utilize those values that you bring to their benefit as well.
You don't have to be partner. You can just still continue to work and be successful for yourself because that's the path you want to take, but then still provide value to the firm, so then there's still a reason to keep you as an employee. Absolutely, there's opportunities for that just as long as you're still bringing value. I think if you're not doing your work – your share – at some point it starts to get hard to keep somebody on. But there's just so much experience and expertise to be gained from people after they've worked for several years, that it's hard to not keep them because they're providing more value than just necessarily needing to become partner.