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Sep 13, 2021

New Book Offers Advice for a Successful CPA Career

Dave Wagaman, emeritus professor in accounting at Kutztown University, sits down with Jerry Maginnis, retired KPMG Philadelphia office managing partner and current executive in residence for Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., to talk about Maginnis’s new book, Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession: How to Make Your Assets Greatly Exceed Your Liabilities. The book covers critical career components, such as work-life balance; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and giving back to the community.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor


Podcast Transcript


PICPA and Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board members Jerry Maginnis and Dave Wagaman have collaborated numerous times for the benefit of our members, including several features for our magazine. However, today we have them here with us for a different collaboration. Dave, emeritus professor in accounting at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, will be talking to Jerry, executive in residence at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., among other roles, about Jerry's new book, Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession: How to Make Your Assets Greatly Exceed Your Liabilities. Enjoy the conversation!

[Wagaman] Jerry, can you tell us what the book is about and how you organize the topics?

[Maginnis] The book's essentially organized into three main sections. Section one, I call Navigating Your Route to a Rewarding Accounting Career. The focus is really on younger folks, college students majoring in accounting, maybe high school students beginning to think about what they want to major in in college. It really provides an overview of why accounting is a terrific profession. It tries to address very practical questions. In my experience, a lot of students don't realize until they're a little further along in their academic journey that, if they want to be a CPA, they need to get 150 credit hours. So I hit that right up front.

I've got a chapter called Is Becoming a CPA the Right Path for You that explains what's entailed if you want to go down that path. I've got another chapter that talks about all the different things you can do with an accounting degree. Work in industry, in public accounting, be an auditor, be a tax person, be a consultant, an internal auditor, or a forensic accountant. It briefly explores all those career paths.

Section two of the book really is focused on what I call early career professionals. I define that as individuals in the first six to eight years of their professional career, a time to develop good habits that will serve you well throughout your career. I talk in that section of the book about core values that are important to every accountant, how to develop, enhance your technical skills, how to work effectively with others and develop outstanding communication skills, among other topics.

In chapter three of the book, I have material that I think broadly applies to really anyone at any point in their career journey. While this book is primarily focused on people thinking about majoring in accounting, studying accounting at universities, and in the early stages of their career, as I worked through it, I came to the conclusion that it might actually benefit others further along, perhaps as a good refresher of things that hopefully they've experienced as they began their journey.

[Wagaman] I'll add this. I certainly agree with your comments about the target audience and the benefits that can be derived from them. But I, as a former accounting professor, would say it is a great book from an accounting professor's standpoint to help tell those stories to the students or have them read the book in one of our classes, so a job well done. Why did you think that it was important to write this book at the present time?

[Maginnis] During my time at KPMG, I had the opportunity to work with, confer with, hopefully mentor and coach literally hundreds of early career professionals and everybody's situation was unique, but there were clearly some common themes that could be summarized along the lines of, how can I be successful in this career, in this profession? After retiring from the firm and joining Rowan as an executive in residence, I've had that same experience with college students. Their issues and concerns are a little different, but similar themes. They're very interested obviously in their future and how to optimize the benefits of their accounting degree. That was really the catalyst for me to write the book. Having had a lot of these conversations, I thought, geez, maybe I can put some of this on paper in a way that would be helpful to people who are wrestling with these types of questions.

I tried to make the book, again, very practical and easy to read. It's not a lengthy tome. The whole thing is only about 160 pages. The individual chapters tend to be very short and to the point, six to eight pages. I've tried to organize it in a way that's user-friendly. I state at the beginning of every chapter what the key takeaway is. I've got some war stories in there that hopefully reinforce some of the themes I talk about in the individual chapters. Then, I usually conclude with a quote that, again, hopefully reinforces some of the learning points.

[Wagaman] I love a lot of those quotes, Jerry. Getting to specific questions, in the early part of the book you're dealing largely with the students. In your opinion, what's the most important thing for a young person to base a career decision upon?

[Maginnis] I've got a chapter right up front that talks about why accounting is a great profession and all the different opportunities that are available to someone with an accounting degree. But in that same chapter, I try and make the point that accounting isn't for everyone, right? Whether you're an accountant or an engineer or a school teacher or a firefighter, finding your passion is really what it's all about.

Careers are for a long time these days, 40 years or more, and you really need to find a job that you're going to enjoy, find challenging. Hopefully, when you're driving to work in the morning, you're looking forward to being there as opposed to dreading it. I conclude that first chapter with a quote from Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. Some probably have heard it. I think it was from a commencement address he gave at Stanford University, but it goes like this, "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

[Wagaman] Yes, and I can speak to that personally. I didn't especially love public accounting, but I found my niche in education. Accounting is a great profession with all types of career paths, and I think you touch upon that very nicely in the book. You provide some insights in the book on how you can achieve professional success, while also having a rewarding personal and family life. Can you share some of those insights?

[Maginnis] Throughout the book, I try not to sugarcoat anything. I really tell people the way it is. There's a lot of discussion in there about the fact that accounting can be a very demanding profession because it tends to be seasonal and deadline-driven, whether you're an audit professional, a tax professional, or someone working in a corporate accounting department. It's definitely possible to put in some long hours, right? In a busy season, an 80-hour week is not unusual.

At the same time, I tell folks don't believe all those myths out there about how you're going to be working 80 hours a week, year-round. The reality is firms and companies have gotten a lot more focused on work-life balance. Many of the larger accounting firms give 25 days off a year to their new hires. I know several of the Big Four firms just gave their staffs off for 4th of July week. They do the same thing around the holidays. The profession has become a lot more flexible over the last few decades than when I initially joined it.

One of the important lessons I try and emphasize to the reader is that people can sometimes be their own worst enemy, especially if they're highly motivated and tend to be overachievers. You really need to discipline yourself and manage your schedule effectively and know when to step back and spend time with your family, enjoy personal hobbies and activities. That will make you a better employee in the long run as well. The book has a lot of tips on how you can make that work-life balance equation work to your advantage.

[Wagaman] You've been a leader in the effort for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the accounting profession. What do you have to say in the book to women and minorities about the state of the accounting profession?

[Maginnis] I have a chapter that's devoted specifically to this topic and to that audience. I try to be very honest. The truth is that the profession's historical track record in this area is not great. The good news is there's been tremendous progress made in recent years. I would say the awareness of firm leaders and the profession's leadership is at an all-time high. I can say in good faith, and I do say in the book, there has never been a better time for women and minorities to launch a professional career in accounting. Having said that, they do face some unique challenges and the book contains some specific tips and advice for them on how to best address those challenges.

[Wagaman] As a former accounting educator, I believe that most young accounting professionals have been implicated with the importance of lifelong learning. You address this in a chapter that covers developing, maintaining, and enhancing your technical skills. The advice that you dispense is very convincing, but might not be the things that many individuals have considered in this regard. Can you share some of the advice you provide in that chapter?

[Maginnis] This is a really important topic. I think I say in the book that your technical skills are the currency that will finance your professional accounting career. In a world where the pace of change is constant and accelerating, staying current has never been more important than it is now. It's not enough to simply have an accounting degree or even pass the CPA Exam. Accountants have to really work at staying relevant. That includes things that like technology skills, which are increasingly important.

One of the things I talk about that may be a little surprising is the importance of reading. In a world dominated by media, I see young people get a lot of their information from their iPhone, and there's nothing wrong with that, but you really need to get beyond the snippets and the headlines and understand at a deeper level what's happening. I've got a number of examples in there of how reading can enhance your professional career.

Another quick observation is that I talk about the importance of developing specialized knowledge, whether it be as a subject matter expert or within a certain industry. That can be a tremendous catalyst to your accounting career.

[Wagaman] Like so much in the book, I really agreed with the idea of reading being important. In a lot of ways, it's a lost art, so hopefully that will resonate with the reader. You have a couple of chapters that address the importance of the so-called soft skills that are necessary to be successful. Two-part question: what do you believe is paramount in this area, and what attribute might come as a surprise to the reader?

[Maginnis] There's a number of characteristics that I think are really important to success in the profession. I'd have to put personal integrity at the top of the list. One of the things I talk to the students at Rowan about is it's amazing to me how you can't pick up The Wall Street Journal or other major publications without reading about one major ethical lapse in the headlines. It might be in the field of business, sports, politics, entertainment, you name it, but somebody is always stepping out of bounds, and it's particularly important for accountants to hold themselves to a high ethical standard given the trust that society, regulators, and the capital markets place in our work.

In terms of one that may surprise people, I talk about courage being really important for accountants. There's been many times in my career where I had to deliver some bad news and maybe speak truth to power, whether it be a CEO or a board of directors of a company. Let's face it, third parties are relying on the work of accountants, so it does take courage sometimes to take a stand and maybe tell your client no, but that's a really important skill set for successful accountants to develop.

[Wagaman] What is a value-creation mindset, and why is it a key determinant of an accountant's success?

[Maginnis] I've got a whole chapter devoted to that topic in the book because I think it's so important. A good analogy is every day all of us engage in retail transactions. Maybe we're shopping for clothes or food or whatever it might be. Many of us do it online these days. However you choose to do it, you find an item that you'd like to acquire. You read up a little bit about what the features of the product are, and certainly you look at the price and you make a judgment. Is this worth the value I'm being asked to part with? If it's going to cost me $85, is it worth $85? Ultimately, you go ahead and you either make that purchase or you decline to make that purchase because you've determined that value equation doesn’t work for you.

That's a very straightforward concept I think everyone can relate to. What a lot of people don't realize is that same thing happens in the business world every day and in the accounting profession. If you think about it, when you're first hired for a job, your employer is assessing how much they're going to pay you and the related fringe benefit costs, etc., and then how much value you're going to bring. Clearly, if they thought the cost of employing you was going to exceed the value you were going to bring, they wouldn't hire you. Businesspeople are pretty smart that way.

On an ongoing basis, they have the ability to reassess that. After year 1, 2, 5, 10, is Jerry or Dave providing value that exceeds the cost to us? If the answer to that question is yes, guess what? You're going to get raises, promotions, and opportunities. If the answer to that question is no, you could be laid off or terminated. Just being aware of that simple fact is incredibly important to any professional accountant. To get up every morning, thinking about how can I create more value for my employer, whether it's helping bring in a new client if you happen to work for an accounting firm, training and mentoring your people, offering suggestions on how to stay on the leading edge of technology, there's all kinds of ways to do it. But in my experience, many young accountants in particular don't even realize it's something they should be thinking about.

Another quick point on this is I think people with a value-creation mindset tend to think like an owner. So, if you or I owned our own business, we'd be getting up every morning creating value for that business. It should be no different if you work for a company or a firm.

[Wagaman] A chapter that really resonates with me is the power of personal relationships to a successful accounting career, or any career for that matter. Would you elaborate a bit on that chapter?

[Maginnis] In the real estate industry, there's a saying, "Location, location, location," and basically the idea is if you buy real estate in a nice neighborhood, it's probably going to not only keep its value, it's probably going to go up in value. Well, I've got a chapter in the book called Relationships, Relationships, Relationships, and I talk about how important they are in the accounting profession and how networking and leveraging those relationships can really go a long way to enhancing your career path. Again, many people don't think about those things until maybe they're in the market for a job or have a need to tap into a network, but it's something that you should be thinking about from day one. The book contains many tips, suggestions, ideas, and strategies that have worked well for me personally in my career when it comes to building and maintaining relationships.

[Wagaman] Let's face it: like most professions, accounting can at times be stressful. You have a chapter that deals with burnout and how accountants can overcome it. What are some of the strategies an individual can embrace to, as you say, proactively recharge their batteries?

[Maginnis] So burnout is certainly not unique to accounting. It impacts many professions – doctors, lawyers, first-line responders, police officers, etc. A lot of people face challenging working conditions that can contribute to burnout. In my experience, in my own career, I saw this impact many, many people. I would say that – not in every case, but in many cases – they sort of let it happen to themselves. So, this chapter talks about proactive strategies on how to avoid burnout. There's a number of things that I talk about, the need to unplug and just kind of forget about work. That's hard to do in a 24/7 world where we're all connected and getting emails and text messages around the clock, but you really need to step back.

Another important skill set is to learn how to say no. If I approach you and tell you I've got a great opportunity and I have a lot of confidence you can do something, your natural reaction is you're going to feel pretty good about that, and maybe glad I asked you and inclined to take it on, even if you're already busy and maybe sold out. Well, you have to learn to say no in the right way. Bottom line: there's a lot of things people can do proactively to manage their workloads and their schedules to avoid falling into that burnout trap. That's what this book and this chapter talks about.

[Wagaman] Experienced accountants are in high demand, especially at certain points in their career. You provide guidance on how to make good decisions when dealing with whether to stay with one's current employer or to leave for a new opportunity. What are some of the factors that should be considered in these instances?

[Maginnis] During my career, I must have met with literally hundreds of people who were thinking about leaving. Some of them had thought it through very, very well and left for good reasons and good opportunities. Others, I would say, not so much. Maybe they were feeling a little overwhelmed by their current position. Maybe they were facing burnout, and maybe they jumped without necessarily thinking long-term. The number one tip I would give anybody considering a career change is don't think about where you're going to be next month if you take that position. Think about where maybe you're going to be three to five years out.

And don't be fixated by money. Look, money's important. We all have to pay our bills, but there are other aspects that are just as important, maybe more important in the long-term. In a world where knowledge is so important and change is so constant, I talk in the book about how it's important for you to understand the training and development programs that a prospective employer might offer. Basically, the book lays out a thoughtful and strategic way to consider career changes and lays out eight specific steps to work through when you're considering a potential career change.

[Wagaman] This book is really an example of you giving back to the accounting profession, and the final chapter deals with that topic of giving back. Why is it so important, and how might CPAs want to approach it in their workplace and in the broader community?

[Maginnis] I think, if we're honest, just about everybody would have to acknowledge that we've all had a lot of help in our career and in our lives. Maybe it was our moms and dads who helped us finance a good education. Maybe it was a mentor or coach or colleague at work that invested in us and tried to provide feedback to improve us and get us to a point where opportunities presented themselves. I'm a big believer personally in that importance of paying it forward and maybe trying to do that for the next generation. That's one of the reasons I'm involved doing what I'm doing at Rowan, and it's been very rewarding.

Because accountants have such great knowledge and skills, there are many, many ways for them to give back. Just one small example: getting involved with a nonprofit of your choice. I would say pick your passion. If you like youth sports, maybe you're going to help out the local Little League. If you're into the arts, maybe it's music or a theater, but those nonprofits can really use the insight and expertise of an accountant or CPA with their finances and in many other ways. That can also be a great leadership development for individuals.

As I talk about in this chapter of the book, there are just countless ways to give back. Serve as a mentor, return to your alma mater, speak to college students or high school students. So, I conclude this chapter with a quote from John F. Kennedy, who said, "To those whom much has been given, much is expected." I would echo those thoughts as people reach a certain point where they've had some success in their career. I definitely think it's a good practice to give back and help that next generation. As I said, that can actually be pretty personally rewarding.

One other thing here before we wrap up, I know we're getting near the end of our time, and I guess I just wanted to mention that a lot of people helped me with this book. I have a section on acknowledgements to thank them. Many individuals took time to read my manuscript and provide helpful feedback, which definitely improved the book. Dave, you were one of them and I just wanted to say thank you for that.

[Wagaman] Oh, I enjoyed it immensely. That goes back to last summer when I read the manuscript twice, gave you some input, but it was a very enjoyable experience, as all of our projects have been. Again, the name of the book is Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession: How to Make Your Assets Greatly Exceed Your Liabilities. A final question: when and where will the book be available?

[Maginnis] Yes. So, the publisher, Dave, is John Wiley and Sons, and I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Wiley. They're a national, well-known publisher. They actually do a lot in the accounting profession with textbooks and other books. We're hoping that it's going to be available this fall. While it will be available in selected bookstores and other retail locations, I think the best way to pick it up will be on Amazon. We all are shopping on Amazon these days. It will definitely be available on Amazon. I'm hopeful it will be out sometime in the fall.

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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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