In the Careers & Lifestyles column of the spring 2020 Pennsylvania CPA Journal, Elizabeth Wilson, chief financial officer for Valley National Financial Advisors in Bethlehem, Pa., details how an interview for a tax season intern inspired her to write a letter to her younger self as a helpful word of advice to CPAs just starting out in the profession. In this podcast, she more deeply explores her tips for young CPAs, the ways writing the letter drove her to reflect upon her own experiences, and insights the self-communication provided on potential areas of growth.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
As Elizabeth Wilson states, she was conducting an interview for a tax season intern when discourse with a new entry into the profession caused some thoughts to stir. Namely what would Elizabeth, chief financial officer for Valley National Financial Advisors in Bethlehem, offer as career advice if she had written a letter to her younger self? Well, Elizabeth wrote that letter and shared it with us. It's now the Careers and Lifestyles column for the spring 2020 Pennsylvania CPA Journal, as well as the subject of today's podcast.
When you wrote this letter and you look back at your career as a now-established CPA, was there a part of you that thought, “Wow, there was a lot I didn't know back then?” What was that reflection like?
[Wilson] I definitely had that thought as I was writing it. I remember being back in college and getting ready to take on the world and get out there, and thinking that you had this figured out, you just went through your four years in school, and you are ready to do it. Then you get out into the real world, and you realize that there are a lot of things that you don't know. Through the years, I would say that you gain that knowledge really just by experience, and you gain that by sometimes sitting there and listening to what's going on around you to learn those type of things, and knowing that it's okay not to be the one talking and to be the one listening.
I would say as I was writing this letter to myself, I thought a lot about that because as much as you think you know going into something, when you get on the other side of it, you look back and you think, “Wow, look at all that I've learned since then.” I really thought I had it figured out in the beginning but here we are almost 20 years later, and it's still a daily process.
Every day, it's something that you didn't know the day before. For sure, it takes experience and it takes self-reflection.
Focusing on some of the advice you gave in your piece, you talked about the need for a young CPA to be reliable. What does that mean to you in this context?
[Wilson] To me, being reliable is if you say you're going to do something, you do it. You don't let people down. You don't make a deadline and then continuously have to move it. It's as simple as even meetings that you have scheduled. If you have a meeting scheduled, you stick to it. You show people that you value your time and you value their time. At the end of the day, when I think about being reliable, I just want people to be able to count on me. That means that they know that if they're going to give me something to do, it's going to be done, it's going to be done timely, it's going to be done well. It's something that they can rely on and they can trust what it is that I'm saying.
Another piece of advice you had given was to be kind. It's a piece of advice that would seem to work for CPAs in any stage of their careers, but is it something that can be lost sight of? Why do you think that is?
[Wilson] I think we do lose sight of it, and it's not because we set out to not be nice people. I think it's because we get so busy and we get so wrapped up in what's going on and the deadlines that we have to meet, and what it's going to take to get through our day. Especially in today's world, I think with technology, we're attached to our phones, we're attached to anything electronic for that matter. Sometimes we lose a little bit of that human interaction, and I think we need to pause every once in a while and make eye contact with people, sit down and have a conversation instead of just sending an IM or sending an email. Get up and go walk over and talk to that person.
When you do that, when you kind of reiterate that to yourself, when you ask someone how they're doing, really listen to what they have to say. Don't ask it in a way that it's just empty words. When you're being nice, you're asking people how they're doing and how their day was, and how their weekend was, and how their kids are doing. Really take the interest and listen to what they're saying. It's as simple as smiling when you greet people, when you walk in the door in the morning, greeting the person that you're walking past instead of just head down quick, got to get to my office, I have something to get started with. I will say me personally, I'm a parent as well. When you're given a compliment about your child's behavior or even your own behavior, to me there's no greater compliment than that.
You encourage your younger self to be accountable in your column. What does that mean, and do you think it's a tough one for new CPAs perhaps? Part of what I was thinking was because of the perception that any small mistake can potentially be harmful for a career that's just getting started. What do you think?
[Wilson] I think accountability really is twofold and it's being responsible and then taking ownership as well. I do think that's hard for people that are starting out. One, maybe they don't know how to be responsible. Maybe they don't know to take initiative from the get go. It's not because they don't want to, it's that at that point, they don't have the knowledge so they're waiting to be told what to do. That's not a bad thing. That's how you learn. But at the same time, to be accountable, you have to build that responsibility. You have to learn to take that initiative.
I'd say then the other side of that, the ownership is really following through and owning the results. If it's great and you're getting praise, of course everyone loves to raise their hand and say, "Yep, that was me." It gets harder, especially for people young in their career or at any stage in your career for that matter, for you to raise your hand and you say, "You know what? I'm the one that messed up," or "I didn't know all that information." I think it might be scary sometimes for people to do that because they don't want to risk their career, they don't want to have a black mark on their name. In my opinion, I tend to have more respect and get along better with people that will just be honest and say, "You know what? I made a mistake. I need to learn more." Whatever it is, instead of just trying to fake what they're saying or make things up.
Your last piece of advice in the column is to be honest. Clearly, as we all know, being honest is always the best policy and seems like natural advice. But it can be tricky in terms of being honest about one's career direction perhaps. The pressures to settle can be pretty strong for many reasons. Why is it important for young CPAs to be honest about where they are in their careers and where they want to go?
[Wilson] I think it's important for them because it goes back to the beginning of this conversation with you think you know what you're getting into but sometimes you don't. I know from my experience personally where I went to school, there was a big push toward the Big Four, and that's a great way to start. If you don't start that way, it doesn't mean that your career is going in a different direction. We're all going to be successful. But I think it's important, too, when you think back on that is you're getting into it, you think accounting, you think being a CPA, you think this whole world is one thing and then you get into it and you realize it may not be what you expected because you are only getting secondhand, thirdhand knowledge. When you get out there and you start to experience it for yourself, it's okay to say, "You know what? This is not for me." Or, "I made a decision. I took a position. I left an employer. At the time, I thought that was the right thing to do." But now when you get into it, you can be honest with yourself and you say, "You know what? Probably not the best decision."
The important part here is what do you do about it? It's not to sit there and wallow in it and say, "Oh, woe is me," but do something about it. If you made a decision that, in retrospect, was not the best one, then think about the next decision you're going to make a little bit harder. I've done that with my career. It's not always about what your paycheck is going to say, or who you're going to get to hang out with all day. There's more to it than that. Being honest with yourself, that's how you're going to set yourself up for success because you're going to lay your foundation, lay your groundwork, and say, "You know what? This is important to me. This is what I value. This is what I want to do with my career," and then take that honest approach and make it happen.
Through the exercise of writing this letter to your younger self, we already covered the idea that you were able to reflect on your career and the things you've learned. But did it also give you any insight into things maybe that you need to continue working on or potential areas of growth?
[Wilson] Absolutely. I believe that every day when you come to work, there's something that you can do better than you did it the day before. There's something that you can learn. I strive for myself to never become complacent. I always want to continue to be learning and taking on more responsibility and mentoring younger people. That's something that's very important to me, especially at this point in my career. Reflecting on this, it did give me insight into that. There is still growth for myself. There is still things for me to learn, and there's things for me to share as well. I think every day is an opportunity to do that.
One thing I thought was particularly interesting that you said at the end of your piece was that people should write this letter to their younger self, but also said that they should share it with others, which in essence is what you're doing in the magazine. But anyone else who does it should share it with others. What could be the particular benefit of sharing a letter such as this with other people? Is it to hold you to it? What's the thinking there?
[Wilson] I think it helps. It's a factor of accountability, but also we learned from other people, and everybody has different experiences and everybody has different insights. We all come from different places. I think really how we can help each other grow is if we share those experiences, and our thoughts, and our insights, and our opinions, with others and try to open their mind to it, or have people hear yours and say, "You know what, I didn't think about that." Or sometimes it helps just to have someone else's confirmation that, you know what, I feel that way, too. I do think it's a level of accountability, and I think it's a matter of learning and bouncing your experience and your thoughts off other people.