By Johanna Baum, CPA, CISA
I am convinced that beginning my career at a small accounting firm helped make me the leader I am today. While many kick-start their careers with one of the larger firms, that wasn’t destined to be my path.
My career embarked at a small satellite office of a firm in Memphis, Tenn. It was my first “real” job interview, and was, by far, not my best performance. I was recovering from the flu and was a bit flustered, so I ended up one exit too far on a highway in Arkansas. Luckily, I arrived on time to meet with the partner. I was offered a position as a tax intern. Without that position, my accounting education, and a bedrock of grit and amazing mentoring, my career trajectory could have been completely different. But this was my path, and it was right for me.
Students today have several pathways to obtain experience and find their direction. Launching a career at a small vs. large accounting firm can affect the path you follow, as it did for me. I personally favor the small-firm experience. From my perspective, here are three benefits of launching an accounting career at a smaller firm.
Beginning in Memphis, my career path started with a tiny but powerful tax team. We had a leader I still look up to today. I later joined a larger firm, but the skills and comradery I obtained from that team were what made me successful when jumping into a much bigger boat.
As a young accountant at a small firm, you will have the opportunity to be mentored closely by leaders in every role. Your view of a wide array of career paths comes with greater clarity, and you can often move rapidly without a linear, predefined mandatory waiting period.
Working in a smaller arena provides first-hand, side-by-side, and deeper learning opportunities that aren’t as frequently available in larger organizations. The ability to sit with senior team members and discuss the “what” and “how” results in a deeper knowledge base of subjects that are more cursory in a global-firm environment. I was able to research and expand my thinking in real-time with an expert’s oversight. As I joined larger groups, the research skills and ability to rapidly absorb and apply knowledge would become invaluable.
I have found through my experiences, a larger firm did provide a view of diverse clients and industries, but I was also required to maneuver within departments to get this exposure. Also, I was far removed from senior levels of the engagement team and client representatives.
In a smaller firm, your introduction to leadership comes much earlier. You quickly become acclimated to client service and how to conduct yourself with all levels of management. This is something my larger firm colleagues had not experienced. I was able to rise quickly through the ranks of larger firms, not only for my technical skills but also due to my ability to support and work with all levels of the client team. I was capable of presenting to a board room or conducting myself at the water cooler.
As my career shifted and I grew professionally, the skills I learned in that Memphis office were my guide. They served me well over the years, and even helped me as I started a company almost 17 years ago.
A career is a journey that takes many twists and turns. Mine began after getting lost in Arkansas on the way to an office in Memphis. It kick-started a love of accounting, client service, and desire to ask bigger questions and seek more creative answers. While working for one of the largest accounting and consulting practices sharpened my abilities, it was the firm in Memphis that lit the fire and taught me how to be a better accountant, employee, mentor, and leader.
For small-firm resources, check out PICPA’s new Small Firm Alliance.
Johanna Baum, CPA, CISA, is CEO and founder of Strategic Security Solutions in Atlanta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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