What I Wish I Had Known About Public Accounting

Things I wish I had known 30 years ago

As I enter the latter part of my career, I look back and see I made several mistakes. Here’s what I wish I had known about public accounting at the beginning of my career.

I thought I knew a lot when I graduated from college, but my education was just beginning.

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Job #1 – The Lesson of Firm Culture

In my first job, I went to work with a “big eight” public accounting firm in Tampa, Florida. As soon as I moved to my new digs on Tampa Bay, they shipped me out to Jackson, Mississippi where I remained for months (seeing my Tampa apartment twice in three months). Most days I did the expert work of pro-forming work papers—the thing they gave to newbies. Boredom defined. So I had this sexy job with a big firm, but I spent most days dawdling with routine duties. I kept thinking, “I went to college for this?” Surely accounting had to be more interesting.

I felt uncomfortable. This international firm was cold (even if this office was in Florida). I grew up in a small town where you spoke to everyone and respected all. So I soon left Tampa and headed back home to Georgia.

What I learned: Work in a place that allows you to grow and one where you fit in. Firms have cultures; I needed one that aligned with my personality and values.

Job #2 – The Lesson of a Niche Practice

Back in Georgia, I landed work with a regional firm. I felt more at home. The work was more challenging than my former job, and my knowledge began to expand rapidly. This particular business had a strong niche practice and was very profitable. The firm used a pooled staffing approach, so I worked for one partner one week, another the next week, and another the next. I did not get a chance to start and finish audit engagements. It stressed me that so many different partners wanted me to complete their work. And each partner felt their work was the priority. After three years, I moved on.

What I learned: Firms that focus on niches perform better than those that don’t. As an employee, it’s better to work with one partner. You get to see engagements from start to finish, and the stress decreases as you know what your (one) boss wants.

Job #3 – The Lesson of Working for One Boss

My new firm was even smaller than the last, having about thirty people. Here I worked for one partner which was nice, and he worked in one industry which was also pleasant. When I interviewed with the firm, I was told my assigned partner would retire in three or four years, and I would have the opportunity to take his place. Since I was the audit manager, I learned a great deal, but over time it became apparent to me I was doing most of the work and the partner was receiving most of the benefits.

The partner was a wonderful guy, but after eight years (not three or four), the partner was still in plain sight (and had not retired). So one day I screwed up my courage and asked, “When are you retiring?” The conversation was difficult (an understatement, he yelled at me). He would not answer my question. It was clear he had no intention of retiring (even though he was 68). I was angry. I had been duped (at least, I felt that way). So I left.

What I learned: I liked working for one boss. I knew what he wanted, and I delivered it. When someone makes you a partnership offer, get it in writing (clarify the timetable and how the transition will occur). Don’t allow years to go by without communicating.

Job #4 – The Lesson of a Solo Practice

The next step in my journey was to start a new firm. I bought a small company that was only yielding $200 per month (yes, you read that right—$200 a month). My wife was at home with our kids, so we had no other income. About this same time, my two-year-old son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. I wondered how we would make it. Never been so low in my life. We had an excellent opportunity to exercise faith, so we did, praying often. All I can say is God took care of us. At the end of the first year, my income was equal to my prior year of employment. The following five years were successful. But after six years of being a sole proprietor (and then as a partner), my father’s health began to fail, and I was called to attend to his needs and…yes, you guessed it, another job.

What I learned: Going solo is one of the hardest things you will ever do. I quickly realized how important it is to have other professionals around me so I can bounce thoughts off them and seek their guidance. Being alone is well…lonely. (I brought in a partner in my third year. Having her there was quite helpful.) Without the economies of scale afforded to those in larger firms, my overhead ate most of my cash flow. I found it hard to get potential audit clients to take me seriously. They saw me as “small” though my skill level was no different than it was in my previous jobs. When it comes to marketing, perception is everything.

Job #5 – The Lesson of Learning to Speak and Write

I returned to my first Georgia employer (job #2 above) as their quality control director. I was 42 years old and had never been a quality control guy, so this was all new to me. But I enjoyed the challenge. While the firm had a niche practice, it still afforded me the opportunity to see a wide variety of audits, reviews, and compilations. I also began teaching more continuing education classes and loved doing so. When I taught, I felt “in my element.” The firm did (and still does) an excellent job of marketing. After six years in this position, my father passed away, and my wife wanted to move back to middle Georgia to be near her mother. So we did.

What I learned: Exposure to a broad range of work expands your professional abilities. It is easier for niche firms to market themselves as go-to experts. A niche practice generates higher profits since a common client base allows a firm to build repeatable processes and train staff. Also, I was beginning to realize the importance of speaking and writing. (On a personal note, being there for my Dad was awesome. The conversations we had are some of my most treasured memories.)

Job #6 – The Lesson of Staying with a Firm

For the last seven years, I have worked as the quality control director and now as the quality control partner for our business. We are well diversified, but we have specialized niches within the company, so no one industry defines us. The diversity of work keeps me on my toes. I deal with accounting and auditing issues for banks, telecommunication companies, nonprofits, governments, small businesses and more. I continue to speak at professional conferences and to our staff, and, as you can see, I write. Interestingly, social media and writing books have allowed me to make contacts throughout the country.

One thing I have thought about as I look back over my career: I changed jobs too often. If I had my career to do over again, I would find a good firm, and I would stay. Changing jobs provides you with a greater diversity of experience, but it lessens your opportunities.

What I learned: Finding and staying with a good firm will provide you with your most significant opportunities. Speak to groups and write professional articles and blog posts. Doing so will allow you to make new friends and great contacts.

Reflections on the Journey

Finally, let me say this: Finding balance and taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually are keys to success. Sitting at a desk for ten to twelve hours a day—without breaks—will only make us less productive and less healthy. Praying and running have been my two biggest allies. At 6:00 every morning, I spend about 30 minutes reading my Bible and praying. I also run about three times a week. These practices give me energy and stamina.

What Lessons Have You Learned?

These are some of the things I have learned, often the hard way. I’d love to hear about lessons you learned. Please share one or two career experiences that have taught you the most.

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41 thoughts on “What I Wish I Had Known About Public Accounting

  1. I had the pleasure of working with Charles during his second tour (Job #5). He was a positive influence then and continues to be through his written contributions. Great post!

  2. Great topic! One thing I wish I had known: just read the standards! Whether it is accounting or auditing standards or tax updates, I too often would only read interpretations, ie the PPC guides or deskbooks. While these have their place, it can often be more useful to just go right to the source, the actual standards. Don’t be afraid to read the actual FASB or audit standards text.
    For tax guidance, the IRS instructions to the Form 990 for example can sometimes be just as useful as the PPC deskbook.

  3. What I Wish I Had Known About Public Accounting. A most appropriate title. I identify my life with it. Great article, a must reading.

  4. Great testimony, Charles. I enjoy your writing and purchased your book from Amazon a while back. Your spirit comes though in your writing and you are a blessing to many of us beyond the technical matters. May God continue to bless you, your family, and your work.

  5. Excellent article. Should be Accounting 101 required reading. Accounting was created for man, not man for Accounting. There’s no need to slave away not taking care of our bodies and families. Excellent advice about the spiritual and physical parts of life we need to take care of.

      • I would add, maybe more than we need to know what “they” (being the future firm is about) are about, we really need to know what we’re about.

        I hope the young accountants will think this all through and be unapologetic about wanting a life with family/friends, time to work out, the ability to handle life’s appointments etc.

        I’d add that if the firm they are interviewing with says “we’re all about work/life balance” but can’t find people who are doing those same things for the candidate to talk to, then maybe they need to look elsewhere.

        • Jay, yes, I think many firms talk about work/life balance, but the reality is not always there. I have seen scores of people leave the profession because firms are not willing to adapt. Time with family and friends is at the top of my list (even though I’m in my 50s)–this is even more true for the millennials.

  6. There was not anything in this article that I can argue with.
    What I say the most to the younger generation is – you don’t know what you don’t know!

  7. Charles, your story matches that of so many in public accounting and is the reason so many don’t stay in public accounting or even pursue it in the first place. It is demanding work, but very rewarding. The culture of public accounting should become a little more flexible both to keep employees and to attract clients who also may feel uncomfortable with the culture. Success can be found through hard work, luck of being in the right firm at the right time, networking, and more hard work.

    • Sharon, I think “being in the right firm” is the key. I have had some times of misery. No fun. But I have always loved public accounting. The challenges are the most enjoyable (and painful) parts of what we do.

    • Val, when I left my prior job, my prior employer called me about a month after leaving and asked me to assist them in their transition. I did so, but I charged them my “outside” rate. This provided me with income for “my” transition. Then during the year, I had prior contacts call me about performing audits for them. I also had some friends in the business (other CPAs) that knew of my going solo–they also pitched business my way. I was amazed as the year closed that things had gone so well. Going into my second year, I had more than I could do.

  8. Charles, this article spoke to me on SO many levels!!!! I started at a small firm in 1987 that was known as the “boot camp” for public accountants in my area. Moved around to round out my career and then went private to be able to devote more time with my son. Now as a sole practitioner, I concur with your thoughts about having another professional to bounce ideas off of at times. I’m blessed to have other CPA pals with whom I can do just that! I consider myself a health care provider in that my gift is to make people feel better about their tax situation. Stress and worry can kill and if we can bring some peace of mind to people it is truly a God-given gift. Blessings to you and your family as you enter the fifth season of the year: TAX season!!

  9. Mr. Hall,
    I greatly enjoyed your post “What I Wish I had Known About Public Accounting”, as my career path thus far has been comparable to yours (though not nearly as long – I am currently a 33 year old CPA from Shreveport, Louisiana). I recently started a CPA practice as a sole practitioner, and I have also recently discovered a genuine interest in writing/blogging. One topic I am trying to learn about (and would greatly appreciate your advice on) is this: How do you recommend building a reader base (i.e., following) for your blog, and what is the best approach to developing a successful blog?? Any insight you are willing to share would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    • Dillon, glad to see your interest in blogging, especially in regard to accounting. My advice: (1) stay at it and be consistent in putting out content (readers get used to the regularity of your posts), (2) put out quality content (many of my initial posts were less than 1,000 words and would take me more than six hours to write, (3) don’t expect to make a great deal of money (especially in the first couple of years), (4) blog because you love doing so and because you want to help others, (5) constantly think about what CPAs need (what do they struggle with the most and how can you lessen their pain?), (6) develop an email list (acquire email addresses so you can communicate directly with your tribe; be respectful in how often you email them; once a week for me and 95% of the time I am sending free useful information), (7) listen to other bloggers/podcasters such as Darren Rowse, Pat Flynn, and Michael Hyatt. Hope this helps. Charles

  10. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us! As I am early on in my career, I keep looking for the place I feel I belong. I think many of us are looking for that one position that will become our lifelong career, and it’s tough to determine the best option. But I agree with you…constant communication with God is key as well as continuing to grow ourselves in the positions we currently hold.

    You have a wealth of knowledge, and I enjoy learning from you in your writings and CPE classes!

  11. Interesting post. I am a partner in a CPA firm I started with 35 years ago. I was blessed with a boss that was a great teacher, however, I often regret not having a more diverse experience that I might have obtained working for more than one firm.
    We are a small firm, (10 employees) in a small town, and I our biggest challenge is marketing and recruiting. I like to read your posts. It seems like I always glean some insight that helps me.

  12. Thanks Nancy. 35 years is great–all with one firm! I am from a small town and know the blessings of such a community. I moved away from there many years ago, but still have the fondest memories of that place.

  13. I love the wisdom you share here, Charles. And as you request, here’s the one thing I wish I’d know way, way earlier… (And sorry this is so mercenary…)

    I wish I’d known way earlier, how good a deal running a solo practitioner firm is and how good a deal it is to work in a small accounting firm. It’s easy to compare the average small firm’s “average” performance to other opportunities like working in a very large firm. And then conclude the opportunity is mediocre.

    But what I didn’t realize until way after I should have is that small firms can be great deals. The top performers enjoy *very* comfortable incomes, get to do extremely interesting work, and often nicely balance personal and work stuff.

    • Steve,

      I could not agree more. My first gig with a large firm was the least interesting and the least rewarding of my career. Not to say that it’s not rewarding for others, but for me, it was not what I desired. Small firms offer plenty of opportunity. Thanks for your comments.

  14. My husband was in the military. I had to resign from each job whenever we had to move which was at an average of 3 to 4 years. It was not easy building a career. I had to take any accounting job. Finally I had to open up my own practice. I was solo in my practice. I started very small. However, I my clientele grew to a point where I found myself working 7 days a week 12 to 15 hours a day. It was too much. Then, all of a sudden the PPC practice guides and the tax softwares increased in prices, so did rent and office supplies. 95% of the gross went to pay for the overhead and CPEs and licensure. It was too late for me to work for another firm. I had to stick it out and become creative marketing my firm. I understand and feel for everything you mentioned. In addition, I think AICPA did not help its members. I had been a member since 1999. I feel with the membership fee I paid each, I should get at least most if not all of the practice guides for free and the CPEs.

  15. I can totally relate to Job#4. Been there, done that! I wish I had back some of the thousands of hours that I spent trying to figure things out by myself – almost always during hours that should have been given to my family. Even in my current job as a controller I am so thankful for the working relationship I have with our external CPA firm, being able to participate in its educational program and having a very knowledgeable group of people to help me think through issues.

    • Steven, yes, I wish I could recover the many hours, days, months, and years I wasted trying to figure things out. But I guess that’s the source of wisdom–mistakes. We appreciate the work that you do and our affiliation with you. Thanks for the comment.

  16. Getting a “path to partnership” offer should absolutely be confirmed in writing. Learned that one the hard way too.

  17. Charles, a great piece. I agree on all counts. I left public accounting firms to become finance director for a $40 million city. It was great experience. Understanding the laws that govern, and the necessity of knowledge and finance professionals in the public sector. Despite the never ending stream of GASB statements, including #34 which I implemented, most small and medium jurisdictions just still do not get it. I uncovered theft at a city department (the museum complex with it’s fu-fu board and reputation), and the publisher of the local newspaper got with the city administration and fired me. They did not place the culprit on leave, they encouraged her to retire without alarming the public. Benefactors and all that to consider. The used the Senate Pro Tem to convince the Ethics folks my submission was some sort of a vendetta, therefore they closed the case. My failing in retrospect is assuming those in power, even when provided all documentation of abuse, theft and fraud—my failure was to assume a Mayor, or a City Manager, or a City Council, or a museum board cared about anything other than covering it up for fear of bad publicity. The direct cost of the theft was $25,000. The direct cost of the theft AND cover-up, including settling with me and lawyer fees, was $250,000. Operational revenue has declined since the event was uncovered in 2014 a running total which makes, with reasonable correlation to the event, the net cost of the theft over $1 million and running. There have been layoffs for budgetary reasons. The museum is accredited by the Alliance of Museums, and is a partner with the Smithsonian institution. Re-accreditation is upon their door. However, many, many half and un-truths have been provided to the accreditation body not just on the financial malfeasance and cover-up, but on their abrupt approach to buy what is needed for minimum standards. Something that they committed upon the first accreditation. The benefit of accreditation is the obvious stature, and placing the complex in the good company of the Smithsonian, and 400 other museums around the world. Yet, it is based upon a lie. I have a moral quandary with this and would love your input. It the deceit is uncovered, the reputation will be ruined. If accreditation is allowed, the other seriously accredited entities will recognize a decrease in value of accreditation. The lies will likely cost the Smithsonian affiliation. Within the alliance of museums, if you join one museum, you can visit all museums. The membership fee at this tarnished facility is $40 annually, one of the lowest, so members from all across the US join this facility for the purpose of right of entry to all. The Smithsonian has a loan program this facility uses, yet has consistently mis-represented the care and security of their collection pieces. A new director and the curator has submitted their (self-study) which is a public document, given the City is a public entity. So, their is no going back. I would love any thought you may have in an email. Interesting, huh? Not seeking advice, just your musing if you choose to share. I love your blog. It has helped me very much. Please keep it up. Your personal professional story is compelling. I spent 12 years at this City, but have otherwise been in PA or a sole practice guy. I now have just joined a firm that I really like the culture and see opportunity. But you are right, gotta nail it down. Best!

    • Danny,

      Glad to see you’ve landed in a place where where you “really like the culture.” This is critical to enjoying what you do. Working with honest people goes a long way to bringing peace to your workplace.

      Sorry to hear about your previous experience. When you’ve been in this business for very long, you’re bound to run into such issues. Transparency and honesty is always to right policy. When people start hiding things, it’s usually an indication that something is broken.

      Thanks for your kind words about my blog. I love doing this.