Be the Phelps of Entry-Level Accountants
By Catherine Saadat, CPA
July 28, 2009 (SmartPros) Many CPAs use the phrase "sink or swim" when describing their experiences as entry-level staff accountants. Although there is a steep learning curve in the public accounting profession, the best way to make sure that you're a "swimmer" is to know what it takes to be successful in such a challenging industry and how to develop crucial skills early in your career.
After all, Michael Phelps did not just fall into the pool and win all of his gold medals; he had to practice and learn in order to become the best.
If you continually refine your technical knowledge, keep up with industry and technological developments, and most importantly, maintain a good relationship with clients, you will be on your way to becoming a gold medalist in the accounting world.
Technical knowledge and skills
CPAs are expected to understand business concepts, be adept in emerging technologies and exhibit excellent time management skills. Sharpening these skills will help clients view you as a trusted business advisor.
Understand the big picture
Understanding the big picture is the crux of public accounting and evolves with experience. This ability encompasses understanding how internal and external factors affect a client’s business and identifying related audit and tax implications.
To develop this expertise as a staff accountant, start by understanding why you are doing what you are doing: How does the audit procedure fit in the overall audit? Why do you need a new schedule on a tax return this year?
Don’t fall into the habit of “ticking and tying” or doing the “same as last year.” Noticing differences and reacting to changes in the client’s revenue, financing, etc. will set you apart from other staff accountants.
The next step is being able to identify how these differences affect other audit or tax areas and determining the required response. At this point in your career, it is not unlikely that you will need to look to a supervisor for assistance. Don’t be discouraged; just be sure to understand the resolution, even if you are not directly involved. This will help you learn and will also make work much more interesting.
Keep up with industry developments
Continue to expand your knowledge base by keeping current on technical guidance and general developments, both within the accounting industry and the economy.
Technical guidance is constantly changing and some firms have designated individuals to ensure that new accounting standards are implemented timely and properly. Your role as a staff accountant is to be familiar with the pronouncements and be able to recognize when they apply to a project you are working on.
Additionally, CPAs need to be up-to-date with economic developments, such as changes in interest and unemployment rates. This can be as easy as watching the news daily or listening to National Public Radio (NPR) on the drive to work. Also, read journals like the Journal of Accountancy or the Wall Street Journal. You do not have to read them cover to cover, just skim to make sure you are up on any significant events.
Be technology savvy
Rapid advancements in technology are changing the way accountants do business, and being proficient in various technologies is imperative.
Firms utilize software products to do everything from calculating depreciation to preparing tax returns. Entry-level accountants are often encouraged to take a role in learning and implementing new software packages because, oftentimes, they have grown up in a technology-immersed society.
Become familiar with each application, or better yet, make yourself indispensable by becoming an expert at one type of software — become a go-to person. Showing an interest and willingness to go above the expected job requirements is a great way to stand out in your firm.
Manage your time
Accounting is all about deadlines and budgets, so it’s essential to manage time effectively by appropriately prioritizing work assignments.
Organize tasks by priority on a to-do list with time-sensitive work ahead of other assignments. Find a method of tracking your to-do list that works best for you. It doesn’t matter whether you use Outlook or a pad of paper as long as you are able to stay organized and finish work in a timely manner.
To avoid going over-budget on an assignment, always know approximately how long it should take to complete. If it is taking more time than expected, inform your supervisor as there may be a way to complete the task more efficiently. If you find yourself spinning your wheels, do not be afraid to ask questions of more experienced staff members who may have a solution for your problem.
Public accounting is a service industry and, consequently, outstanding service is one way that a firm can differentiate itself from others. For this reason, it’s important to provide a high level of service to the client and develop relationships.
Know your client
You will be exposed to many clients in various industries throughout your career. Understanding the client’s business or organization is critical in performing an effective audit or preparing a tax return.
As a staff accountant, you will be expected to have a working knowledge of the client’s business on both the financial and operational side. For attest engagements, start by reading the prior-year financial statements to gain a general overview of the client’s business. There should also be a wealth of information included in the client file.
Also, take a look at the client’s website or Google the client so you can get an idea of what they are all about. As you progress, you will find that this knowledge will help you design or adapt audit procedures, prepare tax returns or recognize additional services your firm could provide.
Develop a professional rapport with clients
Although your client interaction may be limited as a staff accountant, you can develop your relationships with clients by being both professional yet approachable in demeanor.
Spend a little time getting to know the client; chatting about a client’s grandchild or golden retriever can help ease tension and the client will often be more forthcoming with answers to questions. As simple as this may sound, it is extremely important for two main reasons: A client who is able to identify with you is usually easier to work with, and they are also more apt to engage your firm again.
CPAs must not only be able to analyze data and draw conclusions, they must also be able to effectively communicate that information to clients.
The ability to take complicated financial information and explain it in non-accounting terminology that is easy to understand is a valuable talent. Local firms usually serve a broad range of clients with accounting personnel ranging from sophisticated chief financial officers with a fully-staffed accounting department to bookkeepers without any accounting background.
You should be able to adapt your approach depending on the client. Whether you are corresponding via e-mail, phone or written letter, always be professional. Re-read your e-mails for tone before you send them; sometimes e-mails can be interpreted as demanding when in fact they were just written too quickly or without enough thought. For this reason, consider using the telephone. Calling may also save time because follow-up questions can be addressed immediately.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “career” as a field for pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement. College graduation is just the very beginning of a career in public accounting.
Pass the CPA Exam
The CPA designation represents much more than just accounting knowledge. It is the foundation upon which you will build your career and establish yourself as a trusted business advisor. Becoming a CPA is also necessary for upward mobility in a public accounting firm.
Start preparing for the Exam as early as possible by learning as much as you can about the Exam in general as well as the Exam material. Research Exam preparation materials and select a method that best fits your learning style, whether it is a live classroom setting or an Exam prep book. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy’s official Exam website (http://www.cpa-exam.org/) is an excellent resource for detailed instructions and information.
Embrace the review process
The review process is used to ensure a high work quality and should be viewed as a learning experience. Get into the mindset that you, as a staff accountant, are the first part of the review chain.
Although you may feel pressure to complete assignments quickly, being too speedy can sacrifice quality and end up adding significant time in the long run. Before submitting any assignment for review, take a few minutes to review it yourself. Start simple: Is the math correct? Do I have the right fiscal year? Then ask yourself if someone will be able to follow your work. Does the work performed support the documented conclusion? Does it make sense? You will be surprised how many errors you can catch by reviewing your own work.
Find a mentor
The guidance and support of an experienced CPA can help you develop professionally and progress in your career. Some firms have implemented mentoring programs whereby a mentor is assigned to each new staff member, while other mentoring relationships may naturally evolve.
Look to your mentor to help you establish and work toward achieving your goals. Your firm is likely to have certain expectations for each experience level that can be used to assist you in forming goals.
Take every opportunity available to hone your skills and do not be afraid of challenges or mistakes, as they are part of the learning process and fundamental to developing your technical expertise and knowledge.
After a few years of experience, you will be doing the butterfly in the sea of accounting.
Catherine Saadat, CPA, is a senior accountant with Thompson, Greenspon & Co. in Fairfax, Va., where she specializes in audits of construction and government contractors. Contact her at email@example.com.
Source: Reprinted with permission from the Virgina Society of CPAs.
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