Are you your own career nemesis?

Anwar’s story illustrates six missteps that a young professional can make in public accounting.

Anwar is a bright senior manager at CPA LLP. He is a hard worker, sporting chargeable hours that exceed those of most of his peers. Anwar’s sharp focus on client priorities and his strong time-management skills allow him to pursue interests that are important to him outside of work. He thrives on the challenges at work, enjoys most of the people he works with and genuinely respects CPA LLP. However, he is not yet ready to fully commit to a career in public accounting.

Anwar was recently irked to learn that his performance rating slipped to “meets expectations” from “exceeds expectations,” without concrete examples of mistakes or slip-ups on either technical or client matters. He is upset that his work is not fully appreciated. He has a sense that the partners are not directing the best work his way, but he worries he might just be paranoid. He wonders whether he is well positioned, or even suitable, for a career at CPA LLP.

In any case, although Anwar generally finds his work to be satisfying, he has trouble imagining himself as a partner and has trouble identifying with partners. He is especially concerned that he is not up to the pressure associated with partnership and that he will lose his work-life balance. Building a book of business and being “out in the market” are also not for him. The heightened focus on being in the market reeks of pressuring firms to buy things they don’t want or need.

Anwar’s circumstances are not unique and represent a useful platform for illustrating six missteps that a young professional can make in public accounting:

Over-valuing the importance of chargeable hours

Chargeable (billable) hours are vital to a professional services firm. They are a proxy for the revenues that pay for salaries, fund training costs and allow for the possibility of receiving year-end bonuses. An employee that does not understand this basic tenet of public practice is not seeing the bigger picture — and is at risk of ignoring a basic survival skill. Without good and profitable client work, a professional services firm cannot develop its staff to its full potential and, as a result, suffers a critical (even fatal) competitive disadvantage.

Put simply, employees who are not personally profitable to the firm are not helping the firm to develop them as individuals (or to build the firm for the future).

Chargeable hours are as valuable to the young professional as they are to the firm. They are a proxy for the volume of real life experiences accumulated over time. More client work translates into more on-the job learning. In addition, chargeable hours are a rough measure of the demand (internal and external) for the individual’s time. Professionals who consistently record below average chargeable hours are strongly advised to probe into the causes. A pattern of low chargeable hours is often a sign of serious performance issues.

However, by their very nature, chargeable hours limit personal knowledge growth to the cumulative experiences offered by a collection of individual, disconnected client circumstances. As valuable and as diverse as these experiences may be, they are unlikely on their own to deliver the breadth of technical, industry or professional learning that is required of a successful adviser. Moreover, client experiences tend to be rooted in practicality (the specific facts, the relative materiality of the issue, fee and time constraints etc.) that may not yield enough theoretical calories to properly feed an aspiring professional.

Successful advisers understand their clients’ business and anticipate their issues and needs. They appreciate exactly what their clients expect of them, when and at what price. They can artfully manage gaps in expectations. Successful advisers also provide comprehensible, technically sound solutions tailored to particular client circumstances, including specific business realities. These are not proficiencies that are easily mastered with a single-minded devotion to chargeable hours.

As such, chargeable hours are wisely supplemented with a healthy, regular and continuous dose of more broad-based, theoretical, active learning.

First among such essential personal learning investments is a carefully designed and rigorously technical reading program that includes studying source materials and reading in-depth articles, in addition to the useful summaries and time-saving compilations and digital learning tools produced by many professional services firms.

A close second may be teaching others. There is no more effective self-training tool than teaching others, especially on technical matters. Teaching forces a presenter to think from the perspective of the audience, to manage the amount of information conveyed, to translate jargon into plain language and to understandably express measured professional judgment on complex matters.

Excellent presentation and writing skills are nothing short of imperatives in virtually all senior work environments. They represent highly portable skills, the utility of which is not limited to professional services firms. Moreover, the confidence, skills, network and profile that an individual gains from teaching, writing and presenting are invaluable complements to an individual’s technical skills — and are more likely to set a person apart from his or her professional peers.

A third great way to learn is to leverage the experience and knowledge of more senior, proven professionals ideally, but not necessarily, through an effective and willing mentor. Partners have a wealth of experience in client service excellence, in the development of high-potential professionals and in crisis management. A great partner-mentor could ramp up Anwar’s learning exponentially. Mentors can teach powerful techniques that are not readily gleaned from technical manuals or from text books. They can open doors to more rewarding work opportunities, more challenging projects and can offer invaluable tips on how to successfully navigate trying settings.

Anwar may think that either he or the partner who oversees him is too busy to engage in a mentoring relationship. In fact, the reward for both the mentee and for the mentor normally far outweighs the limited required time commitment from either. A focused one hour monthly meeting can be enriching to both. Even without an effective mentor, Anwar would do well to take the time to carefully scrutinize the professional practices of seasoned professionals and to ask them for direction when he feels overwhelmed or uncertain.

It is fair to question whether Anwar’s narrow view of the importance of chargeable hours alone is causing him to stagnate professionally. Anwar’s time-management skills may be letting him down by encouraging him to unduly focus his energies on measureable activities, targets and projects that allow him to pursue his out-of-office interests without fear of unfavourable career consequences. If only achieving a healthy work-life balance was that simple.

Anwar is likely to enjoy his job more with a more varied set of tasks and a more expansive perspective of his role. Time spent mentoring others, reading and being mentored will also better position him for future roles — and not just within a professional services firm. He can do this and still have time for a personal life. It just takes courage, organization, discipline and a keen understanding of the sometimes less than apparent root causes of regularly falling out of balance.

Failing to assess the potential long-term personal growth costs of not committing

It is completely understandable for a young professional to keep his or her career options open. Anwar tells people he doesn’t want to be a partner. He sees partners as working unreasonably long hours and being required to go to too many social functions. He witnesses firsthand the pressure they endure and he has no appetite for schmoozing or for selling work. He can’t imagine being responsible for keeping staff busy and regularly dealing with billing disputes and client grievances.

However, by not committing to CPA LLP, Anwar may be failing to invest in skills that might make him more attractive to a prospective employer that is not a professional services firm — as well as compromising options that he may one day value more at CPA LLP. Anwar may not really know what a partner does, what that job feels like on a daily basis and the effectiveness of the coping skills that partners develop. Accordingly, Anwar may be well served by doing a little research on what a partner experiences so he is more informed on whether he might actually enjoy growing into the role.

As Anwar takes on more senior management functions, he might also experiment with partner-like duties such as meeting new clients, addressing tough issues and developing relationships. Failing to do so may limit his growth at the firm and his readiness for attractive senior roles elsewhere... Many professionals are surprised to discover the satisfaction gained from helping clients and mentoring staff. In addition, Anwar may not realize that the combination of a partner’s experience, technical skills and ultimate responsibility for client deliverables provides him or her with greater control over his or her work day than Anwar may enjoy. Of course, partners often attend evening functions. However, they can balance those hours through the flexibility that comes with an effective support team. What’s more, those evening commitments with clients can be great fun and can also be a source of genuine long-term friendships.

The skills that Anwar may be neglecting by adopting a short-term orientation may include detailed industry knowledge, technical subject-matter expertise, proficiency in public speaking and in business writing, board-room presence, mentoring prowess, overcoming awkwardness in social settings and ownership of the client relationship, delivery, profitability and billing processes.

These and similar competencies take years to develop and require hours of investment. Progress can be frustratingly difficult to perceive. As such, it is easy to ignore the development of such skills. However, they are also among the main attributes that will make Anwar a more attractive candidate to any employer, not just to CPA LLP.

Young professionals often hold themselves back by thinking or saying things such as “I don’t want to be a partner” or “there is no room for more partners in our group.” In fact, the skills professionals learn on the developmental journey in public accounting are highly transferable. What’s more, these self-limiting comments are sometimes rooted in a lack of self-confidence, fear, an inability to accurately project oneself into the future and by an underestimation of the skills required and the challenges faced by executives operating outside of public accounting. By adopting a longer term perspective in regards to his career at CPA LLP, Anwar is more likely to invest in key soft skills and build more career options for himself.

Senior positions in any organization require a strong personal network, great people skills, superior analytical abilities and commanding presentation skills. Escaping to another organization does not negate the imperative of these skills. Furthermore, many professionals find that what they thought was unappealing at an early stage of their careers is actually rewarding and enjoyable later. Much of it is in the how. For example, great business developers don’t normally sell — they solve problems. Those solutions are then rewarded with a very satisfying sense of trust, respect and gratitude from clients.

Neglecting to decipher unclear performance management messages

Almost without exception, professional services firms invest heavily in talent management processes, including well-intentioned goal-setting, performance measurement and mentorship programs.

However, these initiatives have a uniformly fatal flaw — they are designed and deployed by people. What’s more, not all systems are easy to use and some of them are downright frustrating. That is, however, all largely irrelevant. These performance management tools, however imperfect, are there to help a professional like Anwar manage his own career. They are meant to provide an opportunity to showcase accomplishments, to highlight personal and professional growth and to provide a mechanism for professionals to secure constructive, detailed feedback.

Realistically, some performance managers fail to devote the level of time and reflection the programs require to be effective. Others are not sufficiently personally invested in the staff they oversee. Still others are uncomfortable delivering bad news and may take the easy way out with unclear, ambiguous or even no meaningful feedback.

Anwar owes it to himself to take charge of the quality and the utility of the goal-setting and performance feedback as it relates to his own career. He should probe whether his performance manager has concerns about his personal development and if so, he should draw out the specifics, which may take some coaxing. He should carefully reflect on the explanations given and attempt to understand the rationale for the expressed concerns from CPA LLP’s perspective. Too many young professionals focus on the fact that their performance feedback is poor from the perspective of how they would prefer to receive it. If the feedback is poor, the young professional bears the responsibility to ask for a more meaningful and actionable assessment. However, before doing so, he or she should carefully review and assess the nature of changes made by senior professionals to his or her work product to identify a pattern of possible persistent themes for discussion with the performance manager.

The specifics of the feedback should ultimately be clear to Anwar. The input must also be clearly actionable. For example, “You need to work on your interpersonal skills” is not sufficiently clear. “You must learn to manage your staff more patiently and more respectfully when you are under stress” is far more useful.

Of course, Anwar cannot expect a text book delivery of the performance management message and associated recommendations. Inevitably, he will be called upon to interpret the feedback and to develop an action plan following some introspection and employing as a critical input a certain level of self-awareness. A respectfully short and purposeful follow up meeting with the performance manager might also be valuable.

Too often, a professional in Anwar’s position is tempted to defend his or her “position” or to pointlessly discredit the failings of the performance counsellor or the quality of the evidence. Defensiveness limits a professional’s ability to grow. The more constructive approach is to recognize that the performance counsellor is usually merely a spokesperson for the organization’s considered consensus views and to show a humble, enthusiastic and genuine openness for a plan of self-improvement — with the requisite follow-through.

How can such an approach fail to maximize an individual’s potential and overall career opportunities? Of course, Anwar is not compelled to agree with all the feedback. However, he should carefully consider the impetus for the assessment that he perceives to be flawed, whether there is any element that might be accurate, whether he might have misinterpreted the message and, finally, the genuineness of his own motivations for rejecting all or part of the counsel.

Prematurely limiting personal aspirations in an organization

The ambitions and personal choices professionals make change as they mature and develop as people and as their professional roles, responsibilities and circumstances evolve.

A young accountant with limited exposure to private industry and still on the emotional high of passing the Uniform Final Examination may perceive public accounting very differently from a more seasoned professional who has spent several years outside of public practice. A senior manager may assess the rewards and costs of partnership from afar much differently than a partner does. Similarly, an emerging professional may not be able to accurately predict his or her future ability to cope with the stresses and multiple demands of a more senior leadership position in public accounting for the simple reason that he or she does not have the confidence, the experience or the skills to do so — yet.

The career advice for Anwar is to accept that the Anwar of today is not the Anwar of tomorrow and, to the greatest extent possible, he should try to predict the Anwar of tomorrow’s perspective when making today’s investment and career decisions.

How is that possible? One approach is to talk to senior professionals, consciously shed preconceptions about them and gain a better understanding of the nature of their work, their frustrations and, most importantly, what they take most pleasure from in their jobs. That collage of input, combined with a relentless commitment to self-improvement in his evolving personal circumstances, puts Anwar in an ideal position to make more informed career choices and to leave more career doors open in an uncertain future.

Many professionals get fussed about mixed messages. However, they are just the product of different perceptions, experiences, expectations, talents, personalities and other realities. It is useful for Anwar to hear all these perspectives, to think about them and to decide where to focus and what steps to take in his own circumstances. There is no value to consistency in this setting. In gathering varying perspectives, Anwar should also shoot high. Partners and senior professionals in leadership roles are generally acutely well-informed on firm direction and career realities. It is best to start there and to limit Anwar’s reliance on secondhand information and on sources with unclear and possibly unhelpful unstated agendas.

Imagining business development to be exceptionally difficult and somewhat distasteful

Individual accountabilities evolve over the course of an ascending career. An inexperienced junior staff member’s responsibilities are simpler and narrower than those of an experienced employee or executive. Common to public accounting and to virtually every concern is that personal success and experience together lead to increasing responsibilities for the overall business.

Clients leave a professional services firm for many reasons unrelated to the quality of the services they receive (sale, movement of head office, bankruptcy etc.). The fees they pay to the firm must be replaced. This is no different than the circumstances faced by a manufacturer of widgets whose customers turn over in the ordinary course of business.

The directive to be “in the market” represents nothing more than an obligation to assume what is typically a modest level of responsibility for an activity that is essential to the survival of the firm. Just as with other competencies, expectations regarding business development typically start humbly and accelerate in tandem with an individual’s ability to meet them. Unfortunately, many professionals fail to take the necessary baby business-development steps in the early years of their career when expectations are low. Consequently, they later find themselves with an imposing skills deficiency when the expectations regarding market activity are more intense.

There is another way to reflect on the importance of investing in market-based skills. Growth creates the business case for a young professional such as Anwar to progress through the ranks and to gain the qualities that he may exploit elsewhere. Besides, growth leaves the partnership opportunity as an option. A professional firm that is not growing is not creating openings for aspiring professionals at any level.

A familiar complaint of young professionals in public practice is that if they had wanted to sell, they would not have chosen a career in accounting. That is a short-sighted perspective that may lead to career rot in any position, in any firm and in any industry.

Success in the market arguably has five elements, each of which is an indispensable competency in most senior occupations.

First is building a network. Second is informing the network of your capabilities and those of your employer. Third is demonstrating the value that you and that your employer can add to their business. Fourth is negotiating, knowing how to close the deal. And fifth is persistence. It takes a longtime to build and to maintain a network and to eventually convert business and personal connections into revenue for the firm.

Viewed from this perspective, being in the market may seem less daunting, less mysterious and more crucial to Anwar’s overall personal development than it has seemed to be in the past — as well as a better personal investment. Anwar may now appreciate that effective business development takes time, initiative and courage; and it is time to get started. He might even realize he can start most comfortably with people his own age and with whom he shares common interests. Anwar might now acknowledge that passive participation in firm-sponsored events and talking to firm colleagues at such events is not being in the market, is largely a waste of time and has no positive impact on his career whatsoever.

Finally, Anwar may come to realize that he might wish to first experience the thrill of being rewarded with a new client’s trust before he decides that being in the market is unsavoury and not for him. It is a very special feeling to be told that someone has chosen you over others to help them in a complex situation.

Imagining that work life balance is unachievable at the senior levels

Contrary to popular misconception; partners are generally directed to take holidays and are even encouraged to develop their personal ambitions and interests. The usual firm condition that clients continue to be served effectively and according to their own timetables is entirely sensible and is not at all inconsistent with this guidance. However, thriving both professionally and personally does require a partner to develop and to consistently practice time and practice management skills.

Partners that are truly effective at living happy, holistic lives tend to be highly adept at managing expectations, influencing deadlines, separating the truly urgent from the less consequential and concentrating their team’s energies on efficiently delivering the critical. As well, they are likely to take greater advantage of the opportunities offered by overseeing a team and by being part of a larger team. For instance, they may be more practiced at relying on their teams, authorizing their staff to work directly with clients on complex problems and introducing other partners to the client so that they are not the sole point of contact (with the added responsibility of acting as an interpreter).

From a personal perspective, these partners also learn how to balance the more objective demands of the workplace with the softer, more emotive needs of their outside lives. These balancing skills are not developed without effort.

It may look to Anwar that achieving work-life balance is a partner’s greatest challenge. However, that may not be the case. Upon closer investigation, Anwar may realize that the complexity of client issues and leading a staff that is diverse in talent, ambition, development needs and personal desires, present the greater struggles. The client challenges can, however, be overcome by working wisely and collaboratively with fellow partners and with a strong team. The people issues, while certainly difficult, do lead to lasting personal rewards, to the vicarious pleasure of seeing young professionals grow and flourish in the environment that they ultimately choose is best suited for them.

Summary

Professional life is unquestionably more challenging today than it was in the past. The combination of three factors — professional services firms running leaner, clients’ expectations intensifying and individual employees being more mobile — creates an environment that may cause individuals to unintentionally compromise their career options by failing to invest in critical professional skills that take years to cultivate or fail to acquire readily available institutional knowledge that is essential for making informed career choices. Public accounting is an intensive learning environment. Take full advantage of this opportunity — aim high as long as you are there. It will pay off regardless of where you work.

Invest heavily and thoughtfully in yourself and think for the long term. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on others and complaining about what they should be doing for you. Set your own plan, gather information you need to make the best career decisions possible for you, challenge your preconceptions and concentrate on developing your talent. The opportunities will be there if you do, wherever you take your career.