CPA Firm Staff Forum: Top Talents Talk

For 10 years Chicago area firms have sent their young staff to our annual Staff Forum where we try to learn how they see their firms, their careers and in general, how they think.

This year’s Forum attracted 23 staff; 18 men and 5 women (yes, we need to get more female representation).  The average tenure with their firms was 2.5 years; no one was less than one year.

Here are the highlights:

Why did you choose accounting as a career? For half of the staff, the main reason for selecting accounting as a major was that they took their first intro accounting course…and fell in love!  They really liked it and decided that accounting would be their focus.  In the past, the most common response was, “I’m good at math.”  This year’s group hardly mentioned it.  Given the advances of technology, it’s no longer critical that someone be good at math.  But my caveat is:  “You can’t suck at math!”

What do you like most about your job? Most talked about how much they enjoyed learning their jobs, the variety of work, gaining expertise and the trust shown them by the partners and managers.

What do you like the least about your job?  Different standards that each partner has for the same work.  Unwritten expectations for work hours in the tax season.  Office politics.  Partners don’t work together, unite and make decisions

Interesting:  The tax season was not a problem for the vast majority of the attendees.  They said: It’s nice being busy.  Everyone is in it together, making the season more tolerable.  We know we will get a bonus; the firm rewards us all for putting in the hours.

How many firms mandate a fixed minimum of work hours and mandatory Saturdays in the tax season? 50% for both questions.

Why did you choose your firm instead of other firms?  What stood out? Key: two-thirds of the attendees interned with their current firms, paralleling what we’ve seen for several years.  Other comments:  I wanted a smaller firm.  Big 4 firms tend to treat you like a number; everything is meticulously planned out for you, making you feel pigeon-holed.  Not much variety.  We hear of heavy turnover at Big 4 firms, terrible work hours.  Better long-term career opportunities at smaller firms.

Do you know what it takes to be a partner? 1/3 said yes.  2/3 said no.

Do you want to be a partner at your firm?  Yes – 43%.  No – 57%.  We asked WHY they don’t want to be a partner.  They told us:  Lots of partner work seems repetitive and boring.  Some partners seem overwhelmed by paperwork and client management. Uncomfortable with bringing in business.  The politics and arguments make me not want to be a partner.

CPA Firm Staff:  Managing Your #1 Asset, includes major contributions from two experts in managing CPA firm staff:  Jennifer Wilson and Jeremy Wortman.  The book addresses ►talent management, ►retention, ►flexibility, ►importance of the boss, ►mentoring, ►leadership development, ►advancement, ►performance feedback, ►recruiting and other issues.

Staff’s thoughts on how partners see them  Partners should stop reading all the literature on millennials and stereotyping us.  We are not all the same.  The partners should understand that each of us is a different person and should be treated different accordingly.

Flexibility “Many partners think if you’re not in the office, you’re not working. We need to change the mindset of the partners on this.”

How many annual hours do you think the partners work?  They said 2,609, 7% higher than the actual of 2,450.  Note:  A 7% deviation might not seem like much, but at that level of work hours, working an extra 159 hours a year is enormous.

How much money do you think the average partner at your firm earns? The staff’s average response was $328,000, 29% below the actual number of $464,000.  An incredible nine staff responded with $250,000 or less.

What can your firm do to make sure you stay with them for at least 5 more years (short of unreasonable things like doubling your salary)?  More work from home.  Partners need to get rid of their bias against working remotely.  Make sure we keep learning.  Keep giving us a wide variety of work.


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