I clearly remember that day when I received the envelope in the mail. After taking a deep breath, I opened it—I passed. I finally had those three letters after my name: « CPA. »
This was back in the fall of 1999, five years after graduation. A success after five failed attempts. The credential seemed important, so I wanted it, but I don’t think I really understood its value and why it would be instrumental to my profession. However, I also remember that day since it changed my life forever. It was the first day in my path of understanding my “why.”
KNOW YOUR MOTIVATION
As I was struggling to pass the CPA exam, my husband made a deal with me: He wanted me to pass the test before we started a family. While that may seem odd to others, he knew it would motivate me. More importantly, he knew that if I didn’t pass the exam first, then I’d get sidetracked by the career distractions that come with motherhood. And my goal of becoming a CPA, as well as my greater potential, would never be realized.
Finally, we could start planning a family.
LEARN FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES
At that time, I was working in the tax department of a mid-size accounting firm with seven partners and a staff of 50. I had also just started working on my masters in tax. I had been with the firm through one tax season before I passed the exam and soon thereafter learned I was pregnant. I was thrilled with how life was going for me.
Busy season began January 15 and so did the mandatory 60-hours-a-week overtime. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to be able to work that much, so I went to HR for help. That’s when I was told it didn’t matter that I was pregnant. The hours were a requirement of the job, and if I couldn’t keep up, that it was fine, but it would be reflected in my realization and utilization. However, they would make a slight adjustment, and I would only have to work 55-hours-a-week. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do.
Then my co-worker learned about my situation and wanted to help. His wife was pregnant so he knew what I was going through and how tired I was. He went to HR without my knowledge and was told not to get involved as this was “an HR issue.” It was truly more than that; it was an issue with the culture of the firm.
While I struggled, I managed to make it through. I soon had a healthy baby girl, and I reduced my hours and started the life of a part-time staffer.
My next realization came on September 11, 2001. While the partner’s wives were calling frantic about the events happening that day, as news reporters tried to let Americans know what was happening to our country, as companies all around the U.S. sent staff home to be with their families, my firm did not. One co-worker was even forced to stay till 9:00 p.m. that night to finish a tax return. This is when I realized there was a severe mismatch between my values and what the firm thought was important.
It was time for a new firm.
FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS MOST
I was at my new firm when my second child was born prematurely on March 31, 2002. It was a long six weeks in the NICU before I was able to bring my son home. What caused the premature delivery? Could it have been the stress of tax season? I’ll never know.
My future at this mid-size firm with 13 partners and about 100 staff members wasn’t meant to be either. I was laid off on the last day of my maternity leave. It was a blessing in disguise as it ultimately allowed me to regroup and spend the summer at home with my family.
When I returned to work, I found a firm that was not like the prior two. The seven partners were fair and genuinely cared about their 40 team members. I stayed four years before leaving. Why did I leave? The main reason was because the culture of the firm, and all the firms I worked at for that matter, were not family friendly and opportunities for women to advance were limited.
I wanted more.
LOOK AT THINGS IN NEW WAYS
At that time of my life, flexibility was important to me. When I joined my dad’s firm, I soon saw that technology could be utilized to gain that flexibility. With a slight shift to the business model, a whole new firm was attainable.
Entrepreneurs all have a “why” that keeps them grounded. When sales are low, when employees drive them crazy, when they question a decision made—it’s that greater purpose that keeps them smiling and it’s what gets them up early the next morning to figure things out. When you are connected to your “why,” work isn’t work—it’s your purpose.
My purpose was to develop a better firm culture.
EVOLVE AND GROW
Over my career, my “why” has evolved. It grew into creating a CPA firm with a culture that is kinder and gentler. I used to say « female-friendly, » but who wouldn’t want to work at a firm without insane busy season hours, one that focuses on results and not the time exhausted.
I spent many, many hours studying for the CPA exam over my multiple attempts. It’s what I wanted, but then found out that the culture of these firms were quite unhealthy. The dark side of public accounting was not openly shared. Or, maybe it was, and I was too young to really understand what it would mean.
As a Radical CPA, your focus should be on managing the practice. Occasionally, I find that my old-school firm PTSD creeps up on me. That’s when I remember advice from one of my mentors: “Don’t let the chip on your shoulder from how you were once treated hold you back from learning from the experiences of other old white guys. We are not all like that.”
I’ve come to realize, though, that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” Sometimes, it’s our own biases that hold us back from the real intention of feedback. It’s hard to sometimes be “the only one in the room” from both a demographic and psychographic standpoint (showing New Firm ways). I have also come to find a lot of support and help from these guys. They are also trying to adopt new ways of thinking, and I can learn from them. So can you. Only you can change your perspective.
Don’t let your past hold you back. Don’t let stereotypes keep you from seeing things in a new way. Don’t accept the status quo as acceptable. Know what matters to you and let your “why” become your purpose.
That way, when things aren’t going your way, you still get up to fight and celebrate the day!
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