Helping young professionals build a foundation for success

By Amy V. Hollander, CPA, and Stephen P. Valenti, CPA

Editor: April Walker, CPA, CGMA

The tax profession is highly demanding. Tax law and professional standards continue to evolve while technology moves ever onward. Given the steady march of change, one might wonder what the role of the tax professional will look like in the future. Because a strong foundation is necessary for an individual's future growth, this column discusses some professional development strategies CPAs should consider in their quest for success. Accounting firms can help or, inadvertently, hinder this process. Providing support to newer staff is critical to helping ensure the continuing success of the profession.

Start with an educational foundation

The academic curriculum in accounting and taxation at the undergraduate or the graduate level is the starting point in providing a solid technical foundation. But with the rapid pace of change, continuous learning (and unlearning and relearning) is a given. Building technical knowledge and staying up to date on changes and opportunities arising from new tax legislation is a high priority.

There are many ways for this type of continuous learning to happen — conferences, in-house firm education, webcasts, podcasts, articles, etc. For accounting firms, one idea might be to compile some of these options for new staff as part of their onboarding training. They may not be aware of the various learning opportunities available. Or they may be able to give you new ideas of ways to learn about technical content. You can learn from each other.

Clearly other skills are necessary to become a well-rounded trusted adviser to clients — for example, clear and effective communication skills, emotional intelligence, technological savvy, and many others. Some of those skills will be naturally honed with time and experience. Consider, though, that these "soft skills" can also be improved with learning, reading, and practice. It is important for CPAs to embrace the opportunities where they are afforded, both inside and outside their work environment, to improve upon these skills.

Fast-moving business culture

The professional environment is ever-changing, even more so this year with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. A topic that is trending on any given day is often an afterthought the next. Tax professionals must be agile. Agility is a learned trait. A recent college graduate may not understand how to be agile in business circumstances. Seasoned professionals sometimes have an even more difficult time adapting to the changing environment.

Mentoring can play a big role in helping newer professionals learn the ropes. It is critical that young professionals realize the importance of building relationships with those who have "been around the block a time or two." Whether it means tapping into an established mentoring program that exists in one's workplace or using the AICPA's mentoring program (visit the AICPA Mentoring webpage), the importance of a mentoring relationship cannot be overstated. These relationships allow professionals to share their experiences and provide insights, guidance, and feedback. And, as noted earlier, these relationships can provide meaningful feedback in both directions — the experienced professional may learn some new "tricks."

Involvement in professional organizations

Volunteer opportunities for tax professionals are numerous. These include involvement with the AICPA, state CPA societies, or other professional organizations. Involvement is most beneficial when it entails active participation and ultimately leadership. True involvement does not just mean being a member of the organization in hopes that it will improve one's résumé.

Professionals can personally benefit from this involvement by learning more about the challenges faced by the profession as a whole. It can also help them build relationships with other professionals and collaborate on ideas, issues, and strategies. Very often, active participation also leads to organizational leadership roles, speaking and writing opportunities, and media interviews. These opportunities can ultimately prove valuable to both the tax professional and the firm.

Getting out of your comfort zone

In considering whether to pursue a mentoring relationship, a new expertise, or a volunteer opportunity, a CPA can certainly feel outside of his or her comfort zone. It can feel as if there is not enough time in the day to get all of the "paid" work completed and also have a life. But, at times, being uncomfortable is beneficial — especially when change happens. Tax professionals can certainly get caught up in the world of all things SALY, or "same as last year." Stretching out of one's comfort zone will cause a new world and a fresh perspective to take shape.

Consider the following possibilities:

  • Investigate a new professional niche, such as the gig economy, virtual currency, or the cannabis industry.
  • Join a networking group outside of the tax industry, such as a hospitality or banking group. Tax professionals are always sought for their insight on business matters.
  • Volunteer to serve on a board of directors for a charitable organization. This leadership opportunity helps strengthen relationships with potential clients and the local community.
  • Join a Toastmasters group. Public speaking confidence is not all about addressing large groups of people. Toastmasters can help a CPA hone presentation skills as well as improve general communication and leadership skills.
  • Identify a business mentor outside of your firm or industry to improve general business acumen and savviness.
It's all about relationships

Most tax professionals spend time on business development. Relationships are key. Client relationships lead to referrals and expanded services.

Some ways that a CPA can develop relationships with potential clients include becoming actively involved in:

  • Civic organizations, such as a local service club;
  • High school or collegiate alumni associations; and
  • Faith-based organizations, such as churches and synagogues.
So, what is a firm to do?

Supporting and nurturing beginning tax professionals is beneficial for all parties. Share the ideas in this column as a start. Additionally:

  • Provide the time for them to be involved — actively involved — in organizations where they can develop acumen and skills to represent your company. Show them the ropes and get actively involved with them!
  • Involve staff in client meetings. Professionals will learn by watching and will likely soon be able to provide valuable insights.
  • Consider creating contests or incentive programs to reward professionals when they demonstrate creativity and innovation.

The tax profession is rapidly changing, and for professionals to survive and thrive, a solid foundation is necessary. Accounting firms can help to build this foundation by investing in education and providing the support (time and resources) needed for a young professional to flourish.

 

Contributors

Amy V. Hollander is the owner of Amy V. Hollander, CPA in Clarks Summit, Pa. Stephen P. Valenti, CPA, is a retired clinical professor of accounting at New York University in New York City and the owner of Stephen P. Valenti CPA in Plainview, N.Y. Mrs. Hollander is the vice chair and Mr. Valenti is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. April Walker, CPA, CGMA, is lead manager–Tax Practice & Ethics, Public Accounting for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Ms. Walker is the staff liaison of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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