So, you’ve landed your first accounting gig. Want to impress your colleagues, manager and partners? Follow this advice from CAs who have been there
By Lisa van de Geyn
Illustration: Gary Taxali
At one of her first accounting jobs at Thorne Riddell in 1987, an eager-to-impress Patricia Barbato received an important assignment from her boss. “I put together an audit file and I remember thinking I was the smartest person in the world and my file was so great,” says Barbato, senior vice-president at Revera, a seniors accommodation and health-services company in Toronto. “But once my supervisor got a few pages into it, he told me I had missed the main point of the audit — I spent too much time on things that weren’t relevant and not enough time on the things I should have.”
It was a sizable mistake — a classic rookie move. Looking back, Barbato knows she should have asked sooner in the process if she was on the right track. “I would have saved us both a lot of time and saved my credibility,” she says.
Like any professionals just starting out, CA students and new CAs know the basics of what their chosen field will entail once they hit the workforce — such as providing business and accounting advice to clients, performing audits, preparing taxes and consulting on personal finances. But newbies who want to become better colleagues and employees, make their managers look good and impress the partners right out of the gate will need to expand their knowledge base beyond crunching data and filling out forms — and take note of how not to leave a less-than-stellar impression, as Barbato may have done at her first job.
Not sure where to begin? Here’s a primer for fledgling workers: 10 tips to navigate that first job successfully.
Find a good fit. Everyone’s eager to nab that first gig out of school, but before you accept an offer, make sure the work environment will be a good match. “I wish someone would have told me to apply for jobs in firms where I knew the culture would fit my personality,” says Rita Zelikman, who runs a public accounting practice in Thornhill, Ont. Feeling like you suit both the position and the office plays a huge part of the experience you’ll get out of your first job. “Being happy in an environment comes through in your work, and allows you to learn better,” she says.
Sponge smarts off the seniors. Jason Ratzlaff, a partner at Salamon Ratzlaff Groenwold in Saskatoon, laughs when he remembers the advice he was given as a new CA: copy last year’s file. “When you are just starting out, public practice can seem overwhelming. There is a lot of information in the prior year’s files that has been signed off and approved by a partner, so you can definitely learn by studying someone else’s work,” he says.
It’s key to be an information sponge at all times, says Marielle Brûlé, human resources partner at White Kennedy, LLP, in Okanagan, BC. “While your education gives you a great foundation, other generations have a wealth of knowledge and are a great resource if you approach them and listen.” She also reminds rookies to model their behaviour after the highest common denominator, whether in dress or in communication. “There’s a reason they are at the top,” she says.
Because offices are likely to have multiple generations working on the same team, it’s important not to discount the value of experience, says Rishi Bajaj, director of finance for Sofina Foods Inc. in Markham, Ont. “Google and Wikipedia seem to make one an expert on any subject within minutes,” he says, but the experience that senior associates and partners have is vital for new CAs. “The ability to combine the fresh perspective that young CAs possess with the wealth of experience of their colleagues will help a company grow and diversify.”
Respect office culture. Checking Facebook every five minutes at your desk or texting on your iPhone all day won’t earn you any brownie points. “While multitasking and answering phone calls and texts seem normal in your day, it can be seen as a time-waster and inconsiderate by others if it’s not a norm in the culture of the firm,” Brûlé says. “Students and new staff need to pay attention to protocols. Be sure you are being respectful and using common sense.”
Managers are looking for self-starters who take it upon themselves to meet people, get to know the company, orient themselves with processes and ask questions, adds Barbato.
Find a mentor. No matter what sector you work in, you can bet the most successful associates and partners had a mentor in their early years. Barbato, who penned Inspire Your Career: Strategies for Success in Your First Years at Work, suggests enrolling in a formal mentorship program within your firm if it is offered, but notes there are many other ways to seek out colleagues who can provide advice or take you under their wing.
“Mentoring can be one meeting where you are prepared to ask questions and learn,” she says. “One of the CAs I worked with when I started really appreciated how I spoke to his clients and that I was a quick learner, so he would give me all kinds of different work and taught me so much.”
Embrace your errors. “The best advice I received when I was starting out was to always own up to your mistakes and learn from them — it’s what every good manager does,” says Sabrina Wong, a senior accountant at St. Joseph Media in Toronto.
“Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you deal with them that’s important,” adds Ratzlaff. “All my mistakes have gotten me to where I am today. It sounds absurd and ridiculous, but I see each mistake as a valuable lesson.”
Be passionate. It seems pretty obvious, but wanting to do the best job you can and being excited about your work will make you stand out with the folks in the corner offices. “Find what you love; the rewards will follow,” Ratzlaff says. “Maybe you are more passionate about tax instead of audit or maybe you have that entrepreneurial bug and want to start your own business. Whatever it is, life is too short to be stuck doing something your heart isn’t into.”
Brûlé says she notices attitude, work ethic and energy in a new hire. “I am always impressed by those who have a positive outlook and are committed to going the extra mile.”
Put in your hours ... and then some. It depends on where you work but, in public practice, overtime is expected. “And you will not be paid for overtime,” says Wong. “It’s a part of the public accounting culture.” Working extra hours also shows that you’re a team player, says Bajaj: “If I can invest a bit of my time to ease things up for another colleague, it’s worth it.”
Don’t get too bummed out thinking about all the happy-hour get-togethers with friends you’ll inevitably miss. “Summers are generally lighter, so if you put in the hours, lots of time off in the summer is a nice reward,” Ratzlaff says.
Remember the other two Rs. You may be a whiz at arithmetic, but you’ll need to spend time reading and writing to really impress your boss. “After doing all those university essays, I thought I could write, but I was horrible,” Barbato says. “It’s very different to write a succinct, clear memo. Practice helps, as does brushing up on your grammar.”
Besides your writing, don’t forget to work on soft skills by reading up on leadership, management styles, dealing with people and understanding personality types. “[These skills] aren’t usually part of the CA curriculum, but having [them] will lead to great opportunities, and improve all your interactions with coworkers and clients,” says Brûlé.
Work it outside the office. That means going to CA events and, instead of being a wallflower, taking the initiative and meeting people. “I didn’t realize how much it would diversify my personal and professional network,” says Bajaj. “Carry business cards and get out as many as you can. Follow up by meeting for coffee and have specific reasons and a purpose for connecting. Share your expertise, experiences and your network. It should be a two-way, genuine relationship.”
Ratzlaff suggests volunteering — and not just to get clients. “Do it to help others and meet people. If you are good at what you do and a nice person, the business will come to you,” he says.
Ask questions. We’ve all heard the saying “there are no stupid questions.” Take it to heart. “Time is expensive and making assumptions without clarifying can be costly,” Zelikman says.
If you don’t feel confident in inquiring because you think your superiors will scoff at your seemingly silly query, you’re doing yourself a disservice. “You’ll only end up hurting your own development, especially when you need to answer these questions to someone else,” says Bajaj.
Not only does Barbato wish she had asked more questions of her employers (such as when she bungled that audit file), she says it would have been smart to do the same with her colleagues and clients. “I should have had the courage to be more inquisitive,” she says.
Years later, as a manager, Barbato saw the lesson come full circle. One of her employees submitted work, only to have to go back and redo most of it. “She had gone off on the wrong track but didn’t check in with me until it was too late,” says Barbato. “You have to keep asking questions until you really understand what and how your boss wants things done.”
Lisa van de Geyn is a freelance writer based in Toronto