CPAs, you can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything

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A recent Accounting Today guest column got me thinking. The author, a 20-year tax manager at a small regional firm, had been getting inundated with inquiries from recruiters desperate for talent. And while her pay would be substantially higher if she switched firms, she’d discovered that she’d be expected to work 55 hours or more during the peak of tax season. I guess that’s why they call it busy season.

Here’s the challenge: CPAs (with a focus on tax) are in an industry in which the government dictates when you’ll be busiest. It’s seasonal, by definition. With the challenge of balancing hours, work and compensation, the message for employers and workers is pretty straightforward: You can have anything you want; but you can’t have everything you want. 

Do you want to accelerate quickly through your career, be constantly challenged, have lots of mobility, and be at a high pay grade? If so, good for you. Just know that you’ll probably have to work longer hours than the average accounting firm team member if you want those kinds of career perks.

So many conversations are popping up about people wanting work-life balance. This implies it’s always possible to have the right amount of work and the right amount of time off from work (i.e., Goldilocks). Entrepreneur and best-selling author Gary Keller likes to say, “The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.” Trust me. I understand very well that extreme work can lead to quick burnout. But the ability to put more time into a season also means you’ll have other times of year to spend plenty of time off — more so than in many other careers.

I’m not saying you’ll love accounting when you’re on your 63rd hour of the week during the busy season. But if that’s what your firm requires to get through tax season, you’re probably getting paid pretty well. As a result, you’ll be afforded plenty of time to unplug and recharge after the work is done.

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So, if you’re a team member, you must decide which type of firm you want to work for. Do you want to be part of an easygoing firm with flexible hours and lots of vacation time? If so, there’s much to be said about that career path. Just know that the pay probably won’t be competitive. Or do you want to be part of a firm that’s moving a little faster with people working a little harder? The compensation will be better, the bonuses will be bigger and so will your stress. 

The reason the higher-paying firms can compensate you more is because you and your peers are billing a lot more hours than the more laid-back firms are. In other words, they can afford to do so. Nothing magic about it.

Look at the choices: More money, or more time off?

You can choose one, but it’s unlikely you’ll have both (all else being equal).

You have to decide which of the above is most important to you. 

Firms need to be clear on their work demand expectations

By the same token, if you’re a managing partner or firm owner, you need to communicate your firm’s ethos clearly, so there’s no misunderstanding. You want to avoid creating a high-performing, high-paying firm and then end up recruiting a talented team member who isn’t able (or willing) to put in the extra hours you need to meet your firm’s goals and client obligations. That person will soon be dissatisfied with their job and won’t fit in well with others at your firm. 

On the flip side, you want to avoid creating a laid-back firm with a high priority on work-life balance and telecommuting and then start bringing in hard-charging Type A personalities who are constantly frustrated by the pedestrian pace and modest pay. Other team members will resent them as well. 

Elon Musk is building revolutionary spaceships, the fastest cars on the planet, and is turning Twitter inside out. He’s not about extended vacations, working from home, or frankly work-life balance. As I wrote earlier this year, Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and many other cutting-edge companies sent a direct company-wide email to workers recently (with a subject line that read, “To be super clear”):

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“Everyone is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo-office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.”

That’s pretty clear.

Jeff Bezos is also building advanced spaceships and getting packages to customers an hour after they order them. As he told a 2018 industry conference: “I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It is a circle; it’s not a balance.”

Bottom line: Be clear about your firm’s priorities, so you have team members aligned with the organization’s values. 

If your firm does year-round bookkeeping, that will be more flat work with fairly predictable hours, employee workload and client demands. Hire accordingly. But if your firm does heavy tax work, you will have seasonal fluctuations in your employee hours. Make sure new hires understand that. 

The key is finding the right firm that aligns with your values and priorities. The same goes for hiring managers. If somebody tells you they’ll pay twice as much, expect to work more hours. Again, those firms generate more profit from each team member, so they can afford to pay you more than the average firm. In exchange, you will be putting in longer hours at certain times of year. 

How does your firm set (and meet) client expectations? I’d love to hear from you.

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