Preparing for a Successful Transition from Public Accounting

July 15, 2020

by Jack Cavanaugh, CPA

Public accounting can be a rewarding, albeit challenging, road. It is natural that some will eventually weigh the difficult decision to leave for some other professional path. If you are considering leaving public accounting, there is a way to approach this transition that can yield benefits far beyond the job skills gained along the way. Preserving relationships, fostering enough experience, and finding the right opportunity to leverage your skills are all parts of a successful transition, but it all starts with having the right mentality.

There is no way to get around the typical busy season workload or ad hoc projects throughout the year in public accounting: a certain amount of heavy lifting should be expected when entering the profession. But public accounting firms are more aware of employees’ mental health and potential burnout issues than ever before. It’s important to identify situations that extend beyond the “norm” and voice concerns to your partners or managers. Taking a proactive approach may help alleviate issues before they get to the breaking point. If concerns have been raised and no action was taken to adjust your workload or client schedule to manageable expectations, then the decision to leave may seem like your only viable option. However, solely leaving for the sake of shorter hours can be somewhat misguided and not the ideal reason to make a change. If you want to continue your career advancement and gain experience at a similar rate to public accounting, it’s important to be aware that most positions that align with those goals will still require periods that extend beyond a typical 40-hour, five-day work week.

Workload aside, not everyone is destined to be, or wants to be, a partner at a public accounting firm. The timing of that realization, however, won’t necessarily coincide with the right time to leave. Public accounting offers a great deal of experience early in one’s career to improve in-demand skills that can be leveraged for future positions. Realizing the experience required to be successful and to add value at your next position should be the focal point in your decision. The risk of leaving too early and forfeiting that experience needs to be carefully considered on an individual basis.

Each person will require a different set of skills and experience based on the industry and role being sought after. While in public accounting, be proactive with your schedule to ensure you gain the appropriate experience prior to leaving. If you desire a financial reporting or internal control position but never had experience in a public company environment, you are not setting yourself up for success. Similarly, if a certain industry is more interesting to you than others, it is important to try and request clients in that sector. There are different complexities and judgments across industries, and the ability to intelligently speak to them and reference past experiences will set you apart.
Experiences like these are best gained firsthand.

While it might not be the first thought that comes to mind, being proactive with your managers and partners may produce the best result as you consider your next step. The downside of this approach would be expediting the inevitable conversation about leaving. This can be a more difficult conversation to have without an accepted job offer in hand. Though, in the end, it can pay dividends because partners and managers are great resources that people don’t often consider. The partners you’ve made connections with may have information from their networks about upcoming positions in the market and invaluable insight into the work environment, culture, and promotion path. The conversation will undoubtedly start with a convincing argument to stay, but, if your mind is made up, being confident and unwavering in your decision is key. They will not want you to leave, but they also have a vested interest in continuing to support your career aspirations and preserve your relationship. Personally, I was recommended for my current position by my former partner after I communicated my intention to leave. Also, in my current position, I start my candidate searches with former colleagues to see if they are aware of qualified candidates who are looking to leave. At the end of the day, partners and managers may turn out to be your best recruiter.

Alternatively, discretely conducting a job search and engaging an industry-specialized recruiter is a great way to supplement your personal search efforts. Accounting-focused recruiters move quickly to turn around interviews once engaged. Be prepared when taking this step because the process can take on a life of its own. Recruiters have a wide array of job openings, so being clear and concise about your specifics, such as your ideal position, culture, location, etc., will go a long way. A variety of options will be presented, so be prepared to stick to your desired specifications and be willing to turn down interviews or job offers that are not the best fit.

Once an enticing job offer is in hand, the next step is to find time to discuss it with your managers and partners. Being candid and confident in your decision will go a long way toward a successful exit conversation. This is also instrumental if there is a counteroffer to stay.

If your decision is based on sound reasoning and forward thinking, the counteroffer will be an easy offer to turn down. If not, and the entire process was only a ploy for better work-life balance or salary, there are better strategic methods to pursue because this route can often have the opposite effect and damage relationships.

Once your employers accept the fact that you have made the decision to leave, partners and managers can be a great resource in evaluating an offer, assessing it against other positions in the market, and reaching out to their network for further insight into a company and its culture. In the absence of that, planning your transfer of workload and knowledge to the rest of your team is central to ensure a successful departure on good terms.

It is hard to predict when the ideal job will present itself, but best practice is not to leave your former colleagues in a bind if there are upcoming deadlines within weeks of providing notice. Most companies are flexible in their start dates and are able to make accommodations given the circumstances. This is especially true when it relates to ensuring your former employer and team are not left twisting in the wind. This helps maintain relationships with your current network that could be leveraged for other positions or opportunities in the future. In situations where a start date is not flexible, providing ample notice and initiating transition activities early is the best alternative.

While transitioning out of public accounting may seem daunting, there are responsible and professional ways to embark on the next steps of your accounting career. At the end of the day, leaving for the right reason, communicating effectively, and executing a successful transition are the keys to responsibly leaving public accounting.

Jack Cavanaugh, CPA, is senior manager, technical accounting and finance, for Bentley Systems in Exton, Pennsylvania.

Reprinted with permission from the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, a publication of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
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