Through 20+ years experience Trevor Betenson has found that a mix of advising and accounting leads to a more impactful career. Learn how he transformed himself into a strategic advisor over the course of his career and how you can do the same.
As an undergraduate student, I felt overwhelmed with trying to make sense of early adulthood and needing to make big, life-affecting decisions. I asked myself and others the common existential question, “What career would make me happy?”
For the adults in my life at the time, this was hard to answer. For many generations, the idea of happiness, as it relates to work, was a foreign concept. Many simply did whatever job they could get, and whether it made them happy was not something they thought about. Previous generations also switched jobs much less frequently than today’s more mobile workforce, and so were more likely to stay at a job primarily because it provided stability and safety to their lives.
But advances in technology and industry have changed considerations for today’s workforce. More and more we are able to think about work satisfaction.
My first accounting job, which I had while studying for my undergraduate degree, was as a clerk, processing weekly payroll for 500 truck drivers spread across North America. It was tedious, but I quickly learned that figuring out how to automate the busy work would leave me with time to explore more exciting and meaningful work.
That exploration into automation and streamlining led to discovering databases, spreadsheets, and business processes. All things that are necessary to get the compliance work streamlined and allow the knowledge-based work of accounting to flourish.
Enrich your accounting career with strategy
As I learned more about the knowledge-based work of accounting while getting my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I was drawn to the challenges businesses face. I started to see how accurate, timely information could make or break a business. I discovered how rewarded and happy I was by not just providing compliance and assurance work, but by also being a strategic advisor to business owners.
Being part of the team that led and set direction for the company, not just performing a back-office service, I could help businesses achieve more and feel more fulfilled at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, public accountants provide a great service to their clients. Businesses can’t operate if they aren’t compliant with all the tax laws and other federal, state, and local regulations. However, most often, the compliance and assurance services you provide to your clients are based on the past. They are less focused on the future and what the business needs to do to meet their goals.
Adding advisory services to your practice has advantages that go beyond those that help your clients. This work will allow you to normalize your work year, and make more money with fewer clients by providing year-round support instead of seasonal. This gives you more control over when and how you do your work.
It’s ok if you don’t have formal education to be an advisor
Many universities pride themselves on their CPA pass rates and how they compare with other universities in the different tests. Think about the accounting classes you took. A lot of my classes prepared me for the CPA exam but didn’t necessarily prepare me to be a strategic advisor.
In one of my master’s degree-level auditing classes, I had to memorize a multi-page audit process word for word. This was very helpful in passing the CPA exam, but not helpful at all in helping a business figure out how to improve their cash flow.
In addition to this, accounting students generally need to choose early on whether they want to work in industry or public accounting. Many who choose public accounting plan on leaving after a couple of years to eventually become a controller or CFO, but traditional public accounting (tax and audit) isn’t about creative thinking. In fact, creative thinking and creative accounting can get you in trouble. It’s about memorizing and applying rules to the work you do.
Strategic Advising (or outsourced/fractional CFO) requires creativity. It’s about helping small business clients reach their goals: grow, scale, survive challenging times, thrive, or prep the business for sale to a new generation who will carry it on.
So how do you gain the experience you need to be able to provide useful advisory services to your clients? A growth mindset and a willingness to put yourself out there are essential.
Make work more gratifying: approach challenges with a growth mindset
Sometimes, stereotypes for accountants hold us back. We’ve heard them: we’re boring, math nerds, only do taxes, and quiet. If your clients and business owners see you that way, it may be hard to do the type of advisory work you want. You’ll need to show them that you are more than that. This requires wanting to try new things, being open to change, and challenging yourself in new ways.
Trial and error can lead to success
Early in my career, I had the audacity to think I knew more than I really did, and I didn’t like to back down from a challenge. Twenty years ago, my boss came to me with a problem.
I worked for an oil and gas distribution company that owned and operated hundreds of gas stations. They relied on a Lotus 123 spreadsheet to interact with an automated satellite feed with that day’s oil and gas refinery prices. The spreadsheet would automatically send out the price the gas stations would charge that day.
The company was worried the spreadsheet would stop working on January 1, 2000, because of Y2K fears. They wanted the spreadsheet redone in Microsoft Excel and asked if I could do it. I immediately said yes. Then, as I walked out of his office, I realized I didn’t know what Lotus 123 was, and I had never used Excel!
I learned that the per-gallon margin in that industry was very small, so a mistake with the gas prices could be catastrophic. I didn’t panic. OK, maybe I panicked a little. But I got to work. First step: install Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel on my computer.
Through trial and error, I began to make sense of things. I made mistakes and learned from them. I kept working, coming at things with different ideas and processes until I was able to get the project done. It was extremely challenging and rewarding and led to more opportunities to take on similar projects that helped me learn different aspects of running a business.
Automate and innovate
A few months later I was tasked with calculating profit-sharing bonuses for their 500 truck driver workforce. With multiple trucks working in the same areas, it was a complicated formula based on the profit of each truck and influenced by the amount of time each driver drove each truck. It was a quarterly bonus that took about 40 hours each quarter to calculate.
After a couple of quarters, I decided there had to be a better, more efficient way. I used what I had learned with Excel and leveraged my understanding of databases and automated the process as much as possible. It was a lot of hard work but I was able to cut the processing time from 40 hours to 5 hours.
Early on I realized I wasn’t going to be happy or satisfied being a payroll or accounts payable clerk. By automating manual and tedious tasks I was able to get those tasks out of the way quickly and move on to more rewarding, challenging projects. I was able to gain the confidence of the business owners and leaders within other aspects of the business.
Strategic advising can lead to greater happiness
Feeling fulfilled, happy, and enriched in your work is possible, even if you’re in a job that many people might traditionally call boring or plain.
Set yourself up right by streamlining and automating as much of the compliance work as possible, and implement workflow processes where they will help. Then focus on stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning the skills that you will need to succeed. They might be soft skills like selling or communicating complex information to your clients. On the other hand, it may be management accounting skills like analyzing profit and loss metrics to find growth potential.
Helping your clients realize their dreams and goals and becoming more than a commodity is within your reach. Take on challenges and trust your wisdom and willingness to offer advice to your clients. Who knows, someday you might be able to watch your kids’ basketball games . . . even in February!