Here I am getting ready to celebrate my 20th year in public accounting. How the time has flown by! However, it has given me a chance to reflect a bit on my career and what I’ve learned along the way.
When I first entered the profession, it seemed like public accounting was a great place to start my career. But at 21 years of age, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay in the profession for the rest of my life. In fact, as a staff accountant, I couldn’t view myself much past senior. And when I was a senior, I couldn’t view myself much past a manager.
Yet here I am, 20 years later and a director in the firm. Clearly, public accounting turned out to be a solid career choice for me! And now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I thought I would share some thoughts on a topic I wish someone had discussed with me earlier in my career: the importance of networking, particularly when you’re first starting out.
Regardless of what path you take with your career, there is a certainly a correlation between the success of those individuals who network and those who do not. Networking works in much the same way as compounding interest does with your investments. If you do it at regular intervals, it eventually starts to pay off.
Accounting is such a personalized business, and it takes time to build meaningful relationships. You can’t just start networking and expect to see droves of referrals after meeting someone for the first or second time. You have to build trust with networking contacts, and that can take several years.
I often see people in our profession get promoted to manager – at which point networking and business development become expectations of the role – and they don’t know where to begin because they didn’t invest the time earlier in their careers to develop good networking skills and habits. And now they’re faced with having to start at square one to build those solid business relationships.
So with that in mind, I thought I would share a few tips that I wish someone had shared with me twenty years ago:
- Begin networking as early as you can, even as a staff accountant. Start with some of your alumni who have entered other professions. If that isn’t a good avenue for you, ask a colleague who already has relationships to introduce you to networking contacts who are commensurate with your level of experience. A first or second year law firm associate, a banker just starting out as a credit analyst, or a portfolio analyst at a financial planning firm are all perfect roles to match up to a staff accountant. As you continue to grow in your career, so will your counterparts. When you finally are both in a place where you can make referrals to each other, you’ll already have a solid, trusting relationship in place – and that’s when the gears really start turning.
- Don’t stop at just one introduction. We all have different personalities and click better with some people than others. I’ve met with hundreds of people over the years – some I really hit it off with and others I didn’t. If you are going to make networking a habit, you should do it with people you enjoy spending time with. Otherwise, it will feel more like a chore and likely to always be put on the back burner. But keep in mind that you may have to meet with a wide variety of people to find those “best few” you really connect with.
- Keep it small, particularly early on. As a staff or senior, you’ll be expected to spend the majority of your time working on client-related matters. So when it comes to networking, an early cup of coffee or a lunch meeting is more reasonable than attending all-day events during the work week. I happen to like a 7:30am or 8:00am meeting at Starbucks or a diner for a cup of coffee. This way I am back to work by 9am and it hasn’t interfered with my day. And keep the number of meetings reasonable by limiting your pool of networking contacts. Early on, keep in touch with no more than two or three professionals such as attorneys, bankers, financial planners, or insurance professionals. As you progress in your career and have more time to devote to networking, you can add more contacts.
- Make sure it’s regular. Don’t think that just asking to be introduced to someone allows you to check the box that says you’ve “networked.” True networking takes regular interactions to be meaningful. I would suggest reaching out on a quarterly basis. If you can’t get out of the office for a breakfast or lunch, or if you travel a lot for clients, try a phone call to touch base and see how they are doing. If you make this a part of your professional routine early, it will become second nature as your career progresses. I find it hard to believe when people tell me that they are too busy to invest eight hours of their time over the course of a year to something that is so critical to their personal and professional development.
I once heard someone say that we learn about life from living the past, but we live life in the future. So I pass along what I have learned in the past, to hopefully help you live it a bit better in the future.
Steven E. Staugaitis is a director in Kreischer Miller's Audit & Accounting practice and leads the firm's Entrepreneurial Services Specialty Area. He is also a specialist with Kreischer Miller's Center for Private Company Excellence and leads its Family Business Structure content hub. Steve joined Kreischer Miller in 2004 and has over 20 years of public accounting experience. Contact Steve at Email.
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