Mary Elliott, CPA

CEO of Warren Averett in Birmingham, Ala.

Mary Elliott, CPA, the CEO of Warren Averett in Birmingham, Ala.
Photo by Jon Morgan/AP Images

'Try new things, and learn as much as you can ...'

The importance of expertise: At the start of my career, I was hired as a staff accountant at Warren Averett, which was under another name prior to mergers, and I have focused on serving health care organizations ever since. Gaining and building upon cumulative knowledge of this industry allowed me to have a solid understanding of this industry, which I could use to offer insights that were truly meaningful to the businesses I served. Whenever you have a deep understanding in an industry, you can be much more of a consultant — looking forward to help businesses reach their goals for the future instead of only recounting what happened in the past. With a focus on serving a particular industry, you're not just a historian looking at tax returns or financial statements. You're looking at numbers, but you're asking clients about what they want to achieve in the next 12 months and brainstorming to help them reach those goals.

Developing a specialty: For those who are interested in specializing in serving a particular industry, it's important to go to a firm that emphasizes industry expertise and has industry specialties. In those first few years of your career, make sure you pursue opportunities in the areas that interest you. Once you've figured out where you want to focus, commit yourself to becoming a lifelong learner. Know what's going on in that industry by attending industry-specific conferences and annual meetings. Get to know the people and the leaders in that industry. It even pays to get to know the vendors. They know your potential clients, and they know what needs the industry has, which can help you think about ways to serve your clients. Put yourself out there, try new things, and learn as much as you can.

Successful leadership: Everyone is a leader in some capacity. Leadership isn't about one person leading 800 people; it's about empowering others so that a group of people can bring their unique skills to the table together. Leaders should maintain strong relationships and mentor others on their team. It's also important to be willing to fail. Mistakes are part of the learning experience.

For those coming up through the ranks: It will be important in the future to not just focus on tax returns and audits, but to be a true and trusted business adviser. This means being aware of what's important to your clients, listening to their needs, and pursuing the right solutions. Those who aspire to leadership roles should get involved now. If you see a committee focused on something you're passionate about, join that committee. Volunteer outside of your workplace, and add value where you can in your community.

— As told to Lea Hart, a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA's editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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