Finding purpose in your career as a CPA

Shifting your focus to fulfillment can reinvigorate your love of accounting.
By Hannah Pitstick

Finding purpose in your career as a CPA
Image by koto_feja/iStock

Every job has an underlying purpose. Doctors are driven to restore health. Scientists, to understand how the universe functions. Teachers, to help students grasp concepts. Accountants make a positive impact across industries every day, even if those ripples are not immediately apparent to the casual observer.

For about a decade, John Sensiba, CPA, managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, had an ongoing discussion with his son, who works as a paramedic. His son would frequently tell him that he could never work in an office, that he "would die doing what you do." One day, Sensiba got tired of his son's subtle digs on the accounting profession, and countered with the argument that, just because the impact of accountancy work is less obvious than the work of a paramedic, doesn't mean it's any less important.

"I told him my work may not be as dramatic as what a paramedic does when they pull up on scene, but it makes a difference," he said.

There are endless ways to find purpose using accountancy skills — by helping people maneuver through a potentially daunting tax system, enabling business owners to thrive, protecting the public interest, or taking care of the numbers so churches, not-for-profits, and artists can focus on what they do best. Despite all that, it's still possible for finance professionals to lose their passion, wondering whether their work is making a substantial difference. If you've stumbled into a purpose slump, here are a few ways to scramble out and continue using your skills to make change.

Connect the dots to realize your worth

The simplest way to find purpose in your work is to realize that it's already there. Sensiba was forced to articulate the meaning of his work when his son put it into question. He reflected and gave his son one small example of the impact his work can have. He told him, if a business owner calls on a Friday afternoon in a panic because they've been selected for a random audit, Sensiba calms them down, telling them he's going to deal with the IRS on their behalf and they should go enjoy their weekend.

"If I do that, do you think they go home and are a better wife or husband, a better parent, a better friend, better in the community because they're not stressed all weekend?" Sensiba said.

There are plenty of small and large ways accountants and finance professionals can make a positive impact within their families, workplaces, and society as a whole, and it can be helpful to pause and join the dots to see the bigger picture.

"I would encourage people, if they can't find meaning in their work, to just stop and try to make those connections to their role in society and how what they do connects to that, because everybody's job is important," Sensiba said.

Choose clients who share your passion

By helping people who share your passions or values, you can compound the impact of your work. Lisa Johnston, CPA, CGMA, chief accounting officer at Streamline Accounting LLC, started her first company in 2004 and watched it grow into something that she said didn't allow for a sustainable work/life balance. So, at the end of 2017, she divested of her tax practice, let go of many clients, and decided to focus primarily on churches and schools.

"I can really get behind the purpose and the mission of the clients we're serving because, if their mission succeeds, they're educating children more effectively, or saving souls on the church side, so if I could further that mission, it would make me a happier person," she said.

Pruning her client base from 650 to about 30 has also allowed her to spend ample time with each client and enabled her to make real-time implementation of technologies, such as modern electronic financial statements that allow her church clients to keep track of the donations collection. Johnston recommends anyone who has a firm, or the ability to look at their client list, to reaffirm that list every year and make sure they're working with people who share their values.

For Debra Lockwood, CPA, president and CFO of Provident Resources Group, her father's death from a heart attack led her to the American Heart Association (AHA), which she eventually became the national chairman of in 2010. Her work with the AHA, in turn, established an enduring passion for accounting work with not-for-profits that she continues today with Provident, a national not-for-profit that develops and operates educational, health care, senior living, and multifamily housing facilities and services.

"It's important to understand what makes your heart warm when you need motivation to forge ahead on a difficult day," Lockwood said.

Consider giving back

When Sensiba became managing partner and took on a different role within the firm, he started to look at what the company could do on a broader scale and decided to shift its focus to be more mission-driven by becoming a Certified B Corporation. Certified B Corporations are held to standards of "verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose," according to the B Corp website. Sensiba said the shift has allowed some in the organization to realize that they're not "just" doing audits, dealing with tax returns, and putting in chargeable hours, but are also helping clients in other important ways.

"The impact of the B Corp on our business is that it grounds you and helps you focus on things other than making money," he said.

The firm's culture also contributes to each employee's sense of purpose. For example, the firm places no limit on how much time employees can take off to volunteer with whichever organizations they find meaningful, he added.

"I think if you ask anybody in the firm what their priorities are, they would say family, community, and then firm," he said. "Firm is in third place, and family and community are defined by each individual."

Expand your idea of possible

It can be difficult to pursue a higher purpose if you're not fully aware of the opportunities available to professional accountants. After graduating and getting her CPA license, Sarah Lane became an auditor with a large firm but soon realized it wasn't the best fit for her. It wasn't until she returned to school that she discovered the field of financial planning, a career that perfectly suited her interests in numbers and helping people understand their finances.

"[Financial planning] was something I didn't even know existed," said Lane, CPA/PFS, a shareholder and financial adviser at CLS Financial Advisors Inc. "It was the perfect combination of helping people and finding that satisfaction, mixed with my interest and skill set in numbers."

Similarly, Peter Margaritis, CPA, initially pursued public accounting work before realizing it wasn't the best fit for him. He pivoted into teaching and now travels the country to host workshops, deliver keynotes, and meet with organizations, using his improv training to help accountants sharpen their creativity and leadership skills.

"I figured out a way I could help the profession without having to completely step out of it," said Margaritis, a speaker, humorist, and author of Taking the Numb Out of Numbers: Explaining and Presenting Financial Information With Confidence and Clarity.

Pursue profit and passion together

Matt Solomon, CEO at the Center for Enlightened Business, helps accountants transition into business advisers and maintains that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive.

"It's about shifting into a more purposeful practice and doing more fulfilling work, but what's beautiful is that if you do that correctly, you can make a lot more money in the process and you can help clients at a much higher level," he said.

Solomon challenges his clients to step back, wipe the slate clean, and start over with regard to what they would really like, in terms of their hours, income, the impact they want to have on the client, and their ideal client base. He then coaches them to effectively communicate their value so they can get paid what they're worth and work harder for fewer clients.

"The purposeful stuff in life is based on human connection," he said. "It's based on bringing value to others, and an accountant is in a prime position to do that."

Take a break to reset

With the constant connectivity of the world today, people have the potential to work around the clock, but Sensiba said anyone can benefit from a proper break.

Recently Sensiba completely unplugged by turning off his cellphone and taking a two-week break from business for the first time in over 30 years.

"Nothing world-changing happened, but when I came back, I had a fresh perspective on things," he said. "I think a lot of people just get so close to the work and the daily grind that they don't take that time away."

Especially if you're struggling to find meaning in your work, Sensiba recommends talking with mentors, doing some research, and, most importantly, taking a break. (Read the sidebar, "How to Reengage in Your Current Position," to see how small changes can make a big difference in boosting your sense of purpose.)

Johnston agreed, adding that personal time — whether that's a midday walk, a pedicure, or a night in with a glass of wine — should be a regular and consistent practice.

"It's super important to keep yourself personally recharged," she said. "CPAs are probably the worst at it because there's always another deadline, but if we don't continue to renew ourselves, we just start breaking down like a car that doesn't have oil."

Consider a thoughtful pivot

If you've tried everything and still can't find a sense of purpose in your role, then you may want to consider a career pivot or change — just be careful not to quit your job without thoughtful deliberation.

"If they're seeking a new role, because I have looked down that path before, I would just take a hard look because the grass isn't always greener on the other side," Johnston said. "Really make sure you know what you're leaving before you leave it."

However, if you have thought it through and the only thing keeping you in your current position is fear of failure, Lane suggested that the only way to move forward at that point is to take a calculated risk.

"Being willing to jump once you feel like it's time to jump is a big aspect of finding fulfillment in your career," she said. "There are a million opportunities out there and jobs you don't even know exist until you find them."

Margaritis agreed that fear is a huge factor in why people aren't pursuing meaningful work.

"If you're looking to adapt to something else, yes, make sure that you understand and do an analysis, but then take a chance," he said. "Recently, in the last four years or so, I learned that FAIL stands for 'first attempt in learning.' As CPAs, we like perfection, but it doesn't exist all the time, especially when we try and adapt to a new career."


How to reengage in your current position

Finding meaning in your work doesn't have to involve drastic changes. Small efforts can make a huge impact on your sense of purpose. The best part is that you can do any of the following from the comfort of your current role:

Mentor someone

To find additional purpose, Lisa Johnston, CPA, CGMA, chief accounting officer at Streamline Accounting LLC, suggested mentoring current CPAs or somebody who is interested in the profession, whether that's at the college or high school level. You could choose to work with someone one-on-one or visit schools to discuss career options available to degreed accountants.

"[Mentoring] has always given me hope that somebody's coming behind me who will fill my shoes," she said.

Join a board

If you enjoy being in leadership roles, Debra Lockwood, CPA, president and CFO of Provident Resources Group, recommends reaching out to your professional network to see whether any local boards need a CPA.

"There's such a demand for the profession right now," she said. "Just having that numbers sense is a real value added to any organization."

Sponsor a local business

Putting your money where your heart is can have a huge impact on your community and your sense of purpose. John Sensiba, CPA, managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, and the other partners at his firm decided early on that if their employees were passionate about something outside of the firm, that's where they were going to write their checks.

"We've always said that our money follows our people," he said.

Ask for a stretch assignment

If you're not satisfied with your current role, said Sarah Lane, CPA/PFS, shareholder and financial adviser at CLS Financial Advisors Inc., try asking your boss for a stretch opportunity, such as sitting in on a client meeting to learn more about client management. Simply expressing interest in an area has the potential to open a new avenue for you in the field, she said.

"Thinking about what you want and asking for it is something you can do in any job," she said.

Educate colleagues

Firms like Sensiba San Filippo encourage employees to give educational presentations as a way of teaching colleagues about various topics, such as how to be more environmentally responsible. If your firm is open to the idea, perhaps you can find additional purpose in your current role by leading a workshop on something you're passionate about.


About the author

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


AICPA RESOURCES

Articles

"CPAs Support Business Owners During COVID-19 Crisis," JofA, April 3, 2020

"Strategic Career Mapping Can Lead to Professional Fulfillment," CPA Insider, July 22, 2019

"Developing Your Own Specialized Niche Practice," JofA, May 2019

Podcast episode

"How to Keep Fear From Short-Circuiting Your Career," JofA podcast, June 12, 2019

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