Summon the courage to take career risks

The right risks can kick your career into high gear.
By Megan Hart

In 2014, Luke Selvig, CPA, was invited to attend a networking event. As a self-described shy person, he wasn't exactly excited at the prospect. But Selvig had recently joined Boyum Barenscheer, the Twin Cities firm where he's currently a manager, and thought it would be a good idea to tag along. It's a decision that changed his life.

Through networking, he got involved with a Minnesota Society of CPAs committee that he was soon asked to chair. The role came with an unexpected responsibility: giving a speech in front of about 350 people at a dinner for new CPAs. Taking risks helps you grow, he said.

"If I can talk in front of more than 300 people at a dinner, I can talk in front of my co-workers at a meeting," he said.

Selvig, who will speak about getting outside your comfort zone at this year's ENGAGE conference, sees a link between that first networking event and many of the things he has since achieved, including graduating from the AICPA Leadership Academy and becoming vice chair of the AICPA's Young Member Leadership Committee. That's thanks largely to the confidence his public speaking has helped instill.

"If you think of your happiest moments or proudest accomplishments, they don't come from a place of not taking risks," he said.

Career risks can, naturally, be scary. These tips can help whether you're considering a small step or a major leap:

Practice putting yourself out there. Stepping outside your comfort zone becomes easier the more you do it, Selvig said. Start by speaking up a bit more in meetings or volunteering for new tasks.

"It's kind of like working out," he said. "You've got to build up those muscles by taking those small risks. Do things incrementally."

He recommends saying "yes" more often — even if the immediate benefit of an action isn't clear. When Selvig attended that first networking event, he had no idea where it would take him.

And, if taking initiative doesn't come naturally, find a colleague or friend to hold you accountable, he suggested.

Another benefit of practice is that if you do take a chance and it works out, "it gives you some evidence to support taking risks again in the future," said Erin Daiber, a CPA turned career coach and owner of Well Balanced Accountants in San Diego, Calif.

As a coach, Daiber frequently works with CPAs who want to advance their careers. One of the things often holding them back: self-confidence.

"People have this idea that you should have a certain level of success before taking a risk," she said. "This is one of the strategies we use to keep ourselves stuck. It's a way of mitigating the discomfort of possibly reaching for something and failing."

Early-career CPAs might avoid risks, even relatively small ones like asking for a raise or volunteering for a new project, because they're afraid of trying and failing, Daiber said. If you're experiencing these doubts, tell yourself that in the best case, the risk pays off. In the worst case, you learn something, she said.

Think about where you want to end up. While working with clients, Daiber often has them approach career choices as business decisions. When calculating if a risk is worth it, consider whether it'll take you closer to your career goals, she said.

"The thing that I tell people is that if you don't manage your career in accounting, it will manage you," she said. "It's really important to have an idea and to be regularly evaluating where you want your career to go."

If you look at career risks through this lens, it can be easier to tell whether they're right for you — and to avoid blaming yourself if things don't pan out.

"It's natural to go to the worst-case scenario of what could happen by taking a risk, and usually that stops people from taking a risk at all," Daiber said. "But by focusing on the possibilities that are available to you by swinging out and taking a leap towards what you want, there's a huge upside. Even if it doesn't work out as planned, remind yourself that you'll never let it get to your 'worst case.'"

Learn as much as you can before making a move. Another way of judging whether a career risk will be worth it — and of lessening your anxiety over it — is to get more information. This is where networking can come into play. Lesley Mitler, a former CPA and co-founder of Early Stage Careers, a coaching firm for college students, recent grads, and early-career professionals based in New York City, recommends that accountants make connections through professional organizations such as the AICPA or their college alumni network and talk to people whose achievements align with their career goals.

"Network with people who have jobs that would be interesting for you," she said, and ask them how they got there.

If you're contemplating a new job, note that job descriptions can fail to accurately reflect what day-to-day work might look like, she said. Try reaching out to people with firsthand experience in similar roles to hear about what it's like for them.

Don't sell yourself short, Mitler and Daiber agree. If you don't have all the desired qualifications for a job posting, consider applying anyway. Employers may not expect applicants to have every skill on the list. Often the most important appear first, Mitler noted.

Don't expect perfect timing. Sometimes taking a career risk can look as simple as asking for more responsibilities or inviting a senior colleague to lunch. But other times, you'll have to make major decisions about your professional future. You can't always choose when that'll happen. If you're waiting for the perfect time, you're likely to miss opportunities, Daiber said.

Prepare for change. If you're contemplating a big career move, prepare for the transition. If possible, save a little extra money beforehand, Mitler said.

You might also consider seeking professional help. Before taking a leap, look for courses or training to build skills relevant to your new career path, Mitler suggests. These opportunities might also help as you determine whether your new career direction is really right for you. Meanwhile, Daiber said seeing a coach herself played a big role in her own career journey.

"We do the best we can with the tools we have. Everybody does," she said. "But we don't know what we don't know, and that's the benefits of coaching, to open your eyes to new possibilities."

AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021, the premier event for accounting and finance professionals, will be a hybrid event this year. Join us at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or online, July 26–29, for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing, tax, technology, leadership, personal financial planning, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more. Keynotes with Sir Richard Branson and NASA's Adam Steltzner will be held online on June 8.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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