Our Managing Principal Has Some Advice for Accountants Who Are Still Figuring It All Out

Pete Zich is the Managing Principal of Dugan + Lopatka CPAs in Warrenville, Illinois. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Pete joined a “Big 8” accounting firm. He later joined D+L in 1990, where he has grown his career ever since. In this reflection, Pete shares some advice for young accountants – and anyone at a crossroads in their career.

If you want to get a sense of how much has changed since my career began, consider the device you’re reading this on. Back when I first joined D+L, no one had a computer. (And computers that could fit in your pocket? Well, that was just sci-fi.) Instead, we had a computer lab, a big room that housed a grand total of two computers. By the standards of the time, that was pretty high-tech.

Obviously, every industry has transformed dramatically since then. Accounting is no exception. Today, technology is integral to our work, the regulatory environment has transformed, and the role of accountants in the business world has evolved.

At the same time, there are some fundamental things about accounting – and the experience of being an accountant – that haven’t changed.

Today, I want to reflect on a few of them.

I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be a young accountant today. However, I remember some of the challenges I faced when I was navigating the early years of my career. Many of today’s young professionals are likely facing those very same challenges, albeit within a different context.

Maybe you’re just starting out. Maybe you’re at a crossroads. Or maybe you’re just curious what someone in my position would say to their younger self. Either way, I hope my advice can give you some perspective – and help you feel excited about what’s to come.

Now let’s get started…

#1: Put a premium on empathy.

An accountant can bring many things to their clients: a deep understanding of the tax code, industry knowledge, and business savvy, to name a few.

Those things are important. Really important.

But I think one of the most valuable things an accountant can bring to a client relationship, and one of the least talked about, is empathy.

In my experience, many client relationships evolve similarly. At first, the client wants you to perform a specific service or set of services. Pretty cut and dry.

Over time, assuming you do a good job, they come to see you as an advisor. They lean on you for guidance and support. They trust you and value your perspective.

Eventually, they come to see you less as an outside advisor and more as an integral part of their business, almost a member of their team. The walls between you and the client come down, and you, in turn, become emotionally invested in the success of their business.

It’s important to keep a healthy perspective, of course, but that emotional investment is what forms a bond between you and the client. At this point, the client not only depends on you for services and advice; they also see you as a partner and a kind of business-therapist, someone they trust deeply and turn to for support. That’s the stuff long-term relationships are made of.

Accountants who are early in their careers might have limited opportunities to work directly with clients and develop those relationships. But when you get the chance, go for it. And remember – if you can practice real empathy and build real trust, those relationships will grow, and your career will grow with them.

#2: Think hard about what work-life balance means to you.

Today, just about every firm you come across is going to promise work-life balance.

But what does that really mean?

What some employers don’t understand is that work-life balance means something different to each and every person. For one person, balance means flexibility; they want to be able to work when and where they want. For another, it might mean a more reasonable workload, or less pressure, or more time to spend with their family.

Finding an employer that offers the right balance can be tricky and may require some trial and error. But trust me, it’s worth it. And finding the right balance starts with understanding what work-life balance means to you.

#3: Get as much hands-on experience as possible.

There’s a certain prestige that comes with working for a larger accounting firm, which is a big reason why young, ambitious accountants are drawn to them. Unfortunately, many of these accountants end up doing rote, tedious work – and a lot of it. They spend minimal time with clients, they don’t get to experience the most fulfilling parts of the job, and, as a result, they often burn out.

Personally, I think that many young accountants burn out not only because of the volume of work they’re doing, but the nature of that work. They don’t get to see the things that bring me joy as an accountant every day – the impact of our work, the relationships, the people. It’s hard to be excited and optimistic about your career when you aren’t doing what fulfills you.

I wasn’t getting the fulfillment I needed at the large firm where my career began. I knew I wanted to be an accountant – I’d known that ever since college – but by my third year on the job, I knew I had to make a big change.

Moving to a smaller firm changed the way I saw my career. It allowed me to get the hands-on, client-facing experience I wanted. It gave me the opportunity to work with business owners, which is something I always wanted to do. (Today, that’s still one of my favorite parts of my work.) And for the first time in a long time, I felt excited about being an accountant. Sure, I still had to do some of the rote work, but I got significantly more hands-on experience, and it gave me the motivation I needed to stick with it. I saw my career as a journey, and I knew there were good things ahead.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone. But if you’re looking to get a broader experience early in your career, a smaller firm might be the place to do it.

#4: The longer you’re in accounting, the more you’ll enjoy it.

Young accountants might roll their eyes at this, but I’m serious when I say that your best years are ahead of you. Accounting has a steep learning curve; the industry values knowledge and experience heavily. As you gain more experience, you’ll be able to handle more sophisticated challenges, take on more responsibilities, and make a deeper impact. The more you put into your career, the more you get out of it.

It’s sort of like the evolution of client relationships I mentioned above. At the beginning, you’re mostly doing the less-fun parts of accounting, the more technical stuff. As you grow, however, you develop new skills and gain the experience you need to be an advisor. That’s where you can really start using your creativity and empathy, and your career becomes deeply fulfilling.

So if you’ve hit a rough patch, or are experiencing some uncertainty, keep in mind that nothing you’re facing is permanent. You’re on a journey, things are going to change – change is the one thing that’s guaranteed – and I bet they’re going to change for the better.

#5: Find someone to look up to.

To be honest, it feels pretty surreal giving advice to new accountants. I feel like I was a new accountant just yesterday.

Back then, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by people who did. I was lucky enough to have several mentors who not only helped me develop my accounting skills, but showed me how to be a good accountant – how to channel empathy, creativity and passion into my work.

Two of my mentors were Mike Dugan and Jerry Lopatka, the founders of Dugan + Lopatka. Jerry would constantly pull me into clients meetings, even if he didn’t really need me in them. Those meetings are where I learned the all-important “soft skills” of accounting, the stuff they don’t teach you in school. My education taught me how to be a CPA; watching Jerry work with clients, pitch business, and navigate complicated situations taught me how to be a communicator.

The other thing Jerry taught me was how to relax and have fun with my work. When I worked for a large firm, there was a ton of pressure, all the time. While that pressure could push us to produce great work, it could also sabotage us. It’s hard to think through a complex challenge when you feel like everything is at stake.

I still remember the day I made my first big mistake at D+L. It was my first year at the firm, and I was still in the Big Accounting Firm mindset. In my head, this mistake was the end of the world.

But when I walked into Jerry’s office and told him what had happened, fully expecting him to explode, he just shrugged his shoulders and calmly reminded me that mistakes happen. Then he helped me fix the problem – and lo and behold, life went on.

Every day, I do my best to channel that calm, quiet confidence.

The Bottom Line? Look for the Joy.

One of the most important things I ever learned about being an accountant – the last thing I’ll cover here – is about passion and joy. I learned it from Mike Dugan, another mentor of mine at D+L.

Mike, who passed away in 2019, had this energy that was absolutely contagious. He had a genuine passion for both his clients and his employees, as well as public accounting in general. And he loved to share it. My career wasn’t without its ups and downs. But even during challenging times, Mike was always there to remind me how amazing accounting can be.

And accounting is amazing. Think about it – we get to make a real difference every single day. We get to be creative, solve problems, and help others pursue the things they’re passionate about. How many people can say that?

There is a kind of joy that only comes from seeing the fruits of your hard work. Being an accountant means you get to feel that joy almost every day. It means you can look at the success of your clients and say, “I helped them do that. We made that happen.”

For me, that’s joy. And as Mike liked to remind us, “The joy continues.”

Build an accounting career where it all adds up.

At Dugan + Lopatka CPAs, you’ll help clients achieve their goals while building your career in a flexible, family-friendly environment.

  • True work-life balance
  • Creative, hands-on work
  • Advancement opportunities
  • Flexible schedules
  • Suburban Chicagoland location

Learn more about D+L’s culture and apply here.

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