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NextGen Magazine


Thinking Outside the Cubicle

Published Date:
Jan 2, 2014

You’re interested in accounting— financial reports, tax deductions, debits and credits, the taming of the abstract into the concrete. These things fascinate you. But when you think of the office, much less exciting imagery comes to mind: the dull flicker of florescent lights, the burble of the water cooler, the rows and rows of cubicles, each decorated with the same poster of Garfield the cat asking, “Is it Friday yet?” You love accounting, but you don’t want to be cooped up in an office, day in and day out.      Fortunately, while every accounting job involves at least some time at a desk, they aren’t all what we would consider to be desk jobs. We talked to three professionals—whose positions require them to travel frequently, channel their inner environmentalist or, ahem, learn how to use firearms—about their work.

Name: Victor Lessoff

Occupation: As a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service, Lessoff has spent more than two decades investigating financial crimes such as tax evasion and money laundering. According to him, a typical day in an agent’s life includes obtaining and analyzing evidence of illegal activities, and ensuring that whatever he or she digs up can be used in court, where that same agent is likely to be called on for expert testimony. Amount of time spent at a desk: Lessoff says it all depends on the case assigned. Though agents spend most of their time talking to witnesses, taxpayers and other accountants, and poring over records, the job occasionally involves hard-core law enforcement activities, including executing search or arrest warrants and conducting surveillance or undercover activities. What’s more, while special agents mostly work in the state in which they’re assigned, there may be times when they need to travel outside of it for an investigation. In the course of his own career, he said, his schedule has typically been split 50/50, so that he spends half his time working at the office and half working outside of it.

Perks: For Lessoff, “without question,” the best part of the job is the camaraderie among law enforcement officers, which “transcends personalities, agencies or cases.” Although the work can involve long hours outside the normal workday and frequently relocating, “at the end of the day,” he said, “the sacrifice is worth the satisfaction of doing something that I find very fulfilling, important and meaningful.”     

How to land his job: There are a few different ways to become a special agent. Some agents are recruited directly from college or internship programs, though most have other work experience before entering the world of criminal investigation, Lessoff said. “We hire special agents from all walks of life and with all types of business, government and/or military experience.” However, there are certain criteria that all IRS special agents must meet— they must be U.S. citizens; no more than 37 years old when they apply; have a valid driver’s license; be able to carry and use a firearm; successfully pass a medical examination, background check, drug test and tax audit; and be willing to relocate. They must also have either a bachelor’s degree that included at least 15 semester hours of accounting and 9 hours in a closely related field, or three years of accounting and business experience. Lessoff, who admits the job “isn’t for everyone,” recommends seriously researching the position first to see whether it’s something you’d like to do. Then, he said, if you meet the basic job requirements, be sure to “do everything you can to rise above the competition,” including shoring up your language skills, certifications and specialized experience.

Name: Mike Wallace

Occupation: Wallace, who headed up the nonprofit Global Reporting Initiative before moving on to his own consulting firm, is an expert in sustainability reporting. A relatively new discipline, sustainability reporting tracks a company’s efforts to be a good corporate citizen, by measuring and setting benchmarks for its economic, environmental and social impacts. A sustainability report, for example, might detail a company’s water and energy consumption, or its effect on local communities. According to Wallace, there’s been an increased demand for professionals who can verify the credibility of this sort of information, making it a growth area for CPAs; many accounting firms, including the Big Four, are working sustainability reporting into their suite of services, he said.

Amount of time spent at a desk: Wallace said that, judging from experience and his conversations with those in the field, the split is about 60-40, with 60 percent spent at a desk doing research and follow-up, and 40 percent spent doing client-facing work— “advising, guiding, assisting and assuring.” As you work your way up in the field, there can be significant travel both domestically and internationally, with speaking engagements, conferences and meetings.

Perks: If you’re in sustainability reporting, you’re in a “very exciting and active field in its early formative years,” which allows for a lot of creativity and exploration, Wallace said. At the same time, its relative novelty in mainstream businesses means that “awareness, attention and resources still need to be cultivated for any professional entering this area of work.”

How to land his job: There are basically two paths you can take, according to Wallace. The more challenging path, he said, is to pursue the sustainability field from the start, by going after a position with a title that lays claim to the discipline, such as “chief sustainability officer.” If accountants decide to do that, though, he said that “they should expect to make less than their peers,” as it’s a new and emerging field and many companies are still trying to figure out what the business case for it might be, as well as how to fund it. The other route is to pursue the discipline through a more traditional accounting path, by joining a firm that has sustainability reporting as a practice area and working your way up toward it. Alternately, he said, if you’re working in industry, you can “become an internal champion for such a project” by helping the company develop a “green team” that “makes sure the story being told by the company [about its sustainability practices] is bulletproof and credible.” 

Philip Whitman

Occupation: Whitman is a consultant who travels across the country advising CPA firms on business matters such as succession planning, mergers and acquisitions, strategic talent acquisition and practice management consulting. Consultants are modern-day hunters, Whitman said, but the best among them are a combination of “minders, grinders and finders.” A minder means they can deal well with client relationships; a grinder shows that they can perform work or supervise it; and a finder means they can go out, leverage relationships and bring in work. Outside of those generalities, it’s hard to paint professionals in this line of work with a broad brush, he added, because they have different specialties and employ different skill sets to help their clients. In fact, within the accounting world, consultants can have very in-depth specialties— not just tax consultants, but real estate tax consultants, and not just real estate tax consultants, but real estate tax consultants who advise clients on affordable housing, hospitality, private equity, construction and more. “I can’t think of a niche where there isn’t a consulting opportunity,” he said.

Amount of time spent at a desk: Though it can vary from industry to industry and even company to company, Whitman said that consultants spend a significant chunk of their time out of the office, especially since they have to drum up their own opportunities. A perfect example, Whitman noted, is a colleague who works in litigation support and spends most of his time traveling around the country generating business and servicing clients, rather than managing internal office matters. Perks: Consultants do need to reinvent themselves every few years as the economy changes and as new opportunities emerge and old ones fade. But if you can make it, Whitman said, you can be extremely well paid and have far more freedom in determining where, when and how you work than you ever would in a traditional office job.

How to land this job: As you might expect, you’ll need to be fairly experienced before you can plunge into the field. Whitman worked at a Big Eight firm—predating the Big Four—and a large international firm, did bookkeeping, audit and tax for a small firm, amassed a few years in private industry, and even owned restaurants and real estate before he transitioned into consulting. While consultants are expected to specialize in an area, he said, having a well-rounded background is a definite plus. “The great consultant comes to the table with a focus on an area where [he or she has] tremendous expertise, but [also] with a broad background, whether it comes from audit or tax, at least in a CPA environment,” Whitman said. “The cumulative effect and knowledge from being involved in different aspects of the public accounting business has allowed me to do what I do.”