Leave Public Accounting for Corporate? Be Careful!

Don’t Be Fooled; Be Informed

I am a former Big Four CPA.  In my career, I’ve interacted with public accountants from the “inside” at Coopers & Lybrand (PwC) and KPMG, from the “outside” as a corporate Controller and CFO, and now in executive search.  My perspective is broad and unique.

I speak with dozens of Audit and Tax Seniors every year.  And every year, many of them tell me they “want out” of public accounting.  They are convinced that corporate life is better.  Be careful.  Before taking a hard line on leaving public accounting, don’t be fooled – be informed.  It’s easy to blame the industry – however, it may be your current firm that deserves the blame.

Because most Seniors are with the same firm they joined right out of college, they have only one professional point of reference.   From that one point of reference, it’s very common to extrapolate their experience with one firm to the entire public accounting profession.   We all know the stereotypical “cons” of public accounting:

  • Too many hours
  • Too much travel
  • Poor work/life balance
  • Working in a specialty that doesn’t interest or excite them
  • Working with clients they don’t enjoy

To compound matters, they make assumptions about the lifestyle that their clients and corporate friends appear to enjoy.  The result? An unhappy CPA who decides public accounting isn’t for them.   It’s at this point that objectivity is critical.

Dwelling on the above “cons” causes them to forget the “pros” of public accounting; what excited them about the profession in the first place:

  • Working with smart, motivated people (just like them)
  • Diverse, challenging and complex work
  • Flexibility and autonomy
  • Seeing the financial picture from a holistic point of view
  • Diversity of industries, clients, assignments and special projects
  • Defined career path in terms of both levels and timing
  • Strong salary increases
  • Being part of an elite club (let’s be honest)

Life is different – but not necessarily better – on the corporate side.  Here’s why:

  • Not everybody is smart and motivated
  • The work is not always diverse, challenging and complex – it can be quite routine (monthly closing/analysis, forecast comparisons/updates, budgets, updating spreadsheets, standard reports, etc.)
  • Less flexibility and autonomy
  • Unless you’re a Controller or CFO, you won’t see the whole picture
  • Career paths are often ambiguous and without time frames
  • Raises are MUCH smaller (can you say “cost of living” adjustment?)
  • Less time off  (especially in the Summer months)
  • Regular, repeated busy seasons (monthly, quarterly and year-end; not to mention other special projects)

Sometimes public accounting is just not a good fit, and leaving for the corporate side is the right answer.  CPAs must make sure they are being objective and are properly informed about each path.  It may not be an issue of public accounting as a career – it may simply be a matter of finding a firm that offers a better cultural fit.


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