Chances are good that you’ve heard the old saying “opportunity is where luck meets preparation.” The saying always made sense to me, but it never rang truer than in Summer 2009. I had three quarters left in business school and was starting to get the itch…the itch to do something BIG.
*This post was originally published for LessAccounting.com on September 10, 2012
|You should always maintain your CPA license|
If you’ve been around accountants long enough, you know that there are some people out there who take the CPA exam and leave it at that. This relegates you to “inactive”, which allows you to use the designation after your name so long as it is adjacent to the word “inactive.” It basically says you used to be a CPA but now…not so much. So why is this so terrible?
1. Proper representation: If you use the “CPA, inactive” language on business cards or a website that is being used to attract clients, what are they supposed to make of your skillset? Why would you have put that on your contact info if it wasn’t relevant? CPAs should be answering questions not creating more of them. You might ask “what if I’ve been a licensed CPA for 20 years, and now I just help my family and friends with their accounting. Should I still be licensed?”
Think about it this way: if you’re providing help to your family and friends with outdated/incorrect information, you may be doing them a disservice by providing incorrect advice and exposing them to unnecessary financial and/or legal risk. Depending on the complexity of what you’re doing, this risk may be low, but this risk is not something that should be ignored by you or anyone that you advise as an inactive CPA. I can envision how going to inactive status may make sense if you have no intention of providing any sort of accounting services, but marketing yourself as an inactive CPA is outside of my comfort level.
2. The network: Next, there is the network that goes along with being a CPA. From the AICPA to state CPA societies to Twitter, I’ve connected with many CPAs purely based on the fact that we are CPAs. This may be my own selection bias, but I’ve yet to see inactive CPAs networking with each other. It’s just not quite the same.
3. Self preservation and self promotion: The most important reason all CPAs should be licensed is a combination of self-preservation and self-promotion. Maintaining your CPA license places tangible accountability on you to maintain your Continuing Professional Education (CPE) so that your professional skills are always relevant to the current market. Of course this will cover some accounting refreshes, but the CPE requirement can give you the excuse or push you need to start branching out into other financial areas, picking up expertise that will 1) make you a better business partner to your customers and 2) help to dispel the myth that CPAs are nothing more than business historians.
What being licensed means
Now that I’ve made my case for being licensed, let me briefly give you some general details on what that entails. The specifics will vary from state to state but generally speaking, getting/renewing your license requires the following:
- 120 CPE hours every three years (80 hours maximum to be completed via self-study or book authorship) – some states require minimums for each year within the three-year reporting period and others look only at the three years in aggregate. Refer to your state board of accountancy for the specific on you state’s CPE requirements
- 4 hours minimum of ethics every three years – again some states may require ethics each year and I’ve seen states with as many as eight hours of ethics required every year. Your state board of accountancy can provide you with the ethics requirements for your state’s CPAs
To be fair, the cost of CPE courses can add up quickly, but with a little research you’ll find you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on each course as people often assume. There are many CPE providers offering great value for their courses, and I can honestly say that maintaining my CPA license is one investment that I don’t second guess.
In case you haven’t seen it, Diversity Magazine recently published their issue with the top 50 best places to work for diverse managers and women. I generally don’t read these for the actual ranking of the employers but rather to get an idea of what the diversity landscape looks like at different companies. It’d be nice if we ever reached a point where these types of ranking were no longer necessary.
Yesterday, on twitter, a reporter from U.S. News was asking to speak to current business school students and recent business school alumni to ask a question. He didn’t say what the question was but I was intrigued by idea of talking to someone from U.S. News, so I responded.
He called me within 3 minutes of my sending him my phone number and the question he wanted to ask was with regards to this article from the New York times about Yale’s business school, which I hadn’t read at the time of our conversation.The question was this: If you would’ve have found out that your school lost $15-20 million over the last decade as the NYT article discusses in the case of Yale, and does this news discredit their ability to run a successful business program?
Not having read the article, my answer was my decision would not have necessarily been changed, no it does not discredit their ability to run a successful business program. I came to this conclusion based on 3 things:
1. I had zero idea how they lost the money, was this a function of risky investments or some sort of gross negligence. Even after reading the article, it’s unclear what exactly happened to result in such massive losses.
2. Experts in the classrooms weren’t necessarily part of the administration team. What I mean by this is that I’ve seen cases where service providers (e.g. accountants/consultants) are so good at servicing their clients that they sacrifice in their personal/internal situations. I don’t know if this was the case at Yale, but it doesn’t seem that far fetched.
3. Yale is still one of the most power brands in academics. Even with this news coming out, I can’t imagine a situation where an individual having Yale on his or her resume for undergraduate or business school would ever be at any sort of disadvantage. The fact is, whether people admit it or not, they give much more credibility to institutions they know, and everyone knows and respects Yale.
Now that I’ve gone back and read the article, my initial stance hasn’t really changed as none of the root causes were revealed in any sort of detail. For some reason I am surprised, though, that there are people that specialize in restructuring business schools. I’ll be watching this case closely to see how things develop.
What are your thoughts? How Would this impact your decision?
|It’s good practice to answer the question that was asked…|
Once you’ve gotten through step 1 and step 2 of the business school application process, you’ll probably be sick of even talking about business schools. That is, of course, unless you get that much anticipated invitation to interview for your dream school. Then, suddenly all fatigue will fade and you’ll find it difficult to talk about anything other than business school and your upcoming time to shine, but don’t be alarmed. These symptoms are completely normal.
Most schools, especially the full-time programs, only interview a subset of the overall applicant pool, so if they’re bringing you in, they must like you quite a bit. It’s important to remember, though, that an interview doesn’t equal automatic admission.
Again, a business school interview should be no different than how you would prepare for a job interview. In fact, admissions officers are looking for many of the same characteristics as any future employer. Here’s 5 of those key characteristics for you to keep front of mind:
The admissions officer wants to feel like you only have eyes for the school he/she represents. This means you want to have high energy in your voice and explicitly state how excited you are for the opportunity to be interviewing for a spot at their school. This will only work, though, if you can do this in a genuine fashion, which brings me to the next point.
While interviewers love to hear how much you love their school, professing your love only helps your case for admission if you are able to communicate your affections in a way that doesn’t come off as rehearsed. There are few things worse than sounding like a robot in an interview. It basically makes you look like you can’t think for yourself and that you’d be lost without your script.
In order to have a successful business school interview, you should have an initial vision of why the interviewing school is the best option for you to execute your MBA goals. If you sound like you’re not sure the school can help you achieve your goals, it’s a turn-off. If you hesitate to say that the interviewing school is a key element to your vision, it’s a huge turn-off. Likewise, if give the impression that you generally aren’t a “visionary person”…turn-off.
Even if you’re not 100% sure your vision will remain the same over the next two years, painting the picture for the interviewer and getting him/her to buy into the latest iteration of your vision goes a long way. The most effective leaders I’ve worked with are able to develop a blueprint or roadmap to reach a certain goal and adjust as necessary as circumstances change. If you can apply that approach here, then you’re already ahead of the game.
This is a tricky one, because your vision needs to be communicated with confidence but not so confident as to leave the interviewer thinking you have an overinflated ego. It’s definitely a challenge to walk the line between confident and cocky but it’s by no means impossible.
5. Communication Skills
Business schools are in the business of churning out leaders – people that will take on top roles in both the public and private spaces. A key quality of every leader I’ve seen to date is that you have to be comfortable talking to people, and that comfort needs to show during the interview. Oh, and don’t forget communication includes both speaking AND listening. You don’t want to be the person that appears to be focused only on producing the perfect answer to each question. Engage your interviewer and have a “normal” conversation and you’ll be just fine.
Anything else others would add to this list?
Note: As I was editing this post, I came across another interesting article about MBA interview mistakes. Check it out.
|Go big or go home|
The second, and most critical, part of the business school application process is the essay portion of the application.While preparing for the GMAT is important, the essays are where you get the chance to show your personality and how you would fit within a given school’s culture. You can think of the essay like a cover letter when you’re applying for the job.
The ultimate purpose of this exercise is to get an invitation for an interview. You can test like a champ and be as charming as anyone in an interview, but if you aren’t able to write compelling essays, your odds of being admitted are significantly reduced. So how can you make sure your essays will not miss the mark?
I’ll start with the easiest part – make sure you answer the essay question completely. For example, one of the questions when I was applying to Kellogg was:
“Why are you interested in pursuing your MBA while continuing to work full time? Why have you selected an evening program and what do you feel you can contribute to it?
If I wrote an essay that only addressed why I was interested in pursuing my MBA while working full-time and why I selected an evening program then I’ve completely missed part of the question – the part asking what I can contribute to the program. Not addressing all aspects of an essay question shows a lack of attention to detail at best and an inability to follow simple instructions at worst. Neither of those are qualities a top business school is looking for in its students.
The next thing you want to do with your essays is tell a good story. I can’t emphasize this enough – people love a good story! Whether it’s in school or in work, this always holds true. I have seen first hand that being able to tell a good story can be the difference between winning and losing a client. In this case, the client is that top tier b-school you have your sights set on, so take this seriously.
The final thing you want to do with your business school essays is be creative and make sure the story you tell is uniquely yours. You can achieve this through subject matter of your eassy (try to write about something your reader hasn’t seen before) or by telling the story in a way that has your personal spin on it. If possible, try to do both. At the end of the day, your essays should reflect your character and give the reader a reason to remember you. If will shift things in your favor when it’s time to decide between you and a comparable candidate. Every little advantage counts.
Now that I think about it, I guess it’s not that different from writing a blog. If you tell a good story that’s identical to that of 1,000 other applicants (or bloggers) and told in exactly the same way, its much more difficult for you to stand out. Another way of saying it is if you don’t impress me on paper, why would I want to interview you in person (come back to your site)? The answer to this should be pretty clear at this point…
So the moral of the story is: poorly written essays = no interview = no b-school admission = game over, thanks for playing.
|Studying only the easy question will set you up for a rude awakening on test day!|
I was recently speaking to one of my younger colleagues considering an MBA, partly because he has a vision for how this will help his professional development but mostly because he thinks it will “work out” in the long run. If you know anything about me, you understand that I like to make decisions based on reality (or at least feasible projections) and cringe at this sort of whimsical justification of such a large investment…
We started talking about what would be most helpful to someone gathering facts on the topic of applying to business school. He suggested that in addition to discussing how to determine if the MBA is the right move, I also spend some time discussing how to improve your chances of getting in once the decision to go for the MBA has been made, so here we are.
Once you’ve gotten through figuring out if going back to get your MBA is the right decision for you and whether or not you want to go the part-time or full-time path, which is a decent amount of work in itself, the real work starts. That is to say that you have to actually apply to business schools. The application process consists of 3 fundamental components: GMAT, essays, and interviews, which I will discuss in individual posts. Since the GMAT is the first step in the application process, that seems like a good place to start. I studied strictly using the Official GMAT review book, which you can buy here.
|Your New Best Friend|
Studying for the GMAT is as easy as 1-2-3 where “1” is taking the diagnostic, “2” is studying the right thing, and “3” is doing as many practice questions as needed to convince yourself you know what you’re doing. For what it’s worth, I did my GMAT prep over the course of about 3 weeks*, so I’m not just making this up for my own amusement.
The diagnostic is often overlooked by eager test-takers but it provides you information that you won’t be able to get in any other way. By spending some time answering a few questions up front, you learn exactly which topics should receive the bulk of your study effort and what information you’ve magically managed to maintain since your undergrad days. This will save you lots and lots of time down the road. Now isn’t that something you might be interested in?
2. Study the Right Thing
This point is what you do once you have taken the diagnostic. The idea is not to dismiss the diagnostic as useless but rather to take that information and shape your study plan. So what does that mean? For me, it means if I did well on a topic on the diagnostic test, I could skip actual studying and go right to practice questions. If I didn’t do well on a particular area (aka data sufficiency), I made sure to read up on those topics before even looking at any of the practice questions. What this does is equips you with the foundation to reason through questions where you may not be 100% certain of the answer, a skill that I cannot highlight enough for a multiple choice exam. Test taking services everywhere will tell you that process of elimination will often leave you with the right answer.
3. Lots of Practice Questions
This is the part where people so often miss the mark. I have to warn you – my approach on this point may seem a little unorthodox at first but hear me out. In a review guide that is organized from least to most difficult, almost EVERYONE I’ve encountered using this same review guide has started at the beginning of the book with the practice questions, but not I. In fact, I maintain that the best approach to getting work in is to start with the most difficult questions and work your backwards. You do this until you start getting all of the questions right and then re-review the questions you got wrong to make sure that you clearly understand whatever the mistake was that you made. Do not – I repeat – do not just glance over the text book explanation and say “yeah, that makes sense.” If you do that, it will be your kiss of death when you go to take the exam and realize you didn’t understand as well as you thought you did.
If you can successfully answer the more difficult questions and fully comprehend the logic behind them, there is no reason to believe you won’t be able to do the simple questions;however, the converse is clearly not true. I’ve found that many self-studiers want to feel like they’re making immediate progress and give themselves some positive feedback, which ends up with them spending far too much time on questions they’re already confident they know how to do. This can still result in a positive outcome if you have unlimited amounts of time to study or can take time off from work to study, but how many people really are living in this scenario? I’m guessing not many. Besides, who wants to take time off to study?
That’s it for now. Feel free to ask more detailed comments in the questions.
Next up, business school essays.
NOTE: I’ve made the assumption that if you’re trying to pull this off, you have strong self-discipline and will study at pretty much every opportunity: commute to work, lunch break, even when you go for those extended restroom breaks…it’s that serious. If you already know that you’re the type of person that gets distracted every time the wind blows or falls asleep anytime someone mentions the word “study,” then this isn’t for you.
*tested in the 93rd percentile
People tend to cite two well-documented reasons, namely travel and the hours, as the reason he or she decided not to pursue a career in consulting. In fact, the travel was the only reason I didn’t want to pursue consulting coming out of undergraduate school. It’s interesting to see how one’s perspective can change with additional work experience and emotional maturity, but I digress…
Travel and what sometimes feels like endless hours in the office are perfectly valid reasons to focus your job search elsewhere, but if you are undaunted by that challenge, there are three lesser talked about things you have to be prepared to take on once you become a consultant.
1. Status Meetings
Most corporate jobs require some degree of sitting through meetings which may not be the most relevant to you (read: boring, inefficient, etc.). What you will find in management consulting is that the frequency of meetings you need to attend, some of which undoubtedly will be less relevant to you than others, multiplies by roughly tenfold. The main culprit to blame for this is the status meeting.
In a business where the stakes can be so high, as in career making or breaking, it is crucial to CYA, as we say in the business, and one way in which this is done is the status meeting. These checkpoints allow everyone the opportunity to understand the progress of the project and if there are any concerns that need to be escalated. To put it simply, this is how you manage expectations through the project so that there are no surprises (e.g. missed deadlines) later on. In some cases you will have a status meeting for a status meeting to prepare for an executive status meeting.
I really wish I was joking about this. I guess you can say the number of status and review meetings required is directly correlated with the importance of the meeting at the end of that cycle. In my previous example, that would be the executive meeting (clearly very important!).
2. Extreme Scrutiny
Everyone associates consultants with a high price tag. With that price tag comes even higher expectations and with those expectations comes still higher levels of scrutiny. If you take offense to people double- and triple-checking your work, it is something you will either learn to embrace or you will find yourself looking for other employment. It makes sense if you stop to think about it – if YOU were paying hundreds of thousands our millions of dollars for a service or product, wouldn’t you want to be sure the numbers were run correctly and the analysis was spot on?
When this scrutiny is applied internally, you should think of it more as a collaborative exercise and less of a result of some sort of distrust. Specifically, if your manager, peer, or direct report can catch a typo or mistake in the analysis, it can be corrected before losing credibility with the client. Just to be clear, increased client credibility => more projects won by your firm => more $ paid to you.
3. Lots of Listening
A few months ago I read the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and one of the principles of this book is listening to understand. What this means is you actually have to HEAR what people are saying to you. It’s not about listening so that you can respond and/or share the latest widget is that you have to sell. It’s about genuinely feeling the underlying
In a lot of ways, consultants are like business therapists, so if you don’t want to hear people talk about their problems, regardless of how irrational or unreasonable the people may be at times, then a different long-term career path might be a better fit.
I say long-term because even if you’re not strong in any of the three areas above AND you don’t want to travel AND you don’t want to work unpredictable hours, people can push through anything for a set period of time. Just know what you’re getting into and plan accordingly.
|Typical Day in Consulting|
Here is another question that a lot of people thinking about going into consulting ask: what is a typical day in management consulting? First, let me say that there isn’t really a typical day, client, or project. Everyday there is a good chance you will find yourself doing something that you weren’t expecting. I’ll give you a recent example: one of our senior partners was initially only going to participate in a client meeting via phone on a limited basis, and next thing we know she tells us she is flying into Boston to speak with the client in person, so we (i.e. I) needed to make sure the partner was fully prepped on the work we are doing at the client and the vision going forward. It wasn’t something I had planned for, but it was something that needed to be done.
You begin each with a certain list of things you want to accomplish but flexibility and the ability to prioritize will become your two new best friends. Just make sure you understand the big picture of your assignment so that you can prioritize correctly, and if you don’t have a firm grasp on the big picture then you should ask.Trust me – it’s better to get it right up front than to have someone asking you later on why you didn’t you clarify things.
With respect to typical clients (the people in this case, not the company), you may find yourself specializing in a particular industry, but there is no predicting the types of personalities you will encounter at a given company. Truth be told, the same applies internally to the colleagues you will work with on your project teams. While you may try to work again with people you gel with on future assignments, there are always some different players that come into the picture and change the chemistry of the team. The change doesn’t have to be good or bad, per se. It’s just different and takes some time to adjust.
Each project, even when performing the same type of work, has different challenges that you will face, particularly company culture. The culture goes beyond the individual personalities that I referenced in the previous paragraph. Culture speaks to how business operate as a whole in dealing with both external parties (customers) and internal parties (employees) and how the business responds in the face of change. The change piece is the one you have to really monitor. Just because your previously client was able to do something in 10 weeks that does not mean this client can do it in the same amount of time.
The underlying reasons for the difference in change uptake can vary. It may be as simple as resources are constrained and you need to extend your timeline as a result (i.e. you have to understand what % people are dedicated to a project as they are still responsible for their “day job”) or something complex such as being fearful that their jobs will be rendered obsolete. The bottom line here is to work with your direct client contact to understand the environment you’re working in and the most efficient and effective ways to get things done.
Any more specific questions on a “typical day” just let me know in the comments.
I am frequently asked what advice I would give students looking to get into consulting. My answer remains the same whether the student is in undergraduate school or business school. The first thing you have to remember is obtaining a job is more about the people interaction than anything else, unless you work in a highly technical field. The people emphasis is exponentially more important in consulting.
In fact, you will likely hear people talk about how this is a “people business” at least 600 times as you go through the process of pursuing a consulting opportunity. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also warn you that the people aspect becomes the primary way of managing your career once you join a consulting firm. If people do not want to work with you, it doesn’t matter where you went to school or how smart you are – your stint in consulting will be short-lived if you don’t understand how to manage and navigate people.
That being said, let me explain a few of the key ways you can show your saavy in effectively handling people and their different personalities. Some of these may seem like a “nice to have,” but these behaviors need to be the baseline for you to even have a chance to be considered as a viable candidate.
1. Show Up
|Always Show Up|
If there is a firm that you are serious about pursuing you need to show up at every event. Every time a firm visits campus or has a job fair, you need to be there. If there is a coffee chat or some other off-site activity, you need to be there. If they offer some sort of mentor or buddy program, you need to sign up for that, too. I think you can see a pattern here. There are several reasons why you need to do this.
First, it gives you a chance to meet people that work at the firm, and the more positive impressions you can make, the better. Please not that it’s not just the senior partners that will influence your fate. Think about it this way, if you were choosing between two comparable people on paper for a job opening and you already knew you enjoyed being around one of the two people, which one would YOU choose for the job?
|Reason for the “airport test”|
When I was interviewing for my current position, I had multiple people explain to me the importance of the “airport test.” This is when an interviewer is imply looking to determine if they would want to be stuck in an airport with a candidate. Sounds simple, but this test is the reason that many people don’t receive consulting offers form their target firms. I can’t emphasize enough that if you are not able to connect with people around you, establishing credibility as a potential consultant will be impossible.
Secondly, so many people apply to consulting firms every year but don’t show the right level of follow-through. Simply by showing up to every event and putting a face to your name, you can differentiate yourself from many peers pursuing the same positions.
This is a “gimme.” Please don’t mess this up.
2. Be a Problem Solver
|Always have a solution|
Consultants are professional problem solvers. Clients hire us because their problems were too challenging to solve on their own. If you can demonstrate that you already have a history of strategizing and executing solutions/plans then you’re already ahead of the game. For, example, let’s say you organized a fundraiser from conception to execution in order to reach a specific monetary goal. This shows me two things: 1) you have a vision and 2) you know how to follow-through on that vision to achieve the desired outcome. These two skills are invaluable to a consultant.
3. Speak With Confidence
Everyone recruiting for consulting positions assumes that the way you speak to him/her is the way you will speak to a client. Clients hire consultants to be experts who can resolve complex issues. The last thing a client wants to feel is that you don’t even believe in what you’re doing. If you have a well thought-out perspective based on facts, you should deliver it with confidence. Don’t get nervous about the “right” answer as there is rarely a single solution to address a particular issue. If the client (or interviewer) disagrees with your conclusion you be comfortable explaining your assumptions and collaborate to come up with a suitable approach to reach the desired outcome. If you come undone or fold every time a suggestion of yours is challenged, you will come off as indecisive, or worse, not knowledgeable. Many times, a question really is just to make sure your points are understood, not to imply that you done something incorrectly.
Focusing on these three points will get you a long in obtaining that consulting offer that many people strive for. Feel free to add other good advice from your experience or more specific questions on making this transition in the comments.