By Cheryl Heitz, AFWA Past National President, with Professor Rebecca Hickman
Moving from your years as student into your first professional job is certainly a life changing event. AFWA strives to provide students access to the professional world through its programs and publications. This fantastic update from Cheryl Heitz on her conversation with a professor provides excellent advice to think about as you take on this transition. If you’re an accounting or finance professional with connections to students, please share this great advice.
As the Chief Financial Officer for the Northern Arizona University Foundation, I have access to a great resource for students: faculty at The W.A. Franke College of Business at NAU. I recently sat down with Professor Rebecca Hickman to discuss how to prepare students for their careers in accounting and finance.
Rebecca Hickman is currently one of the Executives in Residence, a small group of people with extensive real-world experience who have transitioned to academia. As a professor, she shares her real-world experience to help students learn in a different way than they would with professors who have a depth of knowledge in their field, but not diverse corporate experience. Among other courses, she has developed a course called Accounting Ethics, which she has taught for three years. This course will help students think through ethical challenges they will face after graduation, and in some cases, it will help candidates become Certified Public Accountants.
Before we dive into the advice, here is some more background on Professor Hickman’s experience. An NAU alumna, Hickman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy in 1974 and went on to receive her MBA from Grand Canyon University. Prior to teaching at NAU, Hickman has business-world experience working at Price Waterhouse & Co., Arizona Public Service; and APS’s parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corporation. Despite having only worked for two major corporations, she gained skills in many business disciplines, her favorite of which was investor relations. Investor relations is the primary interface between a publicly-held company and the investment community, so Hickman worked with Wall Street analysts, major institutional investors, and individual shareholders to help them understand Pinnacle West’s and APS’ status and outlook strategically, operationally, and financially.
In getting to know Professor Hickman, she shared that her experience showed that accounting is truly the language of business. It underpins the business world. As she moved through accounting, finance and investor relations, her solid background in accounting enabled her to communicate effectively with the various constituent groups. As students begin looking at their future careers and changes as time progresses, she recommends that they remain nimble and open to new responsibilities and keep their options open. She said that whenever she had job choices to make, she took the position that she believed would provide her with the most future options – something she calls “optionality.” For example, Hickman took a position in public accounting, then moved to the corporate world, believing that it would be more difficult to move from the corporate world into public accounting. She also worked for large companies because of the variety of positions they offered, instead of working for small companies initially, then trying to move to large organizations. Whether in accounting or finance, Hickman recommends that each woman determine what her near-term and long-term priorities are, then look for optionality to help her achieve her goals.
Cheryl: We hear time and again that it is important to have a strong professional network. What are some ways that students can start developing a career network while still in college?
Professor Hickman: It is important to start building a network early in your college career by belonging to student organizations and holding leadership roles. These are great ways to build the part of your resume that is not academic. Participating in professional organizations is critically important for college students today. Being able to list a leadership position on your resume will distinguish you to potential employers. In addition, many business schools offer a speaker series and attending those sessions is a good way to learn how professionals have developed their career paths. I recommend that students not only attend these sessions, but also engage the speakers by asking questions about their industries. This helps students practice their engagement skills and helps them become comfortable in these types of situations and environments.
Cheryl: Most college students know that, in an increasingly competitive job market, it is important for students to acquire summer and/or year-long internships. How can belonging to a professional association help facilitate finding a good internship?
Professor Hickman: Without a doubt, by their junior years, students should have internships. Whether or not the internship is paid is irrelevant. The experience gained during the internship is invaluable for your career path. The first point of contact I recommend is the career development office at each student’s college. That office is often the intermediary with employers seeking applicants for internships. Also, as previously mentioned, colleges provide access to guest speakers – students should be sure to ask them if their companies offer internships or if they know of programs. I also recommend that students participate in the social events hosted by their schools and student organizations. These events provide a great environment for students to practice approaching people and telling them about themselves and their career objectives and asking about internship opportunities.
Cheryl: There are so many different avenues to pursue in the accounting and finance industry. How do students decide which type of accounting or finance career to pursue?
Professor Hickman: It is very important to investigate what a job is like. There are opportunities to job shadow with practicing professionals. These opportunities will give students real-world exposure to various professions. It is also important to talk with students who recently have graduated and entered the workforce. They can provide the best insight on entering that particular field. Spend time with a partner at a firm – it will be a very different experience than the entry level junior auditor. Ask about lifestyle and work/life balance. Each student should think about her individual priorities: What defines success for her? What does she need to be happy in her career? For example, the experience as a junior auditor at a large international firm will be very different than at a small regional firm. At a large public accounting firm or investment banking firm, the newest employees will be part of a large team working 60-80 hours a week.
Cheryl: What other aspects of the accounting and finance industry can a professional association help prepare students for?
Professor Hickman: Professional organizations help provide the skills and training to help students progress in their profession. Once a person reaches a certain level, she will find herself needing sales skills and interpersonal skills, which are very different from the technical accounting and financial skills learned in college. For example, audit partners do not “do” audits; they are busy getting new clients. Professional associations can provide leadership skill training that will help professionals ascend their career paths.
Cheryl: Let’s say I’m working for a company that does not have a policy to pay for professional association membership dues and conference registration fees (for continuing education). How can I convince my employer that financial support of my professional association membership and providing me time off from work to participate in association events will benefit the company?
Professor Hickman: You should explain to your employer that your membership in the professional association provides multiple benefits back to your organization. As a result of your membership, you likely will have access to discounted continuing education, which you can attend to hone your technical and leadership skills and share with your colleagues back at the office. Having employees who keep current in their fields should be important to every employer. Also, employees maintaining their professional certifications (which is often important to employers) usually requires a certain amount of continuing professional education. In addition, you can remind your employer that the professional association provides opportunities for you to sharpen your leadership skills as you endeavor to serve in a volunteer capacity on committees and in leadership roles. Also, you can let your employer know that, as you network with other professionals in the association, you can identify good people to bring into your organization as openings arise. And lastly, if you are comfortable and you are in a position to speak on behalf of not only yourself but your colleagues as well, you should remind your employer that support of professional development is a low cost way to generate employee loyalty to your organization. This kind of support makes employees feel valued by the organization, which increases retention, and is far more cost effective than hiring and training new employees.