Meet one of today’s leaders in the accounting profession, Rita Keller. A nationally known CPA firm management consultant, speaker and author…Rita is a former shareholder and Chief Operating Officer of a successful, regional CPA firm. Savor the Q&A…
Q: You spent a lot of time being a public accounting firm administrator. How has that role changed over the years and where do you see it headed?
I became a CPA firm administrator when the role was in its early stages inside a CPA firm. Law firms had already successfully established the role years before but CPAs were slower to adapt. Most firms had someone inside the firm who took care of the day-to-day – it was usually a high-level administrative person, secretary to the managing partner, although we don’t use the “s” word anymore.
Once ambitious CPAs learned that they could trust someone else to take care of the operational details, freeing them up to serve clients and obtain new ones, the role expanded significantly.
There are still many levels of firm administrators today, depending on the size of the firm and delegation skill of the MP and other partners. Titles include: Office Manager, Office Administrator, Firm Administrator, Director of Administration, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Administrative Officer. A handful of firm administrators have actually, like me, achieved shareholder status at their firms.
With all of the succession issues facing CPAs, I believe the role of the firm administrator is key into helping the departing generation make the transition as well as helping the up-and-comers expand and improve their management skills.
Q: How important is it that a firm administrator knows how CPAs work and what they encounter day-to-day?
This is extremely important. The more the firm administrator knows about the “business” of the firm, the more helpful they can be. They should strive to roll-up their sleeves and learn how the audit team puts together a financial statement and how the tax people prepare and process a tax return. This usually comes very naturally with experience.
It is also very important that the firm administrator role be considered a partner-level role in that they attend all partner meetings and retreats so they fully understand the issues first-hand.
Q: What has surprised you in terms of what public accounting firms have done (or not done)–both positively and negatively?
Over all my years working in public accounting, I have been pleased (surprised) at how CPAs have invested in technology to produce a better and more efficient work product. It has been one change that almost every CPA has embraced.
I also believe that even with the intense focus on due dates and the need to possess a great work ethic, CPA firms are wonderful places to work and create a career path. For the most part, CPAs are truly ladies and gentlemen and wonderful people to work with and for. I have found CPAs to be flexible and understanding with their team members almost to a fault. That brings me to some negative thoughts.
CPAs are often much too nice. They go to great lengths to avoid any form of confrontation and thus high performers and low performers are treated almost identically. In fact, high performers get rewarded by receiving more assignments (more work) and low performers receive less work and can almost coast along for years on end. This has to change!
CPA owners/partners need to focus on leadership development and better communication skills. As owners of the firm they should be more focused on their business and less on doing the work of the business (audits, accounting and taxes). Too many firms are under-managed, which is different from micro-management.
Q: What have been some of the key things you’ve learned throughout your career? What might you do differently if you could go back in time?
The most important thing I have learned is that nothing is ever handed to you. Especially as a woman, you have to be proactive, speak-up and work hard to achieve your goals. I like a mantra used by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In – “Done is better than perfect.” I believe CPAs could learn so much from that simple statement. When it comes to improving their firms (on the inside), I always say, “CPAs have good intentions but no implementation.” They revisit the same management topics year after year.
If I could go back in time, I would start my own business sooner! I see so many people inside CPA firms – owners and employees – who stay put when they are not really happy.
Q: What are some of the things that you love most about the accounting profession?
I love the people. I have met thousands of wonderful people over the years and had a chance to speak to and work with so many.
I love the opportunity public accounting has provided me to learn new things, continually improve my knowledge and skills. Life-long learning is a fact of life in the CPA management world.
When I first walked into an accounting firm I thought to myself, “This is probably going to be boring but I will give it a try.” I have not been bored for one minute in over 30 years.
Q: You travel a ton. How about sharing a funny travel story?
Sad to say, I can probably tell you more horror stories than funny stories. That being said, I usually enjoy the Southwest flights the most and use Herb Kelleher stories in my workshops. One flight we had a guy flight attendant who was quite the entertainer. From his seat in the front, as the plane took off and was climbing, he slid bags of peanuts down the aisle (that slid rather quickly because of the incline of the plane) and you could grab them as they went by.
Q: What’s in the future for Rita Keller?
A few years ago I decided on an early retirement from daily life inside a CPA firm to become a fulltime management consultant. So, some day in the not too distant future, I’ll be facing retirement again. I feel like I have a lot to contribute for a while but I will be cutting back on the travel.
I am just getting started with SurveyCPA, a people-survey tool for public accounting firms and I have a couple of other exciting projects in the works.
I have a loyal following for my daily blog and my newsletter is also very successful. I’ve been blogging daily for seven years so I have a lot of content “out there.” Maybe it’s time to write a book.
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