Art of Accounting: Becoming an Expert Generalist

  • January 23 2017, 2:16pm EST

This is a follow-up to my previous column, where I suggested larger firms have a specialization as a generalist. This will illustrate some ways of accomplishing that.

A generalist has to be knowledgeable in most areas, but possibly expert in none. A generalist should be able to handle most issues except the most complicated and be able to identify when a specialist should be consulted with. Most clients do not have many complicated issues, if any at all, so the generalist should be able to handle their tax, accounting, systems and consulting and relate what they do to the clients’ situations, needs, goals and problems.

Generalists need knowledge in preparing compiled and review statements but not necessarily audited reports (though that would be helpful for them and the clients). They also should be able to prepare personal, projected and forecasted financial statements, budget reports, business valuation calculations, develop fraud prevention controls and assess the need for a defensive forensic analysis, prepare all types of taxes including individual, corporate, partnership, trust, gift, state inheritance, sales and local taxes, employee benefit plan and not-for-profit returns, and to be able to handle planning and compliance in these areas. The generalist should be able to handle relationships with bankers and assist clients in their cash flow and initial borrowing needs.

Some dexterity in helping clients buy businesses would be helpful, along with facility in advising clients with their personal financial planning, asset allocation and goal setting. Also needed is a working knowledge of the industries where clients operate, including professional services and medical practices, distributors and manufacturers, contractors and not-for-profits. Further the generalist often will serve as a virtual CFO and in some situations as a family office. That involves a wide range of skills and can present great opportunities to help smaller clients. The generalist can grow and be able to accommodate larger clients that can use bill-paying services.

One way of growth and firm leverage is for partners and niche leaders to be available to mentor the generalist when they get a client that requires specialized knowledge and reporting. From my experience this can be done with short 10- or 15-minute conversations, or quick lunches. Further, all tax returns, financial statements and third-party deliverables would go through the firm’s review and quality control processes—with no shortcuts. Firm standards must be adhered to and this is a way to assure that.

Besides technical skills, the generalist needs communication, presentation, listening and people skills. He or she should be empathetic and analytical and add an element of objectivity to clients’ problems and complicated business issues.

Being an expert generalist and maintaining skills is hard work. It is inconceivable that 40 hours a year of mandatory CPE in some states are adequate. Also, extensive additional learning is necessary on a continuing basis, including reading professional and trade journals and books, and attending lectures and industry conferences. It is hard, but so is any specialty someone wants to become expert in. Being an expert generalist is extremely satisfying and personally and professionally fulfilling. I know this because that is how I spent my career. I would not do anything different if I were in a position to decide again how I would want to spend my career.

A person deciding on this as a career choice would need the backing and respect of the firm’s management. They also need the authority to hire and train staff to work with them and who can be mentored to follow on this track.

This column addresses a choice a five-year accountant working in a firm has to consider about how to continue and expand their career. However this is no different than what every sole practitioner does and what many of today’s partners at the larger firms did. They are the expert generalists of our day. The question is whether there is a place in a larger firm for an expert generalist and I believe there is. However, this is not for me to decide. Individuals have to make their own decisions on how to spend their careers. That depends on their likes, temperament and desire to learn new things and grow and how they want to make a difference in the lives of their clients.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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