Bob the CPA: This is Abacus. I’m Bob the CPA. My guest today is Linda Harris.
Linda Harris: Hi, I’m Linda Harris. I am a CPA in a small rural community in the state of Montana.
Bob the CPA: Like a lot of us, Linda assumed she’d go the traditional public accounting route. But then, life threw her a curve ball.
Linda Harris: I’d started down the traditional path, but then took a little fork in the road to get married, and to have a child.
Bob the CPA: Today, she runs her own firm in Montana, and she’s the president of the Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance.
Find out how she keeps some variety in her work without living in a big city, what she looks for when hiring, and how you can start getting more involved in professional organizations.
All this coming up on Abacus. Let’s go.
Learn everything you need to know to have a successful and fulfilling accounting career. Whether you’re on the partner track, or you’re making your own path, this is Abacus.
Hello, and welcome back to the Abacus show, where I am searching for accountants who have blazed their own trail instead of following a more traditional career path. In this episode, you’ll hear from Linda Harris.
She lives in rural Montana, but she didn’t let that stop her from building her accounting career and opening up her own firm. We’ll talk about how she did it and she’ll share a little bit about professional networking.
I’ve never been very good at participating in professional organizations. I know they’re a great way to network, meet people, and learn a lot. But whenever I go to events, everyone seems to already know each other, and it’s tough being at your first meeting and being the new person in the group.
If you’ve ever felt that way, be sure to listen through to the end of this interview. Because, Linda is the president of AFWA, that’s the Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance. After she shares her career story, she’ll give you some pointers to help you get more involved in whatever organizations you’re a part of. Whether that’s your local CPA society, or if you go and check out the AFWA.
As always, you can get a little bit more information about everything we talk about today, as well as some links to other interesting topics at the show notes for today’s episode. Just simply head on over to AbacusShow.com/303. That’s enough for me; let’s get right into the interview with Linda Harris.
Before you got to working for your own shop, what was your career path out of school that led you to where you are today?
Linda Harris: I’d started down the traditional path, but then took a little fork in the road to get married and have a child. Then I went back to school late in life. I was a non-traditional student, and in between that time, I worked for a CPA and realized that I still had the bug for that, that was my original path, and decided to further pursue my education and get my degree. I did that, then after that opened up my own practice.
Bob the CPA: That is awesome. You just went and got your degree, got your CPA, and were like, “I’m going to do this for myself now?”
Linda Harris: Kind of. I had decided at that point, that I was out of … I wanted to go down the non-profit path. I thought that perhaps my accounting degree with my passion for non-profits could be a really good fit, and that I could bring more to the table than just that passion.
But then my husband took … his family owns a bunch of banks, so we moved to a small community for him to take over the local bank that was there. I didn’t want to make the commute back and forth to our larger metropolis, so he encouraged me to go ahead and open my own practice since I’d already been working for a CPA. I had … I did have some background, so it wasn’t totally right out of school.
Bob the CPA: That’s really interesting. I always love hearing these stories about how people found their way to where they are today, because it’s usually never where they thought they’d be 10 years ago.
Linda Harris: I actually wanted to go the route that you are now not … that you are interviewing me about not going down. I wanted to go to work for, at that time, a big eight firm. I wanted to do the whole auditing thing when I was … right out of high school. That would have been the path I would’ve taken.
Bob the CPA: Very cool. Do you feel like you’ve missed out on anything not going that route? Or do you feel like you’ve had, I guess it could be not an either or, but do you feel like you’ve also had some other experiences that you might not have gotten if you went that way?
Linda Harris: I don’t really think that I missed out on that. I do like the auditing side. I don’t do any auditing now, I’m a sole practitioner, it just isn’t practical. That side of the business, maybe seeing some of the larger … having a larger client base … more industry might have been more interesting.
I’m doing a lot of … We have the only palladium mine in North America … is 14 miles from where I live. I do a lot of W-2s around the … for the miners. And like I said, I’m in a rural environment, so I do ranching and all of those kinds of things. Not a Fortune 500 company out there.
Bob the CPA: That’s really cool that even though you are so remote out there, there’s a lot of variety still, of the different kinds of stuff you can do. You said the mining and then the ranching, and then there’s gotta be some farmers around. There’s still a lot of different stuff going on.
Linda Harris: There is, and one of the things when I first opened my practice that I was totally unprepared for was the number of out of … different states I would do. Tax returns that we would do in conjunction with doing the federal tax returns.
We have a number of clients that have moved away. We continue to do their returns. Maybe because it is a small community I pick up mom and dad that live here, and now I have daughter and her husband who live on the east coast, and their son who lives on … who also lives on the east coast. I do have a really big variety of clients.
Bob the CPA: When you were working for the other CPA firm, what kind of work were you doing with them?
Linda Harris: I started out just as secretarial. Doing all of the basic … making photographs of tax returns, copies, the old days. That was even before computer time that we did that. I basically started at the bottom.
And it didn’t take me very long to know that I really … that that was really my calling and that I really wanted to pursue getting my degree and do more than just clerical. I was doing some tax returns, but I wanted to get into the meat of it a little bit more.
Bob the CPA: Once you decided that you wanted to expand your skillset and move up in there, what were some skills you learned along the way that you think helped you get to where you are today?
Linda Harris: I think my … Obviously my delegation. I went back to school. For the majority of it I was a single mom, and I worked full time at the same time as taking my accounting degree, getting my degree. I don’t think I ever took less than nine credits during the course of either a semester, or a quarter.
I think the delegation was huge for me. Time management was very important. I find that, especially now that I’m in practice myself, because I … I don’t just get to meet with the clients and do the stuff I like to do. I have to do the other stuff, like manage employees and payroll, making sure that there’s enough … that bills are paid, and all of the stuff that isn’t as exciting.
Bob the CPA: That’s another common thing. I’ve been talking to a lot of people recently, and I noticed you didn’t once say, “I needed to study tax regs,” or “I needed to learn how to use this audit software.”
A lot of people, early in their career, seem to be very focused on the technical side, and they don’t focus as much as, I think, a lot of people should spend maybe a little bit more time learning these other skills on the other side. That’s really cool that you went all that way.
Linda Harris: The people skills, quite frankly, being in the front office when I started, that to me was huge because I got to deliver some bad news. Like, “You owe X number of dollars.”
I really got to deal with the personalities and like you said, not just the technical; not how to spit it out … to let the software spit it out. I had to deal with those people and think more about their whole picture, and not just this little moment that I was … that we were dealing with.
Bob the CPA: Going back to when you are just going back to school, are there any maybe tips or advice, or what would you tell yourself at that time period to help you get through? I know there’s a lot of people who maybe want to go back and switch … Maybe they’re doing a career change, to accounting. Or they started out like you and took a little break and are now going back.
Is there any advice you would give yourself at that time period?
Linda Harris: One of the first things that I had to learn, only because I think I had some life experience, was that taking tests, you take for the textbook, not for life. I had a professor that told … because I could make every answer on the test almost be right.
In this scenario … this could happen in this situation. Really just absorbing the information, not being afraid to ask questions, and to let your life experiences come out and be practical. Because you are getting a lot of technical, and while the technical is very good, it’s not what you’re going to encounter.
I remember one of my first project that I did with … a group project, we had to go to a business. We were going to set up their accounting system, their software accounting system. He brought out a box that was full of receipts, and bank statements, and check stubs.
The traditional students, the younger students, they were at a loss. They didn’t have any idea where to start or even what any of that was. My past experiences allowed me to not be quite so overwhelmed by the project.
Bob the CPA: Now that you’re running your own shop, and you said … Do you hire staff? Or are you a solo practitioner? How does that work?
Linda Harris: I do.
Bob the CPA: You do.
Linda Harris: I have support staff. I’m the only professional in the office, but I have a paraprofessional, and then office staff.
Bob the CPA: When you’re looking to hire another paraprofessional, what are kind of skills you’re looking for? Basically, at the interview stage, or when you’re reviewing resumes. What kind of skills, or attitudes, or pretty much anything, what do you look for when you’re deciding who to hire?
Linda Harris: The technical skills are important. Being familiar with computers. I don’t get overly bogged down, necessarily, with the programs that you’re experienced with, just the fact that you actually have that kind of experience.
Because, I think you can be taught to run a program. It’s a lot harder to teach you if you never had … if you don’t have any kind of computer knowledge kind of thing.
Most important is your… is their ability to learn, their engagement, their leadership, and their initiative. I’ve found a couple of times, I think in the past, that initiative is not necessarily something that you can instill in people. That if they don’t have the initiative to take on new tasks, or to learn new tasks, then it doesn’t always work well.
Bob the CPA: Do you have any ways … questions you ask, or any other ways to screen for initiative during the interview process? Or is that something you just are lucky to draw on once they start working for you?
Linda Harris: I ask about tasks that they maybe did in other … at their other job … experiences that they’ve had in their other job. One question I did ask was, we have a tickler file system where I try to manage projects that are coming up. I ask if someone had experience in managing that kind of thing.
The response I got back was: not firm-wide, but I did set up something similar, an Excel spreadsheet similar, for me to manage my kinds of projects.
I think there’s ways to ask about past experience, and then find out what kind of initiative they might take on their own.
Bob the CPA: Am I correct? You’re currently the national president of AFWA, is that right?
Linda Harris: I am. I am, yes.
Bob the CPA: Congratulations on that.
Linda Harris: Thank you.
Bob the CPA: Would you mind telling us just a little bit about … it’s the Accounting and Finance … Financial Women’s Alliance, right?
Linda Harris: Correct, yes. I joined that as a student when I was back in the non-traditional mode. It was one of the smartest, I think, decisions that I made. It has provided me with all kinds of opportunities to gain some of the skills that I wouldn’t … that I didn’t get in college. Some of those … I call them success skills instead of soft skills.
Some of the leadership roles, the networking and the mentoring is phenomenal. We’re a national organization. We do have chapters throughout the country. Members have an opportunity, if there is a chapter close, that they can join that.
I’ve had … Through that, I have a support system and basically a research system that is unlimited. I don’t have a lot of sales tax experience because we don’t have sales tax in Montana, but obviously, I have a whole network of people that, as my clients, as our borders start to fade away and I have clients that are dealing with it, I now know I have resources where I can go and get the knowledge that I need. Or even the ability to tell my client we need to engage with someone else, because this is above and beyond what I have the capability of doing.
Bob the CPA: I’m guilty of joining an organization like that and then just not participating in anything. I was wondering if you have any advice for people, if maybe they just want to go check it out now, or if they’re already members but they’re not actively participating. What’s the best way for them to start getting involved, and actually getting out there and getting these benefits?
Linda Harris: I’m a real proponent that you get out of it what you put into it as well, and that it is a true two-way street. AFWA has wonderful opportunities, if you’re fortunate to have a chapter, where you can get involved on committee levels. Or to go to the monthly lunch or dinner meetings, where there’s always continuing ed.
I think taking that first step is always hard, but it’s the best thing that anybody can do going forward in their career.
Bob the CPA: Again, just me personally, it’s always tough, especially if you move to a new city or something. Going out, and it’s … You’re going to a room of just complete strangers, but everyone’s been very friendly everywhere I’ve been going. It can’t hurt to just go check out one of these luncheons or a dinner, and take … Worst case scenario, you’ll get a little CPE out of it. In the best case, you’re moving forward, building your network, and learning some new skills.
Linda Harris: Exactly. There are also some full day seminars. We have an annual conference. We just finished the one in Denver, that was the end of October. Next year we’re excited we’re in Alexandra, Virginia, we’re in Washington, DC. We think we’ll have some great CPE, some great networking, and some great sightseeing as well.
Bob the CPA: You can’t beat that. That’s awesome. Linda, before I let you go today, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want to make sure the audience of mostly professional accountants, but they might be aged 20 to 35. Do you have any advice for them or anything I just should have asked you about?
Linda Harris: Not to be afraid to take the fork in the road, to think outside the box. There’s a lot more to accounting than the traditional path that we all think we start out on. I have found it to be really a dynamic career opportunity and I still like it even though I’m about to enter in a tax … my 32nd season.
Bob the CPA: I will let you go and get back to that, because I know you’re going to be very busy coming up. Thank you so much Linda. I really appreciate you coming on the show today.
Linda Harris: All right, thanks.
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