How to know when to move from public accounting to industry
I get asked questions around leaving public accounting for industry accounting all the time by my Instagram followers. Some of the most commonly asked questions include:
- When is the right time to move from public accounting to industry?
- Should I leave as a senior or a manager?
- Is leaving as an associate too early?
- Is leaving as a senior manager too late?
- Should I try to stick it out to make it to partner?
The truth is… it depends.
What is public accounting vs. industry?
You may be asking yourself, what is industry accounting? Industry accounting is a type of private accounting where one works in the accounting department for a specific company. Public accounting, on the other hand, is when you work for a firm that performs services for a client. These services may be audit, tax or advisory.
While the culture at every company and firm can be different, industry is generally considered a lower stress environment with more flexibility when compared to public accounting, which can be stressful in order to meet client deadlines. Additionally, industry usually doesn’t require as much travel as public accounting and generally offers a better work life balance.
When should I leave public accounting?
The right time to get out of public accounting depends on whether or not you see yourself making it to partner, and also whether you want to be a partner. Partners generally have a more high-level oversight of projects, manage relationships with clients and bring in new business. When deciding if you want to be a partner one day, you have to be honest with yourself and ask:
- What are your long-term career and life goals?
- Do you value having a work-life balance?
- Do you want flexibility?
- Will you want to travel?
- Do your long-term career goals line up with what partnership would be like at your firm?
When I started reflecting on my own personal career goals, I took a look around my office in M&A due diligence and realized most of the partners worked late nights, traveled frequently, and were under constant stress to bring in more business.
This was not the life I wanted. I realized that I wanted more flexibility, less travel, and less stress over the long-term, so I didn’t see the partner route as the right accounting career path for me.
Once I came to the realization that the partner lifestyle at my firm wasn’t for me, I decided it was time to think about when I should prepare to be leaving public accounting for industry.
Here is my advice for gauging the right time to exit your firm:
1. If you’re not happy – go ahead and start job hunting
Life is too short to work in a job you hate.
Granted, there’s no job that you’ll wake up happy to be at every single day, but if you are miserable or mentally struggling, it’s time to reevaluate your work and start job hunting immediately.
Signs that it may be time to leave public accounting may include an overwhelming feeling of burnout, lack of motivation, a sense that you are not progressing in your career, or not completing your workload.
2. If you are happy – aim to leave as a senior or a manager
With that said, if you are generally happy with your job and at your firm but just don’t see yourself sticking with the partner route like myself, I recommend leaving as either a senior or a manager.
If you leave public accounting prior to being promoted to senior, you will be leaving behind the opportunity to develop valuable skills that come from leading a project.
Getting at least one busy season under your belt as a senior before leaving for industry is valuable accounting experience that I highly recommend. You will learn important soft skills like time management, leadership experience, and project management. These skills will prepare you for your next role and give you strong experience to discuss in your future accounting industry job interviews.
Another reason to leave as a senior or a manager is that gaining industry experience in managerial positions is extremely valuable. Most controller or CFO positions are looking for candidates who have a solid mix of both public and private experience, especially at a higher career level.
However, if you stay in public accounting past senior manager, it may be challenging to find a position in industry that pays the salary that you are used to in public accounting. You also will be behind in developing certain skills gained in industry in comparison to those that left as seniors and managers and are already familiar with accounting software such as NetSuite or Quickbooks.
There is not a “one size fits all” answer, and you can certainly be successful as a senior manager joining industry. However, I do believe aiming to leave public accounting as a senior or manager will give you a valuable tool kit and experience in both public and private that will set you up for success and put you on a fast track for promotions in industry.
3. You don’t need to accept the first job offer that you get
Finally, just because you make the decision to leave at a certain time, it doesn’t mean you necessarily will. My goal was to make it to my promotion to manager. However, I ended up leaving a month before my promotion.
While it sounds silly, the reason I left earlier than I planned is because I received an offer for an amazing job in industry that would have been a great exit opportunity as a manager. I just happened to get the offer as a senior (prior to manager)– so it just made sense to make the jump when I got the right offer.
Passively interviewing for jobs while you’re in public accounting is a great idea because you’ll learn about the different types of positions available in industry and you might get a sense of what you would like to work in after you leave. Plus, the more you practice interviewing, the easier it will get!
Hopefully these tips will help you determine when, if ever, is the right time for you to make the jump from public accounting to industry.
I would love this series to be a dialogue, so if you have additional accounting industry advice or questions send me a message on Instagram.
This piece is Chapter 16 in “The Life of an Accountant Series” by Kristin Lofgren of @Lets_Get_Fiscal. Read her prologue here.
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