Accounting is an attractive career for many young professionals because it is a stable and growing field and there is a clear, linear career path. But this prescriptive track is often the reason accountants become tired of and uninterested in their work.
To stay engaged and make the most out of your day-to-day and future endeavors, it’s important to think outside of the box.
Sonia Chu, one of BlackLine’s finance transformation experts, caught up with Zach Hoogerland, a former accountant turned financial analyst, investor relations analyst, corporate strategist, and marketing performance manager.
Here are the highlights from their conversation about the importance of a data-driven, continuous improvement mindset and how it benefits accountants wherever they choose to take their careers.
Sonia: People often tell college students, “the world is your oyster.” With so many options in front of you, why did you decide to pursue Accounting?
Zach: There were two main reasons. The first is rather traditional—my father pushed me to. He believes that if you want to be successful in business, you need to have a deep understanding of the numbers. He drove me to start my career in Accounting.
Luckily for me, I have always liked numbers, which brings me to my second reason—Accounting generally fit into what I was good at.
Sonia: How did you start your career in Accounting?
Zach: I had a few roles in college at Sysco Foods that gave me a great foundation. The first was a staff accountant internship auditing inventory. From there, I worked in the AR department where I discovered my knack for process improvement. The cash application work was very manual, so I wrote an Excel macro to automate my tasks and save time.
I took those experiences to my first job after college at a company called Blackbaud, a cloud software company servicing the social good community.
Sonia: Based on your experience, what are the top three skills accountants need to be successful?
Zach: First, you must have strong attention to detail because you will be analyzing the numbers and data in detail to make sure they’re correct for the financial statements.
It’s also important to know how to use Excel, but not for checklists or ticking and tying. You need to understand the logic behind what you’re doing so you can eventually leverage other systems to streamline or automate your rote, manual work. This will allow you to challenge the way things have always been done.
If you want to be successful in Accounting, you can’t just accept that you can roll a spreadsheet forward—that will limit your career growth. If you’re able to find new ways of working, you’ll be able to save yourself time and re-invest that time to help other team members or work on strategic projects.
And that leads to the third and most important skill in my mind: communication. Far too often, people think accountants are just bean counters that sit in a corner and don’t talk to anyone. But that is far from reality.
Every month, accountants collaborate with other accounting teams and the larger finance team. You must be well spoken so you can clearly answer why things are happening and what potentially needs to happen. If you cannot explain something simply, go back and try again.
Sonia: What did you like about being an accountant? What did you dislike?
Zach: I liked that I had the opportunity to leverage information and data that I was interested in to make the accounting team better. I was always interested in how I could make our close faster so our executive team could get the financial statements sooner, but ensure we were not sacrificing accuracy.
I liked that my job wasn’t just the day-to-day mundane tasks that people mistake Accounting to be. Instead, I got to blend in process improvement and data analytics. I wanted to expand what the traditional accounting role is, and I had the freedom to do so because I figured out how to work more efficiently.
I had set, month-to-month close tasks that I needed to get done, but I wasn’t going to limit myself to that. I would spend the first two weeks of the month getting the close done. Then I would spend the last two weeks of the month going back and looking at what happened to figure out how to make the processes faster.
You can probably guess that I disliked tasks that were inefficient or extremely manual. I got stuck in some tasks that were very, very monotonous and I absolutely despised them because they were mindless—they didn’t involve thinking outside of the box.
But what I liked about my job overtook what I disliked—especially when I got the chance to improve the things I didn’t like.
Sonia: How has taking the initiative to improve processes enhanced your career?
Zach: When I started fixing problems within the close and taking on more challenges outside of my role, I got the opportunity to start changing what I didn’t like about my job.
One example is that I automated our prepaid reconciliations using BlackLine so I didn’t have to do the work manually. I only had to add items to the reconciliation as they flowed through our procure to pay process, and then the journal entry was automatically generated out of BlackLine. A task that historically took me two days during the close only took half a day.
By optimizing processes, I freed up my capacity. I used the extra time to help other people—I would go help the person performing our bank reconciliations. Or I would help the fixed asset accountant do her work more effectively.
Helping others, in turn, helped me inform management on how we could be better, faster, and more accurate. And that gave me face time with people I wouldn’t normally interact with. I ended up presenting our initiative to close faster and reduce journal entries to our CFO. I likely would not have had that opportunity if I was just heads down doing accounting work.
Ultimately, taking initiative enabled me to work on new areas of the business that continually landed me in front of the CFO and CEO. It gave me the mindset to keep improving processes and figure out ways to do things differently to make them better. That has really propelled my career all the way to today.
Sonia: It sounds like technology played a key role in your process improvement initiatives. How important is it for accountants to embrace technology?
Zach: Embracing technology is paramount. Our [BlackLine] CFO says, “you can’t make your career in Accounting, but you sure can break it.” I personally think that technology is better equipped to do things that humans can’t always do—humans can be at risk of becoming tired and making a mistake, especially with monotonous work.
Accountants need to use technology to free up their time so they can focus on the exceptions and strategic initiatives, like analyzing how to comply with new accounting regulations.
For me, embracing technology not only helped our business become more accurate, controlled, and efficient, but also opened doors for my career.
Sonia: You were able to see a lot of different aspects within Accounting, but how did you transition from Accounting to corporate strategy and marketing performance?
Zach: Basically, I kept improving processes and moved from the problem solver to the coach. Instead of thinking, I have to do this because it’s in my job description, I thought, how can I help the business become better?
I took ownership of solving a problem and then I would move onto solving the next problem. This allowed me to move from role to role—I went from a staff accountant to managing AP to running the AP team where I had eight direct reports—all because I was able to optimize processes.
I also focused on building relationships. I allocated time to helping those around me, which allowed me to network inside the company and open up more opportunities.
As I did that, I made the jump from AP to FP&A, where I started looking at the company as a whole and analyzing the moving parts. I became a storyteller by blending data and process improvement, which gave me a unique perspective on the business. A lot of times, I knew other managers’ businesses better than they did, which opened doors for me to be able to share my opinion.
Ultimately, this information got to the CFO and other teams. Investor Relations relied on me heavily and eventually pulled me onto their team. In Investor Relations, you’re in charge of sharing the business’ story to the Street. You own the messaging and help the CFO and CEO run the financials, which puts you in a great spot to learn.
It was a lot of fun to tell the story, but I also wanted to help make and drive the story, which positioned me for and propelled me into my current corporate strategy and marketing performance roles.
Sonia: What skills from Accounting do you continue to use to this day?
Zach: Communication. Today, my work is all about communicating data and numbers to stakeholders—with purpose. A lot of people go into discussions without data, and consequently, without a fully educated point of view. The planning ahead mentality that I had in Accounting and knowing what I wanted to talk to somebody about are what I use every day.
In other words, I need to know how the numbers apply to the business and be able to discuss them in a way that makes sense to everybody.
Sonia: What advice do you have for accountants just starting out in their careers?
Zach: Challenge the way it has always been done, and do it with data. Far too often, accountants walk in and think they don’t know anything. They think they must do something because their boss tells them it's the right and only way.
Accounting might be black and white, but the processes around it are not. It's okay to question established processes, if you are doing so respectfully. Wake up every day thinking about how to improve the processes around you, capture compelling data, and learn how to communicate effectively. You will build a foundation for success anywhere.
Read this ebook to learn how accountants can drive process improvements across their organizations and enhance their careers.