6 Accounting and Audit Work Cultures
Updated: Oct 14, 2017
Ever wonder which type of work environment works for you? After a decade in my accounting career, I’ve experienced many accounting and finance work environments and wanted to share a summary with you to decide which one is ideal for you.
I include a list of companies and the variety of cultures I’ve worked in at the bottom of this post, in case you’re curious. There’s also a quick accounting culture quiz toward the bottom if you want to get some insight about yourself.
Here are the 6 accounting work cultures I’ve experienced:
1. Audit Culture
Overview: “Ugh, not the auditor again.” That might be what the client says, but the reality is you’re the fortunate one getting a really unique experience and developing skills that ALL companies need and want by the time you leave audit.
It still sets a tone for the culture, though. You have to be careful (not to bother the client too much), but aggressive at the same time (because the client doesn’t wake up each morning saying, “I can’t wait to help the auditor today!”). It’s a fine line to face and you must constantly be building trust and relationships with your clients.
At the same time, you could be answering to a manager in their late 20’s or coaching a staff who’s fresh out of college. Audit is generally a young culture. Even new partners tend to be late-30’s, early 40’s, and move on by 55. The opportunity to advance is healthy.
Everyday is a new day. You get a WIDE variety of tasks and responsibilities, whether it’s a new client in a market you’re not familiar with, working on a new section of the audit (cash vs fixed assets vs revenue, etc), or different procedures (quarter review, year-end audit, controls testing, stat audit, etc). You need to be ready to learn, ready to perform, and ready to report ALL..THE…TIME. It’s a fast-paced environment that tends to require a lot of extra hours.
Key Attributes: networking opportunities, always new tasks and projects, strong chain of command with opportunity to get promoted, generally a younger environment, long hours, and fast way to develop skills
2. Consulting Culture
Overview: I realized fast in my transition from auditor to consultant how much the client’s perception changes. As an auditor you’re generally perceived as a “bother and required” by the client, while as a consultant you’re seen as “help and value-adding.”
Consulting firm structures can vary a great deal, but some culture attributes are consistent. You still get project-based, client-facing experience which leads to a fresh, new environment every few months and excellent networking opportunities.
In almost all cases, clients are hiring you for the skills you’ve acquired in the past rather than for you to develop new ones, so you’re likely to plateau on learning new skills. Because of this, it’s common to see consulting firms set up as flat organizations where you have a pool of senior consultants, then project leaders, and then the owners of the firm. You’ll get a mix of young and old professionals. The hours are usually flexible and can be long or short, depending on your client’s needs.
Key Attributes: strong networking opportunities, new tasks and projects every few months, loose chain of command, mix of all ages, and not always ideal for developing new skills or getting promoted
3. Early-Stage Startup Culture
Overview: To put some loose definition around “early-stage startup”, I mean less than 5 years old, Angel or VC-funded, less than 100 employees, and generating revenue.
This can be the most fun or the most frustrating culture for you, depending on the type of accountant you are. It’s a smaller environment, where every one knows each other, and chances are you’re involved with a product that is new, innovative, cool, and exciting to be a part of.
Be ready for anything, though. You’ll probably find yourself doing a wide variety of tasks, such as file tax reports, process payroll, approve expense reports and pay vendors, enter receivables and cash receipts, track fixed assets, and/or balance cash. Oh yeah, finalize the TB and report financial results to the CFO. Startups generally keep their accounting departments lean early on, so you can expect this range of responsibilities.
The pace of deadlines can vary, sometimes slow and other times fast, depending on if the startup is growing quickly, raising more money, or management has ad hoc reporting needs. At the end of the day, it can be really fun and if you got stock options they may pay off one day!
Key Attributes: great for developing new skills, small and lean department, generally relaxed and fun, hours could be long or short, efficient communication amongst the team, limited networking opportunities, ability to get promoted depends on the success of the startup
4. High-Growth, Pre-IPO Culture
Overview: Want a rush? Join a company gearing up to go public or experiencing unstoppable, high growth. There’s a very good chance this company kept it’s accounting department lean up until this point of needing a bigger, strong accounting team.
Standardizing the monthly close, implementing a new ERP, thinking about controls, preparing for SEC reporting, and working alongside other accountants who were probably hired within the past 6 months and practically just as new as you are. Plus, you likely have outside consultants and auditors in the mix. It’s pure chaos! For this reason, be prepared for a fast-paced, on-the-fly learning, tight deadlines, and late nights. It’s not easy going public or managing high growth, but if you find yourself in such a situation make sure you have stock options or some other compensation to make up for the extra hours!
Key Attributes: fast-paced, brand new accounting team, a lot of multi-tasking, tight deadlines, strong opportunity to develop new skills and work on new projects, expect long hours, great chance for promotion if you prove yourself
5. Small Business Culture
Overview: As opposed to a startup, this type of small business refers to a company that’s been around for a longer period of time (i.e. more than 10 years), consistent or steadily growing revenue, and less than a couple hundred employees. Some good examples may include a real estate development company or a local credit union.
From the ones I’ve seen, it’s a slow-paced environment with steady, routine tasks, especially when there’s little-to-no regulation. Sometimes these companies are family-owned and usually the management or staff have been in their roles for 10+ years and consider it the company they’ll retire with. It might be difficult to get promoted, unless your manager retires or a new position opens up. The hours are fair. It’s easy to clock out at 5 or 6PM and pick up where you left off the next day. The GL close is routine and you’ll likely recycle your skills month after month, leading to a potential risk of not developing new ones. It’s a great environment for the family-oriented, ultra-conservative accountants who want assured stability and a guaranteed work-life balance.
Key Attributes: slow-paced, limited-to-no regulation, steady and routine workload, strong stability, excellent work-life balance, difficult to get promoted, not the best place to develop new skills or expand your network
6. Big Corporate Culture
Overview: If you want the extreme opposite of a startup culture, your best bet may be a big corporate culture. Strong chain of command, regulated activities, internal controls in place (hopefully), and…dare I say…you’re just a number.
You may be working on one small section of the month-end close, internal audit, or tax provision. This is great if you want to create your own niche and become an expert in a specific area of the financials or business.
Your colleagues are there to work and go home. Sometimes the younger employees organize happy hours, but don’t expect the senior management or veteran accountants to hang. With size and chain of command, the opportunity to advance is very good. Expect to work hard for the promotion and you’ll probably have to play politics.
Key Attributes: regulated environment, tight chain of command, strong ability to get promoted after proving yourself and playing politics, develop new skills if you’re motivated, proactive, and management accepts you, even mix of young and older employees
So, what appeals to you? These are the cultures I’ve experienced and I’m sure there are more, so if you’re in one not mentioned above, please feel free to comment and share.
You can take this quick 7-question quiz here that tells you which culture fits you best.
List of companies and cultures I’ve experienced:
I started with PwC in Buffalo and audited:
M&T Bank (banking, publicly-traded, big corporate, 10k+ employees)
Corning Credit Union (banking, small town, family-feel, less than ~200 employees)
Catholic Health Systems (healthcare, not-for-profit, 4 subsidiary hospitals)
Sodexo (concessions/restaurants, global (HQ-France), big corporate, 10k+ employees)
…then I moved to L.A. into private industry:
Cornerstone Ondemand (high-growth tech, pre-IPO at the time, brand new accounting team)
Mobile Messenger (private tech/mobile billing, mid-sized, small accounting department)
…and I spent a few years consulting:
Lionsgate Entertainment (entertainment, publicly-traded, big corporate)
Bank of America (big corporate, highly regulated, strong chain of command)
The Rubicon Project (high-growth tech, pre-IPO at the time, brand new accounting team)
EJM Development (real estate, stable environment, family-owned, ~100 employees)
The Honest Company (high-growth tech, growing accounting team, open workspace)
Telesign (high-growth tech)
Advanced Turbine Designs and Atlas Ground (early-stage startups)
TechStyle (high-growth tech)
Ring.com (high-growth tech)