March 13, 2015
by Ellen

Be Color Brave

Even if you don’t pay much attention to the news, you have no doubt heard of the many protests stemming from police killings of young, unarmed, black men across the country — Florida, New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, Georgia — it seems to be everywhere. And you have probably heard of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, most notably embraced by many actors and musicians at the Academy Awards last month. The issue of racism and racial bias is receiving more attention now than it has since the civil rights movement.

But while institutionalized racism on the part of law enforcement is garnering most of the media’s attention, equally important is the racial bias reflected in corporate America. There remains a startling disparity in the numbers of minorities being hired and advancing to executive levels. In the age of corporate “diversity” efforts, how is this possible?

As finance executive Mellody Hobson explains in her Ted talk, “Color Blind or Color Brave” our cultural adoption of “color-blindness” is the culprit. When we are color blind, we “ignore” race. But, Hobson explains, race is not something we can ignore because racial bias is a subconscious, internal bias (to see your own bias check out Harvard’s Project Implicit survey). By “ignoring” race, we are simply hiding from the problems racism creates in our society, hoping it will just go away on its own.

So what’s the solution? Hobson calls us to be “not color blind, but color brave.” We need to “get comfortable having the uncomfortable conversation about race.” This means we should reject the notion that it isn’t “PC” to talk about race. We have to openly talk about it — with everyone, especially people who are different from us. And don’t stop there — we should deliberately seek-out and cultivate relationships with people who are different from us. The best way to dispell bias is to reform our thinking about others.

March 6, 2015
by Ellen

How to Rob a Bank

Having seen a lot of student essays recently discussing ethics, fraud, and forensic accounting in the financial sector, I was particularly intrigued by this recent Ted talk by former bank regulator William Black, entitled “How to Rob a Bank (from the Inside)”. Black explains how “Control Fraud” caused the banks to fail, bringing the economy to its knees, and how the use of the “accounting control fraud mechanism” in an “autopsy process” reveals the “recipe” for disater.

This recipe, he explains, is a “sure thing” for catastrophic failure:

1. Grow like crazy

2. By making (buying) crappy loans at a premium yield

3. While employing extreme leverage

4. Providing only trivial loss reserves

Black walks us through the lead up to the crisis, pointing out all of the places along the way that should have (and maybe did) raise red flags with regulators. He also suggests some actions that can be taken now to avert another disaster in our future.

I hope you take the time to watch Black’s talk — it raises some interesting issues that could spark conversations with your collegues, professors, and fellow cocktail party attendees…

February 27, 2015
by Ellen

A Belated Valentine…

You’re in grad school. You’re thinking about the next phase of your life. At every wedding, relatives keep asking you, “when are you going to find someone and settle down?” You never really have an answer (at least I never did). But now you do: “Grandma, I’m just waiting until the math is right.” That’s right. The math. Boom.

As accountants, you know that numbers never lie. I bet you’ve thought many times, “I wish all of life could be that certain.” Well, according to mathematician Hannah Fry, math can make one of the most uncertain aspects of life — finding a partner — a little less so. In a great Ted talk entitled “The Mathematics of Love”, Dr. Fry offers her “top three mathematically verifiable tips for love.”

Be prepared, however, her tips contradict “common sense.” For example,  part of her advice for “how to win at online dating” is to choose a less attractive profile pic that reveals your “flaws” — if you’re losing your hair, show it; if you think your nose is too big, don’t hide it; think your arms are fat, wear a tanktop, etc. Wierd, right?

Here’s another odd suggestion: “reject every potential suitor that shows up in the first 37%” of your dating career and then choose the next mostly tolerable one. And, want to know whether your relationship will end in divorce? There’s an equation for that: Wt+1=w+rwWt+Ihw(Ht). Apparently, this little formula is 90% accurate in predicting divorce!

It may seem hopeless, but before you give up and start surrounding yourself with sympathetic cats, check out Dr. Fry’s talk. Your love of math may actually save your love life…

February 20, 2015
by Ellen

The Big Interview

It’s that time in the semester: interviews. Since several of you have already come in for interview prep, I thought it would be useful to outline a little summary of the main points.

1. How to dress

  • Wear a suit. Even if you know the firm/office usually goes business casual, wear a suit. Interviewing is a formal occasion, so you need to dress accordingly. How you look at your interview should be an example of how you will look when representing the firm at important client meetings or in other formal professional settings, so show them you fit the bill.
  • Now, all suits are not equal. You need to be conservative, not “fashion forward” — stick to the classic styles/colors. If you’re not sure what conservative means, do a little research. Men: Jos. A. Bank; Ladies: Ann Taylor; and Brooks Brothers has good selections for both men and women. The goal here is to look conservative and sophisticated, like you belong in the boardroom.
  • For more tips, go to my post on dressing for success.

2. How to act

  • Be confident. Remind yourself that you are the perfect person for this position and your job is simply to show them that.
  • Use proper etiquette: When you first meet, make eye contact, introduce yourself, and shake hands. When you sit down, maintain good posture. When you speak, don’t use slang or filler words such as “like” and “you know.” Again, you need to look and act the part of a professional who will reflect well on the firm.

3. How to answer questions

  • Take a moment to collect your thoughts before you answer a question. Blurting out an answer without thinking about it usually ends badly — our first thoughts aren’t always our best ones. Here’s an example: in one of my prior posts, I shared an interview question one top exec likes to use to gauge a candidate’s ability to think carefully about something instead of jumping to a conclusion. “A hammer and a nail cost $1.10. The hammer costs $1 more than the nail. How much does the nail cost?” Many people will just blurt out 10 cents because the way the question is phrased makes it sound that simple. However, if you take a minute, you realize the answer is 5 cents and aren’t embarrassed by getting a simple math problem wrong in and interview for an accounting position.
  • Before the interview, take time to think about the kinds of questions they might ask. Do some research: ask your friends who have gone to some interviews already, look on the internet, come into the center and look at the many books we have on interview questions, and, even better, come see me for practice.
  • Here are some sample questions: What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why do you want to be an accountant? Why did you choose this firm in particular? Why did you choose this practice area and do have other interests? How would you describe your leadership style? Can you share a time when you had to give someone feedback? What is your experience with group/team work? Explain a time when you failed at something and how you responded. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? Explain a time when you had to handle a confrontation with someone. Where do you see yourself in five years? 10 years? What are some of your professional goals? personal goals? When you look back on your experience, is there anything you would do differently?
  • Be prepared to answer questions about everything on your resume. The only document they will have to ask you questions about is your resume. You spent all sorts of time trying to make your experience sound as interesting and unique as possible, so be sure you can actually expand on it when asked. For example, where you list your MAS degree, there is a notation of “leadership” or “leadership emphasis.” They will likely ask you what that means, so you will need to explain that you took the assessments and participated in the workshops and what you gained from that. Or maybe you listed Army ROTC as an activity or leadership experience — be ready to explain how your ROTC experience will make you a more successful professional. Maybe you listed a student organization — be ready to talk about what opportunities you gained and what you learned. Did you come to NIU from another country? Be ready to explain why you chose to study in the U.S. and why you chose NIU.

4. How to ask questions.

  • Yes, how to ASK questions. They will ask you if you have any questions…and they expect you to. You need to prepare thoughtful, purposive questions that show them you are serious about your career and the opportunities their particular firm may offer. Some ideas: you can ask about professional development programs, such as mentoring or workshops, and other growth opportunities, such as working closely with senior associates/managers/partners, progressively taking on more responsibilities, sitting in on client meetings, and seeing all aspects of the business. You can ask about the firm culture — do people work in groups/teams? What are the typical tasks and expectations for new interns/associates? You can also ask the interviewers questions about their own experiences — what path did they take to get where they are? What advice would they give someone just starting out? What do they think makes their firm unique? And ask follow-up questions – try to make it more like a conversation than a Q&A session.

5. How to say goodbye.

  • When it’s over, shake hands again and say “It was nice to meet you. Thank you for your time” or some version of that — whatever sounds natural for you.

It may seem overwhelming, but remember that the more you prepare, the less anxious you will be. And, as always, I’m here to help you!

February 13, 2015
by Ellen

From Associate to Manager

Whether you’re just starting to apply for internships or you’ve already landed your first job as an associate at a Big Four firm, it’s never too early to start planning your future. It’s important to think about your long-term career goals, so you can chart your course early and stay on track.

You want to make partner, right? Ok, but how do you get from lowly first-year associate to the corner office?

As Chris Baysden explains in his recent article in the Journal of Accountancy , making manager should be your first major milestone: “If you get promoted to manager, suddenly the prospect of becoming a partner is very real.” Why? Well, you get the higher-level technical experience, more client contact, and the chance to build credibility and rapport with clients and partners. It’s your chance to be put “on the radar,” so to speak.

Now, how do you get the promotion? Baysden describes “manager” as a “bridge” position between associate and partner — a manger needs to show he/she “can handle any of the work done by employees below him/her on the pyramid,” while also “displaying the nascent skills needed by his/her superiors.”  You need to develop the technical, business, people, and leadership skills it takes to be partner.

Seek out opportunities to push yourself — ask your boss for higher-level work, offer to take something off his/her plate. Be proactive. Help the associates below you on the totem pole — nothing makes you look more like manager material than mentoring newer associates!

For a more detailed map to career success, I encourage you to read Baysden’s  article in the Journal of Accountancy .