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  • Crafting a Rich and Satisfying Career in Accounting


    By Tom Hanlon

    After graduating from the University of Illinois, Virginia Wilson went to work in Los Angeles for a firm that today is part of Deloitte. She was pleased: She had passed the CPA exam her first time out and she had a good GPA and a job with one of the best accounting firms in the world. But her eyes were quickly opened to “so much I did not know. What I quickly realized was there was a lot of distance between the book learning I had and the application of that material to the real world.”

     “As much as you think you have learned during your tenure here on campus,”  Wilson said, “you have a long journey ahead of you in which you will find rich learning opportunities to continue to develop as a person and as a professional.”  These were among the first words spoken by Wilson at the March 28 Department of Accountancy Lyceum. The chief financial officer and executive vice president from TIAA-CREF, a leading provider of financial services, spent the next hour elaborating on her own opportunities and learning experiences in a varied and prolific career spanning three decades and still going strong.

    Early Learning Experiences
    In her address, Wilson shared a handful of early learning experiences, including sitting in storerooms and  hallways, sharing a desk with three other people, and sifting through boxes of material to find information. “It was not nearly as glamorous as it looked in brochures,” she laughed. She also spoke about some of her more diverse – and in some cases difficult – experiences, from  working at a cultural heritage museum, where employees found a rolled-up painting that had been misplaced in some dark corner worth millions, to helping an aerospace client handle decades of unfinished tax audits, to serving an oil and gas company.  That client had a lot of land surrounding its oil fields, so the company farmed it. “I learned a lot about citrus trees, almond trees, and carrot crops,” Wilson said. Not exactly subject matter covered in standard accounting classes. 

    More than that, she learned valuable lessons through her experiences, “none quite the same as the other, and all coming within the scope of about a year,’ she added.

    Those lessons include:

    • You don’t need to know it all. “As much as you think you have learned, there are specialties and knowledge that you are going to have to research when you need them, but you don’t have to already know them,” she said. “So part of what you’re learning is how to research, not to know everything, and learn about how the accounting world works.”
    • But do learn quickly. “Companies expect you to be able to learn things quickly, to look things up, to find things that will help you be productive on the job.”
    • Understand a business’s cycle. “Each business has its own kind of cycle, and it operates differently. Understand how sales are made, how a business finds customers, where the risks are.”
    • Be proactive at work – volunteer to learn. “It’s good to say to your boss, I don’t know very much about that, but I’m willing to dive in and learn and try to train the rest of the team on it.”
    • Know the best way to learn is to teach others. “If you have to teach something to somebody else, you’ll learn it a lot better than if you were just learning it for yourself.”

    As Wilson moved on in her career, she became more focused and specialized in her work, concentrating on mutual funds, trust companies, banks and S&Ls. And she continued doing what she found enjoyable: teaching others what she had been learning.

    Don’t Prejudge Opportunities
    “One thing I learned,” she said, “is to not prejudge opportunities until you get a little bit into a conversation with your potential employers.  I had it fixed in my mind that I never wanted to be an internal auditor. I found out I was wrong. The job I took when I left public accounting was as an internal auditor for a very large insurance company that resulted in me traveling around the globe and supervising people in lots of really interesting activities.”

    That auditor role led directly to a controller role – an opportunity she never would have had were it not for the auditor position. “When you’re thinking about potential job opportunities, get at least a little bit into the discovery phase before you close down on an opportunity,” she said.

    “I have had a magnificent series of opportunities partly because I am willing to say what do I not yet know about what I should be learning next,” she added.

    Wilson encouraged students to continue to learn, whether formally or informally, beyond their undergrad years, to hone their skills as they begin to specialize, and to learn how to work in a collaborative environment.

    Know How to Collaborate
    “In this concept of true professionalism,” she said, “you need to know enough about the work of the people you collaborate with to work effectively with them – just like a nurse needs to work effectively with a pharmacist in a hospital.”

    Wilson spoke of the keys to collaborative interprofessional practice:

    • Learn to collaborate effectively. Understand everyone’s roles and responsibilities, have a clear decision-making process in place, and be flexible depending on the situation.
    • Learn to communicate well. Listen, give and receive feedback, share information, and deal with conflict.
    • Operate according to your values and ethics. Be accountable and operate with respect, confidentiality, trust, integrity, and honesty.
    Keep Learning
    Wilson’s message could be summed up this way:

    • Keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you might find.
    • Sniff out opportunities, and remain open to them until you are certain they are not for you. Never say “No” right away. You might find amazing things out there.
    • You don’t need to know it all.
    • But you do need to keep learning.
    • Life, and your career, is what you make of it. What do you want to make of yours?

    UIUC College of Business Department of Accountancy