Back before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to address a graduate internal audit class at my alma mater, Georgia State University (GSU). My message to the students that night was a very simple one: “As you make important decisions about the path you will follow in your career, you need to write your own story.”
Not long after that, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. We were locked down, quarantined and working from home. For me, isolation from the workplace and my typically intense travel schedule enabled me to reflect on the very advice I had been giving to others. I soon realized that I was no longer writing my own story. After 12 years as global CEO of The IIA, I found that I was doing things that were no longer inspiring (even running a $70 million business) simply to do those things for which I still had a burning passion – advocating for the profession, writing and teaching.
After extensive reflection, I took out my pen to ink the next chapter in my career, one that has been marked by major moves in each decade:
Now, in my 60s, with a passion that continues to burn bright for internal audit, what would I do next? As with many of my other career moves, I chose a road less traveled for someone my age: I joined one of the fastest growing tech start-ups in America. I discussed my reasons for joining AuditBoard in a blog post last year. I continue to enjoy this chapter and am so happy I made the decision.
Today, many accounting students obsess over landing an internship with a public accounting firm. They feel this is their only real option, that it will enable them to become a certified public accountant (CPA). Unfortunately, this belief stems not from what is in their hearts but what has been drilled into their collective minds. The not-so-subliminal message often delivered to accounting students is this: “If you don’t become a CPA, you won’t be as successful.”
Certainly, a CPA designation can enhance your career opportunities. However, I would assert that it is not the only path to success for those who study accounting. I chronicled my story for students at GSU that night, sharing how I struggled with the path that I wanted to follow. I enjoyed the study of accounting, but not enough to dive into public accounting.
So, I joined the internal audit department of a local bank. At 21 years old, I chose a path less traveled by accounting graduates, with the full expectation that I would never walk the halls of a public accounting firm. But even when you write your own story, unexpected things happen. Later, following a fruitful career in public sector internal auditing, I joined PwC — at age 50. The average age there was barely half that. I took the job, not because someone else dictated the move, but because of a passion for the internal audit services PwC provided its clients worldwide.
The same rationale guided me to AuditBoard last year. My point: There should be only one author of your story, and that is you!
However, I would offer a few tips to consider:
Millennials will change careers seven times during their working lifetime, according to Millennial Magazine. With that in mind, young professionals should approach each job with energy and imagination. Leverage your academic and career accomplishments to pursue your passion, recognizing that, if the flame begins to burn low, it may be time to write a new chapter. Some of my own chapters were long and rewarding; others extremely short when I discovered the role was not (or no longer) a good fit for me.
I spent 21 years as an internal auditor for the U.S. Army and could have easily stayed put. But my passion there was waning, so I left the Pentagon and wrote one of the boldest chapters of my career with the U.S. Postal Service. Still, only three years later, I turned the page again and became CAE of America’s largest public utility company, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.”
When I was preparing to start my career, much like those students at GSU, I never imagined exactly how it might progress. But as Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
I encourage you to take charge of your career, follow your passion, and ignite or reignite the flames that you are capable of creating. “Choose a job you love,” Confucius said, “and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
I invite you to share your perspectives.