Recently, I was meeting with a prospective new client to discuss her tax situation. Throughout the meeting I could feel her glare as she sized me up. Finally, near the end of our conversation she asked the question she'd been holding back for 30 minutes: "Just how long have you been doing this sort of work?" It was a polite way of asking, "Exactly how old are you, my dear?"
Frankly, this wasn't the first time I got this question. In fact, I'd say for everyone I work with above the age of 50, experience (ahem, age) is a large concern. I've been assuring prospective and new clients they're in good hands with my nearly six months of accounting experience!
Even at 35 years of age (in case you were wondering), I still feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield in these situations. This need to justify my age and experience has certainly diminished over time, but it still lingers. I know this is a struggle shared by many ambitious young accounting and finance professionals--especially among those of us launching our own firms: How can I earn respect from my clients or colleagues and position myself as an expert despite my age?
Defining our terms: The first step is understanding what we really mean when we ask for respect and want to be seen as an expert. According to Dictionary.com, these words have the following definitions:
Respect: Esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person.
Expert: A person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.
For many young professionals, including myself, it's not that we expect others to respect us and acknowledge us as experts instantly. The issue is the assumption that our lack of crow's feet means we're not capable of doing our jobs. I certainly don't want clients to assume I'm a novice until my hair starts to gray.
It's still going to happen sometimes. While we can't change others' assumptions, we can take steps to overcome them without resorting to the "OK, Boomer" retort.
Be respectable: First, stop worrying about whether or not someone is withholding respect because of your age. If someone doles out respect on that basis, there's little you can say or do that will alter their philosophy. However, you can still be a person worthy of respect.
What does a respectable person look like?
• They acknowledge their inexperience: There will never be a time in your life when you're not inexperienced at something, so get used to it and own it. Embrace your level of experience rather than trying to hide it.
• They want to learn: There's nothing more respectable than a growth mindset, a strong will, and an exhibited curious mind.
• They don't just repay people in kind: Don't require respect as payment before offering it. Do otherwise and you'll be perceived as being just as miserly as they are.
Be an expert: I'd argue that expertise is actually the journey toward mastery, not the destination itself. It's the mindset and process of continuous improvement that positions you to be a respected leader in your field. Being an expert does not mean you know everything there is about a topic. You, as a CPA, already have specialized knowledge and skills-- now start your journey toward mastery. Consistent deployment of desire, intention, and action is how to move forward and be seen as an expert in your field. I believe this is key to acquiring anything, including others' respect.
Be authentic: In the end, you can't control what other people think of you. So, who cares what they think? You can't force them to give you respect or treat you as an expert. You can only control your mindset and actions. If you stop focusing on what other people think of you and focus on your own performance and attitude, I can assure you that you'll win respect long before your crow's feet come in.
• Tim Jipping, CPA, CGMA, is owner of Journey Advisors & CPAs in Chicago. Reprinted courtesy of Insight, the magazine of the Illinois CPA Society.