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Kristen Keats on Bringing Joy to Accounting

Published by Hannah Hood on Jan 16, 2024 6:00:00 AM

Kristen Keats was on a break from college, working at the front desk of a Jenny Craig weight loss center when she discovered her special talent for balancing ledgers: “It was like a dopamine hit.” 

As a bonus, her newfound talent allowed her to step away from desk duties ad into the office where the accountants “just got to do their thing. That’s all they did,” she says, “all day, they did the ledger, which was the best part of my day.” (Plus, bonus, no interactions with “cranky clients trying to lose weight who were mad at all of us.”)

Balancing ledgers sparked joy in Kristen, setting her on a path to become a CPA and founder of Breakaway Bookkeeping and Accounting. Along the way she had to adapt and change as she continued to discover the fun – and the not-so-fun – of the profession. 

Most of us accountants have a story like Kristen’s. We start with some iteration of, “I got into accounting because I was good at X” and “X” is usually something like, “I can make the journal entries work.” Then, inevitably, we bump into some piece we really don’t like, whether it’s busy season, a challenging boss or cranky clients.

So how do we get to do more of what we enjoy? And what do we do when we hit those unpleasant obstacles? Some grin and bear it, some choose to change jobs in search of greener pastures, and others choose to leave the profession. 

Since Kristen’s tagline is “bring joy to accounting,” I wanted to sit down with her and understand how she recommends young professionals navigate the bumps that are part of every accountant’s path and shift the balance to the ‘joy’ side of the career ledger. 

Here’s what we discussed.

Get comfortable with (good) clients

Approved Summit stock image2When Kristen found her backroom nirvana at Jenny Craig, she enjoyed working with numbers all day – and sparing herself the stress of client interactions at the front desk. 

Today, when she hears someone say, “I’m not a people-person, I just want to crank out product,” she takes pause. 

“A lot of folks think that they don't want to be client facing because their client interactions have not been great.” 

While sometimes the problem is the client, often the issue is a lack of training, Kristen argues: “I am a big believer in that 10,000 Hour Rule. When you’re in the first 10,000 hours, you’re just learning, learning, learning, and then you get this level of expertise where you can control the conversation.” 

Once you gain the expertise, you also are more likely to be in a position to weed out problem clients, “If clients are nasty with me, they are not my clients anymore. If they're nasty with my staff, they're absolutely not my client anymore. So that's part of the joy – we don't let bad clients stick around.” 

Practice Makes Joyful

So what might those 10,000 hours of training look like? A lot of active listening and watching, Kristen suggests, observing things to emulate and things to avoid. 

When she was getting started, Kristen recalls watching senior partners talk circles around clients: “The client would be smiling and nodding but you could tell they had no idea what was happening.” 

Today, she teaches her staff to concentrate on listening, watching visual (especially facial) cues, and checking for understanding. She also encourages them to practice putting themselves in that client's shoes before delivering a challenging message. 

“If I have to give bad news, if I do it with empathy, then that can make things easier.” 

Giving bad news is part of a CPAs job. At some point, we are going to have to tell clients that they have a five-figure tax bill coming up or that they didn’t hit a financial goal. 

“But we can still get joy and satisfaction even when things aren’t fun,” Kristen insists. “We have to have hard conversations, but if we have a good relationship with the client and we get through those hard conversations, even that can be satisfying. We can think to ourselves, ‘At least I could come to it from a place of emotional intelligence and be there with my client who appreciates me, and I helped them work together on a plan to fix it.’” 

For people-pleasing CPAs who struggle with delivering hard news, Kristen has a word of advice: Even though many of us go into client-facing roles because we want to help people and make them happy, those two objectives don’t always go hand in hand. 

Paraphrasing a food blogger she follows, Kristen explains, “Sometimes helping people is not making them happy. And sometimes making people happy is not helping them. If we really have the goal of helping our clients, we need to get them to see that we're trying to help them, even if we have bad news.” 

Acknowledge the Clouds – but Find the Silver Lining 

There are so many facets to accounting, the best way to get started is to try out as many different areas as you can. 

“Soak up everything that you possibly can,” Kristen recommends. “Get as much training and knowledge as you possibly can to get to whatever the next thing is and find those moments of joy.” 

Dig deep into the parts of your assignments you like and dislike: “Do I like filling out that audit checklist? Do I like going on these inventory observations?” Maybe it’s not a straight yes or no. “Just pay attention to how you're feeling. Learn those things that are bringing you joy even in the midst of feeling, ‘I don't want to be an auditor – but maybe I like this piece of it.’” 

Once you know these things about yourself, you can be more intentional about the opportunities you pursue, within your current work setting or in the field in general. 

Of course, the early years of a career is often filled with grunt work. So Kristen encourages young CPAs, “Remember: there's a bigger picture. When you're doing these tasks as a staff person, they're giving you the lowest level stuff. But keep an eye on what the seniors and the managers are doing.” Ask if you can observe them in action, for example, sitting in on client meetings so you can start to accumulate your 10,000 hours. 

If they’re willing to invest in your professional growth, that speaks volumes about how good a fit it is, long term. 

If they’re not, that’s when you can find the silver lining of today’s accountant shortage: Your skills are in demand, so look around for a manager and a company that shares your values, not just in theory but in practice.



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