“Tax Season Is My Favorite!” With special guest, Ellen Carstensen

I’m going to continue with the interview series I was doing a few months ago because as with my earlier pieces, I believe it ties together this idea that we are all leaders and we are all project managers and the situations we all face are very similar regardless of industry. Therefore, the solutions and the uplifting that happens when we get through a tough situation or experience success should be shared as we can all learn from them.

This time I had the privilege of sitting down with Ellen Carstensen a recent graduate of UNR currently working on her MBA while she prepares to sit for her CPA. Ellen currently works for the Certified Public Accountant Firm of Cupit, Milligan, Ogden & Williams. We talked about tax law and some of the processes that she goes through in dealing with taxes and dealing with clients. So let’s get to it!

Elton: “First, can you tell me a little bit about how you engage and interact with the firm’s partners.”

Ellen: “Well, the firm is medium sized, there are about seventeen people, and there are four of partners at this firm. Not terribly small but not very big either. Each partner has their own practice so therefore their own set of clients and they all have their little nuances of how they like things prepared or organized. That was difficult in the beginning, trying to figure out who likes what and how they like it. So, if I do it in a way one doesn’t like what I’ve prepared or I mix up which one I’m working for then I can get the papers sent back to me. They write little notes on how to fix the mistakes, we call them ‘Review Points’ which are things I can improve on so it’s a fairly normal process. But, it’s difficult especially since I’m always working for a different partner. Especially during tax season where there is a shelf where everyone puts their files and you pull in the order that they were placed and you could grab any one of the partner’s files, there is no preference. But also, that has been kind of fun as I have gotten to know them individually and it provides new ways to learn.”

Elton: “Sounds like you learn a lot from all the different partners as opposed to just being under one partner continually?”

Ellen: “Exactly. It has also allowed me to be a little more flexible as I adapt to doing different things for the different partners. Because if I was under the same person all the time doing things the same way continually I wouldn’t learn as much. It’s similar to going to a new job where initially it might be difficult to learn a new role. But I feel like I’ve learned a lot by being able to do the different processes.“

Elton: “Managing all those little projects under each manager?”

Ellen: “Yes, exactly. It’s very interesting in that respect. I don’t know of very many other firms that are like that. In the ones that I do know about you work specifically for one person, or you work specifically for one department. So, enjoy how it’s done here.”

Expert’s Input. In a piece by Lynn Taylor titled How to Deal With “Multiple Boss Madness” she addresses several problem/solution areas that can come with having multiple people to report to. One problem area she references is:

  • You’re unsure about handling the conflict on your own. Confusion seems to rule the day. Projects seem to have inherent conflicts of interest, and if you venture to point out the problem, you feel that you’ll be accused of not being a team player.”

This is such a difficult place to be in your day-to-day but it happens a lot. I’ve been a part of and I’ve been witness to people who are too scared to speak up and address the issues that are plaguing the system for fear of reprisal. Further along in the article Lynn says:

  • “Know the subtle differences … between a consultative role and a direct manager role, or functional and operational. Ensure that you’re on the same page with your primary boss. … Let him know you are willing to help, but diplomatically speak up when you feel you’ve received “adequate” support.”

I like that, speaking up when we do receive adequate support. Few of us say a word when things go right. Many of us are screaming when things go wrong. Seems like it should be reverse, but it’s not. I’ll leave the rest of Lynn’s article for you to read and she makes many more good points. Let’s get back to Ellen.

Elton: “When pulling those files, you’re pulling different accounts, different clients, can you tell me a little bit about the interaction that goes on in how you manage them, and maybe their expectations.”

Ellen: “Well, I am still fairly new in the profession, I just recently completed my undergrad a year and a half ago. So, when I first started I did not really interact with the clients. I would prepare their documents then if I had any questions, which a lot of the time I did because something is missing or more information was needed, I would write down all my questions and give them to the relevant partner. Then that partner would call the client personally. But now that I have a little more experience and know a little bit more about what I’m talking about, I still go to the partner and let them know I have these questions but a lot of the time they will give me the opportunity to email or call the client myself. If it’s someone they are very familiar with then they will do the leg work themselves. When I do get to interact with the client it’s great because I am the one looking at all their documents so it’s much easier to explain. It allows me to get the problem resolved or questions answered right then and there. Along the way you can figure out each person’s little nuances so you may have one individual that is missing the same thing every year so over time you know what to look for. Year after year you may get the same person’s or the same business’s returns so you then know what expect and also know how that client responds to you. Some clients respond fairly quickly and some not as quickly or don’t give you exactly what you need so it helps to build a rapport with them. This is something that will take place more often as I gain experience.”

Expert’s Input: In a previous piece I talk about the importance of getting to know your client with Lawyer Julie McGrath Throop. In it we talk about how it builds trust and how that trust is the foundation for a long lasting relationship. It sounds like Ellen is fostering those same types of relationships in a completely different industry.

Elton: “So, it seems you wear a different hat for each partner then a sub-different hat for each client under that partner. So you wear ‘multiple-multiple’ hats which is very interesting when it comes to that type of management.”

Ellen: “It definitely keeps me on my toes.”

Elton: “Yeah! You’re switching gears all the time.”

Ellen: “Yes! That’s actually why I enjoy tax season which I know sounds really weird. You see, I know I’m going to be doing tax returns, and I know that they will never be the same for any given person. You know there is always going to be something new to do and it’s going to be really crazy. It will NEVER be dull.”

Elton: “WOW! Most people …”

Ellen: “Yes! Most people think taxes are especially dull! You have to have the right mindset. It’s neat to see a person’s return and think ‘Wow, if we advise them to do this next year we could save them THIS much money.’ Which is great because then we can say this is how you can keep your money and not give it to the government.”

Elton: “So, you’re providing a service in something that individuals, besides love and family, have the most need for and that’s more money. From that perspective people can misconstrue what it is that you are so passionate about when it comes to finance and taxes.”

Ellen: “Yes!”

Blog #2 - Ellen

Elton: “Can you tell me what it is that people don’t know about tax law, or taxes in general? The thing that you find you’re having to inform them the most about?”

Ellen: “Everything! Haha!”

Elton “Ha!”

Ellen: “Probably two things. First, it’s the whole idea of a refund. Lately more and more people have been getting it and that’s that getting a refund isn’t really a good thing because you’re loaning the government money without earning anything on it. If they decide to hold your money and not give it to you for six months, then you can’t do anything about it. Yes, the idea of a refund is that is was already your money to begin with.”

Elton: “Right, this is something that is very much misunderstood including by myself.”

Ellen: “The second thing that I would say is for people that have very simple returns, like you’re in college or you’re like me, I don’t own a house yet so I have very minimal information to put on my tax return. But some people over analyze and think that it’s a lot more complicated than it is. And then some people who have a lot of convoluted information, intense content, are involved in a lot of different things, they underestimate it, they will come in on April 10th and say: ‘Oh, it’s just a simple return.’ And usually that’s never the case.”

Elton: “One extreme or another?”

Ellen: “Right. There are quite a few clients that if they have been with the same CPA for a while and over time have gotten the gist of it, they are the ones that understand it. But for a lot of people who might be bouncing around to different CPA’s or they do it themselves, they don’t understand it as well. “

Elton: “Well, to wrap things up here what do you love about it? Why are you so jazzed about it? Because from what I saw in class together with you was this intense excitement that I have not seen in other CPA’s.”

Ellen: “Well actually, because I’m not a CPA yet, I’m still on my way to getting the certification, people say: ‘You’re a CPA! You don’t seem like a CPA at all, isn’t that so boring?”

Elton: “There’s a stereotype.”

Ellen: “Exactly. You’re expected to be dull and wear glasses and sit at a desk and do nothing all day. But me, I’m a very energetic person in general. So, whatever environment I’m in I try to spice it up a little because really no one seems to like going to work anyways. And even if you love your job you might have the mentality that it sucks to get up in the morning to go into the office. So, I try and have fun with it. But, I really enjoy the client aspect of it, saving people money, advising them. That is a lot of fun which sounds so weird. For instance my family, who all do taxes, and my parents who own their own business and have a lot of different things financially going on, I get to call them all and say ‘Oh! Did you hear about this new law? You need to be doing this and you need to be keeping track of that.” So it’s great that I can help them out. That someone as young as myself can teach people of all ages new financial things. Everyone needs it so its’s great to take a little stress out of an already stressful situation.”

Elton: “Well I think it’s fantastic what you do. We need more people like you who are so energetic about something that either people fear, or they don’t understand and maybe that’s why they fear it in the first place.”

That was the conclusion of my time with Ellen and I was able to glean a lot from her, most of it unexpected. I’ll admit I bought into the CPA stereotype before talking with Ellen and afterwards, well I definitely have a fresh looks at something that I personally am not a fan of addressing once a year around the 15th of April. As can be seen, even with an up and coming CPA many of the same struggles top tier leaders/managers deal with exist at every level. So, what is it that separates us if we’re all dealing with the same issues? It’s how we’re dealing with those issues that separates us.

Image Credit: Photo By Author

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