With no ties to the accounting world, Colleen K. Conrad, CPA, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, NASBA, began her journey in high school with an accounting class, in search of opportunities in the business world. After many paths led her to public accounting, Conrad took the CPA Exam with plans to attend law school, but never made it – she loved accounting too much. “What surprised me most was that accounting itself is just a small part of the profession. There is so much more to it.” Working her way up as a c-suite leader at NASBA, Conrad is energized daily by her position where no two days look the same. We recently interviewed Conrad on why she became a licensed CPA, what advice she has for candidates, what it’s like to be a c-suite leader, and much more.
When did you first start your journey in accounting?
I first started my journey in accounting in high school by taking an accounting class. No one in my family was in the business world so I had no context or knew what to expect. My parents were teachers, a noble profession. This meant they had summers off, but didn’t make much money. After getting to know some business executives through our church, I was intrigued with the idea of getting into the business world and thought it might provide me a lot more opportunities.
After high school, I interviewed for a scholarship at my university, now known as Truman State University. During the interview process, the dean of the business school asked me what I was interested in majoring in, and I said either accounting or international finance. His advice to me was to get a degree in accounting because I could still use my accounting degree to eventually go into international finance. So, I became an accounting major, not with the intent of just being an accountant, but it seemed to be a more flexible degree.
I chose public accounting right after college. I told myself I would get my two years of experience in a firm, get my CPA license and then go to law school. But, once I got into public accounting, I loved it so much I stayed.
What surprised you most about the inner workings of the accounting profession?
What surprised me most was that accounting itself is just a base on which the profession is built. Yes, knowing the technical aspects is crucial, but ultimately it is an entrepreneurial business. After your first few years, a significant amount of your time is spent managing and leading people, running a business, obtaining new clients, marketing and mentoring, coaching and advising clients. Yes, there is a part of it that is roll up your sleeves work, including auditing and assurance, tax and consulting services, but that’s just part of it. To really succeed in the accounting profession, you must truly become an entrepreneur and gain business savvy.
Why did you take the CPA Exam and become licensed?
Going through the education requirements, it was only natural to want to take the CPA Exam. It was an affirmation of what I learned with my accounting degree, and it is prestigious to become licensed. Being a licensed CPA shows the world that I am a professional, like a doctor or lawyer, and a CPA is a gold standard in the profession.
Did you ever run into any roadblocks while embarking on the journey to become a CPA?
I consider myself very lucky. I didn’t have any significant roadblocks that I know some candidates encounter. I took the CPA Exam right after I graduated and passed. I consider my ‘roadblock’ the spring semester of my senior year when all of my friends and classmates were having a good time, excited to be graduating soon. It was hard to keep studying when everyone was having a good time without me, but it paid off!
Looking back at the entire process of becoming a CPA, is there anything you would do differently now that you are licensed?
No. I did it in the way that I would recommend to all CPA Exam candidates. Study while everything is still fresh in your mind and knock it out as soon as possible.
What would you say to someone who is on the fence of getting their CPA license?
If you are on the fence, just do it. The license opens so many doors because people know what it takes to become a CPA. It sets you apart, and even if you aren’t going to be in public accounting, it demonstrates your proficiency. It’s the gold standard. CPA on your resume can be a game changer. It’s the gold standard and it really does open doors and elevate you above the crowd.
What is one of the biggest concerns or struggles you see with CPA Exam candidates, and what advice do you have for them?
My advice for CPA Exam candidates is simple. Test as soon as possible before life gets in the way. At NASBA, data shows that the sooner candidates take the Exam after their education, the higher the pass rates.
What is it like working at NASBA and being the Executive VP and COO?
Working at NASBA is amazing. Every day is different, and I get to work with a formidable team of very passionate people who work every day toward NASBA’s mission, which is to enhance the effectiveness and advance the common interests of the Boards of Accountancy.
After being in public accounting for 26 years, I brought a lot of those skills and tools to this position, but I’ve had an opportunity to learn more here, too. No longer practicing as a CPA, I mainly manage and lead others, including our IT group, which is new to me, and the operations of a business. I also have the wonderful opportunity to engage with regulators and other leaders, who share my passion for the profession. It’s all been an energizing career change.
Many CPA candidates aspire to one day be in your shoes as a c-suite leader. What have been some of the most important steps in your ability to reach this level in your career?
A CPA license certainly helps get you there as the license opens doors and tells the world that you have a broad and deep knowledge of accounting, but also importantly how businesses function. Layering on the license, though, were all of the crucial leadership skills I developed throughout my years in public accounting, including the ability to think strategically, create a vision and motivate others. Becoming a leader is an evolutionary process, as you pick up skills and knowledge throughout your career. Getting out of the thick of the details and thinking big picture are necessary to being a c-suite leader.
Why are CPAs necessary in today’s world?
Bottom line is that CPAs bring order from chaos. Without CPAs, you have a bunch of data that doesn’t make sense. CPAs bring order to that data, with honesty and integrity, in a way that people trust it. People can look at data and make educated decisions, which then stimulates the economy.
This is a profession that provides more and more ‘trust services’, and ultimately, people do trust CPAs. Surveys prove this notion. There is comfort in that because CPAs uphold rigorous standards in everything they do.
To connect with Colleen, find her on LinkedIn.
Interview By: Jenna Elkins, NASBA Communications and Digital Media Specialist
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