‘Tis the Season: Ask the Accountant

The days are getting brighter and longer and the doldrums of winter have a light at the end of the tunnel the closer we get to March and April – at least here in New England! February is a tough weather time for the northern parts of the world, but it also falls smack dab in the middle of a season you may not have defined before: tax season.

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In our family, tax season is a way of life for my brother Rich Toomey. My favorite (and only) brother, he is a Tax Supervisor with a CPA designation (Certified Public Accountant – the gold standard for being able to practice accounting) for a regional accounting firm in Baltimore, MD. This is his busiest time of year as April 15 looms large on the calendar. He is one person not afraid to dig into tax returns and contact the IRS!

What kind of person loves tax, you wonder? Someone who is a die-hard New England sports fan, with a license plate of logos of the Pats, Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox to prove it. Though playing baseball was his favorite, Rich is a former Zamboni driver. He is married for over a year to the love of his life Melissa, smart and talented in her own right, going after a PhD at Johns Hopkins. They have a sweet, curious cat and love exploring new restaurants. Rich has accounting degrees from Holy Cross (BA, 2012) and Northeastern (MA, 2013). And he is super willing to talk about what he does, which benefits all of us who are receiving the W-2s and 1099s and reporting self-employed income.

As we all prepare to file forms with all sorts of letters and numbers for names, Rich is happy enough to share some of his expertise to help us understand the basics.

MKD: What does a tax account do?

Rich: Tax accountants provide “compliance” or preparation services to individuals and businesses. In addition to this we act as advisers to our clients and help them plan for tax and non tax issues throughout the year.

MKD: What exactly does compliance mean?

Rich: Compliance as in to provide what is asked by the tax authorities

MKD: What does a tax accountant do outside of January to April 15?

Rich: A lot of people think that tax accountants have nothing to do outside of the typical tax season. This is far from the truth. A lot of clients have their returns extended for six months which can create a second busy season in September and October if you don’t keep busy during the summer. If a tax accountant plans their year correctly they should have a steady flow of work to do from April 16th to October 15th. Between 10/15 and the end of the year we keep ourselves busy with year-end tax planning and fiscal year end clients who have different deadlines than a typical year end client.

MKD: What kind of people or businesses have different deadlines?

Rich: Individuals have a regular deadline of 4/15 and an extended deadline of 10/15. This is not an extension to pay but an extension to file. You can file by 10/15 but all payments must be made by 4/15 or you will face late filing penalties and interest. Businesses have different deadlines depending on their structure. Pass-through entities such as partnerships or S Corporations have a deadline of 3/15 and an extended deadline of 9/15. The idea is that since the income from these entities pass through to individual owners their due date needs to be earlier than individuals. C Corporations pay tax at the entity level and share the same deadlines as individuals.

MKD: Why should someone hire a tax accountant for their taxes instead of doing it themselves?

Rich: For the majority of people filing a tax return should be very simple. A lot of the instructions are very straightforward and easy to understand. However, things can get very complicated very quickly. Maybe you bought a home or purchased a rental property. These can create tax issues that the average person may not know about. Basically the further you get from only having a W-2 and claiming the standard deduction you should consider using a tax preparation service. If it is in your budget I would recommend going to a CPA rather than a big national tax prep shop as they will be able to provide year-round service.

MKD: What are the advantages of using a tax professional year round?

Rich: Using a tax professional year round allows you to be more prepared for significant tax events throughout the year. For example let’s say an individual ends up selling some stock during the year. An average person won’t know what capital gain tax rates are or know that they might need to make estimated payments to cover the tax that will be due on the gain. Using a tax accountant year round will make sure that you are prepared for any event that might come up

MKD: Why did you get into tax accounting?

Rich: I was in my junior year of college and like a lot of accounting students I didn’t know what field of accounting I wanted to have a career in. My first semester I was taking an Auditing course and we had a visiting professor. On the first day of class he says “you probably aren’t going to use anything you learn in the class in the real world”, which was a great way to grab my attention. I knew right then that I probably didn’t want to go into auditing. The next semester I had my first tax course and on the first day we were already applying things that we had learned to real world scenarios. I was hooked. I knew that was what I wanted to do.

MKD: What do tax accountants want us regular people to know during tax season?

Rich: We know that your life is hectic, but please, please, please provide your accountant with all of your tax documents as soon as possible. The sooner we have it, the sooner we can prepare your return and hopefully it will result in you receiving a refund faster. The days leading up to April 15th are always hectic, and the client who waits until the last-minute usually isn’t our favorite client.

Thanks to Rich for sharing your experience! Hopefully this post opened up your eyes to what goes on during tax season and helps you think about the best way to approach your finances, whether personal or for your business.

Do you go confidently into tax season, or terrified to begin? Do you use a professional, software, or go old school with calculators, pencil and paper? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and this post!

 

The RIDGE Method of Performance Review

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For many of us in the professional world, the beginning of the year is performance review time. Personally, I finalized my self assessment yesterday! It doesn’t have to be a stressful time. I’ve found reviews are a time for honest discussion about progress and potential. My best bosses have always looked at both sides of the coin and assess everything for its opportunity. Your boss should be looking out for you, especially since your performance reflects not just on you, but them also as a leader, mentor, and trainer.

One key to remember is not to expect perfection. None of us flawlessly executed this year. My husband likes to (lovingly!) make fun of me for the time I had a good review with a raise yet still cried when I came home because it wasn’t 100% positive. We’re always improving and getting better with each days’ efforts. The good and the bad each come at their time, and sometimes we ride long waves of one or the other. The point is to always be driving for improvement. Be open about performance and desires with yourself and your manager, and you’ll see results both short and long term!

I have a five part approach to thinking about performance evaluations, referred to as RIDGE:

  • Review and reflect
  • Identify lessons learned
  • Dream about where you want to go
  • Goal creation
  • Exchange expectations and perceptions

 

Let’s take a deeper look into each one of these!

 

Review and reflect.

As you begin your self assessment, don’t jump right in. Make sure you understand where the goal line is that you are being measured against. Some good benchmarks to look at include your job description and your last review, or two reviews if you do biannual reviews. The purpose of this is so that you can look at what they key performance metrics are, and build your case around those. Another tool to review is looking at the job description for the position one level ahead of you. Are you performing at the next level? That will help guide some later steps.

Reflecting should include collecting moments of positivity. If you don’t do this already, take note of what people say to you with the date and some context if they are complimentary of your work. Bonus points if you can keep it all in one easy to reference place! Everytime someone says something complimentary of me, I always write it down in my notebook and highlight it so I can find it later. I save emails in a folder, also. This is great because on the tough days I can look back at the reminders that I am talented and successful, even if that day is difficult.

For maximum output and performance, keep reviewing and reflecting throughout the year. Whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly, you can’t expect to exceed expectations if you aren’t conscious of what they are. Lack of reminders make us often forget, so keep those benchmarks fresh in your memory!

 

Identify lessons learned

In your reflection stage, you looked for positive moments. The lessons learned are all about opportunity. It isn’t about what negative moments you had, but how you overcame the obstacles and made something work despite challenges. In failure, there is always opportunity. While lessons learned tend to stem from negative moments, errors, or omissions, take the opportunity to identify where you or your team did something different that had positive results. That improvement may be even more important to share.

Lessons learned should be tracked and communicated throughout the year. I track lessons learned on meeting minutes and we have both formal and informal processes at work to help share what we’ve learned amongst our team. I’m thankful to rely on my director and my and her counterparts on the east coast when questions come up. When I make a phone call to NYC or DC, it can allay some fears and even bring in some unexpected viewpoints that become valuable in defining approach. Whatever you do personally and what your employer requires, be consistent  in tracking and communicating lessons learned. Others may run into the same problems, and if you’ve already found a way to quickly solve, you not only create a resource for someone else but extend your sphere of influence to other teams. Keep track of these ideas and successes, both personally and in team or more open settings,  for later steps in RIDGE.

 

Dream about where you want to go

Maybe you are specifically asked about your 5 or 10 year plan, or where you see yourself going into the company. Last year I admitted that I would like to reach senior leadership levels in our company someday, and even reach the c-suite. This bold admission helped my director to guide me through what next steps I could take in the short term to set myself up for long term success.

Getting to the C-Suite doesn’t have to be your dream. Maybe you want to be an entrepreneur or move to a different division. The “Dream” portion of RIDGE is about digging deep into what matters most to you. Think not just about positions, but skills and knowledge you would like to have. Are you a leader of people or a technical expert, or some combination of both? The possibilities are endless, and there is no right or wrong answer.

 

Goal creation

I’m sick of hearing about SMART goals, even though for many they work. But I find that sometimes, they aren’t enough to challenge me to step up my game. What is most effective for me is to set reach goals that are achievable with dedication and resources. Goals shouldn’t be easy to reach. They shouldn’t be comfortable if we truly want to change and improve ourselves and our work. Goals need to speak to our innermost drive as much as they need to speak to business fundamentals, as it relates to performance reviews. My goals tend to be two tiered: the first layer is what the outcome needs to be, and the second tier is what it actually means to me and how I benefit. So, getting a proposal approved by Q3 is a first tier, and the opportunity to get to execution and transform lives in a positive way is the second tier. Even if you don’t capture the emotion in the second tier when you get to discussing and writing things down, keep it in a separate place and remind yourself of this. This second tier is the purpose and reason that motivates you. Dig deep, follow your dreams from the previous step, and understand not just what must be completed, but why it is important to you.

Goals can also be personal, even if for a professional review. Think back to the “Dream” step and what you want to do and be. During the first few years of my career, I wasn’t at a point to work on leadership development in my role, as I was more of a contributor per direction of my project managers. I had to look elsewhere to volunteer positions to meet my goals. Ultimately, by pursuing these personal goals, I was able to make strides in my professional career. Doors opened for me, and I realized that my life was in my hands. I changed my mindset that career is not limited to the “9-5”, but that fluidity of skills between personal and professional is a real opportunity to improve and progress.

 

Exchange expectations and perceptions

This part is all about the written portion of your review and the conversation with your manager. You need to fully and clearly communicate all of the thoughts from the first four steps. If you are a manager, this part applies even more so to you because what comes out of your mouth is essentially gospel to your employee. Be sure that the written and spoken word is truly your intent, and is representative of your dreams and goals. Be bold, brave, and courageous. These can be difficult of awkward conversations in the best of times, and questions with “how” and “why” can result in the most helpful suggestions.

A few keys here are to remember openness and honesty are best practices, from both the employee and manager. We don’t get better if we pretend all is a rose, but suggestions for improvement need to be carefully crafted. If you are the recipient of criticism, ask questions about the why and developing steps to improve and get to a better place as a contributor and leader. If your review is glowingly positive, ask for next steps and new challenges. Ask for areas of improvement, or what you need to get to the next level.

Continue these types of conversations throughout the year. It doesn’t have to be on a weekly basis, but certainly check in and communicate after key events, like a presentation or submission, or milestones. If you’re not continuously reflecting and reviewing and identifying your lessons learned as you go, the dreams and goals become more difficult to reach. By exchanging expectations and perceptions throughout the year instead of annually, you’ll always be in a position to make bigger and better contributions.

 

Good luck in your review! May you accomplish much in this year and beyond, and feel the rewards of your efforts!

What do you think of the RIDGE approach? Does this change the way you go about your performance evaluations, or similar to what you do already? How are you feeling about your performance review?

The Accomplishments and Lessons Learned in 2017 and What’s Next in 2018

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Who doesn’t love the feeling of winning, or accomplishment, or satisfaction? I sure love those feelings, and I’m sure you do too! 2017 was a pretty incredible year for me both personally and professionally. It’s important to take time to recognize all the good in our lives. The end of the year is a great time to reflect on accomplishments, and daily gratitude and appreciation exercises increase happiness and can have impact on future successes. I use a Daily Greatness Journal to help with my gratitude exercises as well as planning my days and reflecting each night on what went well. These practices help me stay both grounded and hopeful. Even on days when I struggle with frustration, intense stress, or failure, there is something to end on a positive note, even if it is only that “tomorrow is another day,” according to Scarlett O’Hara. In this post, I’ll take a look at my accomplishments, the lessons I’ve learned that are worth sharing with you, and what I think is next in that area.

 

The “Accomplishment”: I walked down the aisle in a white dress and married my now husband! This was an exercise in project management, planning an expensive celebration of the love of my husband and I. It was an unforgettable day surrounded by amazing family and the best friends (and included a hoppin dance floor!).

Lessons Learned: Managing budgets, schedule, and vendors. And that managing family and personal expectations about events that are deeply emotional are extremely different from straight up project management.

What’s Next?: Hopefully decades upon decades of happiness! In a few weeks, on our one year anniversary, I’ll write a post on how I think marriage impacts our careers, based on my experience thus far. I’m sure this will change over time as life rewards us and challenges us in different ways.

 

The “Accomplishment”: This year I not only went to my first foreign country, but to TWO foreign countries. My honeymoon was in Costa Rica and my husband and I finally took a long-anticipated trip to Ireland in November.

Lessons Learned: The world is small, yes expansive. While we all have much in common, each corner of the world is special and unique. It is a privilege to travel, no matter where we get to go and how we get there. It is important to try new things, even if just to know they are not a good fit.

What’s Next?: I’m going to be lucky to spend some time in DC with my friends, celebrating the wedding of of one of my husband’s best friends in SoCal, visiting my sister in Indiana and my brother and sister-in-law in Baltimore, attend Alpha Gamma Delta convention in Texas, and maybe take a few days down on Cape Cod during the summer. There is much to explore in the US and the world – maybe I even make it up to Canada this year to see Lake Louise or Quebec City!

 

The “Accomplishment”: All of my projects at work have received a level of success during the year. The teams gelled and performed in amazing ways, always looking for continuous improvement and keeping the promises we make to residents. We’re meeting the goals we set out to achieve and having fun doing it! It wasn’t all fun, though. I had to learn to raise my hand and ask for help with managing the multiple projects when too much was happening at once. It was something I wish I did sooner and wish I was more open about the difficulties faced earlier in the process.

Lessons Learned: Nothing is worth achieving or has been achieved at a high level without significant collaboration. It takes a combination of experience and novice to see things in new ways. Managing difficult conversations is a key personal development opportunity. Speak up, be honest, ask for help, and learn to delegate better.

What’s Next?: More successes on more projects! 2018 is bringing a new set of opportunities, new teams to work with, and existing teams to smash new goals alongside. I’ll get to try new types of projects and learn new skills. And, I’ll be better set up in asking for what I need now that I know my limits.

 

The “Accomplishment”: In February 2017, I “opened the doors” to my official platform presence on the internet via this website and blog. It was a leap of faith and is constantly a work in progress.

Lessons Learned: Be more thoughtful about what I want to say, and how I say it. Putting myself out there and being more vulnerable publicly. Practice writing and thinking more about the intended audience than me. Connection is key.

What’s Next?: The goal next year is to write at least 50 blog posts – so you will start hearing from me on a more regular basis! I hope that you’ll take a part in sharing in the creation and discussion of what is interesting and worth sharing. I’d love to hear more from you.

 

There is much to be thankful for and much that remains to be accomplished. Hopefully you are inspired to look back at your own life. Find the victories that you gained along the way – it may not be something as monumental as getting married or starting a website, but maybe you started writing that book you’ve been meaning to, or organized a closet, or developed a new routine that has brought peace to your life. Break free of the winter blues, and reflect on your own talents and abilities and accomplishments. Celebrate all that makes you a better you this year!

What is it you are proud of or makes you happy that you did this year? What are the lessons you learned and where will you go next?

The Top Reads of 2017 in the Second Half

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Earlier this year I set myself a goal of reading 35 books. Given that I read only 11 in 2016, it seemed like an audacious goal, but attainable and worth striving for. Reading for me encompasses many needs and desires. In almost every situation, reading opens my mind in new ways, to new possibilities, no matter if fiction or nonfiction. I feel more creative, or develop skills, or end up laughing. All things I desire in life!

I not only met my goal of reading 35 books, I smashed it! The total as of today is 41, an increase of 17% over the goal! The goal was certainly helped by some books that were not only shorter than most, but also more of a booklet than you would consider a typical book.

Everything I read was on an e-reader (I use the Kindle, but ‘m sure you can find one you like!) and for me it made everything a million times easier because I knew it fit in every bag I use on a day to day basis. That made it easy to carry, and the sales on ebooks tend to result in a lower price, so it is more affordable and easier to buy more over the course of a year. Even if the average price was $5 for an ebook (and this feels high to me for what I actually spent), it compares to a typical $15 I might spend to purchase (non fiction) paperbacks and $25 that I might spend on hardcovers, which is rare. Over the total of all books, I spent $205 and saved $410 versus all paperback and $820 versus completely hardcover. Those savings are not small numbers! Of course, the library is cheaper than spending any money at all.

Since I shared my favorite books in the first half of the year, I thought I would share my best reads over the last six months. The books I read and found worth sharing are below, in no particular order.

Beyond the Label, by Maureen Chiquet: The former CEO of Chanel shared her career path and lessons learned in both the office and at home. She is a compelling storyteller and shares some good advice applicable to anyone. I’m not a lover of fashion and still found this book quite relevant. You feel like you are in the room during certain stories, because the people and situations are so well described. There were a few moments where I found myself wondering how she balanced everything going on, and Ms. Chiquet described several times when she was working through the imbalance of being not just an executive, but a person.

A Path Appears, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: This was part of the Alpha Gamma Delta book club and was perhaps the most insightful, eye-opening read in the past six months. The authors take a detailed look at what makes service, volunteerism, and most especially charitable giving work best. They encourage research and more attention to decision making, and highlight a number of causes that either haven’t worked well or have worked tremendously. While the authors stop short of promoting which specific charities you should support (they do highlight some high-performers), they note some objectives we should think through and work with what is most important to the individual donor. The important thing is to do what you are able to do to help! Anything is better than sitting back.

The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking: Knowing quite little about the Danish culture, this book was not only a great primer but a window into the lifestyle of what makes the Danes tick. I was enamored of the concept of Hygge (“hig-eh”) and would love to create a version of it in my own life – surround myself with good people, good lighting, good design, comfy clothes, and enjoy the outdoors when possible! This is a simplistic summary, as there are recipes and stories and details that make the “Danish secrets to happy living” meaningful to those of us outside Denmark.

How to be an Imperfectionist, by Stephen Guise: As a recovering perfectionist, this book was a great read because it captures everything I am missing about previous and current efforts, actively trying to not be perfect. The author stresses the importance of imperfection to anything, along the lines that any action yields us results that lead to success in some variation. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by perfection – life is better when imperfect!

Multipliers, by Liz Wiseman: This book is notable because it forced me to confront the fact that I still have to learn about and improve upon my leadership style. Everyone who reads it wants to identify as a Multiplier, but there are aspects of the Diminisher and Accidental Diminisher that seem to haunt all of us in one way or another until we take action to correct over the long term. Being that uncomfortable from self reflection and taking the hit to the confidence is not something I necessarily aspire to, but I do aspire to be an impactful leader. This book encourages honest reflection and provides the insight needed to make the improvements.

The Crossroads of Should and Must, by Elle Luna: This was the shortest book I read all year, and did so in an entire sitting of waiting for a doctor’s appointment that was running behind. The illustrations were what really made the discussion of considering a “should” versus a “must” and which makes the most sense for your life and what you want for your personal outcome.

In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honoré: This book impacted me so much I wrote a blog post earlier this year on it – check it out to see what it exposed me to and what my reactions and life benefits were!

The two books I was reading at the time of the posting of my mid year were put on hold so I could truly focus on them for a couple hours at a time. The Joanna Barsh book on Centered Leadership needs attention because of what look to be impactful introspective activities. That may be a good, low-key weekend activity and read.

I’ve already downloaded a half dozen books for next reading, and the genres are all over the map. Winter is a great time to cozy up with a tea or hot chocolate, maybe a soft blanket or a cuddly puppy, and a book or device that emulates a book, and escape reality. Maybe we learn ways to improve and gain inspiration for setting new goals, and perhaps we just gain a few minutes of peace. Whatever joy reading brings you, may you feel much of that joy this season in all areas of your life!

Why Fitness & Career are the Perfect Combination

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There are more factors that are within our own control affecting our careers than we realize. The more we can self-govern our actions and words, the better we can manage the perception of our ability to perform and the actual performance itself. Not everything can be controlled, but putting a best foot forward can contribute to increasing the odds of success in your favor. When you have the opportunity to influence your own situation, it is one that should be grabbed with immediate and meaningful action to follow.

One career-focused influence opportunity I’ve noticed is incorporating fitness and emphasizing health-based activities into life and the inadvertent impact that it has on how things go in the office. When I exercise, practice meal prep, sleep, and stay hydrated, I realize that I have more confidence, focus better, communicate better, and am in more control of my stress.  

In recent years, I let the worst of work get the best of my good habits. Instead of sticking to my routine of running or walking or the gym, I succumbed to the pressures of deadlines and the falsity that working longer means better results. I was (and am) smarter than that. With poor time management around work activities In combination with injuries, I went from running a half marathon to having to work my way back up to two slow miles. But I don’t have to stay stuck in that spot  – and neither do you, if you’re in the same trap.

It is disappointing to admit the reality of falling out of shape over the past six years. But along the way, I’ve become a mentally stronger person and have learned some tools and reincorporated practices that make fitness part of my routine and part of my career.  

Research shows that fit employees are paid more than their peers. It isn’t because of their athletic prowess is applicable to the workplace. Think instead about all of the personal improvement that comes from being dedicated to not just fitness, but any mission: commitment to a goal, dedication in the face of “adversity”, ability to push through when things get tough, and ability to prioritize what is most important. This is certainly an abridged list, and a list of admirable traits that directly translate over to the professional side of the table.

When I workout consistently, I find the following to be true:

  1. I focus better, and am able to be more productive
  2. I feel more confident in myself personally, inwardly and how I perceive my abilities
  3. I feel more confident in what I am able to accomplish, externally with others
  4. Sleep comes more easily, I am rested and ready to go
  5. I’m more energized consistently throughout the day – negating the need for the 2pm crash and coffee
  6. When I work out in the morning, I start the day with an accomplishment, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
  7. I’m happier, and that makes me a better wife, friend, daughter, colleague, and leader.

Knowing what the benefits of certain practices are always drive my willingness to adopt them. With full recognition of the advantages for my well being and potential impact on my career, what are the next steps for me?

  1. Build routine. This includes planning my days and weeks more intentionally.
  2. Find ways to up my game. In addition to a simple gym membership, I also have a rowing machine at home. This piece gives me the opportunity to change pace and work different muscles.
  3. Measure and track progress. I believe that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, so I need to create and stick to methods of tracking what I’m doing and how I’m getting better – in one place.
  4. Find goals. Doing this will make it easier for me to get motivated and get going each day. Whether it is losing weight or new distances or a milestone number of workouts, having goals drives my progress and success.
  5. Make it social. What activities can I join with other friends doing? This spring, a group of my college friends and I are going to another city for a race together. It becomes a girls’ weekend on top of a fitness event, so benefits abound!

These next steps are largely what it takes at work to succeed as well – again, the crossover effect of fitness and work is clear! You can still be successful without fitness, but why wouldn’t you want to benefit your mind and body and create an advantage for yourself? Many of my colleagues are former college athletes at both club and varsity levels. Not only do most still work out, but you can see the competitive drive still alive, striving for excellence. Those attitudes flow in both directions in all of us, to and from work and fitness. Fitness is a way to get relief from the stressors of work, to build relaxation, to focus, and to reset the mind to be ready for what is next.

Have you seen your fitness impacting your career? How does the cross section of the two worlds work for you? Look forward to hearing your comments below!