Are you exploring careers in accounting and finance? Cecilia Leung’s new book, Dear Accountant, shares the career journeys and wisdom of 20 leaders in the fields of accounting and finance. From senior partners at the big four to executive recruiters and entrepreneurs, these industry-leading mentors openly share their individual career paths, their struggles, and lessons they learned along the way.
The book provides a unique immersion into the lives and careers of these inspiring leaders, empowering you to blaze your own trail as you explore the thrilling, wonderful kaleidoscope of the accounting and finance profession.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Cecilia Leung, author of Dear Accountant: Stories, Advice, and Explorations. Cecilia, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Cecilia Leung: Thanks for having me.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a bit of a rundown of your professional background?
Cecilia Leung: Sure, I am a CPA, Certified Public Accountant and I spent the past two decades working for some of the prominent firms like JP Morgan, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and Ernst & Young, all over the world, in Asia, North America, and Europe. I also serve as a consulting CFO for a lot of startup companies.
Currently, I run my own CFO advisory practice. My company is called The Entrepreneur CFO. If you ever watch Shark Tank, you know how important it is to be able to tell your story through numbers, be able to have a strong accounting and finance infrastructure to grow, and insights to make strategic decisions. Most business owners have great ideas but sometimes they just don’t know how, or they don’t have the capacity to do what we do, so that’s when we come in to help businesses put all the pieces together, so they have everything they need to take the next leap forward.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to share the stories in the book? You’ve been in the industry for a long time now. Did you have an “Aha!” moment, was there something inspiring, or something as simple as you had some time on your hands because of COVID?
Cecilia Leung: Yeah, I’ve actually wanted to write this book since I was 16 years old. I loved reading Chicken Soup for the Soul when I was a teenager, and I remember at that time, I hoped that they had one specifically for accountants so I could learn more about, not only what accountants do, but an accountant’s life, to get some inspiration. That was almost three decades ago, and I kept waiting for a book like this to come out, and it still hasn’t.
I decided to do it myself. Over the years, I just kept on fine-tuning it, and it became clearer what I wanted to accomplish in this book, which is the one we have today.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you said, “Okay, I want to write this book,” even if it was long ago, you might have had an idea of the book you wanted to write in your head but a lot of times, during the writing process, sometimes just by digging into some of the subjects a little bit more or the interviews you did, there will be major breakthroughs and learnings. Do you have any of these breakthroughs or learnings along your writing journey?
Cecilia Leung: Definitely, a lot. Writing this book has been a life-changing experience for me, because it not only got me out of my comfort zone, gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own life and career journey as an accountant, it also challenged me because I wasn’t a writer first of all, and English is my second language.
It took me a million rounds of editing to really say what I wanted to say and also, to find all these incredible accountants in my field. Initially, I started where I know, I started in my network, and then, the more conversations I had, the more incredible accountants that I came across, it actually became a challenge because how do you put all these people in one book? It’s definitely been a life-changing journey.
Drew Appelbaum: When you were writing the book, in your mind, who were you writing the book for? Is this a book for established accounting professionals, or is this for folks who have always thought about or are thinking about becoming a CPA?
Cecilia Leung: I’ve gone through a whole process of that as well. This book was initially written for the young professionals that I mentor, to share with them my advice, to help them navigate their journey because I remember how clueless and overwhelmed I was when I first started out.
I gradually expanded the scope to bring in 19 other extraordinary leaders in different accounting disciplines to share their journey and inspiring stories. They talk about–in their own words–their back story, what inspires them, what influences them, the challenges and obstacles they had to overcome to get to where they are today.
The reason why I wrote this book is that I am a CPA, I love what I do, and I appreciate accountants who do this work. Really, the world of accounting is so fascinating, and yet, we don’t get a lot of spotlight. Think about it, there are not even enough books and movies that humanize accountants and we often get so misunderstood, and frankly, I think most people don’t really know what we do.
Usually, when people ask you, “What do you do?” When you tell them you’re an accountant, they instantly don’t really want to ask anymore because they don’t know what to say, or they think, hey, you might be boring, or they start asking you about taxes as if that’s the only thing accountants do.
If you really understand what accountants do, there are actually many creative, innovative, brilliant minds out there who are accountants–building accounting systems, building, and leading companies, busting fraud, catching the bad guys, teaching personal finance, doing financial planning, and so, so much more, which is exactly what I talk about in this book.
So, this is really for my fellow accountants, and also, those who aspire to be accountants, and also, those who have loved ones who are accountants, because all the stories in this book will give readers a better understanding of what accountants do, and help them have a better appreciation of their work and their impact. I think that accountants really change the world, and I am so proud of all of us.
Telling Stories through Numbers
Drew Appelbaum: I love that you mentioned that because I wanted to ask you about that. If you had to pick your top one, or just a top few, because I know you just mentioned a few, what do you think are some of the things that people would be surprised that accountants do?
Cecilia Leung: Yeah, a lot of things are beyond numbers. First of all, we tell stories through numbers and that’s fascinating. I think also, we use numbers to bust frauds.
I think there’s a lot of things beyond numbers. Let’s say, for example, people think we just close the books, or we help people apply for loans, but it is beyond that. Because, when you think about it, a fraud case, like the Madoff case, the impact of it really caused suffering and produced a massively negative ripple effect. Also, when you think about what I mentioned earlier, about helping businesses with loan approval, that really helps build a stronger economy and helps people with the opportunity for a better life and better future.
I think it’s not really surprising, but I think people might be surprised by the impact that accountants have and the extent of all the work that they’re involved in.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig into your career journey. You bounced around in a few different positions, you were in different countries for a while, can you talk about where you started and what led you to your happiest days as an accountant?
Cecilia Leung: I think when I first graduated from college, I graduated with a business and finance degree, and frankly, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I thought, adding a CPA credentials to my resume would open up a lot more opportunities, and I’m so glad I did that, and it definitely did open up a lot of opportunities.
I think at the beginning, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I just kept doing whatever comes my way. I worked at the big four, I worked for all the global companies, and frankly, just took all the opportunity that came my way and focused on building skills and experience.
I’m definitely at the best place in my career where I am today, running my own firm because it’s where I can put everything together, all my experience and skills, and be able to really make an impact and help businesses grow.
Drew Appelbaum: What, if anything, would this book have changed in your career path, had you had when you were first starting out?
Cecilia Leung: I think this book wouldn’t change anything I have done, it might have changed the approach, but I think it would definitely change how I feel. Because growing up, I always thought that there is an answer to everything, and there’s a path that I needed to follow, but then, I realized that a career is never a linear path, and it has a lot of twists and turns that can take you different ways and places that you at least expect it.
I specifically remember, many years ago, I worked super hard and I was up for promotion, and I thought, “Wow, if I made this, this is going to define my career, and I will be so successful.” When it didn’t happen, I was devastated, and thought my career was over, and it obviously hasn’t been the case. I left the job and something else so much greater came up.
If you read the book, there are definitely stories like that. People who, at the time, when they got laid off, when something happened beyond what they thought would happen, and they really didn’t have the perspective and insight about what they should do, or what they should think about. If I had this book, it would have definitely given me a lot of perspective and insights, and wisdom that I didn’t have as a young person.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned it earlier but the book itself talks about yourself and your life and your career, but it’s also a series of interviews with some really powerful folks throughout the financial world. I want to ask, how did you pick who you really wanted to talk to, and whose stories you really wanted to feature in the book?
Cecilia Leung: It definitely has been a long process because I spoke to at least 100 people. And yes, a lot of them are amazing but I really had to be very selective in terms of who to include in this book. People kept saying, “Yeah, that might be book two or three.” Oh my god, this book already took two years, so we will see, but yeah, there are definitely a lot of amazing people.
Also, I wanted to find people who share my vision of helping the younger generations of young professionals because this is not really about us. It is about us sharing the journey, our journey, and advice and wisdom to help the next generations. I wanted to work with people or feature people that share the same vision.
I love all the stories, and everyone has such a unique journey to share. There’s one story, for example, I think resonated with me the most, which is Andrew Ly. He is the CEO of Sugar Bowl Bakery and he is the classic American success story. He was an immigrant and he was born during the Vietnam War, so he came to America with nothing, and he shared about all of the obstacles and challenges that he had to go through. Then, eventually, he went to study accounting and used those skills to help build the business.
I think a lot of times when young people look at successful people like him, they think, “Oh they must have all the connections in that world,” and all of that, but no, really a lot of people went through a deep struggle, but they were still able to succeed and make something out of themselves.
Accountants are Fascinating
Drew Appelbaum: What were some of the most surprising things you learned from these stories? Or did anything really unexpected come out?
Cecilia Leung: I always knew accountants were fascinating. I’m surprised that not enough movies and books are written about them because, when you think about it, the medical field, Silicon Valley, or the lawyers all have a lot of TV dramas or books written about them. For most of us, we at least feel that we know what they do.
For accountants, there are so many fascinating stories that are not even featured. I am not surprised but I think most people, they might be surprised because it hasn’t been out there.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, also in these stories, did you find any common themes amongst them from the people you interviewed?
Cecilia Leung: Yeah, a common theme I think from all of these stories is that nothing is as easy as it seems. I think back to when I was a young person, I always thought if there is one linear path, if I do this I would be successful, but that’s not always the case. Like I mentioned before, a career is never a linear path. There are so many twists and turns, and when you look at all of these people’s stories, that’s exactly what happened.
One guy, he mentioned when he graduated with an accounting degree, that all the big four wanted him and so he felt like he was a big hotshot. Then when the economy tanked, and then he got laid off, and with all of his great credentials, he couldn’t find a job. So, he ended up doing all of this labor-intensive work, picking up garbage on the highway and all of these different things.
I think the common thread is really that people go through different challenges and obstacles and even with that, you are still able to have a successful career at the end of the day.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, besides the book to help aspiring CPAs or younger folks in the industry, you also do some mentoring. Can you talk about the mentoring, and then maybe, did you have any mentors that have helped you come up along the way?
Cecilia Leung: Yeah, I definitely have great mentors and I can say that without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Mentorship means a lot to me because when I was in college, I volunteered at a community center in China Town, and I was a receptionist. So, I got to talk to a lot of people who were in and out, and mostly young kids from immigrants and underprivileged families. One day, this kid asked me, “Can you teach me how to get into a university?” I asked, “What do you mean? Do you need tutoring or career counseling?” Then he said, “No, I know you’re also an immigrant like me and I wanted to know what you have done to get to university.” I didn’t think much about it and after that, he would come to me for questions, and sometimes we would meet for coffee, and we stayed in touch even when I moved to a different country to work.
When he graduated, almost eight years later, he sent me a note and it said, “Thank you so much for being my mentor all these years. When I moved to this country, I thought my life wasn’t going anywhere, and you made me see that I could become something and so much more.” Then it made me realize that all these years, he never really said I was his mentor, but I have been mentoring him without realizing it.
Whenever I hear something like that, it really motivates me to do this work more because sharing your knowledge and experience could really help people and change someone’s life.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what do you think the end goal of the book is for readers? Do you hope they take some steps after reading the book?
Cecilia Leung: I hope that they get some perspective and insights that they did not have. When I think back about my career, at many points, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Obviously, having a mentor or having this book, you’re still going to come across challenges and obstacles. It is not going to solve all your problems, but at least you know that there are certain things that need to happen, and it gives you more confidence to know that, yes, you will have obstacles, you will have to overcome these, people have done it before, and if we can do it, so can you.
I think it just gives people more confidence to be able to navigate and, hopefully, the future doesn’t seem so frightening to them because, yes, when you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience and knowledge, all the uncertainty just seems so frightening.
Forget about young people, for me as a business owner, and when I look at the journey ahead for me, sometimes, I feel frightened. But, of course, I have mentors who guide me to give me that confidence that many people have done it. Many people have gone through it and if they can do it, so can you.
I think using that as a reference point and as an inspiration, really helped. I hope that young professionals should really be able to get some perspective and navigate their journey with intention and give them more confidence and clarity.
Drew Appelbaum: Besides the book, you also built a website. Could you talk about what sort of resources are available on the website to readers and listeners?
Cecilia Leung: Yes, so the website is dearaccountantbook.com. Currently, people can download a sample chapter to get a sense of the book. I also share one story, which is my story. I also created a reader’s guide because I know a lot of people that I mentor love books and they get together and have book club discussions and all of that. I created that guide to give them some questions to reflect on and talk about all these amazing individuals because there’s a lot to reflect on.
For example, there is one story about a whistleblower, right? He was so scared, he didn’t know what to do. Obviously, he was a young guy himself in the story and he came across this fraud, and he was afraid that no one would believe him. At that moment, what should he do? He was so afraid to talk to other people.
I suggest questions like that and ask the readers, obviously this person does it. Now, if you were in the same situation, what would you do? There are a lot of reflective questions like that.
Drew Appelbaum: Well Cece, you know we just touched on the surface of the book here. I want to say that just writing a book, which actually talks about real-life stories about what happens in the professional life of an accountant and your career is no small feat, so congratulations on being published.
Cecilia Leung: Thank you.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you know, I have one question left, it is the hot seat question–if readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Cecilia Leung: Wow, thank you so much for this question. Hopefully, they will take away a lot of things–the importance of education, the importance of perseverance, and all of the different things that one can do with an accounting degree, and skills, and the magic of numbers. But if there is only one thing, I would like for them to take away that no one can accomplish anything significant by oneself, so mentors are very, very important. I have written this book because I wish I had such a book, a book with not just one mentor but 20 virtual mentors here, 20 amazing and inspiring stories.
Drew Appelbaum: Cece, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Dear Accountant, and you can find it on Amazon. Cece, besides checking out the book and the website, are there other places where people can connect with you?
Cecilia Leung: Yeah, I am active on LinkedIn. I love connecting with people, so feel free to connect me on LinkedIn and also check out the book website. I mentioned earlier the website address is dearaccountantbook.com. There are a lot of resources there and I’ll continue to add more as we move along.
Drew Appelbaum: Great, well thank you so much for coming on the show today, Cece, and best of luck with your new book.
Cecilia Leung: I had so much fun talking to you, Drew, thanks for having me.