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Why Adult Development Theory Matters for Your Accounting Career

Gusto Editors  
Employees sitting at conference table and discussing during business meeting.

Do you know how to continue developing professionally and personally while enhancing your accounting abilities? 

Here at Gusto, we aim to supply accountants with the best tools for professional development and success. That’s why we partnered with CPA Academy to deliver an exceptional webinar all about adult development theory and how to enhance your accounting abilities. Our webinar titled, “Become the Driver of Your Career Development,” featured Amber Setter, executive coach and inactive CPA, and Dr. Cara Miller, owner of Inquiry Partners, a management consulting firm that focuses on developmental coaching and adaptive consulting. You can watch the entire webinar here.

In this article, we share invaluable insights from Amber and Dr. Miller regarding adult development theory, how to grow in your accounting career, and developing expertise in accounting and advising.

Theory of adult development

Many people hold the misconception that people stop developing after the age of 25, which is around the time when a human’s frontal cortex fully matures. However, despite our biological brain development, humans continue developing and maturing throughout their lives. Dr. Miller noted that humans’ internal capacities grow and affect our abilities:

“We continue to grow and change after age 25. It’s not just a growth in skill development, but it’s actually the potential for growth in capacity or abilities. … We grow in internal capacity to see more of our abilities, more mastery of choice, [and] more options.”

Dr. Cara Miller
Male employee working in office among colleagues.

As humans continue developing, they grow in their capacity to take on more and expand their capabilities. Amber noted that demands on accountants are often incredibly high, and they need a higher capacity for growth in their skills. She observed that accountants had to face new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

“What comes up when … I think of modern-day accountants is that the demand on their psychological resources has been very high. We saw this with the pandemic. Life got really complicated. … It was like, ‘How do we service these small businesses that are really up against some huge challenges in the world?’”

Amber Setter

Accountants had to take on new advisory roles for their small business clients during the COVID-19 shutdown, but even changes much smaller than a global crisis can create a need for accountants to take on new roles to help their clients. Numerous businesses needed assistance with employee management. Through adult development, accountants can take on new roles and master their abilities to assist business clients during difficult times. 

How do we grow in our accounting careers?

Adult development is critically vital for continuing to grow in accounting abilities, and development is about internal growth rather than just intelligence:

“[Adult development] isn’t necessarily a correlation to age or IQ. … That doesn’t mean that necessarily you have grown [in the] interior to become rounded and steady in your leadership. … At a high level, adult development theory is really just a framework for how consciousness structures itself. This framework is really a bridge between consciousness and self-awareness and awareness of others and their performance. When one grows from one level to the next, you’re able to take on greater responsibility for your own thinking and feeling.”

Amber Setter

When you grow internally, you can bring more self-awareness into your life, which you can then use to recognize your own responsibility and control. Regardless of external circumstances, you can continue developing when recognizing your own agency.

“[You can] shift from being a victim of circumstance or a feeling that life is happening to you, and you learn how to see yourself as the source of your own results. There’s less energy spent complaining about changes in the external world. … As we grow from one level to the next, [we can] really pivot with ease and grace for [ourselves] and others. I believe [that] really frees us up to retain a lot more information and to see much further into the future, which ultimately enhances one’s leadership effectiveness.”

Amber Setter

When you focus on your own role in your growth and progress, you enhance your ability to lead and advise your clients. Dr. Miller observed that an important part of accessing growth is being willing to enter a space where you don’t feel comfortable. When you’re feeling uncomfortable with new challenges, you’re shifting into being able to take on more complex problems. 

“The temptation when things get a little off-kilter for us … is to think we’re sort of out of alignment or we’re out of our center of gravity. … Psychologists [say] that disequilibrium—or that out-of-center gravity feeling—means most likely we’re transitioning … from a smaller sort of universe of possibility into a larger universe of possibility. … We’re moving to a different atmosphere that … can tolerate a different kind of complexity, or it allows us to exercise a different form of capacity.”

Dr. Cara Miller

When you enter a new space outside of your comfort zone, you can take on new roles and challenges as an accountant. Rather than staying within an area where you already feel confident, such as bookkeeping, you can take on new tasks to grow professionally. Although it may be challenging for you to enter a new professional space where you feel uncomfortable, you’ll develop new abilities to enhance your career and improve your ability to serve clients. 

Developing expertise in your accounting and advising

As an accountant, you likely want to offer clients expert insights and assistance to grow and strengthen their businesses. An important aspect of growing in your accounting expertise and ability to lead is recognizing the root of your expertise. 

A woman is presenting on their business concepts.

“As we grow as leaders or as we grow as adults toward more complexity, toward more capacity, toward more creat[ivity] and moving out of that reactive space, we can [recognize] … what is it that your expertise is rooted in.”

Dr. Cara Miller

You need to recognize the foundation of your expertise to move out of a reactive state to a creative one. A reactive state means that you’re reacting to external circumstances, which results in fear and limitations. With a creative state, you recognize that you’re in control of your future and can develop personally and professionally through your own agency. 

Accountants’ expertise lies in asking the right questions for assisting clients and problem solving:  

“Our expertise is rooted in the structure of the way that we go about asking questions or making assessments. [From] there, you could start to assign good solid principles for your own philosophy of assessing a question that comes up or solving a problem that comes up. … Your expertise as you move later in adult development or later in leader development starts to become rooted more in the structure of how you see problems [and] how you ask questions.”

Dr. Cara Miller

A critical part of adult development and growing as an accountant is recognizing that you don’t have all of the answers for your clients, but you can ask the right questions to make assessments and come up with solutions. Amber noted that accountants can reposition themselves from being just bookkeepers to becoming advisors. They can work with clients to find the best solutions: 

“I think [it’s] often [a] necessary shift for an accountant to go from, ‘I’m an accountant with all the answers,’ to, ‘I’m an advisor of my clients. There are certain rooted expertise that I do have and fundamental understanding, but I also … learn how to ask key questions [and] really unearth some of the challenges of what’s going on in the client’s financial situation or different things going on in their business to help them.’”

Amber Setter

When you work with clients to develop the best answers, they’ll gain more confidence in your work. They’ll see how you created financial solutions and trust your expertise. 

“[Working with clients to come up with solutions] has an added bonus of demonstrating some transparency about how you get to the answers. You’re actually teaching your clients some of your principles or some of your philosophy so that they grow too. … When experts are willing to open up their expertise to show the machinery in a modest, appropriate way behind how they make their assessments or how they conduct their audits, [clients] … [have] higher confidence in those experts.”

Dr. Cara Miller

Expertise isn’t about having all of the right answers for clients—it’s about working with clients to advise them effectively. 

Learn more about adult development theory

People continue developing throughout their lives, and as an accountant, you can continue growing as a leader and expert people advisor for your clients. Although you may experience discomfort when taking on new challenges as an advisor, you can grow and take on new problems. You can position yourself as an expert and improve your advising skills by working with clients to find the best financial solutions. Also, be sure to check out Part Two of this webinar article series.

If you’re ready to learn more about how to enhance your ability to advise clients, consider becoming a people advisor through Gusto. Your clients need more than an accountant. They need an advisor. As a people advisor, you combine your financial expertise with people-focused advising. Gusto has the tools to help you do just that. Learn more about People Advisory.

Updated: April 4, 2022

Gusto Editors
Gusto Editors


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