To Be a Good Leader You Have to Wake Up

CEO and Founder of Conscious Public Accountants, Amber Setter, was recently interviewed by Gusto for Partners. The article below was originally published by Gusto for Partners on September 20, 2022.

One of the easiest ways to spot someone who lacks consciousness at work is to look at their calendar. If there is no white space, that is someone lacks the necessary time to be alive and aware of their surroundings. 

I don’t mean they aren’t sentient. They’re still a thinking, curious being. But, operating on all cylinders, in an environment that’s kept them that way a long time, the muscle for self-reflection has atrophied. They’re doing, doing, doing and then “unwinding” by scrolling through social media as they drift off to sleep. Which is to say, not unwinding.

If they don’t have time to reflect, can’t step away from the problem to see it differently, and can’t view things from a higher altitude, they cannot, by definition, lead consciously. And that’s a big problem for accountants who manage others because it keeps everyone in that cycle. Especially you.

Why staying conscious is such a struggle in our industry

Finding time for awareness is one of our greatest modern-day challenges. And for accountants, there’s so much work to get done and people feel they have to work back to back to back. It affects everyone, and when I coach people in senior positions, like partners or executives, and they need to design a new process, they really struggle to think critically. They struggle to deal with complicated, technical issues and problems that have never existed before. And it’s because they have zero white space on their calendar, and by association, in their brain. 

As they say, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

This is all perpetuated by busy seasons and the cyclical nature of accounting. Nobody gets time to reflect. They go from “That was terrible, I can’t do this anymore” right into the next cycle and bury the discomfort by busying themselves. To break free, people need a container, a mental space, to contemplate. 

As an example, when I coach people, it’s one hour a week where they need to come to the conversation to drive the agenda. I was hired by someone who operates primarily as a sole proprietor but has a couple of staff in the office. That person had been trained to excel at tactics, and was always planning new ways to work on those tactics. But they weren’t holding themselves responsible for pausing, and asking why they weren’t progressing toward more of their goals. 

When they finally realized that clients’ needs were met before setting healthy boundaries for themselves, things clicked. They started coming to our sessions saying, “I want to be more effective as I lead my team. I need to get better at having healthier boundaries. And I need to be taking care of myself. I keep saying exercising is important. Why do I keep not doing it?”

The answer to almost all their blockage was their totally blocked-out, zero-white-space calendar. It seems small, but they started reserving time for things that mattered weeks in advance, and not caving to client pressure. They realized the downtime was their recharge time. Without that time, there was no strategic thinking. There wasn’t a space to envision their future. There was no being conscious at work. 

After six months they shared this with me:

“I clarified what I want for myself. I learned to put my needs ahead of clients. I now recognize their needs are endless and I have to have boundaries. I doubled my happiness and billed $80,000 more in a year. I no longer let toxic people hang around, no matter how much money they bring. I let go of the traditional office model I lived in for 25 years. I no longer get beat up by the workload or the bureaucracy of the regulatory environment. Getting worked up doesn’t make a difference at the end of the day.”

The best time to start work like that was six months ago. But the next best time? It’s today.

Let the consciousness back in

For some, maybe the answer is hiring a coach. For many more, it’s even simpler. It’s spending part of every Saturday at a coffee shop with a journal and answering open-ended questions. Start anywhere. Start with questions you find on Google. It’s stopping, pausing, and looking within to say, “What does today’s version of me need the most?” 

And then it’s making space to take new action—very intentional movement—toward the life you envision for yourself. If you need to exercise, calendar it and find an accountability partner to meet you at the gym. If you are struggling to make a change in your business, dedicate time in your schedule for the project and find a thought partner to join you. We are really good at canceling commitments to ourselves but we rarely cancel our commitments to others. Make space to let the consciousness come flooding back in. It’s what’s truly going to let you be a great leader.

Energy Is Currency: How to Spend It Wisely

Do you want to know how to enhance your vitality, have more peace of mind, and cultivate a positive emotional climate? The value of rest is underestimated in our culture, but it’s essential to a happy and productive life. 

Getting to Know Yourself and the Prioritization of Tasks

The first step to spending your energy wisely is to get to know yourself more deeply. You need to do two very important things as you start making changes. The first is to actually track how you’re spending your time and how that is affecting you. The second is to know which activities are good investments for you.

“We wake up with 24 hours in a day. That’s not going to change. That’s a fixed budget. How do we think of our energy as a currency, and how do we cut out low yields?”

– Amber Setter

As you go over your schedule, you’ll want to make room for positive or “high-yield” energy activities. These are activities that will enhance your energy. They are worth your time—even if you don’t think you have time—because they will make you more effective in all areas of your life.

Good investment activities will vary from person to person, but the common theme should be that they create the right conditions for you to thrive. They bring you joy, give you rest, enhance your relationships, or help you create and sustain wealth. If you look at your life holistically, you will see that having good relationships, proper rest and nutrition, and joyful activities will help you thrive on all levels, including in your professional life.

Think of yourself as a plant. If you are the plant, you need the right conditions in order to grow new, strong, healthy leaves. You need strong roots, good soil, the right amount of water, sunshine, air, and perhaps some gentle care and attention. You also need to be free of pests, weeds, and other irritants that could drain your life force.

Every plant is unique and has different requirements. You are unique and have individual requirements. Nevertheless, there are universally appealing investment activities that you might consider. These might be:

  • Going to a yoga class once a week
  • Having dinner with your partner every night without answering emails or calls
  • Watching your favorite fantasy show, which helps you disconnect from your daily life
  • Taking half an hour in the morning to journal
  • Turning your phone on silent and going for a walk during your lunch break
  • Hiring a mentor, therapist, or coach for support
  • Identifying energy leaks and drains

A big part of energy management is to look at where your life force is leaking away. There are a few ways that can happen.

Identify Unfinished Business

One big drain is the weight of unfinished business or tasks that we’re avoiding. This can affect us consciously, perhaps by keeping us awake at night or by creating a loop of worry because we just don’t know how to tackle the task. It can also affect us unconsciously by creating a low-level hum of background anxiety that we just can’t seem to shake. When we carve out the time to look at our energy, we have a chance to step back and see if we have things hanging over our heads.

“You’re taking a big step back. You’re using your higher [-level] strategic thinking skills and looking down, and you can see [that] maybe there [are] priorities that need to shift. You can also notice … the things you’re avoiding. Usually, we avoid things that we’re scared of. Maybe you haven’t done [them] before, maybe they’re too overwhelming, [maybe] they’re too big of a task, but then we avoid them. And when we avoid them, they’re the things that keep us up at night.”

– Amber Setter

Don’t beat yourself up for having unfinished tasks. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You truly don’t have to tackle everything on your own. So, who can you reach out to for advice? Who can you delegate things to? Do you need to break the project down into manageable tasks, so you’re making progress without getting overwhelmed?

How can you get your unfinished business off your to-do list so you can conserve energy for what’s most important to you?

Manage “Overwhelm” with Effective To-Do Lists

What happens when you cross one item off your to-do list? It’s replaced by something else, of course! The fact is to-do lists are never-ending. So, trying to tackle everything all at once will set yourself up for failure. Instead of creating a giant list and getting overwhelmed, prioritize. Break it down into smaller chunks so you don’t waste precious energy resources on stress and overwhelm, which can drain you of focus and stifle your problem-solving abilities.

Have a running master list of everything you need to get done, but then have a small daily or weekly list. When it comes to managing your daily schedule, pick three things you need to get done. This forces you to prioritize and gives you a sense of accomplishment as you cross off tasks. 

Know your limits. Know how much you can realistically do before getting overwhelmed. You can also use a special planner or journal to keep you focused on the bigger picture. The Best Self Journal is a great option. 

Take Breaks

While you may love the rush of working for hours on end on a project, taking breaks actually helps boost your productivity. Amber cited an article published in The New York Times called “Why You Hate Work.” It was about a study that compared two groups of CPAs, one who worked without breaks and another that didn’t: 

“[They had] people work for 90 minutes uninterrupted and then [others who] took 10 to 15-minute brain breaks. … Then they took one full hour break in the late afternoon. … The results were surprising and not surprising. They found that those who worked in a focused manner, [but who took breaks] and left work earlier in the day actually produced much greater results. They got more done in less time, and this group also said they felt less stressed out. [Plus,] their turnover rate was much lower.”

– Amber Setter

Set a timer on your phone and make yourself get up and walk around on your break. Try not to use your break to scroll on social media or web surf.

Ritualizing Your Wellness Routines

In a world full of options, many of us suffer from decision fatigue. There are seemingly endless choices that we have to make on a daily basis, from what to have for breakfast to which detergent to buy to where to send our kids to school. Decision-making is energetically costly, so the more you can eliminate the need to make decisions, the better.

One way to do this is by ritualizing your self-care activities and creating routines. Chances are you don’t think twice about brushing your teeth in the morning. So how about having a habit of always working out on Mondays or always journaling at night? 

“Energy can be expanded and renewed by having rituals in your life. Meeting with [your]self [can be] a ritual. Always exercising the same day [is a ritual]. [Taking] the same class [is a] ritual. Always having a meeting with a team member is a ritual. You don’t have to spend energy thinking about when you’re going to do it. You just have some things, some structures, that support your performance. [They] are automatic. [They] get done quickly, and [you are] steadily achieving whatever result you desire.”

– Amber Setter

The great thing about a ritual is that you don’t have much time for excuses or procrastination. You don’t debate whether or not you will work out—you just do it. However, you can still make it fun and pleasurable! Go for your run at a beautiful park and listen to your favorite podcast. Have your herbal tea in your favorite mug. The less your rituals feel like drudgery, the better.

Conserving and Cultivating Energy In All Areas

From a holistic point of view, all areas of our lives are connected. Your personal life affects your professional life and vice versa, your physical health affects your mental health, and so on. When looking for energy drains and ways to enhance your energy, look at all areas of your life. 

You may wish to get a journal and reflect on the four primary areas of energy: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Physical Energy

This is the most straightforward area of energy, given that our culture places high importance on physical self-care. These are the basics: fitness, nutrition, and sleep. 

These are some questions to help you enhance your physical energy:

  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I getting enough rest?
  • Am I exercising enough?
  • How does my body feel?
  • Are my muscles tight or sore? Do I need to stretch?
  • What ritual or habit can I put in place to support my physical energy?

Mental Energy

As knowledge workers, your mental energy is one of your most valuable assets. You need boundaries in place to protect your intellectual capacities, which are the basis of your job. As discussed, taking mental breaks is important to keep you operating at peak performance. Eliminating distractions is also key, as it often takes longer to complete a task when you’ve been interrupted. You should also consider your own energy peaks and dips and schedule your projects around them if possible. Use time-blocking to set boundaries around projects and eliminate mentally intensive decision-making.

Here are a few questions to help you enhance your mental energy:

  • How often am I taking breaks at work?
  • When do I feel most sharp and awake, and can I do my biggest projects at that time?
  • What distractions are there in my work environment, and how can I eliminate them?
  • Which projects require the least mental energy? Can I do those at the end of the day?
  • What are some fun activities I can do that require little to no mental energy?

Emotional Energy

Amber describes this energy as the “climate within yourself.” It’s not always possible to control the climate, although thoughts and behaviors do influence our emotional health. Rather, it’s more important to be aware of them so we can manage them better.

“Do you have a sense of what you’re feeling through[out] the day? … [Imagine] the emotional climate within yourself. Is it stormy? Is it sunny? How does it feel, and what activates you in certain ways? And do those things serve you? Are there certain things that nourish you and have you feeling better? Or [are there] things that are draining you?”

– Amber Setter

When assessing emotional energy, make sure to count the positives in your life. They’re often overlooked, which leads to pessimism or an unnecessary desire to have/be/do more.

Questions to help you enhance your emotional energy:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What triggers me? 
  • What drains my energy?
  • What practices/activities/environments/people make me feel good?
  • What practices/activities/environments/people make me feel bad?
  • Is there anything in my life that I would be better off not having? How can I do that?
  • Is there anything in life that I need more of? How can I get that?
  • Who can I ask for support, encouragement, or advice?

Spiritual Energy

You don’t have to be a “spiritual person” to enhance your spiritual energy. Amber explained that this energy is more akin to values and higher purpose. You might value authenticity, family, service to others, and so on. When you are living your truth and in alignment with your values, you are enhancing your spiritual energy.

Here are questions to help you enhance your emotional energy:

  • What are my core values?
  • Am I living in alignment with those values?
  • What areas of my life are most important to me?
  • How much energy is going to each of those areas?

Learn More About Spending Your Energy Wisely

Mastering your energy involves taking control of all areas of your life: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. You should choose activities that bring you high yield returns, such as increased performance at work, better relationships, deeper sleep, and a more positive mindset. When it comes to work, sometimes striving more and trying harder can actually work against you. You need to take breaks to conserve your mental energy and have an enjoyable experience. Take the time to sit down with yourself and assess your schedule. Cut out leaks and drains, such as unfinished business and an overwhelming to-do list.

Once you master energy management, your return on energy investment can truly skyrocket. To learn more about how to live a happier and healthier life, check out our other articles based on the same webinar: “What Is Accountant Burnout?” and “Managing Your Energy During Burnout Season.” 

This article was originally published on, to read this article in full, please visit Gusto for more detailed resources!

The Great Regret Nation: Why Job Hopping Hasn’t Fixed Accounting Burnout

This article was published on May 3, 2022 on Gusto.

Last year, I had one of my coaching clients come to me and say, “I’m done. I don’t want to be an accountant anymore.” She wasn’t alone. 

In 2021, an average of 3.98 million U.S. workers quit their jobs each month, smashing all records since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started keeping track. And while the BLS doesn’t publish data on accounting specifically, it’s telling that the quit rate for the category of “professional and business services” was noticeably higher than other domains. 

Many accounting professionals have been (rightly) questioning the norms of our profession—the long hours, exhaustion, and poor mental health. When the opportunity presented itself, they quit. But people who switched jobs in 2021 aren’t necessarily any happier now and, in some cases, feel even worse than they did before. What happened? 

I see it time and time again in my coaching practice: If you change your environment without addressing the underlying issues, the underlying issues follow you. Or, as the adage goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” 

So how do you fix your burnout in a way that’s healthy and sustainable? Let’s explore how to change jobs the right way. Whether you’re considering leaving a job or not, I hope it’ll help you too. 

Resigned to this: How we got here 

I don’t want to say I told you so, but I saw the great resignation coming. In October 2020, I wrote an article for the California Society of CPAs where I warned that, as accounting firms contracted in the wake of Covid—cutting salaries, laying people off, and freezing learning budgets—we would risk losing people. Firm leaders were acting out of fear, but those fears were misplaced. Instead of collapsing, we were more needed than ever. 

Meanwhile, many accounting professionals felt a disconnect between the essential work they were doing and how they were being treated. Their firms might have been thriving, but as individuals, they were barely surviving. They were putting in more hours while also having to navigate the disruptions to their personal lives—managing childcare, worrying about elderly parents, or grappling with poor mental health. Their organizations didn’t hold them when they really needed to be held, so they looked for an escape. 

Quitting can feel like it’ll solve all of your problems, but without deep introspection, it rarely does. Here’s what I recommend instead. 

1. Stop, drop, and identify the discomfort 

When you’re feeling unhappy at work, that’s a signal. I like to think of it as a smoke alarm going off. A smoke alarm can mean a lot of different things—maybe your house is on fire, or maybe you just burnt a piece of toast. Your job is to get curious about the feeling and identify where it’s coming from.  

Take some time to consider what exactly is making you uncomfortable in your current job. (You might want to journal about it, if that’s your thing, or talk it over with a trusted friend.) Consider the following questions:

  • What am I doing that energizes me?
  • What am I doing that drains me?
  • Am I engaging in any toxic behaviors, like people-pleasing, perfectionism, or controlling tendencies?
  • What can I no longer tolerate?
  • Why am I tolerating it? (Hint: What are you scared of?)
  • What do I want to feel instead?
  • Where do I want to take my career? My life?
  • What experiences will help me to grow? Are they available in my current position? 
  • What support do I need?
  • Who can I speak with in confidence about these things?
  • Who has the authority to make the changes I need?

You might find that your discomfort is coming from something small and fixable. Or maybe there is a much larger issue at play—one that does warrant quitting your job. Either way, it’s important to take the time to slow down and figure out what’s really going on inside of you before you take any drastic action.  

2. Choose something to run towards, instead of running away

Once you figure out what isn’t working, it’s time to determine what you actually want. If you run away from discomfort but never take the time to figure out what to run towardsyou’ll never find the fulfillment you’re seeking. 

One helpful framework you can use to help identify that “something” is from a book I love called The Big Leap. Author Gay Hendricks lays out four “zones” you can operate from at work: your zone of incompetence, your zone of competence, your zone of excellence, and your zone of genius. 

Most accounting professionals get stuck in the zone of excellence. And this isn’t necessarily a bad place to be—you excel at your job, get paid well, and people respect your expertise. But at the same time, you can hear your inner voice saying, “I know there’s something more.” Your zone of genius, on the other hand, is the highest expression of yourself. It’s where you’re living your values and doing work that inspires you.

I once coached a compliance tax partner who was a quintessential example of someone operating in his zone of excellence. He excelled in his career and made good money but came to me feeling disenchanted. Through coaching, he came to the realization that it wasn’t that he didn’t like accounting, rather, he was inspired to make the practice of accounting better. He needed a new role that would meet him where he was. 

So he made a big leap—he quit his job as a tax partner without knowing where he would work next. What he did know: He had a vision for the progressive firms of the future. This person wasn’t running away from what he didn’t like, rather, he was being pulled by a sense of purpose. It didn’t take him long to move into a new job where he is leading a CPA firm alliance and collaborating with members on how to improve their firms. (In fact, he’ll be speaking about this transition this summer at the AICPA EDGE conference: My Journey to Partner: Why I Left and What Could Have Been Done to Keep Me.) 

If you’re feeling stuck in your current role, consider—what would it take for you to leave your  zone of excellence and fully step into your zone of genius? Is there a cause you’re passionate about, a type of work that inspires you, or a long-held dream you’ve been too scared to try? The answers are inside of you. All you need to do is quiet the external noise and tune into the longings of your soul.  

3. Ask for what you need to thrive

This next part might feel scariest—but it’s also the most crucial. Here’s the point where you need to talk to your employer about what you’ve been discovering. 

This is where I notice the accounting professionals I work with struggle the most. They are scared to ask for what they need. Underneath the fear may be a limiting belief they will be perceived as “weak” or “unworthy” of having their needs met. My response is always: “Do you realize what it costs to replace you?” It’s in your firm’s best interest to keep you happy—this is even more true if you’re a senior-level person. You doing the work you love is more than altruistic; it results in you operating at your highest potential. 

Still, it can be a nerve-wracking conversation, so do what you can to set yourself up for success. First, breathe. As Hendricks says in The Big Leap, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” While conversing with my colleague Jamie Greene on the topic of anxiety and mental health, I learned that breath calms one’s anxiety faster than a Xanax or a glass of wine. (Who said CPE can’t be fun?) 

Next, you might want to send your boss a note explaining what you’ve been thinking about and asking to schedule some time to chat further. You might consider saying something like:

  • I have noticed I no longer enjoy________.
  • What I would like to do instead is ________.
  • What do you need from my current role?
  • What will the business need from my future performance?
  • How might we align so that both of our needs are met?

In many cases, your boss will be amenable to the idea. Still, there are workplaces that will not be supportive of your growth, or that simply aren’t able to provide what you’re looking for. If you’ve asked for what you need and your workplace isn’t willing or able to explore it, don’t take it personally. Instead, see it as a gift that you are being rerouted to something even better. Because you are. 

If you decide to leave, you can take what you’ve learned about yourself and bring it on the job hunt. Remember, you’re evaluating potential employers as much as they’re evaluating you. Make sure to communicate your needs and determine whether they’ll be able to meet them before you accept a new opportunity. 

4. Look within before you leap

The pandemic put accounting professionals under unique new pressures—many of which haven’t gone away entirely. Understandably, the great resignation became the natural outpouring of their pent-up exhaustion and frustration with the profession. But those who didn’t take the time to reflect on what they needed to thrive may now feel regret. 

Switching jobs doesn’t necessarily have to be a last resort. However, I do think it’s important to really understand what you need and how you might get it before you make any drastic life changes. 

Having a deep understanding of your needs, values, and aspirations is key to finding work that fulfills you, whether that’s in your existing workplace or in a new opportunity. The important thing is to discover what’s going to make you thrive as a human being—and, crucially, find the soil that will nourish your growth. Only then will you find the job and life satisfaction you’ve been looking for. 

Disclaimer: This is not to be taken as tax, legal, benefits, financial, or HR advice. Since rules and regulations change over time and can vary by location, consult a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance.