An American adventure
Chartered Accountant Sonja Dengler has just returned from an exchange trip to Wisconsin, where she spent a month at Wegner CPAs in Madison. The trip was made possible by our membership of Accelerate – a community of accounting firms with international coverage through Crowe Global – and we're looking forward to welcoming Wenger accountant Jordon Dittmer very soon in Nottingham.
We asked Sonja about her trip and exactly what she made of this new, immersive experience.
Can you provide a brief overview of the work exchange programme you participated in?
I took part in a four-week work exchange with the Madison Office of the audit and accountancy firm Wegner CPA. I travelled to Wisconsin at the end of September, worked at Wegner CPA for the month of October, then took a two-week holiday to see a little more of the US, stopping off at Washington DC, Maryland, New York and Chicago, before returning home mid-November.
What motivated you to take part in a work exchange?
I was interested in going on the exchange to experience a grdifferent culture and place, having never travelled outside Europe I was excited to experience the US, not just as a tourist, but to live and work there for a month.
What was the location like?
Madison is the capital city of the state of Wisconsin and has about the same population as Nottingham (according to Google), but feels like it has a much bigger area, with the beltline motorway being part of the daily commute. It sits on the shore of two large lakes, with several smaller lakes dotted about. There are lots of places with beautiful views over the water. The downtown area is dominated by the huge marble-domed Capitol building, which looks a little like Nottingham council house from afar, except that dome is actually centred.
What were some of the challenges you faced during the work exchange?
Because of the way Madison (and I understand American cities in general) is laid out, and where I was staying, I was very dependent on a combination of lifts from my new colleagues and Uber rides. As someone who's normally no more than a 30-minute bike ride away from the places they need to go, this took some adjustment.
At Page Kirk, it is not very often that I find myself completely out of work and asking a manager for something new to do as there are enough jobs that are my responsibility to fill any unexpected free time. As Wegner CPA had little idea of my skills before I arrived, I found I generally worked faster than they expected, so had to often ask for more work. All my new colleagues were very helpful and more work was always found.
Were there any culture/accountancy barriers?
There were lots of differences in the accountancy language used, such as “accounts payable” instead of “trade creditors”, “financial statements” instead of “accounts”, “debts” instead of “loans”. Nothing insurmountable, but always needing a moment to think of the word that will be understood best.
There were also differences in the accounting standards, and the standard tests performed, such as how cut-off was tested. Additionally, particular tests for “single audits” (audits of non-profit entities with government grants), for which we have no equivalent at Page Kirk.
And, of course, there were differences in the technology used.
Overall, I found most things fairly easy to follow, if a little strange, and was able to perform the work I was given without too much difficulty, and often faster than expected.
Gleam at Madison Botanical Gardens
The Learning and Growth
What did you hope to get out of the exchange?
I was hoping to experience a different country, and a different country's way of doing things.
I was rather curious if all the stereotypes about America are correct. (I'm not sure I have an answer as it would be like going to France to see if the stereotypes about Scandinavia are correct given how large and varied the country is!)
What did you get out of the exchange?
Lots of new experiences and lots of learning that I'm not sure I've processed yet. I have also made friends, have several new books and a fabulous new fabric I'm looking forward to cutting into, as I love dressmaking.
What new skills or perspectives did you acquire during the exchange?
Having only worked at one other accountancy firm beyond Page Kirk, I learnt it's possible for a work environment to feel very different, while not necessarily feeling any worse.
I also learnt how to use different accounting software, and different potential ways to present working papers.
How did the exchange help you develop, personally and professionally?
Lots of the experiences on the exchange reminded me that it's always worth stepping outside my comfort zone. There are things that sound interesting on paper, but I'm sometimes nervous to commit. It's worth it though!
The Projects and Responsibilities:
What type of projects did you work on?
I mostly worked on not-for-profit audits, and one for-profit co-operative. Most of these were remote with an audit team that was made of up me, an audit senior (who they called in-charge) and manager.
Can you share some specific projects or tasks you worked on during the exchange?
One of the audits I worked on where we went on site was a not-for-profit which engaged in activism for LGBT+ rights.
In terms of the tasks I performed, I worked on most audit areas, although whenever I was running low on work, I would be given accounts checklists and adjustments on the face of the accounts. In addition board minutes to read and summarise for other audits I had not directly worked on, to reduce the workload on the audit team.
It was interesting to see how their audit software produced just as many strange quirks and matters that needed watching as those used by Page Kirk, but most of them were slightly different. Luckily, they had a checklist of everything I needed to look out for.
Drag Queen Bingo at Delta Beer Lab
The Team Bonding:
How did you and your new colleagues engage in team-building activities during the work exchange?
On my first day, everyone in the office went out for a meal with me at lunch time, and there was a less formal social the following Wednesday after work.
Throughout the month I had had dinner with lots of my new co-workers and also did other social activities.
Were there organised events? If so what?
Organised work events included after-work drinks and a networking event with some of Wegner's non-profit clients.
I was also invited to other activities. Some highlights included:
- Madison farmer's market, and a tour of the Capitol building
- GLEAM at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a combination of light installations and art by local artists in the beautiful setting of Madison's botanical gardens.
- A Ren Faire - Imagine an autumn themed Christmas market, crossed with a historical re-enactment, in which lots of the patrons also dress up – which was great fun including the jousters, fire dances and an excuse to wear fake foliage in my hair.
- Going to the theatre to see a Penny Dreadful, with a cast of two (and lots of costume changes), fabulously over-the-top costumes and some very bad British accents.
- A bike ride round Lake Monona, which was very tranquil and had beautiful views over the lake at the Madison skyline.
Madison skyline at a bike ride round lake Manona
Can you share a particularly memorable social activity or event from your work exchange experience?
On an evening when I had nothing else on, I went to a story-telling event in which the audience were invited onto the stage to share a story from their life based on the theme “holy shit”. I sat at a table with two retired teachers who had taught all over the world, who gave me lots of ideas of things to see and places to visit. The stories shared were also very moving, or hilarious. It was lovely to get an insight into real people's lives in this way.
The Return and Integration:
Have you implemented any changes or improvements based on your experience?
I have only been back at work for a few days and have spent most of my energy getting over jet lag and the cold I got on the flight back home, as well as catching up with the jobs I left in progress.
I am looking forward to returning to the audit software we use and see if some of the time saving measures that were present in Wegner's audit software can be carried across, such as having balances auto link to the figure in the accounts, rather than having to hard type things.
What advice would you give to colleagues considering a work exchange opportunity?
I would highly recommend taking part, as it is a great experience and an interesting way to experience a new country and culture.
When away, I would say to be flexible to changing the way you normally work to adapt to the new work environment and different auditing standards.
Is there anything you wish you had known or done differently before or during the exchange?
I found that although I had looked at a map, and traced where I was staying, compared to the Wegner office, I had no sense of scale or direction until I was actually sitting in a car. I think I could have looked at a few activities slightly further afield. But, overall, I think I spent my time well, had lots of fun, and although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what I learned at this precise moment, I'm sure in months or year to come I will realise how I've changed and how my skills improved during my time away.
What was the highlight of the trip?
There were so many wonderful things, some of which were tiny moments, so it's hard to pinpoint a particular highlight. For the sake of saying something, I will say the Ren Faire, as it was like nothing I'd ever been too before. A day spent with lovely people and followed by a very tasty meal.
Finally, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Wegner CPAs for the incredibly warm welcome and enriching experience during my month-long work exchange in Madison. The team at Wegner not only embraced me as a colleague but also went above and beyond to make me feel at home in a new work environment. From the shared meals on my first day to the after-work socials and engaging team-building activities, their hospitality was truly commendable. I felt encouraged to immerse myself in the culture, both professionally and personally. The support from my new colleagues, their willingness to share insights, and the camaraderie we developed made a lasting impact on me. I am sincerely thankful for this opportunity and the hospitality extended to me by Wegner CPAs. It has been an invaluable experience, and I am eager to reciprocate the warm welcome when we host Jordon Dittmer from Wegner in Nottingham. Thank you, Wegner CPAs, for an unforgettable exchange that has broadened my horizons both personally and professionally.
Did you know that, after you have finished our graduate scheme, there is an opportunity to take part in our international work exchange programme? If you are looking for a placement or graduate scheme, our application process is now open and you can apply today.
Sonja with her Renfair headgear