Alum Spotlight: Touro Flatbush Alum on his Rise at Ernst & Young
What It's Like to Be a Tax Professional, How to Stand Out in the Workplace
Michael Sharf, a Managing Director at Ernst & Young, shares how Touro’s top-ranked accounting program set him up for success and offers essential advice for students ready to climb the corporate ladder:
Can you talk a bit about your career path? When and how did you know this was the field for you?
It basically started with the words of my mother when I was a high school senior: “You’re good at math; you should be an accountant!” During my first year after high school, I began taking classes at Touro’s Flatbush campus. I suspected I would end up selecting accounting as my major because it appeared to offer the broadest options/gateway to various careers in the business world. However, after the first day of the first accounting class I attended, I was hooked. The clear rules and need for attention to detail resonated strongly with me. The Touro accounting professors (some of whom are still teaching at Touro today) were outstanding and helped me develop a passion for the field that I still have today. After graduating from Touro, I enrolled at Fordham Law School. I ended up combining my accounting and law educational background into a career in tax. I spent the early years of my career in the tax departments of Big4 accounting firms (KPMG and Arthur Andersen), first working on tax return preparations and then tax consulting/planning for international corporate clients. After approximately seven years, an offhand comment I made to a recruiter about my Microsoft Excel skills set into motion an unexpected chain of events that resulted in me landing at Ernst & Young in a group that focused on the financial accounting side of income taxes. For the first time in my career, I found myself working with the Debits and Credits of financial accounting that I enjoyed in college, with a focus on the income tax accounts. It was the perfect mix for me, and I haven’t looked back.
What do you do for Ernst & Young? What is a typical day like?
I am a Managing Director in EY’s Tax Accounting and Risk Advisory Services group, which is part of the Firm’s tax service line. In my current role, I generally work with large (e.g., Fortune 500) companies, assisting them to prepare the income tax accounts on their financial statements and, in some cases, serving on the EY audit team that signs off on the financial statements. A typical day for me includes a mix of reviewing Excel workpapers and tax calculations, reviewing technical memos that address tax accounting issues as they relate to the income tax accounts and responding to ad hoc questions from clients. I manage multiple teams serving different clients and have regular touch points with my teams to ensure our projects are moving along and issues are resolved. Before COVID, I spent most of the traditional accounting busy season working at client locations across the northeast region of the U.S. Since COVID, we rely heavily on technology tools to remain connected as a team. I am also active in the interviewing process at EY and am an instructor at our in-house training programs that our tax and audit professionals attend each year. I have always enjoyed teaching, and this has given me an opportunity to help develop the skills of our professionals.
What are the challenges involved in your professional role? What do you love about it?
The most significant challenge I face is the time crunch that is inevitable during busy season. There never seems to be enough hours in the day/week! Nights and weekends is par for the course, and I owe my wife and children a tremendous debt of gratitude for putting up with the demands of the job during my busy seasons. However, the time constraints create a tremendous rush during those high-pressure weeks of the year, and I find the work exhilarating because I am fortunate to really love the work I do. I work with talented, smart and diverse colleagues and clients on technical issues that are often complex, and I am rarely bored because I am always learning something new.
How did Touro help prepare you for your career?
Most importantly, by encouraging academic excellence in an environment supportive of my personal and cultural background. The ability to pursue a college degree in the evenings while continuing in yeshiva during the day was crucial to me. I had the good fortune of having outstanding professors at Touro who taught their classes in a clear and thorough manner. This formed the foundation in accounting and business matters upon which I built my entire academic and professional career. My professors had high expectations of us and were firm, but fair, without cutting corners when it came to covering the curriculum in each course. I developed very strong study and work habits that have remained with me since I graduated from Touro. Many of my professors were accomplished professionals in their own right and inspired me to believe in my own ability to achieve similar professional success while remaining true to my personal ideals and religious convictions. Also, Dean Goldschmidt was an instrumental pre-law advisor when I was applying to law school, helping me navigate the application process and offering a personal letter of recommendation. I also made some lifelong friends while at Touro, and have a network of former classmates in different professional roles both within accounting and in other fields.
How can a recent graduate stand out while looking for their first job?
Generally, the Big4 accounting firms hire entry-level staff exclusively from their in-house internship programs, so it is crucial for students who are interested in working for these firms to start their job search with an internship before graduation. For smaller firms that don’t hire exclusively from their in-house internship programs, applying for a summer or winter internship is still an excellent way to build real-world skills and to open doors to full-time entry-level opportunities. In terms of specific tips for standing out during the interview process, I believe it’s important for candidates to remember that they are being evaluated on both their technical skills and their “soft skills.” It is crucial to demonstrate an engaging personality while maintaining a professional demeanor. A smile goes a long way! Also, be prepared to describe specific examples (in detail) of successful teaming with others, leadership skills, defusing conflicts with others, managing your time effectively and being an active member of your community. These are all qualities that firms are looking for when hiring candidates because people with these skills have the potential to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Do you have any advice for climbing the corporate ladder?
From the first day you start at your first job, focus on building your personal brand within your company as a team player who has a positive, can-do attitude and who always acts with integrity. Strive to be the gold standard by which employees at your level are evaluated and don’t shy away from challenging assignments. This includes making an effort to operate, at least some of the time, at the level of your supervisors. Also, be a leader who always treats those who you supervise with respect and fairness.