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Keller alumnus recalls how CPA prep supported a new career, led to prestigious Elijah Watt Sells award

By DeVry University


Leighton Smith

Leighton Smith’s desire to change career paths at Microsoft Corp. wasn’t going to happen without a bold move. He knew what he needed to do.

Smith returned to school to get a master’s in accounting so he could sit for the CPA exam, a path that along the way earned the 2016 Keller Graduate School of Management alumnus the prestigious Elijah Watt Sells award, bestowed last year.

Having held various roles at Microsoft over two decades, Smith didn’t see advancement potential in his role as communications director and decided to change focus.

“In terms of my career, I felt getting the CPA license was a very important step for me, as it’s directly relevant and required for some of the next roles I’m interested in pursuing with Microsoft,” Smith said, “and many of the people I would be competing with for those roles would have their CPAs already.”

He said finance was a good fit and a topic he enjoyed writing about in his prior communications role. When Microsoft ran a pilot program for Certified Management Accountants (CMA), Smith asked if he could participate to better understand the role and its responsibility. That was the beginning of his seven-year transition into his current position as director of the finance controller team at Microsoft. It was the same grit and determination that Smith says earned him the Elijah Watt Sells award.

He didn’t set out to earn the honor, but after he performed above 95 percent on the first part of the four-part CPA exam, Smith believed he had a shot at the award if he was committed to putting in the extra hours of study.

Smith says once he sets his mind to learning something, he can accomplish his goals with true grit and determination. For example, after logging 1,000 study hours to prepare for the CPA exam and passing it, he started teaching himself to play piano.

“I always start with a clear goal. I begin with identifying where I want to be. I talk to people in that role to understand the skills and training needed, and how they reached those goals to decide how much time it might take to accomplish what I want to do,” Smith said. “I like to have a clear visional picture of my outcome, but I don’t always set my end goal right away.”

Smith took one class each session and graduated in two years. It took another year to study and take the four-part CPA exam.

“My mid-life career shift from communications to finance ended up being a seven-year process, but I tackled it in one- to two-year periods to keep me motivated. Re-evaluating goals, check points and making progress along the way is key,” Smith said.

“The flexibility of the Keller program was really important to me. I looked at several schools and options before selecting Keller, and decided that the Keller online option would really suit me well. I liked the fact that the classes were concentrated/accelerated and each completed within 8 weeks. They were well structured and allowed me to fit in the work whenever I could each week.

An honor bestowed since 1923, the Elijah Watt Sells award was named after one of the country’s first CPAs. It is given to candidates who pass all four sections of the Uniform CPA Examination on the first attempt and who earn a cumulative average score above 95.5. More than 102,000 candidates sat for the exam in 2016, and only 58 became a 2017 award recipient.