Perseverance seemed to come easy for April Walker, CPA, CGMA. She worked for public accounting firms since 1995, first at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Raleigh, N.C., and then later at nearby Blackman & Sloop CPA, P.A., where she stayed for over 14 years as a manager in the tax department.
But eventually, Walker hit a wall. Professionally, she started feeling she needed a change, and she felt something was missing in her personal life. So in 2014, she partook in a small triathlon, and in 2015 signed up for her first half-Ironman, an intense running, swimming, and bicycling competition. In early 2016, she also switched professional gears and accepted a job as the lead manager-taxation at the AICPA. That same year, she passed the CGMA exam.
Walker has now competed in numerous half-Ironman competitions and is considering entering a full Ironman down the road. Here are her thoughts about her professional and personal journeys—and about perseverance, which has become the norm in her very active life:
When and how did you get into the half Ironman races?
While I was still in public accounting, I was searching for something new, trying to find out what was missing in my life. I was always active. I would run and had done some races but nothing extreme. I was mainly just trying to be healthy. So I did a very small woman’s only triathlon in 2014 and I just loved it. It was super invigorating and inspiring. My daughter’s art teacher had just competed in a half-Ironman in Raleigh and she said, “April, if you did this little triathlon and you enjoyed it, you should sign up for this race.” I’m crazy and I did. I signed up in 2015.
What was that experience like for you?
A half-Ironman is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run — that totals 70.3 miles of movement. A full Ironman would be double that.
I did not have a bike—I borrowed a bike. I wasn’t a great swimmer. The hardest part was the swim—it is difficult for me to swim in open water. But I discovered how much I love to ride my bike. I got hooked up with a group in my area that did this on the side. I somehow pieced it together and did that race in May 2015, and was absolutely hooked. It was just so outside of my normal day-to-day life. I was working in public accounting at the time, so a lot of the training took place during tax season. Time management took on a complete new meaning! When I crossed that finish line it was like no other feeling I ever had. I am so thankful to my husband and daughter for everything they did then and continue to do to hold down the fort at home.
I did another race in Wilmington, N.C., that year, and then kept getting a little better. In 2016 I did the Raleigh race again and started adding in some smaller and shorter ones—sprints. I have been trying to not just slog through and finish, but improve my time. And in the meantime, I hired a coach and I’m still involved with the group. I also did a half-Ironman in May 2017 in Chattanooga. I’m a little obsessed.
You could choose any outlet. Why do you choose to partake in such grueling competitions?
I’ve always been one to challenge myself. I’m in good shape, but I’m surrounded by people who are in much better shape, so there is always something to strive for, and I feel so good. I have so much energy. I sleep better. I’ve expanded my circle of friends. My team is encouraging and they are all so much better than I am, almost to a fault. They are all faster than I am, but it fuels my competitive nature.
What is your training regimen?
I swim three days a week, bike at least two days a week, and run two to three days a week. It mixes it up. That’s been good for my body; I love to run but not constantly pounding on my knees. People who have known me for a very long time say they are in awe—I was the last one picked to be on a team while I was a child and was never very athletic. I only started exercising because I didn’t want to gain weight. Now I do it because I love it, it invigorates me, and makes me a better person.
What were your most difficult moments when training for the half-Ironman?
I had a scary experience when I was training for my first half-Ironman, a month before the race. My first triathlon was in a pool, but the half-Ironman was in open water. So I needed to practice. I went out with a couple friends early one morning to swim in a local lake, and I had a panic attack in the water. I’ve been around water all of my life but am not a natural swimmer. I was in a wetsuit so that was probably part of it, as I had breathing constrictions. My friends, two really strong swimmers, were far away from me, and when they came to me I was hyperventilating. I barely made it to shore. I later said, “How am I going to get out there and do this race?” And they said, “You’ve got to get in and try it again.” So I did. I went out again and would not let this defeat me. I’ve learned that a lot of people have had panic attacks. You must have people around you—don’t swim alone. The ideal thing is to go with someone that has a kayak, so if you get tired, you can hang on to the kayak.
What Ironman skills or attitudes do you bring to the workplace?
Perseverance. Looking for challenges. Not being afraid to step out of my comfort zone. You never know how the day is going to go, but I’ve learned the ability to be flexible and adapt to the situation—and press forward. I identify if it is just a slight roadblock, and I figure out how to get to the finish line and get to the end of the day. My life is much less stressful from a deadline perspective than it used to be, so that is helpful for my training.
What do you like about your work at the AICPA?
I love serving our members by providing resources to help them improve their practices and be better CPAs. Helping people has always been a passion of mine, and I still have to use my technical knowledge that I gained from all of my years practicing as a CPA. I also am the liaison for a volunteer committee for tax practice management within the AICPA, and that helps keep me connected to the issues that practitioners are facing in this ever changing landscape of public accounting. It is the perfect job for me.
What motivated you to become a CGMA?
When I joined the AICPA I was given the opportunity to take a review course within the AICPA that prepared me to take the CGMA exam. I had all the other background, and the experience necessary, so I thought, why not? The broader experience I have, the better—it will only make me a well-rounded professional and will open more doors for me in a business setting. So I took the review course in March 2016. It was excellent and intensive, and a great preparation for the exam.
How does the CGMA designation help you at work?
My current role is broader than when I worked in public accounting. Working with a small team in a large organization involves a lot of the people skills that are taught within the CGMA framework. The course also reviewed evaluating projects for risk and then for marketability, and that is really helpful in my role here. The designation has also broadened my knowledge in management accounting. It makes you more marketable as a professional by allowing you to think beyond numbers. The focus is not about teaching you how to look at a balance sheet or a tax return. It helps you think about things in a broader way, and just adds to your skill set.
How would you describe the format of the exam?
It was case-study based, and based on pre-seen material sent to us months in advance. We were given facts about a company, both financial and management information. The exam presents you with scenarios, real-life situations. For example, we were given questions about an amusement park, Somebody had gotten hurt on a ride and we were asked, “What would you do?” We had to either write a memo or an e-mail related to the specific circumstance. The task is to provide more information. I liked the format of it. There are core competencies—business, technical, and leadership skills—tested with the exam. Because of its practical nature, the exam was challenging for me because it was outside of my normal day-to-day range of thinking.
What advice would you give to young professionals who may want to become a CGMA?
Read and explore what it means, and what opportunities it would open up for you. Take the review course and take the exam. The world of accounting is ever-changing and if you gain a broader background and more experience, and learn about the different options that you have, that is the best course of action. Also, be open to thinking outside the box when you think about your career. Being a CGMA gives you a solid foundation to stand on.