Career Path and Progression Options for CPAs
Today’s CPAs can pursue many different career paths. While many CPAs work in business and industry, this article will focus on career opportunities in the public accounting sector. Public accounting firms’ services extend far beyond traditional tax and audit into a myriad of advisory services and, within those, a host of industry niches.
An accounting firm’s size often dictates its scope of offerings. The larger a firm, the more likely it is that a CPA can specialize in a particular area. For example, a CPA at a larger firm ($50M+ in annual revenue) will generally specialize in one service line area, such as tax, audit or advisory. At smaller firms, a CPA will likely wear more hats and work in several different service areas.
I found, particularly early in my career, that it was enormously educational to work with clients in a variety of industries, regardless of service line. The approach allows the new CPA to build a solid foundation of skills, because each industry requires its own specialized knowledge and skill sets. It also gives the CPA time to learn the industries about which they are passionate and would prefer to work in long-term. These industries span real estate, financial services, manufacturing, technology, nonprofit and a litany of others.
The progression of titles at firms more or less follows a similar path. For example, our firm goes from staff I through partner. Each position comes with its own responsibilities, requiring vastly different skillsets. Regardless of experience, it is highly recommended that CPAs seek out mentors with whom they feel comfortable. The mentor should help the CPA set attainable goals as well as provide constructive feedback and guidance as they grow within the firm and their career.
A CPA should have a clear understanding of the firm’s expectation at each position level. This is where a supervisor or mentor can provide valuable insight helping a CPA decide on career progression goals, such as manager, director or partner. Director and partner positions will require varying degrees of business and practice development skills.
Here are five key skills a CPA must develop in order to advance within a public accounting firm:
- Technical skills. It is important for a CPA to develop specialized knowledge to perform client work. This can be accomplished through a combination of education that can be obtained at the university level, via internal or external CPE, or from practical, hands-on experience.
- Client service. CPAs must dedicate themselves to client service excellence and continue to cultivate relationships. If clients are treated well, they are more likely to stay and perhaps refer additional work to a firm.
- Practice development. Early career CPAs should not feel intimidated to raise their hand and get involved in internal firm initiatives. An accounting firm is like any other business and is only as good as the ideas and contributions of its staff.
- Staff development. Successful CPAs have a thirst for knowledge. Learning can be obtained from many sources: CPE, networking events, conferences, industry media and so on. Look for a firm that actively invests in its people. Continuing education is essentially a partnership between the firm and its employees.
- Business development. This is often where the rubber meets the road, generating revenue for the firm. New CPAs should start as early as possible developing their business development skills through networking opportunities and at prospect and client meetings.
Newcomers to the profession might feel overwhelmed by all of this. They shouldn’t; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. While all of this will not be learned over a week, a month or even a year, obtaining all of these skills and knowledge is completely within every CPA’s control. Those who commit to it can receive a lifetime of dividends.
This article appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.