The leadership cycle: The parallel paths of career and firm success

Jennifer Wilson explains how young CPAs and their employers can build a future together.

June 1, 2013

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and cofounder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a nationally recognized leadership and marketing firm that provides coaching and consulting services to leaders. She is an experienced change agent who has worked in both the public accounting and business sectors and is a frequent speaker, writer, and blogger on leadership and communication within the CPA profession.

There has never been a better time to be a young, up-and-coming CPA. An estimated 78 million Baby Boomers are expected to retire in the next 12 to 15 years, with 100,000 CPAs projected to be among them. That will leave the next generation of CPA leaders with boundless opportunities for career advancement in fields ranging from public accounting and business and industry to government, education, and not-for-profits.

In public accounting, the managers, senior managers, and principals I meet are passionate about their careers, but many don’t know what it takes to reach the partner level. That’s because many young CPAs don’t understand the career paths available to them. And while firm leaders value their up-and-comers’ ability and ambition, most do not provide a clearly defined path to partner.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Young CPAs can ask themselves and their leaders a series of challenging questions that clarify their career objectives, help them discover their gifts and shortcomings, and define the specific support they need to realize career success. CPA firms can differentiate themselves from their competitors by proactively providing clear answers to the most pressing questions posed by their most promising young CPAs.

THE PATH TO PARTNER

The brightest young CPAs are valuable because they rise above their peers in initiative, intention, and investment. The most talented young CPAs are driven to seek the next level in their careers, and they won’t hesitate to pursue their goals with another employer if their firm isn’t ready to answer questions about their career path.

The AICPA’s most recent study of the profession's rising stars, The 2011 PCPS Top Talent Study (available at tinyurl.com/c49t4w5), found that when the best and brightest young CPAs are considering whether to stay with their current employer, their top two priorities are compensation and career growth opportunities. Firms that fail to provide those opportunities risk seeing their most valuable people leave to seek meaningful career growth and financial opportunities elsewhere.

Accounting firms and young CPA leaders must recognize that their paths to firm and individual success run along parallel lines and that both sides benefit when they align their objectives and long-range planning. The best way to do this is for firms and young leaders to engage in path-to-partner discussions.

Both sides need to be prepared for these meetings. Young CPAs must understand where they want to go in their careers (see the sidebar “Self-Discovery Questions”) and what their individual strengths and areas for improvement are (see the sidebar “Management Support Questions”).

Firm leaders, whether in a partner group or management committee, should document answers to the most important questions that young CPAs will ask. The firm should date the documented answers and revise them at least once a year, because the answers will change as market and firm conditions shift.

PARTNERSHIP AND PROMOTION QUESTIONS

To help retain their young stars, firms need to have answers at the ready for the following partnership and promotion questions:

1. What do you see as my future with the firm?

2. What do you expect the timing of my admission to partner to be?

3. What specific deliverables or results do I need to produce to be a candidate for partner and by when? (Note: For guidance in answering this question, see “Do You Have What It Takes to Become a Partner?CPA Insider, July 30, 2012.)

4. How do I stack up compared to others I might perceive to also be in the queue? For instance, do you see me leapfrogging or bypassing others whom you may have “parked” at a level beside or above me? (Firms should not expect their people to know this. If firms have people who seem to be in line to make partner ahead of the top young talent, the top talent may wrongly assume they have a long wait ahead of them. If this isn’t the case, firms need to make sure their rising stars know.)

5. What programs or activities should I expect to participate in to help me develop and prepare to act as a partner?

6. What are the differences in the levels of partner? If we have a nonequity partner or principal, how does it differ from equity partner in terms of compensation, governance, authority, participation in partner-level activities, client ownership, and other areas?

7. Will I be admitted as a nonequity partner or principal or as an equity partner? Do we always admit new partners one way, or are there variances? If there are variances, what causes them? (Some will ask this question because they want to go “straight to the top.” Others will want to ease in, especially if they are still raising a young family or have other commitments that give them pause about making the big equity push forward. Ideally, the firm’s path will allow for options, but for their superstars, firms should consider “tying them up” with direct admittance.)

8. When you admit me as a partner, what are the buy-in requirements? How will my buy-in be calculated? How will it be funded? Should I be saving for it now? Will the firm “gross up” my earnings to help offset the buy-in, or do we have a loan program through the firm or a banker?

9. How does the buy-in process compare to those of other firms?

10. If there is a buy-in to become a partner, has the firm modeled the equity buy-in process along with the equity buyout or retirement buyouts? Can I view this model and understand what I am committing to in terms of funding the current partners’ future retirements?

11. What agreements will I be asked to sign as I become a partner? When can I read these agreements to better understand what I am being asked to commit to?

12. How will we monitor my progress toward partner? Who will shepherd me to make sure I am making progress and know where I stand?

Path-to-partner meetings should provide accounting firms and their future leaders with a clear understanding of what each side envisions for their future together. Young CPAs and their superiors should agree in writing on what each rising star must accomplish to reach partner or another senior leadership role in the organization.

FINDING THE RIGHT PATH

The brightest young CPAs and their firms should act proactively to plot and secure their future paths to success. Young CPAs should ask questions about their interests and career options. When that happens, firms should acknowledge the initiative of rising stars and work with them to map out the right career path for them and for the firm.

In addition to being responsive to young CPAs’ questions, firms should take the initiative to identify rising stars with partner potential and assign a partner-level “shepherd” to begin a dialogue with each.

Shepherds should explore each of their assigned rising stars’ thoughts on becoming a partner. If the rising stars express interest, the shepherds should take them through a discussion of the firm’s path-to-partner process, explaining that the process is fluid. The shepherds should encourage the rising stars to give input.

After the path-to-partner meeting, shepherds should stay in close communication with the rising stars to remain up-to-date on their continued interest, progress, and plans, and also keep them apprised as the firm evolves its partner-admission process.

Young CPAs should use information gained in path-to-partner meetings to visualize their next career move—whether it’s changing a behavior, learning a new skill, taking on a new responsibility, or trying something altogether different. Young CPAs who do this put themselves in position to capitalize on the great change underway in the profession. 

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.

Management Support Questions

Once young leaders have their self-discovery answers in hand, they should set up a meeting with their supervisor and/or other leaders at the firm. In that meeting, the young CPA should request feedback on some or all of the following management support questions:

  • What do you view as my greatest strengths or gifts? How do you feel I can better capitalize on them in my work?
  • What do you see as my most significant shortcomings or weaknesses? How do you feel that I can improve in these areas or mitigate their impact on my future?
  • What is working in my performance that you would like me to keep doing?
  • What is not working in my performance that you would like me to stop doing?
  • What do you recommend I start doing to add more value to the firm or my team?
  • If my path is not one where I will reach partner or senior leadership, what other options do you envision for me? What do you see as my path forward in this case?


The answers to these questions may not all be easy to hear, but as author and leadership expert Ken Blanchard said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Without the straight talk and honesty of their manager or another key leader, young CPAs—like all of us—are unlikely to see themselves as they are seen by others. Young CPAs need to remove this blind spot and honestly assess whether they need to make any changes to reach their full potential.

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