Making manager: The key to accelerating a career in public accounting

Here’s why being promoted to manager is an important step for young CPAs—and what they need to learn to land the promotion.
BY CHRIS BAYSDEN

Jessica Kober, CPA
Jessica Kober, CPA (Photo by Amy Tierney/AP Images)

Jessica Kober, CPA, knows the challenges that young accountants are going through as they try to carve out a career in public accounting.

“Public accounting is a very humbling field,” said Kober, 30, who works in the Long Beach, Calif., office of Windes Inc., a CPA firm with about 150 employees.

Young accountants, even those who may have been star students in college, will have a lot to learn and must take plenty of constructive criticism to heart. They also must spend many long hours preparing for the CPA exam. Young public accountants are on the receiving end of a never-ending stream of assignments, especially during the rigors of busy season.

But Kober has good news for CPAs who stick with it: All that hard work pays off. “Once you get that promotion to manager, you see so many doors open,” she said. If you get promoted to manager, suddenly the prospect of becoming a partner is very real. And even if a CPA opts out of public accounting, the management experience gained in public accounting can help his or her career advancement prospects in business and industry.

There are other, more immediate benefits as well, according to Kober, who was promoted to audit manager in July. She received the requisite salary boost that a promotion entails. The firm paid for a steak lunch for all the recently promoted managers—an event that gave her plenty of face time with partners—and placed a celebratory bottle of Champagne on her desk. Soon, she’ll be getting her own office.

All those benefits, especially the long-term ones, make obtaining a promotion to manager a linchpin to a successful accounting career. This article examines why that position is so important and explores the skills young CPAs need to master to be named a manager.

The manager role is a bridge position. In roles below that, accountants are primarily responsible for nuts-and-bolts accounting production. Positions higher on the food chain spend much more time running the firm, including supervising employees, developing new business, and implementing strategic initiatives. To be promoted to manager, a CPA needs to show that he or she can handle any of the work being done by employees below him or her on the pyramid while also displaying the nascent skills needed by those above.

STRONG TECHNICAL SKILLS

To be a manager, CPAs must first prove that they possess strong technical skills. That’s because managers are the glue that holds a project together. Managers need to be able to jump in and assist on any part of a job if necessary. They’ll also be required to instruct their less experienced direct reports and catch any errors those workers make.

“For me, the best part about it [being a manager] is being able to train the young seniors and staff,” Kober said. “I think it’s really exciting to be able to see people grow and move up in the organization.”

In some industries, business school majors can move into management without initially being experts in a particular field. The same is not true for the accounting profession, where being technically proficient is a requirement to advance at firms of all sizes.

Ryan Thorpe, CPA, an assurance manager at Pulakos CPAs, a 25-employee firm in Albuquerque, N.M., cites technical proficiency as the No. 1 skill needed to be a manager at his firm. Jennifer Busse said that McGladrey also requires its manager prospects to become subject-matter experts. CPAs usually pick an industry to “major” in—such as private equity, for instance—and another to “minor” in (e.g., manufacturing) early in their career at the firm, added Busse, a regional and national recruiting director for the firm.

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS

All that technical proficiency won’t matter much if a manager can’t properly communicate with his or her direct reports. Managers are leaders, so they need strong spoken and written communication skills to explain the engagement to a team of staffers and seniors. They also must be able to interpret complex accounting rules for clients. That’s because, unlike staff or seniors, managers are often the primary client contact. Conversing with both partners and client CFOs requires confidence. 

How can seniors prepare for such a big change?

Thorpe, 30, who was promoted to manager a little over a year ago, tried to learn as much as he could from partners. He inquired about the intricacies of billing and engagement pricing. He sought advice on the best way to inform clients that problems had arisen, without creating panic. He sat in on presentations updating clients on the progress of their audits.

He also sought to obtain practical experience by taking things off his managers’ plates. He’d volunteer to do a bidding proposal, for instance, or offer to inform a client about a recently discovered deficiency during an audit. Doing those types of activities piecemeal helped him learn while not overwhelming him. It also earned him the respect of managers—never a bad thing when you’re looking for a promotion.

GENERATING BUSINESS

Busse points out another implication of being a firm’s face for the client: Managers are on the front lines of discovering new business. They need the ability to build relationships with clients, then listen to clients’ needs and ascertain how those match up with the firm’s service offerings. Then, they must communicate the opportunities with the appropriate partners and follow up with the client if necessary. Managers don’t just do the work, they also go get the work. Firm owners want managers who demonstrate this type of entrepreneurial spirit. 

The ability to multitask is crucial. Seniors are generating new business, planning an engagement, supervising the engagement, and communicating the result to a client. Moreover, they’re doing all those things on several engagements at once. Not surprisingly, adaptability and flexibility are two more skills that young CPAs need to hone before they can become managers.

Cultivating all these skills takes years of hard work. Thorpe went above and beyond his assigned duties when he offered to tackle some of his bosses’ tasks. Kober logged loads of overtime on weekends—and not just during busy season—to both learn the necessary skills and to impress her bosses with her work ethic. She points out that public accounting is full of smart people, so CPAs can’t just rely on intelligence to stand out.

Busse thinks that some CPAs, when faced with that kind of workload, get discouraged too easily and give up. “You’ve just got to work through it,” she said. “Like everything, it takes time.”

Perhaps then, the most important trait that young CPAs need in order to make manager is tenacity. And for those who are tenacious enough, the rewards are considerable. Managers have more control over their projects and schedule. They get a nice pay raise. Maybe most important of all, they’ve put themselves in the on-deck circle for a swing at another big career opportunity.

“Next stop is owner,” Thorpe said. “That’s close. It’s tangible, it’s palpable. It’s just a good feeling.”

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Being promoted to manager at a public accounting firm can open a lot of career doors. The promotion can help put a young CPA on a partnership track or improve his or her career advancement prospects even if the CPA decides to move into management accounting.

The “manager” role is a bridge position. In roles below that, accountants are primarily responsible for nuts-and-bolts accounting production. CPAs in positions higher on the food chain spend much more time running the firm.

To be promoted to manager, a CPA needs to show that he or she can handle any of the work being done by employees below him or her on the pyramid. The CPA also must display the nascent skills needed by his or her superiors.

Manager candidates need to demonstrate strong technical proficiency, the ability to multitask, and a burgeoning knack for business development. They also should possess strong spoken and written communication skills.

To develop the necessary skills, young CPAs should ask their bosses for growth opportunities. Taking work off a manager’s plate is a good way to gain such practical experience.

Chris Baysden is the JofA’s senior manager, newsletters. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at cbaysden@aicpa.org or 919-402-4077.

Skills for Young Management Accountants

In addition to the technical accounting and auditing or tax skills that are core competencies for CPAs in public accounting practice, management accounting skills are also key to long-term success whether they are deployed in a business, the management of a practice, or consultation to clients. These skills, as outlined in the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) Competency Framework, come in the following four knowledge areas:

Technical: Management accounting technical skills include management accounting and reporting, in addition to external reporting; tax strategy and planning, in addition to tax compliance; and corporate finance, treasury, and risk management, in addition to internal control.

Business: These technical skills are applied in the context of the business, which necessitates an understanding of the regulatory and market environment, along with the strategy of the business and the relationships, projects, and processes in place to execute on that strategy.

People: People skills include the ability to collaborate and partner across organizational boundaries and to influence people in the service of effective decision-making within the organization. Obviously, these are critical skills at the managerial level for CPAs in public accounting practice as well.

Leadership: These skills are also essential at all levels and in all areas of practice. In today’s rapidly changing global business environment, change management and driving performance have become as important as the ever-critical skills of building teams, motivating and inspiring, and coaching and mentoring. 

Source: AICPA.

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