Develop a specialty, and define who you want your clients to be
Finding the right clients: Firms in today's environment can't be everything to all people. It's a matter of defining who you want your clients to be, what the profile of the industry is, the type of service, what your professionals should be spending their time in, and developing a method around those areas.
Importance of specialization: From a public accounting standpoint, I do believe heavily in being deep in an industry. So it's not just knowing the facts around the audit and the tax or specialization. Understanding the business climate and the business issues that the CEOs and CFOs are dealing with [contributes to] making you a well-rounded professional within that specific industry. This provides the opportunity to truly be a trusted adviser.
Be true to your expertise: If a client wants you to take on a project outside your area of expertise, you've got to resist. Look at the bigger picture. You've got to consider: What additional risk am I bringing into my firm because I am taking something that is outside of my natural wheelhouse?
How the CPA exam can measure the right skills: I am a past member of the AICPA Board of Examiners, and I am currently on the Practice Analysis Sponsor Group, which is looking at what kind of changes should be put forth in the next version of the CPA exam. The things that I think in no particular order need to be included are critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical ability, and professional skepticism. CPAs need well-developed research skills and to effectively communicate in all mediums. That's a big challenge because the number of ways in which we communicate today has just grown exponentially.
Keys to career success: I had a good mentor who didn't allow me to say, "No, I am not going to look for the next achievement," and was there when I fell, and picked me back up. Some of it was just not overthinking it, just seeing how it would evolve. Not having a plan sometimes works out to be a better plan.
Respect CEO skills: Very often CPAs think that because they spend so much time with clients on the financial side, they're really good businesspeople. But until you have actually been the head and have had to make those decisions and live with the decisions, you can't fully understand how different the roles are.
—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson, a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.