CPA INSIDER

10 competencies of top staff accountants

Set yourself apart with exceptional skills—and not just technical ones.
By Gary Hohbein, CPA

Distinguishing yourself as a top staff accountant can lead to many rewards: more responsibilities, higher job satisfaction, promotions, and higher pay. But making your mark involves more than debits and credits. Here are 10 qualities that top staff accountants must master to set themselves apart.

  • Accuracy. Details matter, and there is no room for error in accounting. Staff accountants must become experts at self-review by coming back to their work as a reviewer would to find any mistakes before sending it to their manager. They pay attention to materiality: The bigger the dollar amount relative to the whole, the more times they check it.
  • Stepping back. Top staff accountants understand their tasks, why they are performed, and how they fit into the big picture. They make sure that their journal entries make sense and that reconciling differences are appropriate and easy to explain. If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't, and they seek an explanation.
  • Hitting deadlines. Few professions are as deadline-driven as accounting. When top staff accountants receive a deadline, they give themselves earlier personal deadlines, allow extra time, and assume the worst (someone will inevitably get sick or not respond to a request, computers will crash, the website will be down, or something will get lost in the mail). They turn in work early, recognizing that others depend on their work to be completed on time.
  • Keeping their managers informed. Managers appreciate regular updates. The best performers communicate the status of their projects to their managers and all constituents, especially during month-end and year-end closes. If they discover an issue, they ask for help and know that two or more minds working on the solution are better than one. Keeping a problem to themselves or sweeping it under the rug is not an option.
  • Helping their managers. Top staff accountants make their manager's priorities their priorities. They gain a reputation for taking extra steps even for small tasks, and they provide solutions rather than creating different problems. They assume that their manager is always pressed for time and has deadlines to meet. Simply saying, "I'm planning to work on the bank rec this morning, but I can help with anything more pressing" goes a long way in helping their team succeed.
  • Professional integrity. Upper management teams want to know about any unscrupulous happenings to address and correct them immediately. Staff accountants are trusted to do the right thing and to not overlook dubious activity. Staff communicate professionally and start with their managers, trusting them to make correct decisions to keep upper management informed, but sometimes they need to ask again or seek help from a colleague.
  • Mastering time management. Top performers use time to their advantage. They schedule specific times to complete tasks, avoid procrastinating, start their most difficult tasks first thing in the morning, follow up on requests, and use downtime for planning and preparation. They break up projects into specific action steps to keep the process moving.
  • Conquering emails. The best staff keep their emails clear and short and gain a reputation for following up and responding to emails promptly. They keep their emails organized, rather than wasting time searching through correspondence. 
  • Becoming an Excel guru. Excel is the accountant's most valuable tool, and those who master it have a distinct advantage. Top performers use Excel to save time and reduce inefficiencies, and they use every available tool—formatting, formulas, macros, and pivot tables.
  • Improving themselves. Education is never complete, and top achievers take responsibility for their education by reading books and articles, watching videos, and listening to recordings on topics such as time management, writing skills, teamwork, presentation and communication skills, project management, judgment biases, supervising, management and leadership, and other personal improvement topics. They stay up to date on current accounting standards and interpretations, recognizing that the profession is constantly evolving.

Gary Hohbein, CPA, is the controller of the Society of Critical Care Medicine in Mount Prospect, Ill. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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