Right Track Your CPA Career

Applying these principles to your daily life can help you reach your true potential.

Careers aimed toward excellence start with the recognition that every CPA is truly running his or her own personal firm. Whether they are in public accounting, government or private industry, everyone must make investments into their company to be successful. These investments provide extraordinary returns for the individual CPA as well as his or her employer or partnership.

A competitive runner who wants to compete successfully in a cross-country race enhances his or her performance by understanding how the course is laid out. A career as a CPA is similar in that excellence starts by understanding what creates value for your firm or company. Combining this knowledge with a commitment to make it happen will provide any CPA with a great jump out of the blocks. This article identifies several important principles that, when integrated into your daily routine, can yield immediate results and put you on the right track toward realizing your potential as a CPA and leader in the profession.

Four performance areas create value, particularly for CPAs in public practice: client service, team development, marketing and innovation. A career that reaches its full potential requires proficiency in all four and outstanding performance in at least one area.

Client service. CPAs who provide outstanding client service generate value and enjoy successful careers. By consistently having a mind-set of providing service beyond expectations, CPAs can grow strong client relationships, thus adding value to the firm. Keys to consistent high performance include good listening skills combined with a proactive approach to challenges.

Team development. Historically, team member development has been the most undervalued performance area in a CPA career. Recent demand combined with a shortage of good experienced CPAs has led firms to re-evaluate this vital skill set. Sharing knowledge, mentoring and coaching team members are all too critical to a successful firm. By prioritizing this skill set, a CPA can differentiate himself or herself while building a strong loyal internal network. Sincere interest in other team members’ success will provide more opportunities to lead in this performance area.

Business development. Firms must grow or die a slow death. CPAs who can develop new relationships and new clients are highly regarded. Rainmakers are usually some of the highest-paid team members, but many CPAs find this skill set hard to master. Two other methods of developing business still provide plenty of opportunities for any CPA to succeed in growing the firm. By networking with existing client relationships, CPAs can identify numerous needs that result in expanded business for the firm. Cross-referrals to other team members can result in large engagements, better client relationships and higher profitability for the firm. The last leg of business development opportunity involves becoming an expert in one of the practice areas. This expertise will generate internal and external referrals of business. Because of its high value to the client, it can also result in higher fees for the services rendered.

Innovation. In the information age, knowledge is available from many sources, and change occurs rapidly. Firms must learn to create value through innovation (by doing things differently than they have in the past). New methods of value pricing engagements, flexibility for team members, rapid promotions for high performers and less emphasis on the chargeable hour as a performance measure are just a few of the challenges facing the public accounting profession. The need for internal innovation as well as external solutions for clients has brought innovation to the forefront. CPAs who can think outside of the box and challenge the status quo can be some of the most valuable team members in the firm.

Good citizenship is an underlying but fundamental aspect of the four performance areas. Personalities that destroy team trust and cause team member unrest or retention issues will not be tolerated. Expectations for all team members include honoring commitments, sharing knowledge, being punctual, performing essential administrative functions, and showing respect for everyone. Being positive is critical— it’s a choice every CPA can make.

The difference in obtaining extraordinary career results compared with average results can be as simple as applying some key principles on a daily basis which can have tremendous impact over a year and phenomenal impact over five years. These attributes are easily recognizable as important or relevant, but for the most part are not incorporated effectively into our careers. They include passionate commitment, risk-taking, effectiveness, attitude, trust, integrity, niche-building, growth, vision, accountability, listening, understanding and energy. The application of these attributes is fundamental to creating value for your clients or employer and yourself.

For example, commitment is more about mind-set than any one action and is demonstrated over time. If you take a long-term view, focus on parts of the job you are passionate about, and approach goals in manageable increments, you will be on your way to showing commitment.

Cultivate decisiveness and build your way toward bold, consistent risk taking. Instead of looking at risk/liability (what could happen if something doesn’t work), look first to risk/reward (what value could be created if it does work). Whatever holds you back—fear of public speaking, writing or leading push yourself out of your comfort zone so often you’re no longer comfortable there. Take advantage of self-mastery books and courses to learn specific techniques. Know that mistakes are inevitable. Accept them, learn from them, and move on.

A good attitude will greatly benefit your CPA career. Be a possibility thinker—a “yes until no” person, instead of a “no until yes” person. When others ask for assistance, find a starting place that says, “How can I help this person achieve his or her goals?” Displaying a can-do attitude will help you become a resource for team members as well as your firm’s clients.

Self-confidence is part of having a positive attitude, but it must be tempered with humility. Know when to laugh at yourself. When we recognize our limitations and can laugh at our mistakes, others will see us as approachable, which is a workplace asset. However, when plans go wrong or someone disappoints you, wait until you are calm before reacting. Lashing out can undermine your career.

Trust is as important to work relationships as it is in personal life. You depend upon others—whether they’re clients, colleagues, subordinates or superiors—to make things happen. High levels of trust encourage people to innovate, strengthen your firm, and position you as a true leader. Nothing builds trust faster than helping others.

To create high-trust relationships with your co-workers and clients, develop consistency between what you say and what you do—be trustworthy. Let people know what you are doing and why. Share your ideas openly and listen carefully as you solicit feedback. Respect the confidentiality of all relationships; failure to honor confidentiality can quickly destroy trust. Be politely candid in your evaluations of others—and equally receptive to their perceptions, needs and criticisms. Keep negative comments to yourself. Convert them to constructive feedback at the proper time directly to the individual.

For years we’ve read one news story after another about situations where business leaders did not do the right thing. Corner-cutting and dishonesty are hard to hide for long, harm the overall economy and are bad policy. There’s no room for compromise when it comes to doing what is right—and it can take courage.

CPA clients may sometimes have expectations that conflict with what we know is the right thing to do. Try to give a client the benefit of the doubt but don’t sacrifice your integrity for anyone. Giving in to pressure has ruined many careers. And before taking on a client, check the person or entity’s reputation in the community and its industry. If you’re not in a position to decide and you think there’s a problem, give your employer honest feedback about a client’s integrity.

Also, when you make a mistake, don’t try to cover it up with a half-truth or lie. Instead, ask yourself: “What is the right thing to do?” and do it. The earlier you learn to do this, the more empowered you will be.

In the Internet age, general information is accessible to everyone, and the competition is fiercer than ever. CPAs who build niche expertise create extra value for clients and employers, for which they will pay more. Broad knowledge has value, but your goal is to become the go-to person in a niche area (see “Expand Your Horizons: Niche Marketing Success Stories,” JofA, April 08, page 56). If you are a CPA with particular tax emphasis, for example, develop a niche in a specific aspect of taxation or even taxation within a certain industry such as health care or construction.

Evaluate potential areas of interest by talking to clients and team members. Find a specialty that interests you and learn a little about it every day. You cannot start this process too soon (or too late).

Today, information and technology are moving so quickly that your current skill set diminishes substantially in three years. CPE programs offer an opportunity to learn information that will expand your marketplace value in addition to keeping your CPA credential.

A good employer will invest in training you, but the primary responsibility for your growth lies with you. One of the best ways to meet the challenge of “staying smart” is to teach others. Share within your team, lead a group discussion, or develop opportunities to teach peers and clients outside the firm.

See where you want to go and develop an unquenchable desire to get there. Motivation comes from creating a vision so mighty and purposeful that a healthy tension is created within you to work smart and hard every day to reach your destination.

To create a personal vision statement that motivates you, make it so bold as to be almost embarrassing. The best statements are only three or four sentences and describe the desired reality in the present tense: “I am a nationally recognized expert in nano-widgets. I enjoy respect within my profession and community. I create exceptional value for my clients. I am a powerful teacher and mentor. My greatest strength is helping others find success.”

Choose to be a CPA who takes complete responsibility for results. People are attracted to professionals who take responsibility, make things happen, and are accountable for the outcomes.

Accountability is a state of mind in which you do everything within your power to meet expectations. Even when presented with complicated circumstances beyond your control, lead the search for solutions and follow up with all affected parties to ensure the best possible outcome for everyone. Assuming responsibility and accountability can be a transforming principle for both your career and personal life.

While communication is a two-way street, most of us are inclined to focus on getting our message across rather than concentrate on what we’re hearing. However, CPAs who are effective listeners better understand a client’s expectations and have more success fulfilling them. Practice the skill of listening at home with family and at work with trusted colleagues. Slow down, breathe deeply, look at the person speaking, and check with him or her on your understanding of their position. Understanding requires empathy, caring and tolerance. It also requires a true appreciation of the diversity of human strengths, styles and talents. Make an effort to find out what your team members and clients care passionately about. Ask them, and listen when they answer. Demonstrating compassion and empathy for their interests and concerns elicits trust—and adds value.

Finally, energy is one of the keys to high performance. It has a positive effect on team members, attracts clients and creates more energy. Ultimately, your success will depend in great part on your health. Form good habits early and make exercise part of your routine.

Success takes commitment and vision. Challenge yourself to improve continually and remain focused on your goals. Remember that the toughest part of undertaking a new challenge is taking the first step. The sense of empowerment and autonomy you will enjoy from taking charge of your CPA career will be among the greatest rewards of your professional life.


  Four performance areas create value for CPAs in public practice: client service, team development, business development and innovation. CPAs who want to carve out a great career have to be proficient in all four and outstanding in one or two.

  Your career can reach its full potential by doing the small things on a daily basis that impact results for years to come. These include passionate commitment, risktaking, focus on results, positive attitude, trust, integrity, niche knowledge, growth, vision, accountability, active listening, understanding and high energy.

  People are attracted to professionals who take responsibility, make things happen and are accountable for the outcomes. Assuming responsibility and accountability can be a transforming principle for both a CPA’s career and personal life.

  Success takes commitment and vision. CPAs who want a great career must challenge themselves to improve continually and remain focused on their goals. The toughest part of undertaking any new challenge is taking the first step.

Joey D. Havens , CPA, is the director of specialty accounting for Horne LLP, a regional CPA firm with offices in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arizona and Louisiana. His e-mail address is joey.havens@horne-llp.com. Michael Hayes is a former JofA senior editor and AICPA employee. She is employed by KPMG in Thought Leadership and is a member of the New York Financial Writers Association. Her e-mail address is mhayes398@aol.com.


JofA articles


  • Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook , loose-leaf version (#090407); e-MAP, online version (#MAP-XX).
  • Promoting Your Talent: A Guidebook for Women and Their Firms (#872566).

Web sites

For more information or to make a purchase, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Private Companies Practice Section
The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at www.aicpa.org/PCPS. Premium content, resources and tools are also available at the PCPS Human Capital Center at http://pcps.aicpa.org/Resources/Human+Capital+Center.


Creating Value: Your 90 Day Plan to Right Tracking Your Career , by Joey D. Havens and Joseph S. Paul. Available at www.authorhouse.com or www.amazon.com


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