Make sure your CPA traits are assets and not liabilities

Humble, accountable, strategic, and skeptical, CPAs are great to work with.
By Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA

Over my past 12-plus years as a recruiter I have focused on placing CPAs as well as other professionals. I enjoy working with fellow CPAs, as I can anticipate what to expect from them. They tend to be transparent job-seekers who represent themselves accurately, which, of course, makes it easier for me to guide and place them.

In my experience, many CPAs share certain positive qualities, such as humility, love of knowledge, and attention to detail. Sometimes, though, these characteristics can get in the way of their success in the workplace and on the job market. Here are some of the CPA traits I've observed over the years, and some thoughts on how to let them shine to their greatest advantage:

CPAs tend to be humble and downplay themselves and their achievements. This modesty helps CPAs build trust with peers, supervisors, and clients, and allows them to focus on others' needs. Also, this attitude often helps CPAs provide advice and solutions others will take to heart.

CPAs tend to be strategic thinkers who weigh their options carefully before taking risks. CPAs use their experience and knowledge when thinking through various scenarios and their possible outcomes.

CPAs tend to be able to learn new topics with ease. (Think about all of the required courses we had to take to sit for the CPA exam and be licensed!) CPAs often seek out opportunities to learn more through reading, research, asking questions, and attending seminars or webinars, and then apply that knowledge on the job.

CPAs tend to be literal in their communication style and are very detail-oriented. When someone needs to know the details of a situation, CPAs can usually walk him or her through every step.

CPAs tend to approach the world with healthy skepticism. We aren't inclined to accept data at face value and most likely will question things, too. CPAs usually ask additional questions since they need to verify or clarify information.

CPAs tend to have a need for numbers to make sense. We want the numbers to work out correctly in every situation, even in our personal lives. For example, if our bank account or utility bill is off by few cents, we are likely to recalculate until we find out where the discrepancy came from. This tenacity and ability to get to the bottom of things is a great quality and also shows others that we don't easily give up.

CPAs tend to have accountability. CPAs typically hold themselves accountable and take responsibility for their outcomes, whether good or bad. We primarily serve in roles where we're expected to provide advice and/or analyze, assess, and verify data. Therefore, we take those roles very seriously. We recognize that if we don't perform well our clients or employers might suffer serious financial consequences. (We're also well-aware that inadequate performance may mean we can be fired, dismissed by a client, or reported to our state's board of accountancy.)

CPAs tend to do what we say we will do and follow through. Enough said!

Though these traits are all positive, in excess, they can have their downside. Here are a few suggestions on making the most of your CPA traits:

  • Don't let your humble nature stop you from speaking up or promoting yourself. That can make you less likely to be acknowledged for your initiatives and efforts or considered for career milestones (raises, promotions, awards, etc.).
  • Prudence is a great quality. However, to get ahead or be viewed as a leader, you may need to take risks that are outside of your comfort zone. Trust your judgment (it got you this far), and take the necessary steps to accomplish goals for yourself and others.
  • CPAs tend to love details. Be aware in communications, though, that a brief yet factual answer often works better than a lengthy one. Know your audience (client, boss, interviewer), and tailor your message to the mode of communication you're using (email, phone, voicemail, text, letter). Otherwise your audience may lose interest.
  • CPAs' curiosity and professional skepticism often helps them get to the truth of a situation. But sometimes, asking people a lot of questions can put them on the defensive, which doesn't always lead to a positive outcome. Ask for information in a way that invites others to cooperate and feel at ease. For instance, if you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone on the job, start with positive observations about his or her work and behavior before asking questions.
  • CPAs usually want to make sure all the numbers work out and get all the information they need to solve a problem. In most cases, this tenacity is a great asset. However, it can also lead them to spend too much time and effort on problems that don't warrant it. If you feel you're getting bogged down in details, ask yourself if the benefits are worth the cost you're expending. At work, demonstrate that your love of detail doesn't lead you to lose sight of the big picture.

To my fellow CPAs, you make me proud to represent you and do business with you, and to be friends with you too! Let's keep up our great reputations!

Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA, is an independent recruiter based in Maryland. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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