Career advice for young CPAs from the Big Four

Senior leaders at top firms offer advice to help boost a career, whether at a small or large firm.
By Joseph Radigan

Every CPA at the outset of their career faces important decisions that may determine the rest of their working lives. We recently asked leading practitioners at Big Four firms for their thoughts about what accountants at the early stages of their careers should do to succeed in a rapidly changing profession.

We spoke to Erin Shannon, CPA, managing director and strategic initiatives leader at Deloitte (based in Jacksonville, Fla.); Becky Burke, CPA, Americas assurance talent leader for EY (based in New York); Susan St. Amant, CPA, partner in charge of KPMG Business School – Audit; and Laura Martinez, CPA, PwC human capital leader for assurance (based in San Francisco). (Editor's note: Answers have been edited for space and clarity.)

What's the most important thing recent hires can do for their professional future?

Erin Shannon, Deloitte: Never stop learning, be open to change, and keep evolving. In today's fast-paced economy, it's important to retool yourself. It's likely that what you do at the start of your career will not be what you do in the future — or, at the very least, how you do it will be different. Continually think about the skills of tomorrow, and challenge yourself to learn them early, so when the time comes you have the skills and experience that are in demand.

Becky Burke, EY: Stay hungry and eager for new opportunities that continue to challenge and stretch their comfort zones. Young professionals are launching their careers during an incredible period of global business transformation, creating unprecedented opportunity for leadership and continuous learning. They should embrace this by tapping into their critical and innovative mindsets, fostering a sense of inclusion, and being open to diverse perspectives.

Susan St. Amant, KPMG: Invest time in your career by setting goals to deliberately and thoughtfully move your career forward. First, find coaches and mentors who are successful and can help you make important decisions in your career and guide you down good paths. Second, be a lifelong learner who embraces the pursuit of knowledge and skills. Change is happening all around at a rapid pace, and your willingness to actively welcome — and adapt to — these changes will open the door for you to be selected for new opportunities and provide you a competitive advantage. Finally, develop a strong personal ethics and integrity mindset to uphold a high standard of behavior in business as well as in your personal life.

Laura Martinez, PwC: The role of an auditor or an accounting practitioner, their oversight, and their responsibilities are really important for the financial integrity of the capital markets. I encourage our people and our recent hires to focus on quality, adding value to our clients, and enhancing their digital skills. Being technically strong and keeping a client-centric mindset absolutely help drive quality.

And we believe that being digitally skilled is also fundamental to driving audit quality — so become comfortable with analyzing large datasets, visualizing data, and automation. It'll help you better understand your client's business and deliver value for them.

What should a young CPA do inside the firm and around the profession to improve their professional skills?

Shannon: Be curious and look for opportunities to continually evolve your skills, both technical and nontechnical, so that you are improving the impact you make. Lean in to all developmental experiences and realize that being uncomfortable is growth.

Burke: Emerging technology is changing the way we audit at a rapid pace. We have the ability to analyze data for our clients that can shed light on key business insights and equip them to better address the dynamic landscape around them. This means our people need to understand the trends impacting the sectors in which their clients work. An analytical mindset and intellectual curiosity are critical components to this and will differentiate traditional auditors with those of the future.

St. Amant: Be motivated to learn and take full advantage of formal and informal training and resources to build your knowledge and skills. Learn from your co-workers, peers, supervisors, and others who have the skills and behaviors you'd like to develop. Know what's going on in the world — business acumen and professional judgment are critical to your success as a professional accountant. Read professional publications to keep yourself informed of the latest developments in the industries in which you serve. View every experience — including failures and mistakes — as learning opportunities.

Martinez: Take advantage of any training and resources available to you, particularly those that allow you to hone your digital and technical skills. Digital skills are fundamental. I wouldn't call them baseline today, but in the pretty near future, they're likely going to be an expectation. When you can combine these digital skills with the skills of professional judgment, critical thinking, professional skepticism, and the ability to build relationships — that combination is really the profile that we see for the successful accounting, finance, and audit practitioner of the near future.

What's the best approach to developing a professional network?

Shannon: The creation of value and sharing of experience have helped me significantly. Being generous with your skills and time is a major key to expanding your network, elevating your personal brand, and accelerating your career. At the end of the day, these things help you grow as a person and a professional.

Burke: Young professionals need both mentors, people who provide coaching and support, and sponsors, those who will actually champion them for new and bigger opportunities. It is equally important for our early career professionals to take a proactive approach to developing these relationships. For anyone who has talent, future-focused skill sets, and a hunger to keep learning, there will always be someone willing to help nurture and further their careers.

St. Amant: Concentrate on building great relationships both inside and outside your company and include current and former colleagues, former classmates and instructors, fellow professional association members, and others who participate with you in community volunteer activities in your professional networks. Bear in mind that real success is about the quality of the relationships within your network. Therefore, actively tend to the "care and feeding" of your network so that it remains alive and well. 

Martinez: Networking is about building relationships. Everyone can build relationships, and growing your professional network is really important and does take intentional effort. As you advance in your career, you should seek out opportunities proactively to grow your network. Join professional organizations. Join a board or a committee. Do charity work or not-for-profit work that's aligned with causes that are important to you. Those are great ways to expand your professional network.

Joseph Radigan is a freelance writer based in New York. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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