6 proactive steps accountants can take to get promoted in 2021

The path to the next position in the new normal requires more initiative than ever.
By Hannah Pitstick

The world may have been turned upside down in 2020, but odds are you still have a clear shot at getting that promotion in 2021 if you're a CPA.

"In the CPA world we're focused on promoting people in order to grow the firm especially as experienced leaders move towards retirement," said Jessica Kober, CPA, audit and assurance senior manager at Windes in Long Beach, Calif. "I think there's actually a lot more room for advancement during the pandemic because those who communicate well will really stand out. We need our teams to be on point more than ever."

While the criteria for promotion haven't changed drastically, Kober contends that individuals who are proactive about their professional development and excel at communication and other soft skills have the best chance of promotion in a remote-working environment.

"We're seeing people who are proactive about taking their career into their own hands to move up the ladder," she said.

The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, and as a result, some skills have become more important than ever for CPAs. If you're hoping to get a promotion in 2021, try taking these six proactive steps to achieve career advancement this year.

Sharpen your communication skills. Everyone seems to agree that written and verbal communication skills are essential right now. Effectively communicating with colleagues, clients, and managers is more difficult in a virtual environment, so if you're struggling with connecting or presenting over applications like Zoom, it might be worth taking time to hone your skills.

"You can teach somebody accounting, but you can't teach somebody to be a communicator unless they're willing to put that effort in," Kober said.  

If you want to improve your communication skills, ask trusted colleagues or your mentor for feedback, or try recording yourself giving a presentation and observe your tone, cadence, eye contact, and body language. You could also hire a career coach to help, as well as read books and take online courses on the subject. The ability to connect with others, read the room, and clearly communicate your ideas is especially important if you're hoping to be promoted into a managerial role.

"If they're going to be leading a team, they really have to be fantastic at connecting with people," said Joe DiGennaro, placement executive with VALiNTRYfinancial, a CPA recruitment agency based in Winter Park, Fla.

Another key aspect of effective communication is accommodating the person you're speaking with, so make a point of asking colleagues, managers, and clients what their preferred mode of communication is and reaching out to them that way.

Conduct a self-audit. Before you can do the work to improve yourself, you need to know where your gaps are.

Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA, independent recruiter based in Bethesda, Md., recommends doing what she calls a "self-audit," a process where you assess your current skills and determine where you have gaps, based either on what your company requires of you or what skills employers are looking for right now.

Once you pinpoint your gaps, figure out how you can improve in those areas through internal (on the job) and external training, such as CPE courses, professional conferences, and taking classes on a specific topic or skill.

"People need to invest in themselves and figure out how much time they need to devote each week to improving themselves," Berk said.

Have conversations with your manager and mentor. Perhaps the most obvious step to securing a promotion is asking your manager what you need to do to get one.

"Have a clear, concise, and honest conversation about where you are at this point in your career and what the requirements are to take you to that next level," DiGennaro said. "That's really going to help to eliminate any confusion and decide what the best next steps are."

And if you don't have a mentor yet, Kober highly recommends getting one. High-level CPAs consistently cite their mentor as a major component of their success.

"Especially during a pandemic, you want somebody who is going to be more invested in you and ask how it's going," Kober said. "These are the people helping you advance in your career."

Seek out and implement feedback. Anyone looking to be promoted needs to be proactive about seeking feedback, especially right now, when everyone is so focused on the client work, Kober said. 

Evaluations and feedback may not be happening as regularly while everyone is working remotely, so make a point of asking for feedback whenever you get the chance. And once you've been given feedback, be sure to absorb it and gradually implement improvements.

"You're not going to change your nature overnight," she said. "Slow progression is actually the best way for promotions, especially now during a pandemic."

Another way to show your manager that you're looking to improve is to try and figure out problems on your own before asking for the solution. And whenever you don't completely understand something, ask your manager to walk you through it. 

"I can usually tell someone is on the path to promotion when they're trying to seek out the how and the why," Kober said.

Round out your skills. If you work in an industry that has been adversely impacted by the pandemic, or there isn't a clear path to promotion in your current role, it may help to cross train, network outside your bubble, or pick up new skills that will allow you to be more well-rounded.

Berk suggested CPAs in this predicament ask their manager to start a cross-training program in which employees learn new skills from one another, both within the accounting department and across functions. For example, if your company could use help with purchasing, you could volunteer to work with others in that department. Not only can you learn skills and gain experience in a new area, you can also share your accounting-related skills too.

If you work for a CPA firm, you could try to figure out ways to bring in different types of clients and create new lines of business and services. She added that you should emphasize to your manager that your goal is to help the organization, not just yourself. In which case, "Be sure that the organization's goals do in fact align with yours", she said.

DiGennaro recommended picking up business development and sales skills if you can, because that is going to be highly attractive to every firm. Developing those skills can be as simple as joining some networking groups, introducing yourself to the local chamber of commerce, taking a sales course, or expanding your industry knowledge. Any of these can also be done online by networking through Zoom, LinkedIn, or email; attending virtual conferences; and completing online courses offered through the AICPA, Coursera, Udemy, or similar websites.

Make your goals known. If you are willing to tell someone your goal, they will be much more willing to help you get there, Kober pointed out.

Kober stressed that anyone hoping to get a promotion should let everyone know what their career goals are.

"I truly feel that everybody wants people to succeed, but you have to put that goal out there in order to achieve it," she said.

She added that you should tell more than one person because sometimes the one person you tell might not work with you day-to-day and won't be able to give you the specific feedback you need to improve. For example, in addition to your manager, consider telling your team leaders, mentors, colleagues, and anyone you work with regularly who can help nudge you in the right direction.

"When I know someone is going for a promotion, I want to give them that feedback to make them successful," Kober said. "Because that's the goal, and when you have a strong team, it's energizing and our clients really benefit."

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at

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