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Who Gets Promoted in CPA Firms? CPA Trendlines Survey Provides Answers

Article Post Date
August 13th 2014 by

Tax, accounting and finance professionals don’t agree on everything, but according to an ongoing CPA Trendlines multi-year study, “Talent Strategies: How the Accounting Profession to Identifies and Develops Professionals for Management and Leadership Responsibilities,” they do seem to agree on the key traits needed to succeed in the profession.

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The survey of more than 1,600 practicing professionals spanning 2012 and 2014 shows some 90% agreeing that a personal lifelong dedication to technical and professional education, and to personal and interpersonal improvement, may be the best indicators of future success. In fact, about 47% of respondents say the habit of “always trying to improve” is “always” a reliable indicator, more than any other of the more than two dozen possible choices.

The top five talent indicators, according to respondents, are:

  1. “They are always trying to improve.”
  2. “Clients say good things about them.”
  3. “They increasingly handle the relationship with the client.”
  4. “They understand the importance of bringing in new business.”
  5. “People listen to them.”

In the survey, we asked how to best identify and develop leadership potential. Our first concern was, “What’s the most important thing to look for in spotting staff with partner or top executive potential?” As usual, accountants had a lot to say.

“I have been seriously thinking of this lately,” said Patty Scott of PS Tax Specialist, LLC in Arlington, Texas. “I have asked several professionals and I summarize it up to: people have to want to learn, want to do the work correctly, care about the clients, invest of their own time on their own and not be lazy. The main thing I keep coming up with is that they have to want to do it; the rest all falls in place if they want it and they’re good at it.”

William Murphy of Murphy Financial Group PC in Carmel, Ind., said an employee who understands value is, well, valuable: “A good ethical compass on how to succeed and bring value to the table in every assignment. They are not looking at ‘why’ but ‘how’ to get the assignment done. Client satisfaction is always at the top of the list.”

Also important, he added, is “a healthy curiosity in taking the problem apart and then building it back better. If they get frustrated in solving a Rubik’s cube assignment … give them a pass.”

A willingness to learn came up often, in different forms.

“I think the desire to constantly improve oneself. In our industry you cannot rest on your laurels and think you will continue to be successful,” said Garrett Surles, senior accountant with Memphis-based Fouts & Morgan CPAs, P.C.

“An ability to learn, adapt, interact successfully with peers and clients” was cited by Christopher Morrow of Forbes Todd Group.  Balu Narayan of Pipalia Singhal & Associates suggested the “ability to look beyond the usual, the ability to spot trends and to look for long-term indicators rather than short-term facts.”

Beth Symons of Symons Accountancy in Galt, Calif., cautioned that guidance must be part of the process. “Potential candidates do not know what is needed and need instruction about what to do and sometimes how to do.”

Accountability also was cited.

“They take ownership in all areas – their career path, their work product and their relationship with the firm and clients,” said David R. Brady, partner in Oklahoma City’s Luton & Co. PLLC.

“They treat things that happen in my firm like they are already partners,” added Jo Barsa, owner and CEO of Barsa & Company, CPAs in San Diego. “They have the ability to effectively handle stress, deadlines and difficult clients. They show initiative and realize that they are responsible for their own success, and do not blame their failures on others. They have an ‘I can do anything I set my mind to’ attitude.”

“People listen to them,” said John Greenling of Katz Ferraro McMurtry, PC in Pittsburgh. “Other people follow their lead. The technical skills are obtained over time, but the soft skills, such as leadership, are tough to develop. The ability for a staff to come in and have their peers follow their lead is a clear sign of someone who has partner potential.”

Once accounting firms and finance departments have identified what seem to be the most reliable indicators of future success, how do they nurture and develop those traits into a professional with superior management and leadership skills? That was our second question. It may sound harsh to the uninitiated, but the most common way for firms to turn talented staffers into future managers and leaders is to make their lives a little more difficult, according to the survey.

The survey shows that the most often-used method for developing staff into managers – and potentially partners – starts with “giving them challenging assignments.” In fact, 66% of the accountants in the survey say that their firms “mostly” or “always” turn to the challenge method.

That’s followed by 54% who “encourage” staffers “to explore new technologies and new ways of doing things.”

In third place, 49% say their firms use the “let them make mistakes” strategy.

Top five talent management strategies in use today, according to the CPA Trendlines survey, are:

  1. “Give them challenging assignments.”
  2. “Encourage them to explore new technologies and new ways of doing things.”
  3. “Let them make mistakes.”
  4. “Get them involved with client consulting.”
  5. “We encourage staff to pursue specialties.”

But, CPA Trendlines followers didn’t stop there. In open-ended comments, they suggested a wide range of approaches to bringing out the best in budding accountant talent.

Several readers pointed to the type of work given as a key motivator.

“Find out what excites them and have them focus on developing those areas,” said Jo Barsa, owner and CEO of Barsa & Company, CPAs in San Diego. “Give them opportunities to observe existing partner behavior in a variety of situations. Encourage them to ask questions.”

Garrett Surles, senior accountant with Fouts & Morgan CPAs, Memphis, echoed her thoughts. “Continue to challenge them on difficult work, but in fields that interest them to keep them focused. Be very open with communication on how to move up in the firm and what that might mean to them professionally and with regards to potential compensation, etc.”

Scott Burk of Burk & Company LLC, a solo practitioner who said he used to work for Andersen, offered what could be cautionary advice. “Identify the best technically astute clients,” he said. “Reward hard work, billable hours, etc., and not flaky specialties, such as SALT, sales tax, wealth management, etc. Reward the aggressive go getters.”

“Involvement from the top down,” said John Greenling of Katz Ferraro McMurtry, PC in Pittsburgh, and not just on billable projects. “Some of the most rewarding moments in my career were non-billable projects that were assigned to me from a partner. When partners pull various staff into non-billable developmental projects it shows that they are important aspect of the firm.”



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