The One Lesson No CPA Can Ignore

Even veteran CPAs have trouble with it. CPAs share career secrets: Join the study. Get the tips.

November 15, 2007
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

If you’re just starting your CPA career and you’re not sure which specialty path to take, don’t fret. Many experienced CPAs are confounded by the same question.

Practitioners from all parts of the profession note that selecting a niche is among the more befuddling issues facing newly minted accountants and that making the right choice is of paramount importance to success. “There are so many areas to branch out into. It's much more than a choice between public and private,” says Grace Ghezzi, a CPA and senior executive with a consulting firm in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Selecting the right niche is part of what a vast majority of CPAs see as a need to be committed to lifelong learning. In our ongoing study, we’re asking practitioners to name the most important ingredients to a successful CPA career. Lifelong learning consistently ranks near the top of the list along with “people skills” and “integrity.”

“Just because you have a college degree does not mean you are prepared for the many varied engagements that are dealt with by a CPA everyday,” says Michele Heyman, CPA, CVA, CFE, a senior manager at a public firm in Austin, Texas. “This profession requires lifelong learning that begins the day you graduate from college.”

Lifelong learning emerges as particularly important for CPAs in public practice. And it’s a key indicator of the more successful firms, according to the study. In addition, partners are more likely than staffers to see the importance of lifelong learning.

One small public firm managing partner notes that “today the expected technical knowledge level and the standard that CPAs are held to require most of us to pick one or a few areas to specialize in and just sort of keep a working knowledge of other areas.”

Charles Perkins, a senior staffer in business and industry who also runs his own public practice in Burien, Wash., adds that “CPAs, just like firms, need to stand out. Specialize and become knowledgeable in one specific area and you are likely to become more valuable and better compensated.”

But finding that niche, much like selecting a college major, can be daunting. Mark Kolman, a government sector senior staffer in Tampa, Fla., advises new CPAs to “try out different specialties within the profession (like tax, auditing or consulting) to find out which ones you like the most and which ones you absolutely hate.”

One public practice mid-level staffer on the job for fewer than three years advises younger CPAs, “Don't believe you're done learning once school's over — every day is a new learning experience.”

Dennis Fogarty, a mid-level staffer in business and industry in Columbus, Ohio, advises, “Get as wide a variety of work experiences as you possibly can. This will enable you to determine what your real ‘niche’ is.”

In addition to gaining work experience , Kelly Katerakis, a senior staffer at a large public firm in Dublin, Ohio, advises fellow CPAs to “talk to as many people as you possibly can” to find your niche and then “learn as much as you can, both from a practical and technical standpoint.”

“Never stop learning,” says Ignacio Fortuno, a senior staffer at a large firm in Raleigh, N.C. That’s good advice we can all learn from.

YOUR TURN: Do you have what it takes to succeed? CPAs share their secrets: Take the survey; join the discussion.

COMMENTS: Questions, rants or raves? Write Rick Telberg.

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