Do You Have What It Takes to Succeed?

CPAs say you need more than just good technical skills. What’s your secret? Join the study; get the results.

September 20, 2007
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

People skills are important in everything and in every business, but they have a special significance in the accounting profession.

While people skills are a key element of success in any walk of life, it can be argued that CPAs have a professional obligation to take those skills beyond the level of mere communication to the point of empathizing with clients and being able to see things through the client’s eyes.

And yet, something so seemingly simple seems to be equally in demand.

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“Many staff members are self-absorbed and are not able or willing to put themselves in the clients’ shoes. Those who are able to be the ‘client’ and to make those kinds of commitments seem to achieve the most,” says J. Frank Fisher, managing partner of a small public practice in Reno, Nev.

“The heart of people skills is caring for the other person — especially the client,” adds Andrew Pfau, managing partner of a small firm in Jericho, NY. “Always put your employer and your client's interests above your own, do what is right for the client and everything else will take care of itself.”

Pfau and Fisher are among the 86 percent of CPAs in our new study who cite people skills, including the ability to relate, communicate and otherwise just get along with others, as one of the most important ingredients in a successful career as a CPA. By comparison, only 70 percent identify up-to-date technical knowledge as the most important ingredient. CPAs can still join the survey and get the results of the study.

“You may have the technical skills, but won't get very far without the necessary professionalism,” says Susan Lowe, a senior executive at a small nonprofit organization in Boston, Mass. For CPAs, she notes, that entails added levels of courtesy, such as avoiding slang in conversations and being aware that “e-mailing is not the same as talking.”

One corporate staffer strongly urges newbie CPAs to work at making good friends in business, noting that “True friends become great contacts, especially when you become friends without expecting anything in return other than friendship.”

To be sure, taking the client relationship to a higher level still requires basic communications skills. Marian Callaway, who runs a small public practice and also works as a corporate controller in Marietta, Ga., advises, “Listen to what the client wants and take time to do research to determine if there is an ethical, honest and legal way to get the job done. Then communicate your findings to the client in a manner they can understand, which often means being able to say the same thing several ways.”

People skills are particularly crucial in the accounting profession because of the nature of the business relationships. Elaine A. Pesavento, a managing partner with a firm in Berwyn, Ill., notes, “A CPA is most times considered a ‘family member’ of the client.”

And, dysfunctional relationships excepted, we usually treat family much better than we treat nonfamily. For Charles Lieser, a senior executive with a mid-sized company in Fort Worth, Texas, the CPA success motto reads, “Work on others’ businesses like they were your own.”

It all sounds a little like what we were taught in kindergarten. It’s funny how some of the first lessons we learned in life are still the best.

NOW IT'S YOUR TURN: What’s your best advice for succeeding as a CPA? Share your thoughts. Join the study; see the results.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

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