True Grit: The Essential Character Trait for CPAs

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

October 18, 2007
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

It takes more than hard work and talent to succeed as a CPA in today’s world. It takes character.

Maybe “character” is an old-fashioned word these days, but it seems to apply. CPAs hold a special place in the world. And with it, they bear a certain responsibility that should never be forgotten or ceded. To succeed as a CPA, you need it too.

Do you have what it takes to succeed?

CPAs share their secrets.
Take the survey; join the discussion.

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“Never compromise your integrity,” advises Keith B. Campbell, a CPA and certified fraud examiner who runs a forensic accounting practice in Gulfport, Miss. “Be ready and willing to walk away from a client, an engagement, or even a job rather than violate the core values you hold.”

Almost three in four CPAs told us in a recent reader poll that integrity and good character are among the most important ingredients for a successful CPA career. Those attributes ranked behind only “people skills” as the most often cited elements of success whether the respondent work in public practice or other parts of the profession (business and industry, nonprofits, education and government).

“Knowing the right thing is most important, that entails ethics, not being opinionated and building relationships honestly,” says Gerald Gregor, senior staffer CPA in the government sector in Nutley, N.J.

George Gulisano, a senior executive with a small public practice firm in Coral Gables, Fla., emphasizes that “integrity is a cornerstone of the profession. In today's corruption-filled culture, CPAs must steer clear of conflicts of interest and help reverse the public's perception that CPAs as a profession are not capable of exercising independent oversight.”

A public practitioner, who also performs corporate controller work, says that accountants coming out of college must ask themselves, “What is your priority (purpose): money or ethical work product?”

Practitioners’ emphasis on integrity and ethics as career success factors jives with our previous report about a survey of certified fraud examiners. The survey found that 76 percent believe that financial fraud is more prevalent today than in 2002, before enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform law, and only three percent believe that fraud is less prevalent today.

In our studies, practitioners also note that integrity is closely intertwined with the number one factor in career success: people skills.

Sonia Lukow, who works at a small public practice in Farmington, N.M., advises starting accountants, “Be confident when speaking to clients, yet be completely accurate in the information provided. If you don't know the answer to a question, don't just give a guess. Research everything you don't understand. Establishing a reputation for integrity and accuracy will help create a solid client base.”

Integrity is also intertwined with being open to learning from others on the job. Joe Eckelkamp, managing partner of Eckelkamp & Associates in St. Louis, Mo., advises, “Try to learn something from every boss you have — whether it's what to do or what not to do — and be prepared for the inevitable showdown between ethics and job security that everyone faces sometime in their careers.”

David Lingler, a senior executive with the Cassady & Schiller firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, points out the upside of working with high integrity: "… no one can take that from you, only you can lose it.”

Or, as John Wayne says in Stagecoach, "Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from."

NOW IT'S 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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