Marc Ursick
Ten career tips for young CPAs

Observations of what made accomplished professionals successful can help build careers.

February 25, 2013
by Marc Ursick, CPA, CGMA

Many young CPAs fantasize about the day when they will be promoted to CFO, controller, or partner. But just what does it take to achieve such a dream finance position these days?

As a young CPA, I have worked with many accomplished professionals at Ernst & Young’s advisory practice over the past four years. Every time I met an impressive professional, I jotted down the individual’s strengths. I then tried to incorporate those strengths into my own day-to-day work as a senior consultant.

The tips below distill my observations of these highly successful people into 10 recommendations. The advice serves as a template for success that may help other young CPAs build their careers from entry-level jobs up to the corner office.  

Step 1: Don’t limit your challenges; challenge your limits

Seek out “stretch” opportunities early in your career, even if those activities make you feel uncomfortable. Challenging yourself will make an impression on your bosses, diversify your skill set, and boost your confidence.

Prior to starting each new initiative, sit down with your bosses and discuss ways they can help challenge you. Make it your goal to test your capabilities and perform at a level above your current position. Others will recognize your efforts and the transition to the next level will be that much easier. If you take on too much and fail at a certain activity, use it as a learning opportunity to better understand your weaknesses. Then work to improve them prior to the next opportunity.

Step 2: Find mentors to sponsor you

The sponsor-protégé relationship has become a popular subject in corporate America as of late. According to a recent study by Catalyst, both parties typically receive benefits from the relationship—including higher pay and career advancement. However, this relationship does not develop overnight. To become a protégé, a young CPA must earn sponsorship through hard work and dependability.

It’s worth the effort. Young CPAs who want to move up need a “rock star” group of sponsors that will advocate for them throughout their career. Look to recruit these sponsors from leaders who trust and depend on you the most at work. They will not only offer guidance now, but also will open doors for you later in life.

Step 3: Manage upward

Young CPAs sometimes develop skills, such as those involving newer technologies, that established professionals lack. Seize the initiative and teach those skills to your colleagues. Those who have the confidence and tact to mentor upward without stepping on any toes set themselves apart from their co-workers. 

Teaching is just one way to manage up. You also can take ownership of projects by leading status meetings. Rather than waiting for your boss to ask for something, provide it ahead of time. Brainstorm ways to enhance reports you provide to management. Your efforts will be noted because they allow more senior team members to concentrate on other responsibilities.

Step 4: Develop diversified financial knowledge

Develop a horizontal rather than a vertical view of the finance world. If your work requires you to concentrate on a specific industry, IT system, or financial process, make every effort to also gain experience in other areas. You can do this by participating in rotational programs, reaching out to subject matter experts for lunch and learns, and performing your own research. Understanding all areas of the finance organization will help your development immensely. Once established, you can choose your specialty area based on your interests from previous experiences.

Step 5: Understand your weaknesses

Assess your weaknesses and strive to improve in those areas. Bosses can be a big help, if you let them. While candid appraisal sometimes may be difficult to hear, you should ask your supervisors to provide as much constructive criticism as possible—and don’t just assume they’re providing it already.  According to a 2010 study by Leadership IQ, 51% of people said they receive too little constructive criticism from their boss. You want sponsors, mentors, and bosses who provide consistent constructive criticism, because they are often the ones that care the most about your development.

Step 6: Learn to prioritize

Determine the priority levels of your assignments and concentrate your efforts on the activities that are the most important. For instance, a task assigned by the CFO should receive more attention than a request from a low-level employee in a far-flung department. Hardworking CPAs right out of college sometimes try to complete everything quickly, but that’s not always right, either. You want to manage priorities so that you deliver high-quality work, especially in the most important assignments.

Step 7: Wake up early

“Early to bed, early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise.” There’s more than a kernel of truth in that well-known saying. A study by Harvard biologist Christoph Randler that appeared in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2010 found that early risers are more proactive in their daily lives. They were more likely to agree with statements such as “I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself” and “I feel in charge of making things happen.”

Many successful people are the first to show up in the office, sometimes arriving at least an hour before most of their co-workers. They not only get a head start on work, but also benefit from face time with other early rising high performers.

Step 8: Be a sponge

The majority of a young CPA’s development comes from on-the-job training. Make it a point to learn at least one thing from every person you work with, no matter his or her level, specialty, or department. Even everyday activities can be learning experiences. Don’t just go through the motions while performing repetitive tasks such as account reconciliations; think about ways to improve the process to make it more efficient.

Step 9: Find the right work/life integration

Life outside the office affects your work. Sometimes the impact is subtle. Other times, such as during a family emergency, it’s more overt. Either way, finding the right balance between work and home plays an important role in your success. Fortunately, accounting firms are often ahead of the curve on this issue.

Step 10: Take responsibility for your career

Achieving success requires adopting the right mindset. At the end of the day, you must accept that you control your career. Successes and failures fall on you—not your mentor, not other employees. If you are consistently unhappy with your development, you may need to rethink your current path and look for different opportunities, either inside or outside of your current organization.

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Marc Ursick, CPA, CGMA, is a senior consultant in the Performance Improvement—Finance practice of Ernst & Young. He is based in the Cleveland office.