2 Ways to Win on the Public Accounting Career Path to Partner

By Robert Half on October 3, 2016 at 5:30am

You’re an ambitious CPA who has started advancing on a public accounting career path. You have your sights set on becoming an accounting partner in a prestigious firm, even if it takes a dozen years or more.

It’s important to know that not a lot of people get to be partner. I’ve talked to hundreds of CPAs in the last 30 years who were promised partnerships on the public accounting career path — but they never got to that level.

An option, of course, is to move to the corporate world on a less-structured private accounting career path. That can give your career a boost down the line, because when companies are searching for a new controller or chief financial officer, they often look for someone with both public accounting and industry experience.

Still determined to make partnership the capstone of your career? Here are two strategies for success on the public partnership track:

1. Be a rainmaker

The public accounting career path typically starts with an entry-level position as a staff accountant or auditor in a new recruiting class, and advances to senior associate and managerial positions. To rise to the coveted position as accounting partner, you need to know how to bring in business, attract new clients and retain the ones you have.

As an aspiring partner, you need to have a sales flair, be confident in your skin and be able to talk to clients and potential clients. An outgoing personality and people skills that allow you to interact well with both clients and colleagues are paramount.

2. Develop specific expertise

An alternative strategy in the public accounting career path is to become an expert in a specific subject area or industry that sets you apart from the masses.

Maybe you’re a tax expert, or you have a unique forensics, technical or audit background. Or perhaps you’ve specialized in edicts from the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees key players in the securities world. If your specialty is what the company needs and wants, you could be on your way to partnership.

I knew a forensic accountant who was such an expert nationally that the company made him a partner pretty quickly — they didn’t want to lose him.

While you reflect on whether to pursue the public accounting path to partnership, you may want to ask yourself the following questions before attempting the big step:

  • Are you ready for the commitment? — While there are advantages to being a partner, the demands are high. Once you reach management level, you’ll have a long list of responsibilities, but duties ramp up even more at the partner level. Some people find this invigorating, but be sure you know what will be required, right from the beginning. Are you the kind of person who can be available whenever you’re needed? Are you a leader when challenges arise? Consider what it means to take ownership in your company.
  • How flexible are you? A willingness to relocate to offices in other cities, states or even countries is valued in many public accounting firms. It can give you experience to help you outpace your colleagues on the path to partnership. You can also demonstrate your flexibility by exploring your firm’s different practice areas and training for a new specialization.
  • Are you willing to wait? — Recognize that few in the finance sector become partner quickly, and you may spend some time in a director or other position first. Make the wait time well spent. Look at each step you make from manager to partner as an opportunity to add skills, experience and interpersonal strengths to your resume. You’ll need these as you move forward. Constantly evaluate how you are improving in areas like leadership skills and management. Focus on gaining what it takes to be at the helm of your organization.

There’s no surefire public accounting career path to partnership. While you shouldn’t discount the time you’ve put in with your company, especially if it promotes from within, you don’t want to overstay your welcome, either.

The important thing is to forge your own way. Come to grips with your strengths, be realistic, look in the mirror and see your future.

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Richard Singer
Richard Singer

Richard Singer, Robert Half’s senior vice president and director of permanent placement, has his CPA and MBA and worked 10 years in public and private accounting before he started working as an executive recruiter.

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