10 Accounting Career Lessons to Land the Interview

Workers chasing carrot as they learn career lessons

As a recruiter, I know a good candidate when I see one. Good applicants for accounting and finance roles have the right mix of experience and software skills, degrees and in-demand certifications, along with tenure in their industry. Good candidates are also equally as great in person as they are on paper.

The best candidates, however, have learned a few important career lessons.

If you’re an accounting candidate, what is­­ this secret sauce that makes hiring managers and recruiters so excited to call you? And maybe more importantly, what are the factors that deter them from calling you?

While a lot of factors make a candidate look great on a resume, there are a number of career lessons that can increase the likelihood you’ll get a call from a hiring manager or recruiter.

There is no carbon-copy accountant that every company is looking to hire. Every industry, company and hiring manager looks for something different. Requirements for qualifications, certifications and software all depend on what kind of business they’re in.

But, if you follow these tried-and-true career lessons, you increase your marketability in the accounting field — and decrease your chances of being passed over in the job search.

1. Don’t get pigeonholed

The industries that are hardest to transfer out of are banking or financial services, government, and nonprofit organizations. That’s not to say you should avoid these industries altogether. Just don’t take a position in them expecting it to lead you to another position in a different industry.

Accounting specifications are uniquely different in certain lines of business and don’t transfer easily to other industry roles. Even if you have great tenure and experience in one sector, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have equal opportunity in another. You may be promotable within these sectors, but not necessarily outside of them.

2. Diversify your software experience

QuickBooks experience is great, but having it as the only accounting software you’ve mastered won’t transfer well to a company that’s not using it. Having universal enterprise resource planning (ERP) experience, like SAP, is great to have — and also transferrable. Some of the most common accounting ERPs include JD Edwards, NetSuite, Microsoft Dynamics and Sage, to name a few.

Read about How to Upgrade Your Financial Software — and Skills.

3. You can stay at a company too long

Good tenure is important, especially if you’re looking for a traditional direct hire, full-time position, but staying somewhere too long can make potential employers weary of your ability and even willingness to learn their processes, software and business. Avoid becoming too stale by being receptive to new opportunities outside of your current company.

For more on gaining a competitive edge, see our Career Advice page.

4. You can also move on too soon   

If your resume shows a pattern of staying at companies for an average of months instead of years, those are the types of opportunities you’re going to attract — short-term, contract assignments. Which is fine, if that’s the work you want. In permanent-placement recruiting, we call this a job hopper. As a professional, you shouldn’t make decisions on changing jobs based on temporary frustrations. If there are situations causing you to make frequent career moves, be prepared to answer questions related to your tenure (or lack thereof) in an interview. Don’t approach these questions defensively, but do so with a response you’ve prepared.

5. Use public accounting as a launch pad

Public accounting is a fickle thing. I constantly have candidates wanting to get in and candidates wanting to get out. Experience with the Big 4 firms — Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG and PWC — can tee up an accountant for major career success. I’ve had many conversations with hiring managers who require Big 4 accounting experience for their openings.  

Making this choice? Read Private vs. Public: Choose Your Accounting Career Path.

Professionals who work at smaller, regional firms, of course, can also be top-notch candidates. But candidates who want to move to corporate accounting might find that managers are concerned with their ability to focus on one business instead of multiple clients, and whether they have transferrable skills if they’ve been responsible for only a fraction of a total accounting process.

Public accounting reminds me of the story of the three bears: You want to put in just the right amount of time with the right firm.

6. Become an Excel master

Excel is the common dominator for most accounting positions. Do yourself a favor and take a course if you haven’t had regular exposure to it or if you don’t use it every day at work.

Check out how this CPA describes 5 Excel Skills You Need to Become a Fanatic like he is.

7. Create a strategic plan

What’s your end game? This needs to be the first question you ask yourself before you make a career move, or don’t. Don’t accept an opportunity just because it crosses your path and sounds interesting. If you want to be a CFO, learn which opportunities will lead you to that end goal, such as earning your CPA or MBA, gaining broad financial experience, and enhancing your understanding of business, technology and operations by seeking out opportunities that expose you to those areas.

Take a look at CFO Salaries: Just One Reason to Aspire to the Top Job.

8. Beware of moving for money or title

Career skills and real money come from time and earning promotions. Changing jobs for quick money or to fast track to a different title is not a sound career move. Be ready to put in the work, and the money and titles will follow. If they don’t, that’s when it would be a good idea to consider making a change.

9. Forge a relationship with a recruiter

A good recruiter functions as a coach and a resource to help you make strategic choices. They are your eyes and ears on the market, and can alert you of good opportunities that make sense for the career path you define with them.

Find out the benefits of working with a finance staffing agency.

10. Know your market worth

As a conscientious professional, it’s important to be able to quantify your skills — realistically. Some people undersell themselves, while others oversell. This leads only to a mismatched placement, and if done too much or too frequently, can derail a career. Once you’ve assessed your skills, compare them with what the market needs. This gives you a true sense of how marketable you are.

The biggest tip I give to accounting and finance professionals considering career moves is to be honest with themselves. We all think we are the best, that we’re marketable and that any company would be lucky to have us. But if you aren’t getting called back for jobs you’re applying to, consider it a lesson to take a step back and assess your skill set in relation to the positions.

Are you qualified, and do you have most, if not all, of the requirements listed in the job description? What does the supply and demand of talent look like? If you don’t know, review accounting and finance trends to learn what skills are in demand and in what markets. Some of the best preparation you can do is to ensure that you’re marketable and putting your best foot forward, and that the lessons you’ve learned during your career are clear in your resume and in a cover letter that’s tailored for that prized new position.

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Brittney MurrayBrittney Murray is a recruiting manager for Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Raleigh, NC. She also consults, instructs and speaks on marketing topics, including social media management, digital marketing and branding. Her Twitter handle is @brittjanelle87.

More career insight from Brittney