The Top 7 CPA Skills You Need — and How to Get Them

CPA Skills You Need

As a certified public accountant, you have years of education, and you’ve passed the CPA exam attesting to your knowledge in auditing, business concepts and more. But to maintain your good standing as you climb in your finance and accounting career, you must continually develop basic CPA skills, as well as acquire new ones.

The People Puzzle, a study from Robert Half and the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), asked 450 staff-level finance and accounting professionals what they would like to add to their compilation of CPA skills in the next year. Here are the top seven responses.

1. Management and leadership strength

About three in 10 respondents said they were happy with their current position, though they want to add to their CPA skills, but 47 percent have aspirations of becoming a manager or controller. To rise to this level, finance professionals need strong leadership skills. They can benefit from pursuing in-demand credentials, such as a master’s degree in accounting, an MBA or a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation.

2. Public speaking competence

To excel in their jobs and move up, CPAs must know how to present information in a compelling manner. In a report by Protiviti, a subsidiary of Robert Half, the skill that surveyed internal auditors wanted to improve the most was public speaking. The key to being a good presenter isn't reading a PowerPoint deck. It's persuading and relating to the audience by telling stories, making analogies and speaking naturally.

3. Up-to-date tax knowledge  

Successful accountants stay current with tax laws and mandates, which change constantly. To best serve their clients and organizations, everyone from payroll administrators and tax accountants to financial planners should take hours of continuing professional education (CPE) courses in federal and state taxation, Affordable Care Act tax forms and more.

4. Business expertise

To advance in the ranks, CPAs need strong business acumen. The more finance professionals advance in the workplace, the more they will be asked to advise upper management, put together company-wide reports and provide big-picture perspectives. The better they understand how an organization’s various departments operate and interact, the more successful they’ll be in their position and long-term career.

5. Systems abilities

Successful CPAs are the ones who master their company’s software and systems. For starters, they need advanced skills in Excel, the workhorse of almost all accounting and finance departments. Other in-demand IT knowledge includes QuickBooks (for small and midsize companies), structured query language (SQL), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and business intelligence software.

6. Communication mastery

One of the most important nontechnical CPA skills is the ability to speak to and write for a wide range of constituents. Financial analysts primarily analyze data and compile reports, but they must explain those numbers, data and findings to peers and non-specialists in a clear and convincing manner — without obfuscating buzzwords. In addition, active listening plays a major role in how well one communicates.

7. Additional auditing training

Most CPAs are well versed in this skill, as it is one of the four components of the qualifying exam. Accountants who are interested in helping companies evaluate their methods and performance should get additional training in auditing. This is a good career move, as internal auditors are in demand in both public and corporate accounting.

Next: Prepare for your proposal

To acquire these skills, you’ll need additional training, and many employers will pay for it. But before you approach your manager about taking classes, do some research. Find out which seminars, certifications and degrees will be most useful in your current position. Be sure to inform your boss of the time commitment, total price and, most importantly, how the company will benefit from your training. Demonstrating a company-wide need, rather than a personal ambition, will increase the chances of getting management’s full support. Finally, request a meeting with your boss to present your proposal.

Not all CPA skills can be taught in the classroom. To boost your communication abilities, for example, you can volunteer to write for internal newsletters and industry publications. To learn managerial skills or improve your general business knowledge, request to shadow a leader in your organization or be paired with a mentor.

Adding to your CPA skills is the way to increase job satisfaction and rise in the ranks. But you have to take the initiative to get what you want.

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DeLynn Senna​DeLynn Senna, CPA, is the executive director of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, the world's first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. In her role, she leads Robert Half Finance & Accounting’s global operations, including defining brand positioning, working with executive and field leadership across five continents to develop growth strategies and operating processes, and to shape and promote the company’s vision internally and externally.