How Can I Add Value To A CPA Firm As A Staff Accountant?

Tired student

I got this question a few days ago from a Bean Counter reader:

“How can I add value to a CPA firm as a staff accountant?“

It’s an exciting time. You are just starting your career in public accounting. The most important thing you can do in this new period of your life is to harness that enthusiasm and NEVER lose it. It’s more important than any individual job you ever take or task you complete.

With that in mind, this is a tricky subject. Many partners from previous generations might say things like:

“Be patient, it will happen.”

“Stay calm, slow down.”

“You need to learn the fundamentals, focus on that.”

All of that is hooey. Most people don’t make it past 3 years in public accounting. So your time very well may never come unless you start on day 1. But you have to toe the line. You don’t want to annoy the senior members of the firm, but you do want to take charge and make a difference.

The good news is: it’s possible.

In my first two years in public accounting, I worked on new and exciting clients. I was part of not one, but two client proposals (one was a Fortune 1000 company and the other was a major clothing brand) before I was even a Senior!

I wasn’t just being an auditor; I was already a business person.

The most important thing to remember is that you don’t deserve the additional responsibility and exposure you want. You have to earn it. Before I get to the real game-changers, I need to make sure you are covering the basics:

  • You must understand how to perform your job, and you’re in the top 5% of employees in your class
  • You need to be the person who completes your work early most of the time. Sometimes it might take you longer to complete the task but regardless, your work is completed on time. Never late!
  • You show up on time every day (the earlier the better)
  • You always (and I mean every time) volunteer for new opportunities, especially if it requires a lot of work and a headache in other people’s eyes
  • Your clients looks forward to having you on the team and believes you are competent and knowledgeable in conversation
  • You come to work looking (clothes, hair, and make-up if applicable) like you are ready to make a difference in your life and the firm

Those are the basics. Doing those things simply means that now you have a chance to make a difference. People trust you. You are dependable. You are the rising star. If you aren’t doing at least those things, go back and start at the top. Nobody will trust you to handle something like planning an event, changing company policy, or leading campus recruiting efforts.

Now that you’ve got your ducks in a row, here’s what I would do:

Target at least three (preferably five people at the firm) who are making a difference.

Spread them out across different levels (all above your current level). Also add at least one person from HR, preferably the head honcho. For the lower level people like managers and seniors, it is appropriate for you to schedule a lunch with them at their convenience. The upper managements (Partners and HR) just ask for a five minute meeting. In each of these meetings you’re going to:

  • Listen more than you talk
  • Ask questions about their thoughts, opinions, and experiences for most of the meeting.

In the meeting, find out what makes them tick! Why are THEY the rising star? What do they do differently? For the lower level people, it should go like this:

So Sally, I’ve noticed you’re one of the top performing people in the office. I would totally appreciate if you could be a kind of “unofficial coach” for me? I don’t need you to do anything per se; I’d just like to get your advice from time to time when career decisions come up. Don’t get me wrong, my assigned coach is great, but I’m honestly impressed by you and would like to follow in your footsteps in a variety of ways.

(here is where they say yes) Then you say:

“Thank you! I really appreciate that and you coming to lunch with me today. So I wanted to learn a little more about you. How were you able to <insert whatever impressed you about the person here>”

This meeting and conversation is huge. The way you get the chance to make the difference at the firm is to get influential people on your side, believing in you, and most importantly: involving you.

There are always other “opportunities” available. This kind of conversation will make sure your name is brought up when everyone is sitting around the room thinking, “who should we reach out too for this?”

APPLY: Passing the CPA Exam Before Your Start Is KEY to Having an Edge Against Others in Your Class.

Don’t mistake this for “sucking” up. It must be genuine. Only choose people you are truly impressed with and want to learn from. For the partner and HR meeting, it is a little different. You want to do this quick and dirty, ask for a 5 minute meeting. Go in and say:

“I just want to get your advice. I’ve set this goal with my coach <insert major goal here> and if there is ever anything I can do to help out on special projects to meet that goal, just want to let you know, I’m throwing my name in the hat!”

If the goal is super big and controversial like getting promoted early, working from home, etc, Consider phrasing the meeting like this:

“I know this is a big goal, and I’m far from ready to realize it today. There is a lot of hard work ahead. But I want to ask you, what would I have to do for you to say, ‘oh ya, we HAVE too promote Andrew to senior early, no question!’ What would I have to do to for that to come out of your mouth?!”

There is an opportunity for these conversations every single day you go into work. If you want to make a difference, there are so many ways:

  • Work on client proposals
  • Chair social events
  • Work on new accounting, tax, or audit methodology for the firm
  • Travel abroad
  • Coordinate community service
  • Get promoted early
  • Turn an un-profitable job, profitable
  • And so much more

But my biggest piece of advice? Snuggle up with anyone and everyone who can get you ALL of these opportunities to make a difference in your early years! If you try on your own, you won’t be working on what the firm needs the most and you almost certainly won’t get the recognition you’ll deserve! Good Luck!