Accounting has remained one of finance's few safe havens for employment with Big Four firms such as Deloitte and KPMG hiring thousands every year.
But getting a job at an accounting firm is only the start. As many as 20% of those who go into accounting get out each year; that's one reason why the firms make so many new hires. You need a concerted plan to get to the top, whether you're trying to make partner at a public accounting firm or aiming to become a chief financial officer at client company. Expect your climb to take at least 10 to 15 years.
Here's how to turn that first accounting job into a long, high-powered career.
Moving up the ladder requires spotless credentials and that means becoming a Certified Public Accountant. Typically, if you join a public accounting firm, you will work for two years and then take the CPA exam, says Brett Good, senior district president with Menlo Park, Calif.-based recruiting firm Robert Half. Without the CPA, you won't be able to segue into your next position.
"We will hire people without their CPA up until their fifth year of experience in the sector," says Nancy Altobello, Americas vice chair of people at Ernst & Young. "We will support them to get it, but generally the firm doesn't hire people without one after year five."
Accounting departments within companies also want to see CPAs. "The reality is having the CPA is a tie-breaker if a company is choosing between two candidates," according to Brendan Courtney, president of Mergis Group, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based recruiting firm. It's best to take the exam as soon as you can, once you have your company's sponsorship.
Also consider getting other certifications to impress potential employers. Those extra qualifications make your resume stand out and also increase the base salary you can command by as much as $22,000 a year, according to recruiters and the Institute of Management Accountants .
"The accounting field loves certifications," Courtney says. "Look into the Certified Fraud Examiner and Certified Cash Manager credentials."
Another certification worth considering is the Certified Management Accountant credential. The exam tests financial planning, budgeting and forecasting, as well as ethics, performance management and decision analysis, according to Jeff Thomson, president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants, a global trade association for management accountants.
"There's more demand for management accounting skills as you climb the career ladder," Thomson says.
Moving up at Public Accounting Firms
Make no mistake: The percentage of people who reach partner status at public accounting firms is small. At McGladrey LLP, a Minneapolis-headquartered firm, there are 640 partners out of 6,500 employees. Ernst & Young has 8,600 out of 152,000 employees, while at Grant Thornton's U.S. arm, there are 500 partners out of more than 5,000 employees.
At PricewaterhouseCooper, it takes an average of 13 years to become a partner, says Paula Loop, U.S. and global talent leader for the firm. As a person progresses up the ladder, organizational, communication and managerial skills become more important.
"The technical competency is fundamental, that's really more of a baseline," she says. "Once you move up, you need to be able to organize a team and manage really large projects. You have to be opportunistic and be willing to jump on new opportunities. You should have agility and be able to work in different countries and work in different areas of expertise."
A typical career path at E&Y would include the following: start as a staff accountant. Take the CPA exam. After two years, move to senior accountant. After three years, move to manager. Another three years later, move to senior manager. From senior manager to partner it can take between three to six years.
According to Altobello of Ernst & Young, as a staff accountant, you're doing entry level work and working at the client site. By the second year, you're starting to supervise the newly-arrived staff accountants and you're doing field work.
As a senior, you're overseeing tasks and taking on more management activities. As a manager and senior manager, you're running the client engagement, meeting with the client, understanding their issues are and managing the team. Finally, as partner, you're responsible for the quality of the engagement and for all communication with the client.
Mark Gaines became a partner at Chicago-based CPA firm Altschuler, Melvoin and Glasser LP in 1990, after having worked there since 1978. The firm was ultimately acquired by McGladrey, where he works now.
"You need to aggressively plan your career," says Gaines, 56. "As you get further along in your career, networking is critical. You need to demonstrate your ability to bring in business."
In addition to business networking, Gaines suggests interacting with people through various charitable organizations. He himself is involved with the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce, a trade association that connects American and Israeli companies, the American Technion Society and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Through those pursuits, he has met clients, met people who referred him to clients and also honed his leadership skills.
Bringing in clients is an important part of being a partner, says Katie Byrne, the partner in charge of New York-based accounting firm WeiserMazars' Pennsylvania office. "Not everyone can develop relationships and that's a really important aspect to bring in clients."
When you've just joined a public accounting firm, no matter how big or small, you should expect to travel to the client site, says Byrne, who once spent four months on an engagement in Perth, Australia and has also worked in Colorado, California, Texas and Illinois.
"I've seen the country and the world through my work," she says. Like in banking, your conduct on these trips will help cement your reputation within the firm as a respected and easy person to be with, qualities in demand at the senior level.
Also important is your presentation skills, say Cindy Christopher, national director, talent acquisition, and Nina Guthrie, national director, university recruiting, at Grant Thornton.
"If you want to make partner, you'll need an executive presence," says Guthrie. "You might know everything and how to do it, but if you don't look the part, you've lost credibility."
That translates to flawless public speaking skills, proper attire and other soft skills, such as knowing how to shoot the breeze with clients while also attending to their concerns.
One of them most important qualities of aspiring partners is the willingness to ask for difficult assignments, Guthrie says. "A person might be on two or three assignments at a time. We need that type of person who's going to do their work really well and invest in both client relationships and relationships within the firm."
The Way Up at Client Companies
If you're working as an in-house accountant, your career advancement will vary depending on the industry you're in and the specific company you have joined. A typical career trajectory might include the following, according to Good of Robert Half:
You'd come in as a junior accountant, bookkeeper or accounting clerk. You might then move up to a senior accountant position, then assistant controller position, then senior vice president of finance and ultimately chief financial officer. You would spend at least a few years at each position.
"If you're at a small company, there are more opportunities for you to grow with the company if that company's successful. It's not uncommon to see that someone has been there for many years and they wind up being the controller or the CFO. There's no one size fits all," Good says.
You'll also navigate a similar route at a larger company. Pamela Craig, the chief financial officer of Accenture, the management consulting firm, began as an accountant, moved into consulting then back into finance before assuming her current position. She spent two years as the senior vice president of finance before moving into the chief financial officer position.
Write to Julie Steinberg at Julie.Steinberg@dowjones.com