How to speed the path to partner

Here are some ways young CPAs can accelerate the process.

BY CHRIS BAYSDEN
March 1, 2014

Mark Jain, CPA, was making his way through customs at San Francisco International Airport on a Friday afternoon in July 2012 when he discovered that someone had left him a voicemail. Jain, en route back from a business trip to Hong Kong, soon realized this was no ordinary message: The head of his practice at Ernst & Young LLP wanted to talk to him.

With travel-weary passengers streaming around him, Jain quickly dialed New York.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to call this guy back,’ ” he said, remembering the call. “People probably thought I was a little funny, being so excited in an airport.”

There was good reason for excitement; the enthusiastic executive soon informed Jain that he was going to be named one of the firm’s newest partners. Jain was just 32 years old and had joined EY less than 11 years earlier, making him one of the fastest homegrown partners at the firm. Jain credited his quick rise to a number of factors, including technical competency, coaching and guidance from senior leaders, and the willingness to stretch his comfort zone.

“Since I was staff, I had aspirations to be a partner,” he said. “It’s a truly, truly amazing feeling.”

A PRIVILEGED POSITION

Partnership, to borrow from the old credit card slogan, has its privileges: respect from your colleagues, a leadership role in the firm, and opportunities for higher income. It’s no surprise that young, driven CPAs like Jain make it a goal from the get-go.

“If you’re going to be in public accounting, the end game has always been being partner,” said Randy Watkins, CPA, CGMA, a partner at Anton Collins Mitchell LLP in Colorado. “That’s the top of the food chain.”

Young accountants have to work long and hard to enjoy those privileges. While it varies by firm, partnership typically is at least a 10- to 15-year track in the Big Four, national, and regional firms.

But it doesn’t always have to take that long. Smaller firms can offer young CPAs a quicker path to partner. Watkins, for instance, started at ACM before leaving to buy into his father’s accounting firm. Two years later, the firm merged with ACM, which currently has a dozen partners. That includes the 36-year-old Watkins, who made partner at age 31.

While every CPA firm does things a little bit differently, Watkins’s situation was exceptional and would be hard to duplicate at larger firms—where institutional rules and procedures can make it particularly challenging to accelerate the process. And no matter what the “traditional” path is supposed to be at a given firm, workplace politics and the economy can always influence how many, and how soon, partners are named.

STRATEGIES TO MAKE PARTNER

Even so, an ambitious CPA can employ strategies in an effort to shave a year or more off the usual timetable. “A person should be technically competent without a doubt, and specialization helps,” said Rosanne Aumiller, CPA/ABV/CFF, a director at BBP Partners in Cleveland. “Things that would help the process: An employee should seek out work, take ownership of projects, provide regular updates to the in-charge, never gossip, and have high integrity.”

Like Aumiller, many seasoned CPAs advise that aspiring partners start by developing a specialization. That helped Mark Erickson, CPA, who worked at Salt Lake City firm Tanner for four years before moving to Washington to work with the SEC. His public accounting practice provided him with experience in working with small public companies, but the SEC role gave him even greater understanding of the regulatory issues they face.

After a two-year tour of duty in the nation’s capital, Erickson headed back to Tanner. Having an accountant who had worked for the SEC proved a boon for the firm when it came to business development opportunities with public companies in Utah.

“I learned a ton at the SEC—I really did,” Erickson said. “It definitely contributed to the firm’s growth.”

And that, in turn, helped his career. Erickson made partner in the early 2000s after about eight years in the profession—compared with the dozen or more years that it typically takes at Tanner.

RELOCATION FLEXIBILITY CAN BE KEY

Erickson’s example touches on another important strategy that can help young CPAs: relocation flexibility. In his case, a willingness to move landed Erickson experience with a regulator. CPAs don’t always have to change employers, though. Sometimes the right opportunity is inside the firm but at a different office. A willingness to relocate to a new city or state—maybe even overseas—sometimes gives young CPAs the experience they need to outpace colleagues of a similar age.

Jain, for instance, relocated from EY’s New York City office to a smaller one in San Francisco in 2009. That showed firm leadership that he was able to deal with the disruption of a move and help grow business in an office that wasn’t as deep as the one he came from. 

“While all firms value employees who are flexible in terms of job assignments, work ethic, and travel to clients, multioffice firms have even more need for flexibility due to seasonal staffing needs, niche practice focus, language and cultural issues, and office succession planning,” said Blake Christian, CPA, a practice management expert who works at Holthouse Carlin & Van Trigt LLP in Long Beach, Calif. “Therefore, senior managers and principals who are looking toward a partnership track should carefully research, and discuss with their superiors, which domestic or international assignments they may be willing to take for the short term or long term.” Establishing your reputation as someone who is willing to tackle challenging assignments helps increase the likelihood of securing the partner promotion, he added.

CULTIVATING A BOOK OF BUSINESS

Developing a reputation as a rainmaker also can help young CPAs reach partner earlier than usual. It’s never too early to start cultivating a book of business. The smaller the firm, the more critical it is to generate one’s own work. At bigger firms, aspiring partners need to demonstrate that they can work on a team to land new business. And it’s always easier to get the partner group’s attention when a CPA can demonstrate how much revenue his or her book of business is generating for the firm.

CPAs use various strategies to grow their book of business. They network through civic and business groups as well as volunteer on the boards of nonprofits. Landing a leadership role in an industry group can help. So can getting published and giving speeches for business or professional gatherings—activities that establish a CPA as an expert in his or her practice area.

CPAs also should look for mentors who can help train them—and who will be advocates in partnership discussions, said David Hollander, CPA, a principal at MBAF in Boca Raton, Fla., who credits his relationships with mentors—including his firm’s managing partner—as helping to speed his path to partner. For a CPA to become a partner, an existing partner needs to bring the CPA’s name forward for consideration—which is why advocates are so important.

Three or four years before he became a partner, Jain said, he had conversations with his bosses about the process. Those conversations led to his enrolling in a series of firm training programs covering everything from technical competency to relationship building. A couple of years later, he started having more formal conversations about building his book of business and how he managed his teams.

As Jain’s experience illustrates, making partner ultimately is about work skills and personality attributes coming together. Candidates need to demonstrate that they are capable leaders and managers who possess both technical proficiency and an ability to generate business—not to mention being able to handle the challenge that comes with running a business. Above all, they need to offer a mix of benefits that the firm just can’t stand to lose to a rival employer.

“That’s how you become a partner,” Hollander said. “You become a valuable part of the team, and the firm creates an environment and a future that makes you not want to practice anywhere else.”

Editor's note: Also read "The pros and cons of nonequity partnerships," by Jennifer Wilson, in the March 2014 issue of the JofA.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Although it varies by firm, the track to partner typically takes at least 10–15 years in the Big Four, national, and regional firms. But it doesn’t always have to take that long.

Smaller firms can offer young CPAs a quicker path to partner. And there also are strategies that an ambitious CPA can use to shave a year or more off the usual timetable at bigger firms.

A prospective partner should be technically competent, and specialization helps. He or she should seek out work, take ownership of projects, provide regular updates to those in charge, and have high integrity.

Developing a reputation as a rainmaker also can help young CPAs reach partner earlier than usual. It’s never too early to start cultivating a book of business.

Young CPAs should look for mentors who can help train them—and act as advocates. An existing partner needs to bring a CPA’s name forward for consideration as partner—which is why advocates are so important.

Chris Baysden is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at cbaysden@aicpa.org or 919-402-4077.

AICPA RESOURCES

Publication

The Overachiever’s Guide to Getting Unstuck: Replan, Reprioritize, Reaffirm (#PGN1301P, paperback; and #PGN1301E, ebook)

CPE self-study

Keys to Effective Communication: How to Be an Effective Talker, Listener, Writer, and Presenter (#732816)

Conferences

  • Emerging Partner Training Forum, June 23–24, Durham, N.C., and New York City
  • Women’s Global Leadership Summit, Oct. 23–24, Washington


Webcast

“Keys to Have in Your Partnership Agreement,” July 29, 2–4 p.m. ET (#WBC13314I)

For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Blog post

10 Skills for Mapping Your Journey to Partnership,” May 28, 2013

Webpage

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Private Companies Practice Section

The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at aicpa.org/PCPS.

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