There is a natural human desire to get better at what we do professionally. Whether the reason is to earn more money, a firm promotion, peer recognition, or the satisfaction that we are operating at a high level for our clients, most of us want to improve our skills to be the best we can be. Since professional goals may be in conflict with personal goals (spending more time at home with the family), the answer is not simply to work more hours. The question is: How do I become better at what I do; how do I become a better CPA?

How do you become better at anything? One way is to hire a coach, find a mentor, be coachable, and practice new behavior until they become habits. Another way is to do research, talk to other people, and take a class or a course. A third way is to identify what you want to become better at, set the objectives and strategies to achieve your goals, and hold yourself accountable or, better yet, enlist someone else to hold you accountable. If you are really serious about improving your skills, you’ll combine elements of all three approaches.

Who bears the primary responsibility for your professional development? The simple answer is: you do. You initiate the conversation with a firm partner about getting on the path to partnership. You inquire about getting a mentor at the firm. You select the continuing education courses you need to be more technically proficient, as well as courses that will help you hone certain “soft skills.” Invariably, becoming a better CPA involves designing an annual plan for professional growth.

Here the primary elements of a professional growth plan:

  • Industry expertise. A CPA can add much more value to a client if they become an expert in that client industry. To become an expert, talk to industry leaders, read what they read, join industry associations and attend local chapter meetings. You just may have an association member walk up to you and say, “You know my CPA never attends these meetings; perhaps I have the wrong CPA.”
  • Service niche or tax specialty area. Attorneys and doctors both specialize - so should you. You don’t want to be a tax generalist; select an area of tax law and “make your mark.” Similarly, identify a service niche you would like to pursue - forensic accounting, business succession, merger and acquisition, and develop expertise. Attend a conference on the niche or specialty you select.
  • CPE/soft skill development. Soft skills are typically identified as leadership, management, communication, and business development. Read books on leadership and management. Plan to take courses in these areas even if there are no continuing education credits available. Write blogs or articles and attach them to the firm Web site. Overcome your fear of public speaking and plan to do a presentation to a group. Learn to be a good story teller.
  • Build your referral pipeline. With the advent of social media it is no longer necessary to ask for a referral with the question “Who do you know?” Once you are connected to a client on LinkedIn, you can now ask for introductions to specific people by name. Set a goal for new additions to your referral pipeline in the next 12 months.
  • Organizations to join or attend. In addition to joining an industry association that you want to focus on, consider professional associations of referral partners like estate planning attorneys or bankers. Joining a nonprofit association gives you exposure and access to community leaders.
  • Mentoring. Ask a partner of the firm to mentor you. Schedule regular meetings (not just an annual review). Ask to be included with client lunches, meetings with prospects and referral or potential referral partners. Become a sponge every time you are invited along.
  • Plan to have a coffee, breakfast, or lunch each business day (200 times/year) with a client, prospect or referral partner. This will produce a solid referral pipeline and enable you to know your client on a deeper level.
  • Hire a trainer/coach. The best athletes in the world have coaches. Executives hire coaches and take management courses on how to be better leaders. A coach can give you a different perspective, advice, and help you get the most out of your efforts.

If you are serious about becoming a better CPA, design an annual plan for professional growth and enlist an accountability partner. Do not limit expenditures to what might be reimbursable by your employer – invest in yourself and in your career. Take personal responsibility for your career development. It will pay huge dividends.

Bill Tsotsos

Bill Tsotsos

Bill Tsotsos is business development strategist at Encinitas, Calif.-based BD Consultants. Reach him at (951) 834-2023 or billtsotsos@gmail.com.