Michael Sterling

Think Small for Big Rewards in CPA Career

How to Find Greater Learning and Earning Power In Public Accounting


Sure, working for a Big 4 firm is sexy. There’s a status linked to the name recognition. For many new accounting graduates, it’s a terrific start into a CPA career.


The ‘Big’ in Big 4 tends to become the issue for many talented and motivated accounting professionals. There’s little opportunity for true advancement. Let’s face it, only a short list of people will move upward through the ranks. It’s not possible for everyone to rise to the top.


Most people at big firms are middle-management types. They’re good competent people, but they cannot teach entrepreneurship. If you’re spending most of your time with middle management people, you’ll be taught to think like a middle manager.


The majority of the staff at big firms have never had to bet everything they own on their business decisions – not just a few times – continuously. They’ve never been deeply responsible to a group of employees and their families.  When the entire firm depends on you and a partner or two, the impact and importance of strategic decision-making and execution is at an entirely different level. An entrepreneur’s ability to focus, analyze, decide and take action, is deep, intense, multi-layered. It’s both now and forward-looking. It’s practical.

The Big Benefit of Small


I invariably recommend to accounting professionals, looking to grow their career, to think small. How small? A firm with one to three solid Partners and approximately 6-10 staff.  Most importantly, the firm should be profitable and growing. If these elements are in place, the firm is big enough to have resources and small enough to offer an intense learning environment.


Learning the whole picture technically, provides personal gain. Working with clients in every aspect, of their business and personal finances, increases an individual’s business management IQ. It requires flexing different interpersonal skill muscles. It helps expand vision.


The potentially biggest gain for career growth, is working elbow to elbow with those who built and run the firm. Being mentored by the firms’ Partners is the best way to develop leadership, cultivate management skills and hone an entrepreneurial viewpoint.


Put Your Finger On the Pulse


If you take the initiative to work closely with the Partners you’ll learn the heartbeat of the business, leadership skills, strategic decision-making, and client development abilities that will accelerate your career. You’ll also have the opportunity to work closely with clients and enjoy a diversity of work rather than being pigeon-holed at a big firm.


Being in the heart of strategic planning and decision making, is the gift of a small firm. It kickstarts your CPA career. The knowledge, contacts and broad experience you obtain quickly expands both your technical and soft skills. It’s that depth of experience that will place you on the partner track – faster!


In the end, a smaller firm will enable you to pave a path to greater pay, greater flexibility and greater professional satisfaction of doing more interesting, rewarding work as a true advisor to your clients.


As as career coach and recruiter, I have worked exclusively with public accountants for nearly 20 years. Connect with me on LinkedIn.  

Interested in more insights on career development? Check out the Career Wellness library on the SterlingFreeman website. 


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