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How to Excel in Your Accounting Career

Gusto Editors  

Are you getting the most out of your accounting career?

Accounting is often an incredibly lucrative and fulfilling career, but not everyone is bound for the same career path. You can take many routes within the accounting profession, so it’s essential to consider different factors that may affect your career choices.

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Gusto, along with our partners at CPA Academy, presented a great webinar about different accounting career paths and how you can succeed in your accounting career titled “Should Accountants Be Generalists or Specialists?” 

In addition to this webinar article, Part Two, you can also read Part One of this article series to learn more information on accounting generalists and specialists. You can also check out the full webinar here.

In this article, Comedy CPE Founder Greg Kyte and Gusto’s Editor-at-Large Caleb Newquist will teach you how to excel in your accounting career. You’re going to learn about the importance of developing a craft mindset, why you should invest career capital in control, and how to progress your career as an accounting generalist or an accounting specialist. 

Developing a craft mindset 

A crucial part of advancing in your accounting career is developing expertise in your area of interest. If you’re n specialist, you more than likely focus on a particular industry or field of services that you offer to clients. If you’re an accounting generalist, you’re developing skills in various accounting-related tasks like taxes, auditing, and advisory services that you’re using to serve your clients’ needs. 

Whether you’re growing in your abilities as a specialist or a generalist, it’s crucial that you develop a craft mindset. Greg cited Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You in defining a craft mindset: 

“[Cal Newport] says that great work requires at least these two things: rare skills and valuable skills. And what he says [is] to gain rare and valuable skills, you have to have a [craft] mindset. … If you want a job that you love … you have to have that mindset. [You need] a relentless focus on the value that you’re offering the world and how to increase that value to the world.”

Greg Kyte

Newport says that to love your job, you need to obtain rare and valuable skills and develop a craft mindset. A critical part of developing your rare and valuable skills is participating in deliberate practice:  

“Deliberate practice has to do with things that you’re doing consistently to stretch your abilities, and … [you need to obtain] ruthless feedback. … And I’d say regardless of whether you think you’re a generalist or you think you’re a specialist, you’ve got to be asking yourself regularly, ‘What am I doing to stretch my abilities?'”

Greg Kyte

Greg told a story in which he used deliberate practice to stretch his accounting abilities. He practiced doing tax returns while receiving blunt feedback from his partner. His partner was brutally honest with Greg about his work, and his feedback helped Greg improve his skills in accounting. 

Male and female colleagues sitting out side at table as as both are reviewing a document in front of them

Producing career results and investing in control

Creating a successful career goes beyond making money—your career should give you a sense of purpose. 

Greg cited author Daniel H. Pink in discussing individuals’ career motivations. Pink wrote a book all about motivation titled Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Within the book, Pink discusses our source for producing quality work: 

“Here’s what Dan says about the framework for getting the great work. He says, ‘They require autonomy, and they require purpose.’ So first off … acquire mastery of rare and valuable skills. … You can do that as a generalist, or you can do that as a specialist. … You accumulate rare and valuable skills that give you career capital, and capital is something you invest.”

Greg Kyte

As you grow in your rare and valuable skills and advance in your career, you accumulate capital that you’re able to invest. Rather than trading in your capital for money, you trade it in for autonomy and control. Greg and Caleb noted that various studies have found that people’s overall satisfaction of life doesn’t increase with money after a certain point, so investing in control is more valuable for your long-term happiness: 

“There [are] studies that show that money does buy you happiness but only up to about $70,000. … There’s some certain line where money’s not going to buy you happiness anymore. And once you get your needs taken care of, a better choice for you is to trade your career capital for more control rather than more money. That’s not just control of your schedule, … but it also includes control over what type of work you do.”

Greg Kyte

Once you’ve reached a certain level in your accounting skills and career, you can start demanding more control over your work. You can demand fewer hours, and you can determine what kind of work you want to focus on. Focusing on a particular line of work is especially beneficial to your sense of wellbeing because you might enjoy certain areas of accounting more than others. 

Another crucial part of advancing in your career is using your career capital to invest in a larger sense of purpose: 

“Dan Pink says, ‘You need mastery, autonomy, and purpose to have an amazing job.’ … Purpose is important. And how do you get that? If you’re talking about having a good mission, in terms of your life mission, it really should be something that changes the world. Expertise is required to change the world. The reason why is if something’s already been done, you’re not changing the world.”

Greg Kyte

Developing a sense of purpose is crucial for your satisfaction in your career. You need to build expertise in your career field so that you can change the world. For example, if you care about helping small businesses, it might be your mission to change the world by helping small businesses. If you’ve developed rare and valuable expertise, you’ll be able to help your clients in a way that others can’t, and you can change the world by assisting your clients with your unique skill set.  

How to progress as an accounting generalist or as an accounting specialist

You can determine whether you’re advancing as an accounting generalist or an accounting specialist based on your interests and how you want to help your clients.

When you’re initially starting in the accounting profession, you begin as a generalist: 

“Everyone starts as a generalist. And then what you need to find as you’re a generalist and as you’re dabbling in [different things], … you need to find a field that you find at least somewhat enjoyable. … While you’re finding a field that’s at least enjoyable, lean into the generalist thing.

Greg Kyte
Female looking up at presenter, while working on her laptop as male colleague site beside her

Every accountant starts as a generalist and will then advance to becoming an expert generalist or a specialist. Many accountants who start their own firm also begin as generalists to attract as many clients as possible, Once you develop a client base, you can determine if you want to pursue a particular field of interest within accounting: 

“And then you start going, ‘Okay, here’s the work I hate. And here’s the work I like.’ So you start shifting it out like that going, ‘Okay, let’s just get rid of that.’ … ‘Which of this stuff pays the best?’ And then you go, ‘That’s a good indicator of what’s rare and valuable.’ So you start pursuing that.”

Greg Kyte

When becoming a specialist, you want to pursue rare and valuable skills, but you also want to pursue skills that you enjoy and give you a sense of purpose. 

If you focus on developing different areas of expertise, you’ll become an expert generalist rather than a specialist: 

“[If you’re an expert generalist,] you say, ‘Really, I’m finding that I like all of this work. So how about I just get better and better so I can serve all these broad clients as best I can?'”

Greg Kyte

Expert generalists focus on developing different areas of expertise and addressing the diverse needs of different types of clients. 

Regardless of whether you become a specialist or a generalist, it’s crucial that you enjoy your work and that you have a greater sense of purpose with what you do. Success in your career extends beyond money, so focus on doing what you love and changing the world through your unique skills. 

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Learn more about excelling in your accounting career

If you want to learn more about accounting generalists and specialists, make sure to check out Part One of this webinar series. You can also watch the full webinar here

Whether you’re a generalist or a specialist, it’s crucial that you develop a craft mindset, use your career capital to obtain more control, and grow in your sense of purpose. If you feel that your purpose is to help small businesses through accounting, consider joining Gusto’s partner program. Through our partner program, you’ll gain helpful tools for assisting your clients, like a convenient client dashboard and workflows for automating menial tasks. You’ll also gain access to our People Advisory Certification program. With People Advisory Certification, you’ll learn essential people-based skills that you can use to help your clients grow their businesses, like HR, payroll, and benefits. If you’re ready to add more value to your services and strengthen your ability to serve your clients, sign up here

Updated: August 17, 2021

Gusto Editors
Gusto Editors
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