Settling the Generalist vs. Specialist Accountant Debate with CPA Matt Skinner

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know which accounting style will be most beneficial for your clients? While attention to detail and analytical skills often make CPAs exceptional advisors, sometimes a holistic approach works best. Balancing details with the bigger picture is often the most effective strategy, provided you have the right mix.

To settle the specialist vs. generalist debate once and for all, Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Will Lopez, Gusto’s Head of the Accounting Community, discussed it on On the Margins: Live. They brought in the expertise of Matt Skinner, expert CPA, and advisory manager at Beaird Harris. The trio talked about the generalist vs. specialist debate, what level of services clients are asking for, and how to find the right mix between tradition and innovation.

Matt joined Beaird Harris in 2018 as part of the Accounting Services Team and now leads the Advisory Services Team assisting business clients with financial reporting, budgeting, and management. Before joining Beaird Harris, Matt began his career in public accounting before working in the retail sector for a nationwide retailer and later for private equity investing in hospitality, medical, and dental. He is also a member of the Texas Society of CPAs and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. He serves on the Firm’s Technology Committee and on Gusto’s CPA Advisory Council.

When it makes sense to be a specialist

Does being a specialist always mean you pick one microindustry to serve or focus on bookkeeping at the expense of knowing tax law? Not necessarily. Sometimes being focused on a specific industry or area of knowledge happens passively, such as when you happen to have a lot of friends in the architecture world. Word of your skill spreads, and before you know it, the majority of your clients are architects.

Other times, you specialize in something because you’re good at it and you like it. In that case, specializing makes sense. You don’t have to be good at everything. Matt argues that the best use of your time and energy is to focus on where you have talent and interest. Many people hyperfocus on where they need to improve and set their sights on mastering an area they have trouble in. But is that necessary? 

“Specialization within the realm is when you find something that you like, that you’re good at, [and] that you have the personality for. Especially in accounting, there are those of us who are gregarious and those of us that are maybe not so gregarious. It’s not a pro or a con, it’s a matter of saying, ‘This is what I like. This is what I’m good at. This is where I’m comfortable,’ because eventually, you can’t market [and] you can’t continue to build in something that you don’t like or you’re not happy with.”

– Matt Skinner
Couple of business person talking in the lobby.

At the same time, Matt cautions that even the realms you’re most passionate about and talented in will have some elements you struggle with. It’s important to use common sense. Find the area or areas you love the most, but don’t expect them to be the perfect fit. 

“I’m not a big believer in the [concept of,] ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day’ because if that were true, they wouldn’t call it work. There [are] still going to be things you don’t like to do. Having said that, if you find something that you despise or [that you’re not good at], and you’re not comfortable with, that’s not where your focus necessarily has to go. You don’t have to be an A student in every subject.”

– Matt Skinner

Of course, the only way to find out what you like and are good at is to dabble in different things, which you can do through work experience or education. Remember to keep an open mind, and consider earning CPE credits in subjects like technology, communication, and interpersonal relationships. You may find that you really love working with people, enjoy helping clients find solutions to technology problems, or are most passionate about analyzing data and offering insights. On the other hand, you may decide you can’t stand any one of those subjects.

“I think there’s a certain point where being a specialist matters because there are certain tasks [that] any of us, all of us, despise and don’t want to do. There are certain forms you don’t want to prepare. There are certain industries that you’re not qualified to work in or at least not comfortable working in, but there’s another point at which a good skill set is applicable to a lot of things.”

– Matt Skinner

As Matt said, focusing on what you like and are good at doesn’t mean you should neglect every other area. To be truly useful to the majority of your clients—and to give yourself as much flexibility and room to pivot as possible—you should develop your abilities in several core areas of accounting. Then, master the ones you love the most.

“I think that being that generalist of 50% to 60% of [areas] is an open skillset that’s applicable to a lot. [When it comes to] advising people—whether it’s [about] numbers or [about] human beings—there are certain patterns that you’ll [recognize] you can apply over time to different places.”

– Matt Skinner

Always balance your career development goals between what you’re passionate about and what clients need. Matt, Will, and Caleb argue that most clients need a well-rounded advisor who can help them in a variety of ways. Matt advised choosing five or six primary areas to focus on—anything else is not necessary.

For example, he doesn’t do income taxes anymore, and instead, has a few colleagues he’ll refer his clients to. If there are areas of accounting that trouble you, you do have the option to avoid them altogether.

Being a specialist and a generalist serves client needs

Three business people having a meeting in their office.

To be effective and to have higher money-making opportunities, you need to be positioned to solve a variety of your client’s issues. Put yourself in their shoes—what are they really looking for? Most want help with important life decisions. Since financial decisions affect every aspect of our lives, your role as an advisor is crucial. You can help guide people through difficult decisions and in doing so, build trust and long-term relationships.

“There is a certain point where … it’s about building that long-term relationship. That someone’s going to call you to say ‘Ah, geez, I got to buy a car’ or, ‘Oh no, my house just burned down,’ or ‘What if I want to buy this? How can I do it?’ … You [need to be] available for questions about their money and about their business and the numbers. It’s really about parsing that data into something that you can actually use to make a choice or a decision.”

– Matt Skinner

Unfortunately, many CPAs aren’t trained to view their clients’ holistic financial picture or connect the dots between data. The accounting industry is process-oriented, and adhering to these processes is at the core of many CPA job duties. While this has its benefits—such as ensuring quality control and establishing clear guidelines around processes—it can also lead to stagnation. 

“I wish that I had known early on that you didn’t have to be great at everything because the reason I left public [accounting] … was that I felt like I was just doing work. I was making journal entries every year, I was adjusting retirement obligations and booking depreciation, and … I was just doing what had been done the year before. My manager said, ‘Eventually, you’ll know what you’re doing. Right now, you just need to do the mechanical part.’ I kind of felt that put me at a disadvantage.”

– Matt Skinner

Will agreed, noting his own experiences. He explained that systemically repeating what has been done before can inhibit you from seeing the bigger picture, thinking creatively, and offering creative solutions. He shared a term he had for just going through the motions or following a routine.

“We called it Sally. We Sally-ed everything the same as last year, and [we] weren’t doing anything creative, and [we] definitely weren’t using the consultative side of [our] expertise or the side of the brain where you recognize patterns and the bridge between what you’re recognizing and the potential solution [is] your own advice and recommendation and tweaking and testing. That’s what makes advisory work and generalist work so appealing in my mind. It gets a lot of your creativity out there.”

– Will Lopez

Having standards of excellence and procedures that are passed down over time has its benefits—it helps people stay disciplined and accountable, it builds a concrete set of rules, and it sets standards that are easy to measure. At the same time, it’s important to keep an open mind. Accounting needs a balance between tradition and innovation.

It also needs a balance between big-picture thinking and being hyper-focused or overly detail-oriented. Too much big-picture thinking can lead to things slipping through the cracks. Too much specialization and hyper-focus means you can lose sight of what’s truly important. When CPAs hyper-focus on making sure every detail meets the standards established in the past, they may lose sight of a client’s bigger financial picture or whether a process really works in the current context. Matt shared how he keeps his team balanced between both priorities:

“When you’re preparing this or doing this, just do what you need to do first and then go back and look at the other entries. Maybe they were made for a reason. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe there’s a better way to do it. [Sometimes we think] ‘I learned it from the person before me who learned it from the person before [them].’ Then all of a sudden we’re … doing the things that the managing partner might have done in 1974 when they were an intern and were doing it on paper with the wax pencil, or whatever, but we’re just doing it in QuickBooks instead.”

– Matt Skinner
Mixed group of business persons talking around the table.

When you’re balanced between the bigger and smaller picture—and when you’ve got well-rounded general knowledge on top of your specialized knowledge—you’re often better prepared to answer client needs. You also make things simpler for your clients and can better build long-term relationships with them. Most people don’t want to go to several different specialists for answers because they need help with questions about their overall financial picture. You want to be prepared to solve any of their problems in-house, meaning at your firm. 

“Having everything in [an] in-house process helps us from having to say, ‘Well, let me call your wealth manager and see if he’s on board with your tax preparer and if they feel the same way that we do when we look at the books.’”

– Matt Skinner

When you balance being a generalist with being a specialist, you can answer to bigger-picture goals while still maintaining a focus on a few key areas you’re good at.

“It’s really about goal setting and saying, ‘Where does this person … want to be in two years or 10 years or 20 years?’ There are certain clients that have told me their goal is to work X number of years and retire early. Perfect. [Then] there are clients that say [they] want to build this giant business and give it to [their] grandbabies.”

– Matt Skinner

As an advisor, you have more control over how you want your day-to-day work to look, who you want to serve, and in what ways. The beauty is that there’s no answer to whether being a specialist or a generalist is better. It’s up to you.

Learn more about generalists and specialists

There’s no need to choose between being a specialist and a generalist—sometimes, a hybrid of both is the best approach. Being a specialist in certain areas allows you to focus on what you’re good at and frees you from working in areas you’re not good at or don’t like. It makes sense to build skills in what comes naturally to you and avoid wasting energy on things that don’t. 

At the same time, having well-rounded, generalist knowledge is a big asset. Make sure you’re competent in core areas of accounting. Then, specialize in just a few. Along the same lines, you should also balance tradition and innovation. Follow standards and protocols, but think creatively and question the status quo. The insights you get are often the most valuable for clients.

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We’re here to help you fine-tune your career path to be both successful and satisfying. To learn more about career possibilities, check out our other article based on the same episode: “Is There Value in NOT Having an Accounting Specialty?

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