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Act Like An Owner: The four C's point the way to staying on the partnership track General Discussion

By Dennis A. Young, CPA


Success can be measured in many ways, and in the business of public accounting, one measure is making partner. This article is directed toward staff accountants eager to begin their path toward partnership. But I believe the ideas conveyed here are valuable to anyone in the practice of accounting, no matter where they are in their career path.

            The “four C’s”, as we call them at Young, Craig & Co., provide a mnemonic to remind us of how we attain successes: Care, Communication, Competence and Cost. Our performance in these four areas will largely determine how clients, co-workers and other will assist or impede each of our individual success and, ultimately, our firm’s success.


            Public accounting firms are unique business enterprises in that, from the first day of employment you are promised that if you toil faithfully and are liked, you someday will have the opportunity to become a co-owner. There is practically no other business on earth where such a promise is made at the inception of employment.

            This unique arrangement increases the obligations of both you and your employer, however. Senior staff and partners in the CPA firm contribute substantial time training you because they want you to succeed and contribute to the firm’s bottom line as soon as possible. Remember, the time they spend training you is in addition to the time they spend meeting their own chargeable time requirements, reviewing work, cultivating new and existing clients, serving on firm committees and participating in professional society, civic and community activities. As a new employee, all you have to do is show up on time, produce excellent work and record real, billable hours. Life will never again be so simple!

            Since you represent the firm to clients and others and are constantly being evaluated as a potential owner, you should act like one. From the moment you are hired, begin thinking like a partner and team member. Partners and managers will give their time generously to you, but they in turn rely on you to get the job done on schedule and within budget. The partnership, with its reciprocal commitments, begins on day one.

            Remember, public accounting is a business, not an academic exercise. Real people are paying real money for your skills. Don’t cheat them, yourself or your co-workers. In school, your success in tackling problems was not measured by a budget, and eventually you were always given the “correct” answer. Once you’ve entered public accounting, however, you have agreed to use your skills in a demanding and competitive business. The assignments are not book reports or case problems. Therefore, you must:

·         Quickly grasp the scope of the engagement or task.

·         Complete the assignment on time. Meet deadlines.

·         Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask questions if you are unsure.

If you don’t invest in yourself, no one else will. This extends beyond personal dress and grooming to reading professional journals and participating in activities. If you are a professional, dress and act like one. Pass the CPA exam as soon as possible. Don’t make excuses, make progress. Ask to attend CPA society functions and assist in activities. This is to be your career for 40 or 50 years, so get to know what it is all about. Explore different aspects of the profession and find out if you have an interest in a particular industry or functional area. Take steps to move your career in a direction that you enjoy. Care about your firm, your clients and yourself.



Make sure you understand the assignment. The person giving you assignments is busy. Listen and ask questions. Be sure you understand the scope of what you are expected to do and what the output should be. After you start, if you see points that you don’t understand or need clarification, ask questions. There are no stupid questions, only people who don’t ask questions.

      Don’t assume the person giving the assignment understands all of its aspects. Public accounting is all about time and billing. Many times the person making the assignment does not have the luxury of fully analyzing the situation; if they did, they might not need you. Employ the “three T’s” (thinking things through) and add a little creative and independent thought. Ask questions and make suggestions.

      A common error of new accountants is to put off tasks they don’t like. Nobody likes the unknown, but unreturned telephone calls, unlike cheese or wine, never improve with age. A trick I’ve found to work is to answer calls in the reverse order of their anticipated pleasantness. Sometimes a nice surprise results. Telephone contact will become more important as your career progresses and your client base increases, so develop the right habits early.

      Communication is a two-way street. It is very important to speak up, but often it can be more important to listen. Listen to other people and give the client your undivided attention. Give the job you are doing your undivided attention. Learn to listen and focus.



      When you encounter a problem, don’t start from the beginning to find a solution. Ask questions.  Someone probably has encountered the same situation before and can direct you to a file where it has already been researched or can direct you to a source. Document your results and either keep a personal copy of the research or, as many successful practitioners do, keep an index of where the answer can be found. As a team member in the organization you will not only maximize your future opportunities for value billing, but you will be able to help others be more productive. Also, learn when to stop researching and when to play the devil’s advocate. Learn to research enough to argue both sides of an issue to ensure your conclusion is well reasoned – this can be a tricky part of your development.

      Learn to write effectively. It is often said that accounting is the language of business. Non-accountants need translations, however, and a person who can write an effective memo or letter has a leg up the ladder. Senior members of a firm like nothing better than a staff person who presents a project with a draft of a letter to the client, or presents the conclusion of a section of the work papers with footnotes drafted. Writing effectively may not be easy, but it is necessary if you want to be noticed.

      Another common error of the new accountant is to not finish a project justified by the thought, “If my work isn’t finished, it can’t be wrong.” This has two detrimental results. Your supervisor wonders why you are slow and why the project is over budget. Review notes are a fact of life. If things were always done correctly, there would be no need for review. The key is to finish the task and then learn from the review process so errors are not repeated.



Remember that the firm is spending the owners’ money to train you. Give your firm’s owners their money’s worth. When you go to CPE, give the training your full attention. Share what you have learned with your co-workers. Remember, a firm is a team, and you now have an opportunity to help the entire firm be better.

            Budgets are estimates of the time expected to complete a job. If you fail to record all your time, the person doing the job the next time is disadvantaged because the budget will be too low. If it takes you longer than the budget, something unusual may have occurred. If that is the case, the time is probably billable if it is documented. Record your time daily. Don’t try to remember on Friday how long something took you to complete on Monday. Inaccurate time records cheat you, the client and the firm.

            Remember that staff costs are the single largest expense of any CPA firm. You are a part of a team and an expensive part of every project. Computers have greatly changed the public accounting workplace but they haven’t replaced human effort. Be an efficient worker.

A profit center

            It takes a number of years of hard work to make partner in a CPA firm. If you take the right steps, rewards await you. Excellent performance in the areas denoted by the four C’s have brought success to individuals in our firm, as well as to the firm. I hope that the four C’s serve as guideposts to you as you establish your path to success.

            Care about your clients. Care about your work product. Be a team member. Communicate with your clients. Communicate with your coworkers. Learning is a lifetime experience. Stay competent and be as good as you can be. Better yet, be an overachiever. Be aware of costs. Only in accounting firms is accounting a profit center. In all other organizations it is overhead. Strive to make that cost beneficial to your client and to your firm. Be a keeper.


Dennis Young is a partner at Young, Craig & Co. in Mountain View, California. This article was originally written in 1992 and has been published in the California CPA Magazine and the New Accountant.

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