Accounting Career Advancement

Looking down on woman climbing a ladder reaching up

Professional service firms are often different in their approach to promotions. This is certainly true in accounting career advancement. Most, but not all, CPA firms offer internships, and they will hire from the intern pool. However, some firms start with a pool of first-year staff who must complete training and performance requirements before they advance in the firm.

Regardless of how they attract talent, smart accounting firms offer a career advancement process that is clear to the employee and to the manager or supervisor. That clarity still allows for negotiation within a defined career track, but the discussion is more about timing and skills. The firm offers clear advancement opportunities and explains how professionals can reach the next level.

In the following sections, you can read about the roles and responsibilities of different accounting professionals. See what it takes to advance to the next level.


All associates are staff, but not all staff are associates. An associate is someone with technical proficiency who anticipates advancing to the next level of leadership. This may include pursuing their CPA or not. It may simply mean that they will advance in their skills and responsibilities to eventually oversee a team and/or client group.

Manager/Senior Manager

When accounting professionals advance to the manager level, they take on added responsibilities for engagement management and client service. They may be the direct contact for clients and oversee training for their direct reports. They handle logistics, questions and technical oversight of the team’s work. Some firms offer different levels of management such as Associate Manager, Manager and Senior Manager. Each level indicates their years of experience, responsibilities and performance for the firm.


Another level of management within an accounting firm is the supervisor. Supervisors are often department leads in charge of quality control and personnel for the department. They may share training responsibilities with managers, or they may mentor managers within the firm. Supervisors may be the direct contact with clients or guide the managers on communication at different points in the client relationship. Supervisors may also recommend updated software solutions or fresh processes for the department they serve, interacting with principals or partners. They may or may not be in charge of hiring and firing or personnel discipline issues for a department.


Principals represent the final step before advancing to a partnership within the firm. These professionals have demonstrated their technical and people skills as well as their ability to attract new business or cross-service clients. They are viewed as leaders within the firm who may have the potential to buy into the partnership. At this level, principals are expected to support marketing and business development as well as provide feedback on firm decisions, if requested. They have strategic minds that go beyond client services.


Partners are on the executive team of the firm. They have been invited into a very exclusive role to shape the vision and mission of the firm. Some partners have a financial stake in the firm as shareholders while others are non-voting partners. Partners are held to an even higher standard of confidentiality and ethics than other accounting leaders. They may be privy to sensitive client or personnel data that requires a strong sense of composure and communication diplomacy. Being a partner may require some distancing from the team while still offering access for workplace feedback and client service ideas.

Managing Partner/President/CEO

Some firms designate a managing partner to act as a lead executive and sometimes give the final say on big firm decisions. This professional is placed in a position of high trust by peers to maintain a positive firm culture and lead by example while also overseeing the firm vision, fiscal decisions and business goals. Some responsibilities may still involve client service, but most of their time is involved with leading the firm and identifying innovative opportunities for growth. This professional may have a strong entrepreneurial mindset and deeply understand the structures necessary for profitability, competitiveness and talent retention. Depending on the structure of the firm, this person may have the title of President or CEO.

Now that you know the various levels of accounting career advancement, where do you see yourself in five years? Think about it and talk to us at LvHJ about your career potential here.

Next: What are public accounting specializations?

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