Building a CPA culture in your firm

July 2, 2018

Of course your staff understands the many benefits of taking the CPA exam, but you may find that some of your people just haven’t gotten around to doing it. As CPAs, we are aware of many examples of how having the credential has added value to our professional lives, but sometimes employees may need some encouragement to take this life-changing step. At my six-person firm, we believed there were tangible benefits to ensuring our people took the exam, and we thought our help could have a significant impact. In fact, AICPA research has shown that firm support is a strong indicator of CPA exam success. Here are some steps we followed, as well as a look at some of the resources you can find in the AICPA CPA Culture Toolkit, which promotes the exam and offers resources to help future CPAs pass it.  

Get the right start. If you’re not certain how to begin, the toolkit, which has a wealth of content that includes small firm perspectives, offers step-by-step guidelines for both firms and future CPAs. For example, a brochure called “Building Your Firm’s CPA Culture” outlines ways to:

  • Help staff recognize the value of becoming a CPA.
  • Define your expectations about CPA exam passage.
  • Inform staff about the requirements for passing the exam.
  • Encourage them to keep up the hard work.
  • Offer financial incentives. Even a small gift card goes a long way in encouragement!
  • Celebrate their success.

Show how much you care. It’s useful to let staff know how important getting the CPA is to your firm. For example, we encouraged staff to use their nonchargeable time for study. We would even schedule study times every Friday afternoon in the summer to signal that the exam was a priority for us. If you’re already aware of the PCPS First 15 Reading Program, you’ll know about the many benefits of encouraging firm members to devote some time to reading at the start of each day to enhance their professional and personal development. Firms will get the same benefits from giving their people time to study for the exam. Letting staff set aside time for development needs can be a powerful retention tool, because it demonstrates your interest in their future.

Create excitement. Preparing for the exam, taking it and ultimately passing it are a big deal, so be sure to acknowledge that fact. In the CPA Culture Toolkit’s event guide, you’ll find information on how to boost interest and excitement through steps such as hosting a CPA exam kickoff event, acknowledging their achievements and involving your candidates in state CPA society events. At my firm, we also required staff to take continuing professional education in areas related to their work, even if they hadn’t yet passed the exam. We had a commitment to education and to excellence, and we believed that fostering that commitment should begin early. We were generally able to find local sources for CPE, typically the state society. As an added bonus, the offerings also give the young staff person an opportunity to begin networking in the society and developing the soft skills that we all want them to have in our firms.   

Introduce them to available resources. While the CPA Culture Toolkit contains many resources for CPA firms, half of its contents are devoted to the needs of exam candidates, including tools to familiarize them with the entire process and prepare them to take the exam. For example, point them to the CPA Examination Blueprints, which explain the content and skills that will be tested. To offer some peer group perspective, the toolkit also features video testimonials and diaries of CPAs who’ve passed the exam. One powerful way to support their efforts is to pay for their study materials and review courses. At our firm, we considered this an investment in our people and in our firm’s future.

Another tip we discovered: When you recommend study aids to your candidates, be aware that different people study in different ways. Some may thrive with online options, while others may prefer live courses with easy access to teachers and fellow students. With so many choices out there, there’s no reason to stick to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Getting the Best from All

In a small firm, each person’s contribution is especially important. Promoting a CPA culture can help elevate the quality of the people you have, so that you can benefit from their best work. It can also make it easier to keep your best professionals by demonstrating your support of their professional development. All in all, there are many great reasons to support a CPA culture.

Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA is the Association’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at or 651-252-4618. And be sure to sign up for Carl’s Small Firm Update webcasts. The next one will take place on September 20 at 2:00 to 3:00 PM ET.