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Black CPAs share valuable advice for those early in their careers

Two experienced CPAs offer tips on why soft skills are especially important for achieving professional success

A businesswoman sits with coworkersWell-developed soft skills, such as communication, leadership and relationship-building, can help accelerate a CPA’s career (Getty Images/Thomas Barwick)

There’s no question that for any CPA, soft skills are a great way to demonstrate the extent of your technical skills. According to CPAs Leonidas Assogba and Andrea Nicholls, for racialized groups in particular, soft skills can make all the difference.

CPA Andrea Nicholls is the Chief Financial Officer with Dentons Canada in Montreal

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Andrea Nicholls (AN):
“There are three soft skills that any young CPA must have, regardless of skin colour. First, they need to be able to communicate well, in writing and verbally, with colleagues and anyone else they interact with. It is essential to be able to ‘talk numbers’ with people who are not specialists. Second, learn to collaborate, including with people who are not close colleagues. And third, focus on the ability to build relationships inside and outside the organization. The sooner they master these skills, the sooner they will benefit professionally.

How does this apply to Black CPAs in particular? These skills will further help them find a sponsor or mentor or build a strong network, which means more people they can talk to, who can give them advice, guide them professionally and advocate on their behalf.

The way we work has changed. Since we can no longer see our colleagues in the office like we used to, we need to work even harder to make those connections. You have to be intentional about it—don’t be afraid to suggest a Zoom meeting just to have a discussion, without an agenda or to suggest going for a coffee.

Social media can be useful for networking, as your future contacts can have very diverse profiles and can be found almost anywhere, including in community groups. You have to be very open-minded and accept that networking takes time, even at the end of a busy day.

Another big challenge for Black CPAs is walking into a meeting room and never seeing anyone who looks like you. You are instantly under a lot of pressure. That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to share your experience, including with people who don’t look like you, to express how it feels to be isolated in that way.

This can lead to more empathy and understanding from others. For a young Black CPA, the lack of diversity in some organizations makes finding a sponsor or mentor more difficult, but also more relevant than ever. Support and guidance are needed.

Finally, you need to make sure you are seen as an open person, a continuous learner who is curious about the world of accounting but also things that are outside the office, like economics or politics. At the end of the day, that can make all the difference.”

CPA Leonidas Assogba is the Senior Advisor to the Vice-President Operational Risk Management at Desjardins in Montreal*

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Leonidas Assogba (LA):
“Professional advancement is based in part on the development of soft skills like leadership and communication. These help you integrate into an organization and play a strategic role.

Being able to share your ideas in language that is clear to non-CPAs, as well as developing a client focus and business acumen are crucial, especially since many CPAs will work in a number of different areas over the course of their career.

In fact, I would advise not to stop at the CPA designation, but to pursue a specialization (IT risk management, cybersecurity, mergers and acquisitions). For young people who are part of a racialized group, having a specialty allows them to differentiate themselves and creates opportunities.  

I myself have largely developed these skills outside of my job. For example, for the past three years, I have been mentoring with Academos (for a long time, I mentored informally with people from diverse backgrounds). I am also part of the Black Wealth Club, a community of emerging Black leaders in Canada.

The earlier you understand the benefits of networking, the easier it is to move up the ladder. People tend to forget that when they are starting out because they are so focused on proving themselves.

Sometimes it can feel like you are alone in facing certain challenges. This is a feeling that is shared by many Black professionals, which is why it’s important to stand together, especially since there are so many challenges.

For example, Black professionals face a widespread underperformance bias: the perception that they are not as qualified as their white counterparts. Obviously, this is not actually the case, but it can be discouraging.

When we reach certain milestones, we may also realize that we are the only Black professional at that level. So, we think we have to work even harder to prove we are up to the task.

People from diverse backgrounds have had to overcome so many barriers but they are ready to challenge stereotypes. They are ambitious, they have developed great resilience and learned to be emotionally intelligent and empathetic.

I often tell young people that biases and stereotypes do exist. But the most important thing is to work hard and show that you can achieve your goals. If you adopt that mindset, the career will follow.”

*The story was updated on December 20, 2022, to reflect a change in Assogba’s title.