By Steven Sacks
When I was asked recently to address college seniors in accounting, we initially thought it would be all about technology. Instead, we talked about something else: How their real education would be learned on the job. And neither their skills in technology nor accounting would be their most important advantages.
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The students, by this time, had all the technical knowledge they would need to begin a career in either the public or private sector. So they were more interested in the evolution of the profession and the necessary human skills that would help kick-start their careers. Come to think of it, what we discussed might be as relevant to a senior partner as a newbie recruit. They are the essentials for achieving long-term success at any stage, and maybe in any line of work.
We covered five major topics:
- Curiosity and
Relevance. This is the biggest concern that accountants and the accounting profession face today. In the years to come, there will be more non-CPA professionals entering accounting firms or corporations who will be equipped with knowledge that goes well beyond the auditing function. As clients or businesses become more sophisticated, there is an expectation that those who are hired will be able to look beyond, around and through the numbers. An audit is an audit is an audit. And one completed and delivered to the client three months into the new fiscal or calendar year will have served no useful purpose.
Thus, new professionals will have to go through intensive training supported by technology while understanding business processes in order to analyze data and convey the information in real time. This will enable them to synthesize information and create alternative strategies.
Value. How can CPAs deliver value to their clients? In fact, the bigger question to consider is how to define value. For the CPA, it may mean more “touch points” with the client during the year. An insightful industry-specific article clipped, scanned and emailed to the client is one way to show a year-round intention to help the client become more successful. It could entail recommending and implementing solutions to problem areas discovered during the audit. Or, it could involve exploring more innovative financial planning strategies at the same time the tax return is being prepared.
- Strategic. I framed this characteristic as focusing less on the current status of the client and more on where the entity could and should be. Consider the level of competition, the reality of growth targets, the need for an infusion of capital, the geographic marketplace, increased use of technology or perhaps the need to create a business owner succession plan sooner rather than later. Again, this is looking beyond the expected deliverable and offering a new way for both the CPA and the client to think about the business.
- Analytical. The financial figures are simply a baseline of information. Accountants need to do a deeper dive, and with the advent of big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, workflow management systems and other technologies becoming the tools of the trade, accountants must be able to analyze trends, patterns and discrepancies. A recent study reported that by the year 2026 the global market for accounting analysis software will have a value of $11.8 billion. This means that the undergraduate business curriculum will have to undergo a major shift to prepare accounting students for when the focus on GAAP and GAAS will be supplanted by advisory services to help businesses improve their growth and profitability.
Communication. Out of all the themes I covered, the ability to convey thoughts both verbal and written in a clear, comprehensive and compelling fashion will be the most important ability to possess. Whether it involves writing a management report or simply composing an email, the needs of the reader must be “top of mind.” Information comes from many directions and sources, and professionals must be able to absorb it, translate it and share it effectively with different stakeholders.
Natural Curiosity. Young accounting professionals need to ask questions and listen carefully. The questions could be addressed to their bosses or their clients. There is no such thing as a stupid question in the search for understanding. The more business intelligence gathered the greater the understanding will be gained about an industry, competition, operations, workflows, market demographics and myriad other aspects.
Additionally, younger professionals need to get involved in networking events, whether they are in-house “meet and greets” with current or prospective clients or attending professional conferences that cover industries, techniques for business development, practice management, communications or any other topic that will enhance their personal and professional growth.
Adaptability. While firms or businesses have a multigenerational workforce, there has to be a meeting of the minds when it comes to approaches to communication and business development. Consider the challenge of blending an accounting firm’s reputation and image with the effective use of social media. While older and shrewder workers can deliver more output, the question is whether they are willing to learn new technologies. At the same time, can the younger professionals be flexible (and patient) in working with the older partners?
Finally, I shared with the graduating students three key considerations as they relate to their future in the accounting profession:
1. Gain a greater understanding of business on a global scale.
2. Comprehend cultural differences when dealing with international clients, or even when working in an environment that has a diverse workforce. Appreciating and following the norms of other cultures will create trust and build stronger relationships.
3. Focus more on the “why” and “how” regarding issues rather than on the “what” and “when.” The first two questions will drive the research and the discovery of causative factors.
Technology will not be the only answer to the future challenges facing the accounting profession. Before considering technology, firms should give more thought to the establishment of a –
• Set of hiring criteria and reducing reliance on artificial intelligence for making candidate selections.
• Strategic direction for the firm that is shared with every staff member.
• Culture that encourages openness, knowledge sharing and crucial conversations.
• Career road map for new professionals along with effective onboarding and mentoring.
Informing new professionals (and even seasoned professionals) about these concepts may be old hat for some, or it may be a revelation, but it never hurts to be reminded every now and then.