Accounting profession looks ahead to opportunities and risks

A panel of experts discussed the future of the accounting profession, including the threats and opportunities facing finance and accounting leaders, during the Institute of Management Accountants’ annual conference in San Diego, which marks the IMA’s 100th anniversary.

The panel also described how they got started in the accounting profession. Sue Hohenleitner, vice president of finance, acquisition and divestiture operations at Johnson & Johnson, cited the importance of mentorship. “One thing I look back on, and I’ve been [at J&J] for 22 years, is that somebody took a chance on me, probably before I deserved it, or probably before I thought that I could do what I was able to do, and I’ve never forgotten that,” she said. “That really just keeps me energized and gets me to want to pay it forward. I didn't think I deserved that chance at the time. And because of that, I feel like it gave me a lot more confidence, that somebody was willing to put their trust and credibility and reputation behind me without really knowing a lot about me at the time.”

The importance of trust goes beyond technology skills, and she recalled how a previous chair of the IMA, Bill Brower, encouraged her to join the organization. “I look back on that a lot and I think that's what this industry a lot of times needs,” she said. “We can get a lot of book smarts. We can teach that. You can look up anything on Google when you want to, but if you really care and you put yourself and your credibility behind somebody in their career, it means a ton.”

(Left to right) IMA president and CEO Jeff Thomson, Sue Hohenleitner of Johnson & Johnson, MACPA president and CEO Tom Hood, and Paul McDonald of Robert Half.

She and the other panelists described what they see as the greatest threats and opportunities in the accounting profession. “The risk and the opportunity are somewhat similar,” said Hohenleitner. “We talk about robots taking over and everything else. I think we need to embrace that because 10, 15 years ago, the big new issues that you were all buzzing about was offshoring and the internet and that it's going to take over stores. We've all adapted and we’ve changed. Something that might have felt like, wow, it’s the big thing facing our industry and it's a threat actually can become a great advantage even to this day. It’s not necessarily accounting related, but I do think it’s just embracing the new things that are happening in the industry, particularly around the technology.”

Tom Hood, president and CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, recalled his defining experience as passing the CPA Exam. At the time, he worked in a company involved in the architecture and highway construction business, but the CFO was a former Arthur Andersen employee who encouraged him to sign up for the CPA Exam. After passing the exam, he joined the Maryland Association of CPAs. “That was back when PCs were coming out, so we in the association created a committee,” he recalled. “It was actually called the Electronic Data and Word Processing Committee. That was the only computing you had then was word processing for the most powerful computers you could get your hands on as an accountant, other than a mainframe. So. that led to being active in the association.”

Hood added that the biggest risk he sees is being too busy to look ahead to opportunities. “I've never seen our profession busier, heads down trying to get through the day to day,” he said. “The fear is in an era of rapid, increasing change, things are going to go by fast and you’re going to wake up and not even recognize it went by. So for me, that's what I worry about. That’s what keeps me up at night is how do I keep a member of our profession thinking about the future at least enough so that you can begin to think about how do I stay ahead of this mess. That's the biggest risk. The biggest opportunity happens to be something similar. It's looking out of the windshield and saying it’s a rainy day, so we have to just turn around and say we've got to spend more time on predictive insights and less time on scorekeeping.“

Paul McDonald, senior executive director at the staffing company Robert Half, sees the need to build skills, but not to be too rigid in setting up job descriptions. “My main experience has been to embrace change and take calculated risks, which is contrary to what I learned,” he said. “I grew up in a household of a CPA, so I was risk adverse. I went to school for accounting. That was the pattern. Yes, I interviewed with all the firms and regional firms. But it was pretty well known. I was like a Navy man. But in my career, what led to where I am today is to embrace that change, embrace the risk.”

At Robert Half, McDonald said he needs to keep up with the latest technology changes. “The business transformation that we're undertaking in our company right now is we have to meet twice a week just to monitor all the change that's taking place,” he said. “You know, if it's the front-office CRM system or if it’s the back office, or if it’s the human resource system that's coming in — Trintech, BlackLine, Anaplan — you name it, we’re involved. Now what's going to happen in the next six months? The next three months? Embracing the change is really important.”

But by being involved in the staffing world, McDonald is concerned about the talent shortage. “I really worry about where we're going to find these people,” he said. “And I really feel as though, is everybody going to embrace upskilling because that's where the pattern is right now. We're coaching our clients to say, ‘OK, is that really a must-have on a job description?' Are you looking at the culture, are you looking at the soft skills enough, to say how this person is going to progress with me? What can I teach him with the hard skills, but are they really going to be a cultural fit for us? The risk is we're getting too selective. The risk is that we're in a defensive posture in waiting for things to happen. So I'm really looking at it as there's an opportunity here to embrace the people aspect and invest in the upskilling. But I really worry worldwide that if we don't find a way to get more students enrolled, we're going to wake up one day and say, ‘OK, we've got a lot of really good STEM students, but are we attracting them into the business aspect. Are we attracting them into accounting, finance, marketing and management, or are we only pushing people towards maybe computer science?’”

IMA president and CEO Jeff Thomson sees the need for more companies to keep up with not only technology, but also with creating a diverse workforce: “One risk that I think is key in all that we've talked about here is what we call 'complacency risk,' whether it's more diverse and inclusive organizations, more women on boards, [or] the upskilling to stay ahead of this incredible rate of technological change.”

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