Accountants should take a leadership role in the face of massive changes sweeping the U.S. and the world, particularly those driven by technology, American Institute of CPAs Chair Kimberly Ellison-Taylor told a gathering of CPAs.

“We are embarking on a huge transformation that requires us to change how we work and how we live every day,” Ellison-Taylor said in a speech at the Maryland Association of CPAs’ 2017 CPA Summit, held in Laurel, Md., on Wednesday. “We talk about the future like it’s three to five years away -- but it’s here now. We need to start thinking about it now."

To survive and thrive in this era of transformation, accountants at all levels need to take the lead, she said: “We have the responsibility of leadership -- not every leader is standing on a stage, or has 10 initials after their names. Every one of you in the profession is a leader.”

One of the first steps is to start preparing for the changes that lie ahead. “We have to ride change like a surfboard. We can’t be threatened by it,” Ellison-Taylor said. “Let’s operate at the intersection of anticipation and preparation. When we see that 49 percent of accountants’ work activities can be automated, what does that mean for your role? What does it say about your competencies? Your plan can’t be to wait this out.”

She said that no one in the profession can hope to remain unaffected by the coming technological changes. “Does all this affect accountants?” she asked. “Of course it does! There are chatbots doing basic accounting tasks right now. What are we going to do about it?”

Tom Hood and Kimberly Ellison-Taylor at a MACPA event in 2017
AICPA Chair Kimberly Ellison-Taylor (third from left) and MACPA president and CEO Tom Hood (far left) with future leaders of the profession at MACPA's 2017 CPA Summit.

The answer is for accountants to get out ahead of those changes. “You need to be an early adopter,” Ellison-Taylor told her audience, as much for their own benefit as for their clients, who will follow their most trusted advisors’ lead. “They’ll say that because you did it, it gives them the confidence to try.”

She also explained that leadership needs to come from all directions, with accountants leading from the front as early adopters, leading from behind to make sure no one gets left out or left behind, and leading from the middle to keep encouraging both colleagues and clients.

Ellison-Taylor, who, in addition to her role at the AICPA, is also chair of its international venture, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, and global accounting strategy director for Oracle America, said that the institute is working hard to stay ahead of the curve, doing research and developing resources for members on a range of upcoming disruptive technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, big data, cybersecurity, cloud technology and virtual reality.

“We are going to disrupt ourselves -- we’re not going to wait for something to come along,” she said. “We are looking ahead, anticipating what’s next. We know standing still is not an option.”

Beyond technology

Ellison-Taylor also encouraged CPAs and accountants to engage more broadly with the world and with their profession.

“There are people in our profession who don’t think that the global world affects them,” she said. “‘I live in Brandywine -- who’s thinking about the global world there?’ But you are impacted whether you know it or not.”

Growing international trade, the interconnections between financial markets, and other worldwide trends mean that accountants in the U.S. can be affected by disruptions like Brexit, she explained: “Worldwide events have implications for all of us -- for those in business and industry, and for protecting Main Street investors.”

Finally, she charged accountants to step up on an individual basis: “People like to think of leadership as something that other people do -- because then we can outsource it. But you need to accept the responsibility for growing a profession that is better tomorrow than it is today.”

In particular, she asked CPAs to lay the groundwork for future generations of accountants. “Make sure your kids know you're happy as a CPA! We always talk about how hard it is -- but not about how much we enjoy it,” she noted. “When you hear that someone's about to take the CPA Exam, don’t talk about how hard the test is. Say, ‘Oh, it's going to be awesome!’”

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.