Every year in late spring, the chief executive officer of Grant Thornton, Stephen Chipman, drops by our offices to bring us up to date on the firm and to share his thoughts on the accounting issues of the day with our staff. While part of the interview takes place with our editors furiously scribbling notes (which led to our cover story ), a larger and larger part of it now takes place in front of a video camera, so we can record our conversations and share them with you on our Web site.
In a sign of our growing sophistication, this year marked the first time that our videographer offered stage makeup. It was nothing serious -- just a little powder to take the shine off - but while the puff was being deployed, Chipman and I agreed that neither of us, in going into our respective career paths, had ever imagined wearing makeup as part of it.
On my part, this was mere lack of imagination (or, possibly, talent). There have been plenty of journalists who had, at some point, to worry about their image -- Edward R. Murrow springs to mind, to say nothing of Walter Kronkite, Alastair Cooke and Geraldo Rivera.
For Chipman, though, it reflects a major change in the accounting profession. For most of its history, the closest thing the profession has had to a public face has been the shiny envelopes containing the names of Oscar winners. How a managing partner handled him- or herself on camera didn't matter. A firm could have as long and unwieldy a name as it liked, and as ugly a logo as its staff members could stand to look at. Image didn't matter -- or, if it did, the preferred image was one of reliable, trustworthy professionalism. Nothing exciting, nothing inspiring, nothing that might frighten the clients.
That is no longer the case.
Image matters now. Ever since the relaxation of strictures against advertising in the 1990s, the profession has been moving deeper and deeper into this new reality of marketing and branding - to fight commodification, to attract the best recruits, to bring new prospects in, and to roll out new services. Accounting firms must have a public face -- a name that clients can remember, and a logo that was made in this century. Every week we get press releases from firms that have rebranded themselves, changed their names, launched new logos. (Just sending a press release is, in and of itself, a major act of image-making.)
The main public faces, of course, are the managing partners (and hopefully other members of the partner group, as well as many members of staff) who can act as ambassadors, salespeople, evangelists, recruiters, and walking, talking advertisements. On top of all the usual technical and professional skills, they now must master a whole new set of soft skills.
Chipman, for instance, is wholly at ease being powdered, and knows which angles will bring glare off the lenses of his glasses. This isn't superficiality, and he definitely hasn't sacrificed any of the old-fashioned virtues of a firm leader for glibness or theatricality. He's still articulate, thoughtful, persuasive, a master of detail, and a great communicator; it's just that now he's good at being all that on camera, and if you ask him to keep an answer to around two minutes in length, he gives you an answer that's smart, comprehensive -- and just about 120 seconds long.
You can see Chipman's closeup on the AT TV page of AccountingToday.com.
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