Leslie Murphy assumed the post of chairwoman of the American Institute of CPAs at the group's fall Governing Council meeting. A partner with the Midwest regional firm Plante & Moran, Murphy has been a vocal advocate for firms providing better work/life balance for their employees and find creative solutions to staffing shortages.

Highly active in Michigan civic affairs, Murphy has served on numerous community boards and, i n September, received the Outstanding Visionary Award from the Michigan Association of CPAs. Her service to the AICPA has included membership on the institute's board of directors and several board committees, including chairing the Finance Committee and serving as a member of the Audit, Compensation and Strategic Planning Committees.

She talked with WebCPA about the issues of diversity the profession is facing, the decision to relocate the main AICPA main offices from New Jersey to North Carolina, and the positive mindset for the profession's future she hopes to bring to the next generation of CPAs.

What's the one issue you don't think the profession is paying enough attention to?

LM: It's related to staffing, and I think that's the diversity issue. I believe that we need to make much more progress in becoming more reflective of the communities we serve. We have had a lot of efforts and made some progress, but I believe it's very modest compared to what it needs to become.

As a woman, do you feel a need to have to talk about issues of equality for women in particular?

LM: I don't feel the responsibility because I'm a woman, I believe it's everybody's responsibility to talk about equality. I do think that I can be of particular help with women's issues because it's an experience I've had. I also think I can fill that part of being a role model -- and if that's helpful, I'm happy to do it ... My objective is to help others be successful in this profession, and I'm happy to contribute in any way I can.

Does solving issues of diversity come down to more outreach?

LM: I think outreach is a piece of it. I think it is also a much higher level of openness and flexibility to difference. We have a profession that started out being very male-dominated, and we had a certain, not uniformity, but a similarity in the traditional ranks of accountants. In order for us to create workplaces that are attractive to those that are different, we are going to have to be much more tolerant, open and aware of those differences. The thing I've learned in studying diversity topics is we should not ignore the differences. The most important thing is to acknowledge them, be aware of them and be open to them.

Are firms not actively thinking about diversity?

LM: I think that, at its core, we are an apprentice-based profession. And we learn primarily through working with others -- that's been something longstanding in the profession. I look at all my development experiences; the vast majority of those came from working with others and having real-life experience. And I think as human beings, without being consciously aware of the importance of diversity, we will all go to where we're more comfortable. And I think the first thing we have to do is raise this to our consciousness. I think everybody wants to do the right thing, but I think we're making choices without realizing we're excluding some people.

How do you view the No. 1 issue for most firms -- staffing? What do you think are the solutions available to most firms?

LM: First of all I should start this by saying we are so fortunate. We're in a profession right now that has more work than available people and available resources. We need to keep that positive veil across all of this. But at the same time I think in order for us to make progress on the staffing issue, we all need to think differently about how we're going to employ people and how we're going to treat them.

The AICPA has done a lot of work promoting work/life balance. Do you think firms have been slow to pick up and implement the concept?

LM: I think it's very difficult to generalize about that. I think we have some great examples of flexibility and workplaces that have been open to progressive programs. At the same time, I think that more is needed if we're going to make substantial impact here. The situation is that we need to be looking for nontraditional people to help us with our shortage. We are at wonderful place in time, with not enough resources to do the work, so it forces us to be more open to different ways to solve the equation. And I do believe we have a lot of people, if they were given the option to work in a different way, or on a different schedule, at a different level of intensity -- they could contribute and be very valuable resources to us. So I think we do have a whole group of nontraditional folks.

I also think it's a terrific opportunity right now to look at our young people and the new people we're bringing into the profession and look for accelerated and different ways to develop their competencies. ... With the additional work that came in as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley, and as a result of all the new standards, the increased awareness of fraud prevention and the importance of control systems -- all of those things have led virtually every organization to have increased demand for people with accounting and financial-based skills. What's happened is that we have overworked the industry. There's a whole group of people who have left public accounting, or business and industry, because they're facing those same pressures. This is not just a public accounting issue.

We simply have to realize that some people are unwilling to do that work. The AICPA recently conducted a study that showed this new group of workers, Generation Y, equally values work/life balance to the ability to be promoted. We have never seen a statistic anything like that. If that is not a cry for all of us to look at the way we're staffing our firms, there's also the economic issues ... We have relied on people working more hours to get their jobs done, and while there are some economic efficiencies to that, if we can't find adequate people to work, it will be a bigger problem for firms. The solution is simply not to hire more people, and again, there are not enough of them to hire anyway. We have to find other solutions, we have to use paraprofessionals differently, we have to engage new people starting with firms that have been historically underutilized over the years. ...

I think all of us hiring at those much higher levels need to enforce that, but do it right [for people entering the field]. Build support programs and engage their minds. They are very bright people and capable of a lot more than we've asked of them in the recent past. It's a great time to join the profession.

You've served as chairwoman of the AICPA Finance Committee in the past, and obviously, as vice chair over the past year. Can you talk about the process behind the decision to move the New Jersey offices?

LM: The process we followed was an important one. And it is standard operating procedure for us. It is, frankly, an iterative process, whereby the staff will come forward with a concept to get input and to understand whether the volunteer leadership will be interested in taking it to the next level. ... We had a series of very open, frank discussions over the potential for relocation. ... I think this was a great example of how the process of governance and oversight works and should work. ... Everyone had the mindset, if we're going to do this, we need to do it right. And the more input, the better. When I saw the group make the presentation onstage to Council, I couldn't help but reflect back on the early stages of the conversation and how much things have evolved and how thoughtful and complete a process it was. I do call it a journey that we took, because we needed to be convinced it was the right thing.

It is still going to be a tremendous amount of work and a challenge, but I think we are all so committed and so convinced it's the right thing for the profession long-term. We've got to get into a more cost-effective environment and an environment where human resources are still available to us. The competition for talent in the New York-New Jersey area is incredibly tough. ... I think we made the case on a very conservative set of numbers and this is something that's going to be a standing agenda item for some time as we look to meet a very detailed timeline and set of projections.

Next year at this time, what's the one thing you'd like your colleagues to be able to say about your term?

LM: I hope that employers look back and reflect back on a very different value proposition for all their people and that they've built increased flexibility into the way they operate and the way they interface with their workforce. And I hope that all the CPAs look back and reflect back on how valuable it is to be a CPA and take back that same kind of encouragement and positive outlook to the next generation.

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