With the next generation of accountants primed to assume leadership after the encroaching wave of Baby Boomer retirements, we wanted their perspectives on the profession they will be inheriting. We asked five emerging leaders at the aiCPa's 2013 e.D.G.e. ("Evolve-Distinguish-Grow-Engage") Conference August 7-9 in austin, from varying sized firms in both industry and public accounting, about what the profession is doing right, what they would change, and where they see it heading.

What makes you proudest of the accounting profession?

Donny Shimamoto (managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, an 11-person firm in Honolulu): Really, that we have such great people. Everybody thinks we're about the numbers and about the discipline, but to me it's that we have great people who care about others, that are investing in the next generation, and that it's not just about profits.

Rachael Sarson (senior accountant at Craighead, Lange & Hough PC, a 30-person firm in Michigan City, Ind.): The value clients place on us. We are truly seen as trusted advisors for all types of roles, and I think the value is that our knowledge set is a good base, but we can truly become advisors to them, to help their businesses grow.

Dan Griffiths (director of strategic planning at Tanner LLC , an 80-person firm in Salt Lake City): Our values. I'm most proud of the fact that we're a group of people that believe in integrity and independence and doing the right thing.

Ebonie Jackson (strategic management consultant at Health Care Regulatory Consultants LLC, a two-person firm in Toledo, Ohio): How we are embracing our young CPAs and really trying to teach them about leadership. Also, having that big, diverse group - our diversity initiative that we're doing [with the AICPA's National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion] and getting people to where they can take over whenever the Baby Boomers start retiring. I'm proud about us always being at the front -- or at least now -- of some pretty big strategic problems.

Ashley White (principal at A.J. White & Associates LLC, a three-person firm in Newport News, Va.): Being able to help people with their financial situation, because so many people come in and they just don't know where to start. So just giving them guidance, even if they're not a client of mine, just giving them some guidance to point them in the right direction.

 

What would you change about the profession?

Sarson: I think the change is inevitable that's going to happen, but: to be more ahead of the trends. The future is in consulting, strategic planning, more of advising. Technology is taking a lot of that data entry, the bean-counting role, out of the equation for accounting, so I think if we can get on that cutting edge of the services and really be adding value to our clients, that's what I would like to change. And that change will happen, but I'd like to get there quicker.

Griffiths: I'd probably love to have the profession be a much more inclusive place. I think it's sad that for years now 50 percent or more of the accounting graduates have been women, and yet only 20 percent of the partners at firms are women. And I think there's a real opportunity for there to be more inclusiveness and to bring more diverse perspectives into our profession.

Shimamoto: There's so many things that I want to change about the profession. As great a profession as we are, I think we can be better. I think we can be better by actually focusing on that people element, really engaging people more and helping people to realize that we are the ultimate business professional, that we're not just financials, that we are about technology, and that we're about managing business and managing success, really.

Jackson: I think it's more pathways into the profession. Usually we only look at tax and audit, and there are so many more pathways. The idea is that you go into tax, audit and then go do whatever. But there's things that college students should know as other entry pathways, like you can do some type of consulting, you can do an IT pathway, so really making it really clear that we do have two great pathways, which are tax and audit, but there are also other pathways into the profession, not just when you have five years of experience and then leave. That's the biggest thing that I would want to see change.

White: I'm more on the tax side. There's a lot of credits out there that I don't think are being utilized the way they were intended, so that's one of the areas I would change.

 

How will the profession be different in five to 10 years?

Jackson: You will have people that know very clearly you can start your career as a CPA, as an IT person, and be doing change management and system implementations and still have that information that you learned, and still have those core processes you learned as an auditor and the core skills, but using it in different ways at the beginning of their career. So, I think there are going to be tons of different pathways into the profession in the next 10 years because, if not, we'll lose everybody to IT jobs or finance jobs, and really they just need those core accounting skills.

Sarson: I think the focus of that traditional accounting role is going to change, and it's going to be more of an advisor [role], more of consulting. I think it's going to be different, and those stereotypes of the bean-counters will be gone. And the skill set is going to be different - there's a certain technical base to being a CPA and there's certain accounting knowledge you need to have, but a lot of that is strategic and being able to listen to clients and being more of a solution-provider is going to be what's key. And that's what's going to carry our profession. We have the background of being a respected profession, we're just going to evolve and change with the times.

White: I still see it as strong, but I think we're going to move away from the more traditional, "Yes I'm coming in to get my taxes [done]." They need more guidance, they need more services, as in, "I just had a kid; I'm just getting married," they need more input than just, "Bring me your W-2s and your 1099s and we'll get this done for you."

Shimamoto: We're going to see a big shift in the profession and that will be because the next generation coming in has a very different perspective on how the profession should run, and what the profession really means. So I think we'll see a fundamental shift in the profession toward being a more open profession, being a less conservative profession, but still being very pragmatic in the way that we approach things.

Griffiths: I think we're going to see a lot of consolidation because of the lack of inclusion and diversity and all of those things. A lot of firms are going to have to merge because they don't have any other succession plan. So, I think that will be one change. But I hope that one of the major differences we see is that the face of our profession will be more representative of, as Barry Melancon says, the face of entrepreneurial capital in this country. That we'll be much more reflective of who the clients are that we serve. And that means more women, that means more minorities, and I think it will be a good thing for all of us.

 

What's the biggest opportunity that older generations of accountants are missing out on?

Griffiths: Engaging the hearts of the young professionals at their firms. They grew up in an environment where people didn't really care about their heart so much, they just wanted the work done, perhaps. And I think the greatest opportunity is the chance to really tap into people's true passion and get them aligned behind what the firm is trying to accomplish. You're paying them for their brains and for their hands anyway, you might just as well get their heart, because you can get it for free.

Sarson: Tapping into their young talent. There's a lot of firms, all over, and we just got this verified from our "Young CPAs Perspective" [an E.D.G.E. session], that the biggest issue is succession planning. There are great firms that the Baby Boomers have built all over the U.S. and great platforms to really grow and evolve those firms. We're just waiting for the Baby Boomers; they need to give up some control, let the younger leaders take it up. It's a little different from when they believe they had to work -- blood, sweat and tears -- to get to where they are, which we're certainly doing, but we're doing it on different terms. The Millennials have a little bit of a different agenda, different priorities, but really want to be involved and engaged and have a seat at the table to make decisions. So, if they could embrace some of that and let us build their successful firms -- they can still hold a stake in it, but give up some of that [control] and help ease them into retirement. They can still get to see that the firms they built, the foundations and their successes, can continue. They don't have to close their doors, but there's a ton of young talent who are really passionate, who want to help them. We were just talking and someone else said, "They're going to be gone. And we're not saying we want to kick you out, but we want to help you transition." Obviously, they're really successful and they made us who we are in our careers. So we would like to honor that but then help them continue on the legacy of their firms.

Shimamoto: Really, to continue their legacy. They've done such a great job of building a great profession, and by taking an attitude that the younger generation is perhaps not worthy, they're going to miss out on the fact that they can pass down so much to this generation and take this really good profession and make it truly, truly great.

Jackson: I've been really lucky to see a lot of the older generation, the people who actually give back, so it's really in conferences like this where I get to see a whole lot of other people who are still in public or who have different people around them, that you see that a lot of people are missing out on really connecting and understanding what the younger generation has. We're different, we do things different, we process things different, but different is not always bad. So really being able to see, "Okay, yeah, they're different, they're way more laid-back than we used to be, but what can they do to promote the profession, and how can the profession change?" And that "change" word I think is the scary part, because we are different and not everybody embraces change. So I think that's what they're missing out on, is how to connect and really use that as a strategic advantage and not be scared of it.

White: Mine is kind of the reverse, that I haven't had experience with the older generation as much and so one of the things I'm taking away from this is I'm going to start reaching out to some senior CPAs in my area, to network with them to kind of gain experience before they exit.

 

What advice do you have for future CPAs?

White: I did not have experience with one of the Big Four firms and I think I lack in that area a little bit. So, I would advise maybe starting there, maybe not long-term, but starting there to gain the experience and then kind of find areas you want to work in because, with the bigger firms, from what I've heard, is that they'll give you access to audit, to IT, to tax, to kind of see what you really want to do.

Jackson: I feel like I give this piece of advice a lot, because I do a lot of stuff with students, and really, you can pretty much do whatever you want to do. If you become a CPA, it's just like writing your ticket. If you have a passion to do stuff in the arts, you can be the CFO for a museum. If you have the passion to volunteer, you basically can use it as a way to volunteer. If there's a board position, they're going to need an accountant and there's not going to be a lot of people, so it just gives you an edge and pretty much lets you write your ticket to doing what your passion is.

Shimamoto: So I was just talking to someone about the colleges, and they said that the colleges tell people to either prepare for the CPA Exam, the CIA Exam for internal audit or the CISA Exam for IT audit, and I look at that and I say, that's so short-sighted, because if you look at, out of the three, the CIA and the CISA, those are dead ends. Once you have it, that's it. If you look at the CPA, from there you have the ability to graduate into [Chartered Global Management Accountant] and then from there, into any of the specialty credentials. So if you really want something that's going to be a farther-reaching profession, that's the CPA profession.

Sarson: I would say be willing to take risks, and to take challenges. And there are a lot of opportunities, so many specializations from fraud to growth and consulting. There are just a lot of areas that aren't the traditional path of audit and tax; be willing to try those things. We need to become more innovative in our services and to add value, so look for those opportunities and get a head start.

Griffiths: Don't be afraid to take risks. I think a lot of younger people are really worried. They watch people graduating from college with no prospects or limited prospects. The accounting profession is unique in that we have a lot of opportunity. It's not like getting a major in sociology or something where it can be really tough. But don't be afraid to pursue something that you're really passionate about and try something that may not work. You've got a long life ahead of you -- don't be afraid to take some risks.

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