By the end of the last day of the American Institute of CPAs’ first E.D.G.E Conference in New Orleans last week, participants were fulfilling the promise of the acronym—Evolve, Distinguish, Grow Emerge—in the most participatory sessions of the three-day event.

The speakers focused on the changing face of accounting leaders.

In both her sessions on inclusiveness and the workforce of the future (the latter co-led by AICPA Director of Specialized Communications/Firm Practice Management Mark Koziel), Heidi Brundage, AICPA senior technical manager, emphasized relationships.

She started with the statistics: 12 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women and 10 are underrepresented minorities. Additionally, 21 percent of the total partner positions in CPA firms are occupied by women.  

The AICPA survey also reveals that nonwhites are less likely to recommend a firm as a great place to work or believe that feedback from non-management leads to change. 

But the face of the accounting client is changing, Brundage explained, and it would be “good for our face to match the clients.”

The numbers show a growing Hispanic population that will help the United States minority population become the majority by 2042.

Consequently, retention of women and underrepresented minority employees becomes crucial, especially because “client turnover is expensive—growing firms need two new clients to replace a lost client.”

This is where relationship dynamics should be scrutinized. Culture and gender play into how people interact with others, Brundage told the audience, listing the idioms of different countries as examples.

While Americans say that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she continued, in China, “the loudest duck gets shot” and in Japan, “the nail that sticks out gets hit.” Society tells men to raise their hand and speak, and women, that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Managers should be aware of these employee backgrounds, as well as their own “unintentional bias” against them.

They should also consider mentoring these employees: “It’s really easy to do if you’re not already doing it.”

[IMGCAP(1)]

The awareness of these dynamics and unintentional biases is paramount, according to Brundage.

Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, echoed the knowledge is power idea in the conference’s closing keynote, “How to Succeed in the New Normal,” but with one caveat.

“Leadership is the ability to gain insights and aptitude and turn them into action,” Hood told the full room. “Knowledge isn't power; knowledge applied is power.”

Conference participants then applied their power quite literally, to the wall, in the form of sticky notes that answered questions about how leadership is changing and what leaders need.

“It is more about empowerment than having power,” one participant told the crowd after standing in line to add their note to the wall of ideas. “It’s more about the trenches than the ivory towers.”

Another person summarized what her group had brainstormed: “We need patience with those that came before us and the change that comes behind us.”

After the notes of change wallpapered one side of the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in pale yellow and black Sharpie, Hood closed the conference by telling the audience to go back and share these ideas with their firms.

As he explained earlier, “The best way to predict the future is to create the future.”

As the E.D.G.E. attendees lined up in front of the wall one last time, the sentiment was palpable, and visual.

(Session insights throughout the event were also visual via the E.D.G.E. live Twitter stream, broadcast on screen throughout the conference, and aggregated online here.)