Generational Viewpoints: The move to advisory services

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This edition of Generational Viewpoints features two professionals from Aprio, a Top 100 Firm of over 450 partners and associates based in Atlanta. We asked baby boomer partner-in-charge of learning and development Leslie Balmforth, born in 1958, and millennial senior tax manager Jason Bierly, born in 1987, to share their perspectives on the question:

“As advisory skills rise in importance, how should firms develop their people to be better advisors to their clients?”

Balmforth’s baby boomer viewpoint

It’s exciting to see firms and the industry embrace developing their people to be better advisors for their clients earlier in their careers. Back when I started my career many decades ago in New York City, the word “advisor” never crossed my lips. Instead, we talked about things like ticking, tying, white-out and correction tape. Back then, our primary goal was to get to our clients’ offices on time and in one piece after carrying 30-pound audit bags around the city filled with prior-year workpapers, current-year binders, calculators, reams of seven- and 13-columnar paper and those wonderful Pentel lead pencils and erasers. Did I mention that we didn’t use computers back then? Development consisted of reviewing prior-year workpapers and addressing review comments, culminated by an annual training week condensed with random topics and speakers to fulfill mandatory CPE requirements.

As technology enables firms to remove more and more of the mundane and counterproductive tasks from the most educated generation of associates ever to enter the profession, we can promote a curriculum of learning that will better prepare those associates to be trusted business advisors.

At Aprio, we believe it is our responsibility to develop the business acumen and advisory skills of our team members. We have developed the Strategic Trusted Advisory Role, or STAR, program to educate our associates and senior associates on the basic design and operation of small-to-midsized companies and take them through the life cycle of a business. They learn firsthand about developing a business plan, funding options, budgeting/forecasting, cash management, accounting ecosystems, and other business skills that help them converse with and advise their clients on new technology, tools and resources. They learn to “walk in their clients’ shoes” so they can become true business partners.

The firm’s learning curriculum supplements technical training with advisory training, focusing on developing innovative client solutions and creative ideas that expand the consultative value we deliver to clients. In the search for the best solutions for our clients, we provide training specifically geared to learning the right types of questions to ask that will lead to strategic opportunities. At Aprio, we practice a culture of “being curious” and “listening generously,” two of our 30 fundamentals that we call “The Aprio Way.” By asking thoughtful, probing questions and listening intently, we can truly develop an advisory culture that will help our clients and team members get to their next, whatever that might be.

Bierly’s millennial viewpoint

Google recently announced that they will soon place less importance and consideration on college degrees when considering candidates for job openings. This is indicative of a fundamental shift silently taking place in the mindset of companies. Is Google misplaced in its thinking that, irrespective of degrees, someone could find whatever solution they are looking for using, well, Google?

As artificial intelligence slowly and seamlessly integrates itself into our day-to-day lives, finding answers will become easier. But the problem is not finding answers, the problem is figuring out which answer is best for you and your circumstances. That is when client companies should seek professional advice. Not for an answer, but instead for advice that considers the intricacies of what’s important to the client, based on their core values, goals and objectives.

If, as an advisor, you dish out generic advice that Siri or Alexa could provide, then you lose credibility and fail to deliver value in your clients’ eyes. In these times of change, how can companies grow the skill sets of their employees so they can act as reliable advisors? There are many ways to do this, but two basic human personality traits could act as a north star: empathy and objectivity.

Empathy. For us to be truly empathetic, we must develop the skill of listening. Not hearing, but truly listening to our clients’ needs. An advisor’s role is not to spew generic solutions, but to help others frame the questions that take =

  • Connect the solution from other industries to your own and develop this skill set in your people.
  • Teach your team how to listen, not tell.

Overall, it’s great to have a learning and development program in place, but it must include listening and questioning skills to help enhance the client experience and to cross into a truly advisory role.

This column is facilitated and edited by Brianna Johnson, the millennial consultant, and Jennifer Wilson, the baby boomer co-founder and partner, of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. To have your firm’s generational viewpoints considered for a future Accounting Tomorrow column, email them at brianna@convergencecoaching.com.

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