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Added value is key for both employers and employees­and recruiters, too.

By Ian Basser

In Brief

The well-documented transformation of the accounting profession has spawned much discussion about the "new CPA." The AICPA and state societies are finalizing a vision statement and strategy for the Vision Project that incorporates core competencies, skills needed, demand, and opportunities for the CPA in the near future. This changing world obviously brings new challenges for career advancement as well as a need for more value-added relationships among the employee, employer, and recruiter. The author, the CEO of the North American operations of a multinational recruiting firm that specializes in accounting and finance, discusses the importance of "professionalizing" the recruitment process to insure the recruiter is a strategic consultant to market the firm or company successfully to the job candidate while at the same time providing well-targeted career advancement opportunities for the employee. It is an environment where the demand for CPAs in public practice outweighs the supply, and new opportunities abound for talented accountants in financial services and corporate America. The new CPA possesses the financial, technological, commercial, and management skills to move a business forward and is the professional who will survive in a changing world.

A career in accounting has never offered more rewards than it does today. But these opportunities are being reserved for a new breed of professional whom we call the "new CPA." He or she is an accountant with commercial business skills wrapped in a package of communications talent, leadership qualities, and a broad knowledge of the marketplace. In addition to strong systems abilities, the new CPA possesses the drive and ambition to move a business forward and has the personality traits that make these qualities clearly visible via performance to management.

Employers will reward accountants who can add value and solve problems. The new CPA can prove, through a combination of education, experience, and personality, that he or she has the ability to examine business performance and collate information, then quickly analyze and translate it for the managers who manufacture, market, or deliver products and services to their customers.

It doesn't matter whether the CPA is employed by a CPA firm--in a pure audit or tax discipline--works in the financial services sector, or earns a paycheck in the corporate world. Employers today want more than a bean counter, a provider of information. They demand commercially-oriented intelligence, and they expect today's CPA to play a more active role in the decision-making process of their business. Simply stated, today's accountants earn their stripes if they can work side-by-side with managers and, together, make their business more successful. The challenge for the employer, on the other hand, is to identify and retain valuable accountants in this climate of change.

For the purposes of this discussion, I have divided the marketplace into three major sectors: CPA firms themselves, including the Big Six firms; financial services firms (banking); and the corporate environment, from multinationals down to small organizations including start-ups. All three sectors are undergoing change via mergers (and de-mergers), ratification, consolidation, and expansion. Against this backdrop, they are introducing new products at an astounding rate, and all firms are struggling to maintain a technological edge over their competitors.

In a changing world, the traditional notions of a career have changed. For the accountant, the world has never been rosier, but there are many more different paths to take. The wrong path can slow down the progress toward achieving career goals. I am convinced, therefore, that the most important action a CPA can take is to recognize what skills and attributes characterize the new CPA and then to evaluate and improve his or her skills accordingly. Failure to do this may result in being left behind--missing an internal promotion or being turned down for that next job.

The Public Practice Sector

Public accounting firms are still engaged in well-documented throes of consolidation and intense competition from non-industry players. Because of the economic surge following periods of low entry into the profession, in terms of pure numbers, there are not enough CPAs to go around, and demand has outstripped supply.

Recent times have given employees new issues to consider, including the legal ramifications of partnership positions and how these pertain to the future structure of this sector. Of vital importance is the universal re-strategizing of exactly what types of services a CPA firm should provide to its customers. Will the CPA's skills improve and diversify to match these new product areas?

This situation presents the current CPA practitioner with an array of decisions. Among them are: "Should I leave? Should I stay? What new skills should I develop? Will these skills be relevant in the long term?"

The dynamism within this sector offers career opportunities for those who can adapt to change, but what about those who cannot adapt? The situation places them under an enormous amount of stress as they attempt to cope.

From the firm's perspective, the climate of change presents unprecedented challenges to retain good people, to keep the top performers who will be the future of the firm, and maintain a flow of talent into partnership positions. Like it or not, firms must be aware that within any industry undergoing change, employees are forced to review their options.

If they want to remain attractive to their valued employees, firms must communicate their "corporate" strategy to their workforce and create a stimulating, educational, and happy, vibrant work environment.

Significant improvements have included expansion of the number of women being absorbed into the profession. For most of the last two decades, the number of women graduating from college with a degree in accounting has been roughly equivalent to the number of male graduates. Firms, however, have not yet fully reaped the benefit of this needed expansion of the CPA workforce. That will only happen when firms are willing to provide more flexible work schedules and telecommuting arrangements for working families.

In the end, however, it becomes a Darwinian struggle. Only the fittest employees and firms will survive in a business environment where innovative new services offered on a local and global stage will need to be delivered by a flexible, dynamic workforce. This principle should be foremost in the new CPA's career plan.

The Financial Services Sector

The financial services sector over the last three to five years has undergone a dramatic consolidation. According to published reports, merger and acquisition deals totaled more than $75 billion in the banking industry last year alone.

As with the CPA practices, the financial services sector has been undergoing global change. The rapid departure from some markets and a focus on more developing markets have characterized this phenomenon. Driven by technology, economic globalization has made financial services markets increasingly competitive.

The number of players has been diminishing over time, but the numbers of products offered and the locations from which they're being offered continues to grow. According to Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group, "Banks can either take the route of financial supermarkets with global reach or stick to their core competencies and focus on a specific product or region."

In this scenario, talented CPAs are in demand. As increasing numbers of financial products are being offered and competition within the financial services sector heightens, transactions are becoming more complex. This leads to incredible challenges and far more responsibility for CPAs than the traditional accounting function.

A dynamic business advisor who can work closely with front line producers to deliver management information and communicate it clearly is replacing yesterday's stereotypical accountant.

The huge demand for accountants within the sector means opportunities are opening up for professionals with experience in industries outside the financial services arena who can demonstrate strong commercial skills and a willingness to apply those skills in a challenging environment.

At the same time, the financial services sector is recognizing the value in the front office of CPAs with strong industry knowledge and further qualifications such as an MBA. Opportunities for these professionals to move out of pure accounting roles into positions such as research, credit analysis, and corporate finance are increasing.

For the CPA working, or seeking to work in the financial services sector, flexibility to develop and extend his or her skill set to maintain pace with this fast changing industry is key. Talented CPAs with good business sense are in demand.

The Corporate Sector

Corporate America is changing according to the same dynamics. New technologies make possible new products to entice customers. Manufacturers and service providers are literally re-inventing themselves and are reengineering the way they do business. Those employees who cannot keep up are being left behind. Accounting systems are replacing the traditional large pools of clerical accountants, but not the new CPA.

The positions of auditor, treasurer, chief financial officer, financial director, and divisional controller, among others, are asked everyday to get closer and closer to the business. It is within this sector that the delineation between front office and back office becomes blurred. The new CPA is the person who can function as the communications bridge between the marketing expert and the salesperson and between senior management and line management. Indeed, presentations to the board of directors happen very early in the new CPA's career.

Employers are looking for CPAs with so-called influencing skills and technical skills that will be tested everyday in ways accountants never heard of before. Corporations that range in size from multinationals to small startups want accountants who can "think outside the box" and solve business problems before they happen.

The rewards can be great. In the corporate sector, if accountants can embrace their firm's needs for the new CPA skills, they will be offered general management positions. Accounting is no longer viewed as being confined to the back room. The careers of many leading CEOs are evidence of the trend. Many of today's chief executives have backgrounds in accounting.

Salary Pressure

In all sectors discussed, the competition for a small supply of "new CPAs" continues to increase and with this shortage comes upward pressure on salaries. This simple high demand-low supply equation will inevitably lead to salaries in all sectors rising over 1998.

With CPA firms diversifying away from the limited growth areas of tax and audit, the major firms are looking to become full service consultants to their clients. Their growth services lines are business valuation, systems consulting, merger and acquisitions services, and litigation support. This increase in business broadens the range of skills required and the numbers needed to provide them. For smaller firms, the challenges associated with trying to retain less experienced staff are increased as competitor employers offer higher salaries and more challenging roles to people who perhaps never thought it was possible to join a big firm.

The race is also on to move experienced professionals from one firm to another. Never before has loyalty been questioned as it is today, with the better senior managers, directors, principals, and partners jockeying to align themselves with the firm that they believe will lift itself above the pack. This relentless search has created highly skilled recruitment teams within firms and strategic alliances with recruitment consultants and agencies designed to speed up the process of change.

Salary inflation will continue in the industry and financial sectors. Specialists and generalists are being rewarded in the industry sector. As companies seek to squeeze every last drop of productivity improvement, so the demand for internal auditors, cost and management accountants, and systems accountants grows. CFOs with vision, leadership, and an international perspective are consistently being sought, with more jobs than candidates that fit the very demanding profile.

More and more often, specific industry experience does not handcuff candidates to a particular sector. Management accounting skills developed in manufacturing and high technology are now being applied to the financial services arena. In 1998 we will see an ongoing need for high caliber people with specific skills in commercial and investment banking. However the high speed, high volume recruitment drive of 1997 is being replaced by a more focused flight to quality. Fewer people will be recruited and a much more stringent set of skills will be required. Banks will fill accounting positions with people who are ideally suited for the job with strong skill qualifications, regardless of specific industry experience.

Those who have planned and built careers on a solid foundation and have kept relevant will continue to command excellent salaries. It is these people who will always be in demand.

The Recruitment Challenge

Attracting and retaining accounting and finance executives continues to be extremely difficult. This is due not only to the already stated healthy economy and shortage of people who fit into the definition of the "new accountant" but also employers that are also competing with an antiquated, inefficient, recruitment methodology.

In this country, individuals are counseled in the course of every educational, sporting, political, or personal endeavor to plan, set goals, and achieve them. It is incongruous, however, that when it comes to a job search, most accountants sit back and wait for a phone call from the recruiter. And because of the buoyant state of the market, the recruitment sector has never had it so good. The result is a low level of trust between candidates and recruitment firms. Who is affected in this equation? Both the employer and those seeking employment suffer because of the imbalance. The CFO seeking to recruit a controller needs access to the best caliber people in order to advance the CFO's own career. Obviously, candidates are best served by a recruitment company which provides opportunities that will progress their careers. When this equation is in balance, everybody wins.

To win over candidates at any level, it is not enough for a recruitment company to simply phone someone and then send a resume. Internal and external recruitment organizations must be able to build a relationship of trust with the candidate market. Employers should interview the prospective recruitment firm to ensure its methodologies and standards are high and to learn if it is salaried or commission driven, what services it provides to candidates, and how it will project the firm or company to a prospective employee.

High caliber recruiters are able to source talent locally, nationally, and globally and to do so utilizing a broad range of methodologies. They create conduits along which candidates can make their own career choices. The corollary effect is that a candidate looking for a job for career reasons is more likely to change for a variety of considerations, not just money. Some of the recruiting practices in this strong employment market, particularly at middle management level, only serve to inflate salaries and are inefficient, less than satisfying methods of filling a position.

Value added recruiters advertise in many forums inviting candidates to make their own career decision based on accurate, objective information. The Internet, direct-mail, high profile broadsheets newspapers, and specialist trade publications are all vehicles in which job opportunities are communicated to the new CPA.

If the image the prospective employee has of the recruiting company is not the right one, it is because the recruiter is not adding value. Connecting candidates with companies that are right for them is a matter of few secrets and much hard work: due diligence, getting beyond the resume, meeting candidates, and interviewing using modern techniques.

But this due diligence should go beyond candidate review. It involves benchmarking skill sets and behavioral attributes for the companies' key positions so clients have road maps for hiring desirable candidates. The recruiter should add value by assisting in establishing objective criteria for selection. This will enable the employer to identify the best people. Often the best person is already an employee at the existing company or firm. Often the solution is closer than the employer thinks.

The recruiter has to be similar to the "new CPA"--a strategic consultant for the most important capital a business has, its human capital.

The New CPA Is in Demand

The traditional concept of career management from college graduation to retirement in one company is well documented as being dead. Employees must build their own careers and will look to the organizations as a means of extracting the experience to meet their personal career and financial goals. This new dynamic has changed people management and career management forever.

To retain talented employees, employers must provide a work environment that challenges and motivates. To attract talented employees, employers must utilize a new recruitment model. Lifetime employment is no longer a given; it must be earned by both parties. The relationship is dynamically balanced because loyalty on both sides is measured on adding value to the business.

The demand for the new CPA is high. The supply side of this equation is a major factor to satisfying that demand. Therefore, career planning, recruitment skills, corporate business strategies and goals, and business success play an ever more important role in identifying and retaining today's accountants.

CPAs must build experience and personality traits that make up the new CPA's armory. Accountants who cannot change with the times will not be offered top jobs or top salaries. Even on the highest job levels in all three sectors, the dynamic remains the same. *

Ian Basser is chief executive officer of Michael Page International, financial recruitment specialists.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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