August 2002

A Call to Greatness

What makes a good professional society great? In my opinion, a great professional society is one that affords its members the opportunity to raise the bar for the profession it serves.

The New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants is one example of a great professional society. It was founded by a group led by Charles Waldo Haskins, who, after working with the New York State legislature to pass the first CPA licensing statute, wanted to accomplish something more. Once Haskins and his colleagues had achieved a regulatory framework for CPAs, they went on to found a professional society that could raise the newborn profession above and beyond the statutory minimums.

The young Society spawned committees that served as forums to share what we now call “best practices.” It published a learned journal, today renamed The CPA Journal. It created a meaningful code of ethics. Individual CPAs volunteered their time to educate their fellow members. Educate their competitors! Helping them compete more effectively! Why? The answer was simple: Fellow members of the Society weren’t just competitors, they were associates and colleagues in the service of the public.

I don’t mean to imply that they did all this from purely altruistic motives. Haskins and his contemporaries were in business to make money. They made that money by serving the public. They believed they could make more money by serving the public more professionally. And they became more professional through a collegial association, which made the whole CPA profession better.

We live in very troubling times for professionalism. All professions are struggling to maintain their quality. Some blame this problem on a trend toward becoming too profit-oriented and too greedy. I’m not so sure. I am sure Haskins and his contemporaries wanted to do more than just squeak by financially; I’d bet they even wanted to become wealthy. I suspect the difference is that they equated their self-interest with the drive to improve their professionalism. That is a long-term perspective. Improving professionalism is a lifelong quest.

Wanting results with the least effort in the least amount of time is not new. It’s hardwired into human nature. But throughout the ’90s, a short-term perspective ruled. Gratification became instantaneous. Stock options became a quick path for many. WorldCom’s capitalization of operating expenses was an instant—though misleading—path to substantial equity. Enron’s special purpose entities were an instant—and contrived—solution to excessive debt. Global Crossing’s income swaps were an instant—and constructed—infusion of income. Instant solutions are not genuine solutions, not professional solutions. And, therefore, our obsession with instantaneous gratification has weakened professionalism.

Haskins led the CPA profession through its first crossroads. We are now at a new turning point, and CPAs have some important decisions to make. Will they charge down the professionalism route? Or will they follow a less aggressive path? This is, perhaps, what at heart was most at fault with the recently failed XYZ credential initiative. Maybe it was just too instant—and too facile—an attempt at professionalism.

Now is a time for CPAs and their societies to renew and strengthen their professionalism. Now is a time to emulate Haskins and raise the bar again. The Sarbanes bill has set the stage by requiring annual peer review of the largest firms and triennial peer review for those with fewer public audits. The AICPA has required peer review for years.

Perhaps the NYSSCPA should require peer review too, and expand the concept beyond accounting and auditing practices to offer a tool whereby every CPA, regardless of practice environment, could improve the quality of their work.

This is a call for New York’s CPAs to renew and refresh the greatness of their profession by voluntarily raising the bar. Please give me your thoughts.

Louis Grumet
Publisher, The CPA Journal
Executive Director, NYSSCPA

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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