Focusing on Becoming Future Ready
Upskilling is key for young accounting and finance professionals aiming to drive business success and future-proof their positions as the most trusted and strategic business advisors.
By CLARE FITZGERALD |
According to the 2019 “Closing the Skills Gap” report from Wiley
Education Services and Future Workplace, 64 percent of HR
leaders surveyed say there’s a skills gap in their company—up 12
percent from their 2018 findings.
Given today’s pace of change, companies have no choice but to
invest heavily and quickly in developing their workforces for the
future—and the accounting and finance profession is no exception.
In just one example, PwC recently announced a $3 billion
investment to upskill its global workforce of 275,000 employees
over the next three to four years.
As organizations large and small across industries strategize to
prepare their talent for a tech takeover, young accounting and
finance professionals must make concerted efforts to capitalize on
every opportunity to develop competencies and mindsets that will
make them coveted resources and future leaders in an evolving
business world. That means prioritizing upskilling in key businesscritical
areas, according to the accounting and finance leaders
interviewed for this feature, which they say will help young
professionals stand out as high performers and evolve into the new
faces of the profession.
The Technology Connection
Advancing and constantly changing technology is one of the main
drivers of skills gaps. In Robert Half’s 2019 “Future of Work: Adapting
to Technological Change” report, 47 percent of more than 1,200 U.S.
managers surveyed said they expect the rise of technological
advancements such as artificial intelligence and robotics in the
workplace will require their team members to learn new skills.
“Every company will need to be a tech company in the future,”
predicts Brian Blaha, CPA, growth partner at Wipfli LLP and a director
on the Illinois CPA Society’s board of directors. “Professionals will
need to be familiar with various technologies and understand how
technology can enable us to be innovative in how we deliver
services and connect with our customers.”
Fellow Illinois CPA Society board member Josh Lance, CPA, CGMA,
managing director of Lance CPA Group, agrees that it will be
important for accounting and finance professionals to combine
technology proficiency with an understanding of how technology
can improve the user experience. “Whether it’s as simple as video
calls or cloud computing, younger professionals need to not only
learn how to use technology tools but also how those tools add
value for their clients,” he says, pointing out that identifying and
enhancing value requires professionals to expand their knowledge
beyond the technology they use daily.
“Sometimes you can be in a bubble if you’re just using the
technology at your firm. It’s important to know what technology
challenges other businesses—and your clients—are facing,” Lance
continues. Getting out of the office, talking to other professionals,
and attending conferences are a few ways to maintain your
awareness of changing technology and how it will affect your
interactions with clients.
The Strategy of Soft Skills
As automation and other advancing technologies become more
widespread, upskilling will extend beyond technology. According
to Robert Half’s study, half of U.S. employers expect to see
increasing demand for soft skills, such as written and verbal
communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, leadership,
and creativity. According to Blaha, accounting and finance
professionals who can combine technology and soft skills with
financial acumen and a business mindset will be in high demand
as clients increasingly need CPAs who can help them grow and
sustain their businesses.
“The CPAs of tomorrow will need to go beyond financial statements
and compliance work. They’ll be attesting to all sorts of things, and
they will be involved in decisions related to supply chain, cyber,
business operations, and more—all while maintaining the
trustworthiness that CPAs are known for,” Blaha stresses. “Client
surveys tell us they are looking for proactive, forward-looking
advisors who can get results.”
Helping clients make good business decisions and understanding
what they want is key to client retention, Lance adds: “Clients want
help and assistance for the real-time world.”
Expectations are growing on the corporate side, too. Corporate
finance teams are no longer pencil-pushing reporters of financial
results, says Anna Gomez, CFO of the Chicago-based advertising
agency Leo Burnett Group: “We play a role at the forefront of the
agency. We’re involved in operations, corporate strategy, and
running the business.”
Succeeding in that expanded role requires finance professionals
to have a strong base of technical knowledge to fulfill compliance
needs and a collaborative spirit to work with other departments and
build a reputation as a trusted and strategic partner. “Young finance
professionals often mistakenly see the role as churning through
back-office work, but they need to learn how to work in a team
environment,” Gomez says. “It’s not just about individual output.”
Developing a strategic mindset and having a deep knowledge of the
business are also crucial to success in tomorrow’s finance world. “You
need to own the numbers, but you also need to understand how the
numbers and metrics drive day-to-day business decisions.
Understanding the analytics that you’re presenting gives you a voice
in making those decisions,” Gomez explains.
Habitually being part of business conversations and understanding
how other departments work helps raise your profile in the
organization. Leo Burnett’s finance team is involved in rate setting,
negotiations, and staffing, and collaborates with the creative and
account teams. Gomez says some departments used to wonder
why finance was in certain meetings—they don’t anymore. “The
organization doesn’t make any decisions without finance now,” she
says. “They know the value we bring. We earned that seat at the
table by being available and demonstrating the importance of
finance’s point of view.”
Going Beyond Accounting
Developing the ability to provide strategic analysis and insight often
means breaking out of the stereotypical CPA mindset.
“CPAs can get stuck in cyclical patterns and habits. The best way
to break out of that is to constantly ask why things are done certain
ways,” Lance says, adding that professionals at all levels can and
should cultivate an inquisitive mindset. “Asking if there is a better
way to accomplish a goal can help you avoid the ‘this is how we
always do it’ mentality.”
It’s also important to find and build relationships with people who
share that curiosity and are open to new ways of doing things.
Lance encourages young professionals to find fresh ways to
expand their networks, such as meeting people for coffee to talk
about industry changes and hear different perspectives that you
can apply to your own work. “Finding and talking to people doing
innovative things in the industry, inside or outside your organization can help you learn new things and open up greater opportunities
for you,” he says.
Successful upskilling ultimately hinges on a commitment to
continuous learning. “Today’s professionals need to be lifelong
learners and they need to invest in self-directed learning,” Blaha says.
With a wealth of low-cost, easy-access programs through the Illinois
CPA Society, other professional organizations, and on the internet,
CPAs have no excuse for not expanding their knowledge base.
Blaha also encourages younger professionals to follow and build
on their natural curiosities. “Don’t wait around for someone to tap
you on the shoulder or to stumble upon your passions,” he advises.
“Have the mindset that you can direct your career to things that you
are passionate about. If you have an interest area, then work on
becoming known in that specialty. Lean in and earn recognition
internally and externally by writing thought leadership pieces
and finding other people with common interests. Those are the
types of activities that get you noticed and can give you access to
Lance agrees that whether you work in corporate or in public
accounting, establishing yourself as a thought leader and change
agent helps you stand apart from your peers. “You need to take the
initiative to investigate how you can be a leader in the industry,” he
says, adding that speaking, writing articles, and serving in industry
organizations are great ways to share and test your opinions.
“Putting yourself out there allows you to chart your own path and
be part of making and leading change.”
Gomez adds that accounting and finance professionals sometimes
need to make an extra effort to get out of their shells and learn the
soft skills that will help them develop into tomorrow’s thought
leaders. “Finance professionals of the future won’t be those who
like to just sit at a desk,” she cautions.
Organizing Organizational Support
While professionals should own their continual development,
employers do their workers and their organizations a disservice
when they don’t step up to help. To retain top talent and drive
business success, employers need to create upskilling
opportunities and support the professionals who are committed to
In fact, Blaha says firms need to protect those high-performing
future leaders from getting poached by other firms. “The job market
is so competitive, you need to show you are invested in their
success,” he says. “Providing robust leadership reviews and
additional coaching and educational opportunities can show new
hires and existing staff that the organization is committed to helping
them acquire new skill sets and navigate change.”
Helping employees learn about new technologies also is important.
Whether it’s through in-person seminars, online courses, knowledge
transfer from consultants and subject matter experts to staff,
reimbursement for professional certification costs, or working with a
mentor, organizations must provide timely training to stay ahead
of the curve.
Simply sitting down to a conversation with staff also helps guide
upskilling. Gomez, for instance, talks to her staff individually about
the future of the industry and the professional environment. And
one of the things she tells them? “The industry has changed so
much. You need to maintain the technical skills but also learn how
to build relationships and develop confidence in your ability to
make an impact. Learning that early in your career sets you on a