insight magazine

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 | Spring 2020


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 new opportunities.”

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 continuous learning.

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 successful path.”

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