insight magazine

Breaking Out of the Backroom

How to make your move from backroom accountant to strategic advisor. By Eric Scott | Winter 2017

Career Management-800

Trust, reliability, intelligence, confidence — everything you’d look for in a strategic advisor; everything you as an advisor must be. But these aren’t the easiest of qualities to portray, and getting to the point where clients, colleagues, and others regularly seek you out for professional advice may take a while. After all, there’s that whole “getting to know you” period for building lasting business relationships and reputations. But if you’re going to make the move from backroom staff accountant to full-fledged strategic advisor, proving yourself while seeking promising opportunities is exactly what you’ll have to do daily.

“Your clients and colleagues have to view you as more than just a tax or accounting wonk,” says Geoff Harlow, CPA, partner with the accounting firm Kessler Orlean Silver in Deerfield, Ill. Harlow recalls a conversation with a colleague that became an unexpected turning point early in his career, inspiring the approach to building business relationships he still uses today.

“I think back to a cab ride I shared with a senior partner as he described his relationship with a private equity firm. He explained to me that he made it a point to be able to answer any question on any topic that they had,” Harlow recounts. “So, they got in the habit of contacting him, even on things that weren’t tax related. They’d ask him about a good French restaurant in Manhattan, a corporate finance issue. He made a point of being broad and gathering a lot of information — things that were way beyond the narrow scope of tax services he provided. I try to take that approach myself.”

The takeaway here is to be mindful of positioning yourself to reach beyond your core competency, because the business world won’t wait for you to catch up.


The fast-changing nature of the accounting and finance industries are demanding the transition of accountants into strategic advisors within firms and companies. These diverse and sometimes specialized professionals are increasingly being called upon to help navigate the current era of business disruptions and rapid technological advances influencing the business world.

“The accountant will play an increasingly important role as a strategic advisor in the future,” says Willard Zangwill, professor of management science at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Firms are becoming more complex. This means more complex handling of the financial information and the need to understand how the different parts of the firm interact.”

Therein lies opportunity. Zangwill points out that increasing complexities tend to shine the spotlight on the staff members with expertise in business-critical areas, making them the default “go-to” resources.

Zangwill highlights several areas where firms and companies need strategic advisors. For one, business is becoming increasingly international. “Even smaller firms are participating internationally. But accounting procedures and standards are different in different countries. Someone has to understand that complexity,” he explains.

Zangwill also points to opportunities in big data and information processing. “Big data [use] is increasing. The accountant not only understands numbers but also the business,” he says. “Hence, the accountant is in a pivotal position to integrate the numbers and the business aspects, and the role of information will only increase in the future.”

Next, there is both threat and opportunity in artificial intelligence. “Similar to big data, the person who understands the numbers and business is the accountant. That role will increase,” Zangwill says, eluding to accountants increasing their dependence on artificial intelligence for completing their menial job functions, freeing up time for strategic business decision-making and advising, business development, and other functions dependent on human interaction.

All in all, these are examples of trending areas where there are big opportunities for accountants to ramp up their expertise and become internal and external strategic advisors.


Maybe watching endless reruns of the gameshow “Jeopardy!” isn’t the best way to ramp up your expertise in disparate pieces of information that might come in handy as a strategic advisor, but being curious, learning new things, and learning how to present details are good starting points.

“There’s always a certain amount of time that one needs to spend as a professional to acquire more knowledge. And if you’re not going to spend a minute from the office reading other things, you’re going to have a problem,” Harlow says, adding that the core element of becoming a strategic advisor is a solid foundation of knowledge, credibility, and trust.

CPAs often applaud themselves for being considered the “most trusted business advisors,” but simply having credentials at the end of your name doesn’t make you a truly trusted voice. To be a true go-to strategic advisor, you need to be able to discuss things “with some degree of authority,” Harlow says. That means equally being honest about your knowledge.

“Clients want to know that they’re getting the most trusted information,” says Janel O’Connor, chief human resources officer with Sikich LLP in Naperville, Ill. “They want to put trust in growing a relationship with their strategic advisor. The more you can demonstrate you grasp the information, the quicker a move can be done.”

At the same time, integrity is paramount. In other words, don’t “wing-it” by offering up answers you really can’t support or try to impress others by being something you’re not. Harlow cautions that smart clients and colleagues will catch on to a phony fast. “You don’t need to be an extrovert or life-of-the-party to be a strategic advisor,” Harlow says. “One just has to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work within the level of their skills.”


So, when is the right time to make your move from the backroom or sea of cubicles to the client meeting table? Should you take the initiative right away or keep a low profile for a while?

“Don’t wait for it — take the initiative. Take your tactical aptitude and translate that into strategy,” O’Connor suggests. “Be proactive in asking career progression questions, and don’t be too passive in hoping opportunities come your way. The more you can be in the driver’s seat, the better your chances of being successful.”

O’Connor sums up her take on the backroom accountant-to-strategic advisor transition by offering this: “The best accountants are the ones who get a seat at the table and engage and troubleshoot with their clients. It’s about really getting that rich client experience and face time — and providing the most value as soon as possible.”