Breaking Out of the Backroom
How to make your move from backroom accountant to strategic advisor.
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
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.
THE TRUST FACTOR
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.”