As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and the economy more complex, the demands of top professions have become broader and more nuanced. That’s certainly true for accounting and finance jobs, which now require so much more than rote number crunching. But that change in expectations makes it difficult for companies to fill those roles.
PayScale reported recently that for the third straight year, accounting and finance was listed as one of the toughest jobs to fill. To find out why, we spoke with Jeff Thomson, CMA, president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).
“While many may think of accountants as public tax professionals, in actuality the majority of accountants work within businesses and have to juggle a broad range of responsibilities beyond taxes, like financial planning, analysis, forecasting, internal controls and decision support,” says Thomson.
Because of these added responsibilities, companies need accountants with skills beyond what’s required to become a CPA.
“Today, the accounting and finance profession requires professionals to have more than just a basic education,” Thomson says. “There is a clear gap between the skills taught in most college accounting curricula and the strategic business insights employers now expect. To fill the gap, professionals must be dedicated to the development of leadership and business skills – which can be accomplished through a combination of continuing education, mentoring, certification, internships and apprenticeships.”
“While many may think of accountants as public tax professionals, in actuality the majority of accountants work within businesses and have to juggle a broad range of responsibilities beyond taxes, like financial planning, analysis, forecasting, internal controls and decision support,” Thomson says.
Accountants, especially since the Great Recession, are more often at the forefront of a business. They’re looked to as the ones who can make sense of things. For that, you need as much industry insight as accounting chops.
“Because of those changing expectations, accounting has become more demanding,” says Thomson, a former CFO for AT&T. “Very much so. But it’s also full of opportunity.”
As CEO of IMA, Thomson now networks with people all over the world in the finance industry, discusses the changing landscape of accounting and comes up with strategies for finance professionals to live up to those ever-evolving demands.
“For the past two decades or so the industry has evolved,” says Thomson. “This transition to a broader, more strategic role comes as business has heated up and as consumers become more sophisticated. That means there’s a step-change required.”
Stand apart from the pack
What can accounting professionals can do in an effort to stand out from their peers?
Certainly, certification is one way to differentiate yourself, says Thomson. Get your undergraduate or graduate degrees, of course. Or a certification from a professional organization like IMA.
“Another way to stand out is to really take the time to learn the business,” he says. “We can’t stress that enough. Don’t stress about the technical part of your job right away. You’ll get that. That’s why you got an education. Take the time to learn the business of the company you work for or want to work for, how the company serves customers or how the value flows in the organization.”
Get your hands dirty
Also, don’t be afraid to step into operations.
“In other words, if you’ve got a long-term career plan, say you want ot be CFO of a unit, a subsidiary or a plant, learn how the company works,” Thomson says. “Ask for an assignment outside of the finance department. Step out of your comfort zone.”
If you’re trying as a finance team to influence business, then what better way to do that than walk in people’s shoes?
“The goal is to constantly learn,” says Thomson.
Unlike law, where you attain your credentials by passing the bar, accounting certification is only the beginning. You’re expected as a condition to maintain that certification through annual courses.
“It’s meant to promote the spirit of continuous learning,” Thomson says.
If you’re already in accounting, realize there’s a life beyond that position, Thomson advises. CFOs are often considered for CEO positions or for boards and commissions.
“If you went into your career aspiring to be a CFO, know that you can do more. There is life beyond the CFO position. Even when you become a CEO there are so many opportunities to grow.”
Finance is a competitive, complex environment. To stay ahead, you have to stay current. But if you wish to differentiate yourself, you have to look for ways to broaden your responsibilities.
“That’s the nice thing about business and life – it’s not that well-defined,” Thomson notes. “What if a position opens up that’s a little bit out of your comfort zone? It may not even be a promotion – it may be an opportunity to learn a different part of the business. At least consider it.”
The undergraduate accounting curriculum today is mostly focused on one part of acounting. It’s an important part, but not the only part. Accounting, by definition, is accounting for past performance, counting the money that’s in and the money spent on past business. There’s the compliance part, the tax part, the focus on what’s happened – that’s all well-covered in most, if not all, undergrad curricula.
What’s not covered enough is managerial accounting, says Thomson. That’s the forward-looking aspect of the job. It’s not as rules-based and not as quantitative. But that ability to forecast and plan for the future is greatly needed and significantly underrepresented.
A job with purpose
Thomson hopes more accounting majors and current accountants will consider the possibilities and remember that “these are really great and exciting careers.”
“They’re so relevant,” he says. “And remember that a job that’s relevant, that has a purpose is fulfilling. The day of the accounting team working behind the scenes are behind us. Now, they’re the ones driving the business, coming up with the strategy and filling leadership roles.”
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