Grass roots (c. 1880) The very foundation or source; basic; fundamental; society at the local level as distinguished from the centers of political leadership.
Successful revolutions are seldom driven from the top down but emanate instead from the grass roots. They are, to borrow from a turn-of-the-century political address, grown from the soil of the peoples hard necessities.
It can be argued that the accounting profession is in the midst of a revolution. Recognizing the need to find more fertile fields, thousands of rank-and-file CPAs from all areas of practice are taking part in the CPA Vision Processan initiative designed to create a common vision of the professions future and the impetus for achieving it. Some 3,000 of these contributed input through Future Forums, professionally facilitated one-day visioning sessions held throughout the United States last fall under the aegis of the state CPA societies. The Journal talked with five forum attendees to get a feel for the grass-roots reaction to the visioning process.
To The Lighthouse
There are a lot of things CPAs assume or take for granted, says Michael Hagen, director of internal audit at First Commercial Corp., a bank-holding company based in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Future Forums spurred me to do an introspective analysis and helped bring into focus our professions issues, values and competenciesthings that were on my balance sheet but that I never really focused on.
As president of the Arkansas Society of CPAs, Hagen attended three forums. He was struck by the unanimity on one subject. When it came to discussing core values, integrity was at the top of the list every time, he observes. That commonalitythe belief in integrity as our bedrock foundationmakes you feel good when you consider the diversity of the forum participants.
Hagen likens the Vision Process to a lighthouse. We all need to wake up and head for this guiding light thats been turned on for us, he says. We need to recognize there are profound changes in the marketplace. We need to get a handle on where were going and make sure weve got the tools and techniques necessary to compete. Otherwise, well historicize ourselves.
If CPAs in public practice dont start challenging what theyre doing, if they dont start looking at assurance services, their product base will shrink, he adds. Conversely, CPAs in industry are grasping for support from the AICPA and state societies. Weve probably forgotten them a bit, not recognizing the shift away from public practice over the years. With this initiative, were getting reequalized.
Another value of the visioning process for Hagen is what it will do to raise the professions profile. We CPAs dont typically toot our own horns, tending to let our good work speak for us, he says. This initiative, and the AICPAs image-enhancement campaign, will help build awareness among decision makers that CPAs are alive and well and do see beyond the numbers. The vision statement will be a brass band that calls attention to how were helping our clients and employers be successful.
I remember going to the Rose Parade years ago, Hagen continues. It was fun to watch, but I remember thinking, Boy, it would be nice to be on one of those floats! I think most of us would rather be active participants in this effort to determine our future than sitting on the sidelines and watching it go by.
As a human resources executive, Jo Ann Wittenbach has been most impressed with the educational value of the Vision Process. She is HR director for Crowe, Chizek and Co. LLP, a major regional accounting and consulting firm in the Midwest based in South Bend, Indiana.
The concept of getting people together to talk and think in some depth about the professions future is valuable in itself, but even more so if it is used to develop and implement a collective vision, says Wittenbach, who found the variety of practitioners in attendance at her Future Forum to be stimulating. The academics brought a particularly interesting perspective in terms of training people for the future of our profession.
She believes the initiative has the potential to increase the quality and value of the CPA certificate by focusing the profession on specific, client-directed goals. What were really talking about is how you provide clients with the kinds of high-quality services theyre looking for, she observes. If we can pinpoint that, well all have more options and a stronger future.
Wittenbach believes her firm already is on the path discussed at the forum: diversifying services and practice areas; making effective use of technology, creativity, planning and visioning; and addressing worklife balance issues. She plans to use some of the forum materials to broaden the thinking of firm members who are newer to the profession, heightening their awareness of marketplace forces and the need for change.
Ultimately, she sees education as both the value of the process and the key to its success. Success will depend not only on how well the output from the forum discussions is synthesized and disseminated but also whether there is real education and communication so everyone in the profession understands the goals and strategies.
The Profession Of Choice
Were getting to the point where were the profession of choice for clients. Whenever they have any kind of business need or problem, were the ones they turn to, says Wallace Suttle. A member of the accounting profession for 36 years, he speaks from a long-term perspective. The Vision Process can start us in the direction of building our value as the one profession that knows more about a clients businesspast, present and futurethan any other and can be the vital link to success.
As both managing member of Suttle & Stalnaker PLLC, an accounting and consulting firm in Charleston, West Virginia, and secretarytreasurer of the state society of CPAs, Suttle believes grass-roots input is critical to the processs success. Everyone should be involved because whatever comes out of this is our future, he says. We have to come away with a profession thats different from what its been in the past and what it is today. The firms have to be willing to implement whatever comes out of this process.
He puts some of the burden squarely on the visioning process leadership. It depends on how receptive they are to the grass-roots input they receive and what they mold it into, says Suttle, who also emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the visioning process. Once we have our approved vision, we need an education campaign to let the public and our clients know what that vision means to themwhat benefit comes from working with a CPA. We want to maintain our reputation for integrity and honesty, but we need to let the public know we provide more than that. Otherwise, this is a lot of motion for nothing.
Leading The Profession To Water
I think the Vision Process will open peoples eyes to things, including the fact that globalization isnt just a buzzword but a real force for change, says Honolulu-based CPA Thomas Ueno. Its happening to business everywhere, not just in Hawaii or in the United States. We have to recognize the forces acting on us and the need to change, seeing it not as a threat but an opportunity. My firm may be very small, but were doing more and more internationally.
A management consultant, Ueno is particularly sensitive to changing client needs. Theres a tendency to think there will always be a need for the kinds of tax and financial services CPAs provide, he observes. We arent focused on how technology is wiping that out. People are turning to software and are happy with the results. The job is changing. What clients need is advice and help in interpreting information. Our services need to be more encompassing and business-oriented rather than narrowly focused on tax or audit.
Clients think enterprisewide, so we have to, too, he continues. We need to become advisers, telling them how to get more money to the bottom line. We need to share their objectives. When you buy into that concept, youre providing service at the right level.
Ueno, who is a past president of the Hawaii Society of CPAs, believes the process will succeed if members of the profession come to believe it will affect them directly. So far, however, he has encountered skepticism and a wait-and-see attitude. Until things unfold more, its hard for some people to understand what an initiative like this means, he observes. It seems like one more national project. Frankly, I dont think those at our level have really been asked to buy in yet. His advice to those who are taking the lead of the visioning process is to do more than just present the vision. You need to give people examples of new servicesscenarios and applicationsto trigger ideas in their minds, he says. You need to lead some people to water and then show them how to take advantage of the opportunity.
Charting A New Course
For Marilyn Bartlett, administrative superintendent at the Golden Sunlight gold mine in Whitehall, Montana, public practice and industry-sector accounting seemed like different worlds until her experience at a Future Forum convinced her otherwise.
Our core competencies are actually fairly similar, and as we gel as a profession, well be stronger, she says. Something happened to me at the forum. I felt such pride in the profession and excitement about our potential. There are ways we can use our competencies and skills to add value and contribute more, but we have to want to change. I now see that public practice accountants should adopt some of the innovative analysis and partnering techniques industry accountants are developing.
Bartlett is one of the first CPAsand the only womanin a superintendent position within Placer Dome, an international mining company. In addition to supervising accounting, warehousing and information systems at the Golden Sunlight Mine and preparing financial statements, she is involved in life-of-mine planning.
Its all future-oriented, she says. We do a lot of Monte Carlo analysis, where you evaluate future events, assign risk factors and develop projections and models. Theres going to be more demand for this in general. Banks are beginning to look for financial projections on businesses, not just financial statements.
On a cautionary note, Bartlett feels that as the accounting profession transfers its competencies into other services such as these, there will be a need to seek a balance. Whether youre in public practice or in business and industry, as you become a member of the management team and more involved in providing future-oriented projections and opinions, you could lose your objectivity, independence and verifiability. Its going to be interesting to see how we as a profession deal with conflicting values.
The Vision Process has made Bartlett reexamine how to develop her skills to become a more effective CPA, adding value to her organization. One topic in particularthe need for CPAs to improve their ability to communicate financial informationstruck a chord with her. That discussion made me realize that within my situation, I was the one who needed to change, not the engineers and geologists I work with, she says. Maybe if I opened my world to them, theyd open theirs to me and wed all develop a better understanding and working relationship, to the companys benefit.
Bartlett immediately launched weekly two-hour classes on accounting, which have had a major impact. The engineers and geologists now have an understanding of how I try to represent the business in financial and statistical terms and why I defer, amortize, accrue. And in turn theyve helped me understand the business operations better.
Her experience with the forum also convinced her of the value of input from a variety of perspectives in planning. We have made our life-of-mine planning into a more interactive process involving many more people than in the past, the Montana CPA says. I think accountants tend to do too much on their own.
A state society board member, Bartlett has become a missionary for the visioning process, speaking to local chapters. Although she sees enthusiasm for the initiative and recognition of the need to change, she fears too many of her peers are waiting for others to shoulder the burden. We have a choice to make about what kinds of professionals we want to be, she observes. What better thing than to chart your own course? Ive never had patience with the idea of someone doing that for me.
|The CPA Vision Process
Make-or-Break Time for the Profession?
In the final analysis, the five CPAs we interviewed do not regard the CPA Vision Process as a make-or-break effort. Exactly what do they think rides on the processs outcome?
Its the difference between surviving and succeeding. To expand, to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we need this effort. Wed do OK otherwise, but without the same luster and without being ahead of where we need to be. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark , we want to be pretty far ahead of that giant ball thats rolling down on us.
Michael Hagen, CPA
Without this process, the efforts of many individuals and organizations would be unfocused. Its likely we would evolve into something other than a profession of people who hold a unique certificate with special meaning. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass , if you dont know where youre going, any path will get you there. You can go pretty far afield unless you have specific goals in mind.
Jo Ann Wittenbach, CPA
We could survive without this initiative, but it would be more difficult. It would take CPAs in different states longer to make the necessary changes, because wed be flying by ourselves. The ones who succeed would be members of the more visionary CPA associations. As a profession, wed be viewed as one thing in West Virginia and another in New York City.
Wallace Suttle, CPA
Well be further ahead as a result of this initiative because its more proactive than reactive. It makes CPAs realize that more than a few people are seeing these changesits the whole professionand we have to gain control of our future. There are opportunities for us and we have to recognize them.
Thomas Ueno, CPA
If the Vision Process doesnt succeed, other professions will emerge to fill the niches that we, as a profession, have identified. We have to change how we think of the world and put our behaviors and profession in line with our new thinking.
Marilyn Bartlett, CPA
CATHERINE L. CARLOZZI is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New Jersey. She formerly served as associate national director of publications at Laventhol & Horwath.