The Last Word: Jeff Burnison

In this new monthly column, the JofA takes a closer look at some of the intriguing, inspiring and imaginative folks who are the heart of the AICPA.
BY CHERYL ROSEN

JEFF BURNISON
CPA, CIA

Senior finance manager and Sarbanes-Oxley project executive leader
Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.—a DuPont Company
Des Moines, Iowa

The public doesn’t think of CPAs as being exciting , motivational people, but the best part of my job has been working with inspiring leaders. Being a good manager isn’t working 80 hours a week; it’s developing the people under you as the next leaders of the company.

I work hard and I play hard. I ride across the state with 15,000 bikers every year in the hottest week of the summer on the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). There’s no TV, no cell phone, no radio. You completely get away from everything and meet people from all over the world. Some days, when it’s 98 degrees out with a 20-mile-an-hour head wind, you just get into a survival mode. Most of all I like it because I turn off my “work brain.” I don’t think about work from the day I get on the bus until I get back home.

I had a 3.9 GPA in college and a 4.0 in graduate school. To get a top job in public accounting you need at least 3.5, but you’d better also have a good personality and some outside interests. After the first couple of years technical skills are no longer enough. What separates the wheat from the chaff are personality, leadership, networking, management potential—all those soft skills. If you’re an interesting and motivated person, you draw in more interesting and motivated people.

I switched to internal audit for the experience of international travel and to further my education. Pioneer Hi-Bred is a multinational based in Iowa with a vision and purpose I thought was worthwhile—actually helping feed the world. People here still have those small-farm-town values. I got the job through a Robert Half recruiter with whom I’ve been friends for six years; we met on an Iowa Society of CPAs committee.

DuPont chose me to head the Sarbanes-Oxley project because I had a proven track record of solving complex problems, pulling teams together and working out solutions people can understand. I’ve been an internal and an external auditor, so I can see things from both perspectives. The best thing about Sarbanes-Oxley is that it’s provided a language of control that business, finance, IT and internal and external audit all agree upon. Before people would say, “That’s somebody else’s job.” But Sarbanes-Oxley said management is responsible, and we can’t rely on auditors to do the job for us.

I’ve had two mentors. Gary Dirksen, a former financial aid director at Central College who worked across the hall from my work-study job, has been my best friend, even though he’s a few years older than me. He’s a two-time cancer survivor who taught me that the important thing in life isn’t money; it’s the people you influence and the relationships you build. The second was Frank Tallerico, who hired me out of external audit. He’s a compliance director for DuPont and the model for so many of the values I admire: He’s humble, patient and full of integrity. Coming out of public accounting, I was used to a very structured audit process. But with Frank it was basically, “Go to this far-away country, assess the risks and audit against them.” He doesn’t tell you what to do, but challenges you to develop your own style and solutions. He taught me to think critically about business risk.

My most eye-opening travel experience was an African safari. The countryside is beautiful, but there’s an element of fear being out in the animals’ domain. It’s the same feeling I get when I scuba dive—that I’m part of something bigger, that the human race is not the dominant life form on this planet.

—As told to Cheryl Rosen

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