Dale Sheff, CPA, CGMA

Controller of Graybar

Dale Sheff, CPA, CGMA, is controller of Graybar, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in supply chain management services.
Dale Sheff, CPA, CGMA, is controller of Graybar, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in supply chain management services. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/AP Images)

'To be a management accountant, take the initiative and listen'

See beyond limits: We use CPAs in all the typical places—tax, audit, accounting—but we look at them as trusted business advisers and business consultants. Not all organizations and, importantly, not all CPAs share this view. In many organizations, CPAs are considered the tax man or the auditor. Many CPAs see themselves as "just accountants," so they limit their potential. Perhaps they create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A story of 14 accountants: Two years ago, in order to meet a business need, we took 14 accountants from around the country and changed their roles to focus on financial planning and analysis (FP&A). We told them their time behind the desk was over, and they would now go on sales calls, visit branch managers, and so forth. At least two of them said, "If I had wanted to do this kind of work, I would have gone into sales." By the end of two years, only five of the original 14 remained. We replaced the nine with CPAs, people working toward their CPAs, or people within Graybar who had strong aptitudes for analysis and Big Data. Two people in internal audit and tax left their desks to join FP&A, and they are thriving.

Demonstrate your value: If you're in a company with limited roles for CPAs, you must show your value to earn an expanded role. CPAs' technical ability is unquestioned. CPAs who separate themselves are the ones who can engage in the business. Going out for social occasions is a good start, but it's what you do during those events that matters. Listen. Listen so that when you present that person with Big Data, you can tailor it, adding context that will be meaningful to them.

You can convince your manager: If your supervisor isn't supportive of your doing work beyond your traditional role, try an experiment. Put your ear to the ground and find out what management needs. Then put together an actionable and insightful report that addresses those needs, and present it to your manager and extended management team. They may not know CPAs can provide this information and may come to you again.

Trust is the bottom line: Anyone who works as a management accountant must work hard. And the payoffs can be considerable. In addition to diverse and fascinating work, when it comes time for promotion, leadership will take a hard look at CPAs who have both strong technical skills and know the business and its leaders from the inside. The bottom line is building trust, through business engagement and by forming personal relationships.

—As told to Amy Krasnyanskaya, J.D., a freelance writer in Cary, N.C.

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