Visionary: The CPA's New Role

"There is nothing like a dream to create the future." —Victor Hugo

"Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him."

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

The discourse about how rapidly the world is changing and the need to retool ourselves for the Age of Information has become so ubiquitous, there's a tendency to regard it as white noise. Too many of us tune it out, choosing from a ready store of rationalizations that betray hints of denial, inertia, overconfidence, helplessness or fear:

"It won't really affect me. I'll be retiring in 10 years."

"I'm too busy keeping up to stop and think about the future right now."

"I'm adaptable. I'll just roll with it."

"What can I do? No one can control the future!"

"I'm too old to learn all that difficult new computer stuff."

Do any of these sound familiar?

Before reading on, pause for a minute and take this quick test.

Situation: Imagine it's the year 2012 and you've been asked to represent your professional association at a career fair. Your objective is to woo bright young prospects to the profession, so you need to create an engaging presentation that not only describes your professional life but also communicates why you committed yourself to this career. It should provide an overview of your marketplace and the major forces and issues that are shaping it; the services you provide and for whom; the training, skills, knowledge and experience needed to perform your job; the profession's direction and the range of career options it offers.

Question: Could you write this presentation right now?

Score yourself: If your answer is "yes"—you are probably ready for the future, which bodes well for your success. If your answer is "no"—the future is likely to run you over.

There's danger in defense mechanisms and studied deafness. Eisenhower's observation is as true for everyday people as it is for five-star generals and presidents. And it applies to entities—professions, businesses, industries, governments and other organizations—as well as individuals.

Right now, the CPA profession is at a well-documented junction in the tracks of its history. For more than a hundred years, CPAs have delivered unique value to the public and the constituencies they serve, earning trust and respect. But the tracks have become less smooth of late.

  • The profession is aging as fewer and fewer bright young people opt to become CPAs.

  • The audit and other traditional services have become mature products and businesses are seeking faster, better and cheaper sources of a broader scope of information. Value is migrating upstream to higher level services.

  • Competition from non-CPAs is increasing.

  • Information technology has changed the environment in which CPAs work, the way they work and how people use their services. Although in some ways it has become a source of competition, it has also vastly expanded business opportunities for CPAs.

The choices the profession faces are clear: (1) Lay down on the tracks and wait to be run over. (2) Choose the tracks that continue on in the same direction, hoping the future will head that way and there will be a choice of seats on board. (3) Figure out which tracks the future is most likely to take at the junction, clear and repair them, oil the switch and reserve first-class seats.

In developing the CPA Vision Project, the profession's leadership has opted for the third choice. And it has invited all members to write their own first-class tickets on the train of the future.

Playing Ahead of the Game
"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."

—Wayne Gretzky

The CPA Vision Project is a professionwide initiative led by a coalition of CPAs from all segments of the profession, the American Institute of CPAs, state CPA society leadership and other financial professionals and organizations. This undertaking is remarkable in the breadth of its scope and the ambition of its goals:

  • To enable the profession—all 330,000+ individuals in public practice, business and industry, government and education—to create its own future.

  • To provide the engine for propelling it into that future as a unified profession capable of thriving well into the second decade of the new millennium.

That engine is a process called visioning. Visioning involves working out different scenarios of the future, choosing the one you like best, scripting your role in it and then working to make it all happen.

Vision Process Resources

The American Institute of CPAs has a wide variety of information available to members who want to learn more about the Vision Process. They include

  • Horizon Perspectives monthly newsletter.
  • Horizon Insights booklet.
  • Videos:
    The Project, the Process and the People: An Introduction. Future Forum Modules: Introduction, Forces, Vision.
  • White papers:
    The CPA Vision Project: Positioning CPAs for Tomorrow.
    Seeing Is Succeeding: The Impact of Visioning on the Bottom Line.
    Enduring Values, Changing Competencies: A Roadmap for CPAs.
    Paradigms, Blindspots, and Real Life.
    Diversity and Lifelong Learning: The Social Forces That Will Change the Future.
  • Other documents:
    Ten Traits of the Successful Entrepreneur.
    The CPA Vision Project: Surfing the Wave of Change.
    Frequently Asked Questions.
    Future Forum Power Point Presentation.

    To order, contact the AICPA: dial 212-596-6005; fax 212-596-6233/6283 or email at . Most of these materials are also available on the AICPA Web site at at . New materials are added periodically.

The essence of visioning, so aptly captured in Gretzky's statement, is playing ahead of the game. Not only does visioning make great hockey players, it's also what put Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA All-Time Rebound Leader list. It's what makes a world-class tennis player, such as Martina Navritilova, a world-class chess master, such as Boris Kasparov, or—practiced on a larger scale—a world-class company. Royal Dutch Shell and British Airways are among the companies that have embraced and profited from the use of visioning as a platform for strategic planning.

As a strategic process, visioning begins by developing insight into the forces—political, economic, technological, human resource-related and regulatory—driving change in the outside world. You can't prepare for the future if you don't know what it's going to look like. By studying these forces, however, and conjecturing about the issues and patterns that may emerge from their interaction, you can create possible scenarios for the future and evaluate their implications. This evaluation begins with the macro view—the global and national impact of various scenarios—then zooms down to the micro view—their impact on your organization and its marketplace and constituencies. Each participant in this process brings his or her experiences, perspectives and expectations to it.

After choosing the most likely script for the future, you begin writing yourself into it. This is an exercise in introspection that requires:

  • Looking at core values—the fundamental beliefs that set you apart, that shape your identity and actions, that determine how the world regards you and that you'd hold no matter what happens.

  • Exploring what you want to be doing and the types of products or services you'd like to provide.

  • Identifying the core competencies—the blend of knowledge, skills and capabilities that differentiate you, providing competitive advantage—necessary to fill that role.

  • Defining core purpose—your reason for being.

Now, you are ready to articulate a vision statement. This is not something you hang on the wall and forget about but, rather, a statement of where you are going and what you plan to do when you get there. Actually getting there requires a strategic plan, which serves as both map and itinerary, guiding your decision making along the way.

Part of the visioning process is identifying potential junctions where it may be possible to favorably influence the future, steering it in a direction more closely aligned with your values, competencies, purposes and desired role. So the process involves both molding yourself to the future and, where possible, molding the future to suit yourself.

Daydreaming With Discipline
Visioning is a rigorous, intellectual effort involving insight and analysis. At the same time, it is an exhilarating, creative effort that makes use of dreaming and imagination. In asking CPAs to focus on and look even beyond the horizon, the CPA Vision Project is inviting a profession that is naturally risk-averse, linear, analytical and rooted in the concrete to break out of that box and explore its hidden side. It's issuing them a license to be imaginative and entrepreneurial. It's handing them a crystal ball and daring them to take a look. It's empowering them to dream the best dream they can and then make it a reality. It's positioning them to lead rather than react.

No other profession in the history of our nation has had the courage—or the vision—to attempt such an effort on this scale. The stakes are huge, as well. The price of failure is that the marketplace will choose the profession's destination and assign it a seat on the train—and that seat isn't likely to be in first class.

What will it take for the Vision Process to succeed? In visioning, as in so many other processes, the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) principle prevails. Daydreaming must be tempered with discipline. Dreaming the best dream requires large quantities of high-quality input—thoughts, experiences, observations and knowledge, as well as feelings, hopes, expectations and aspirations—from all segments of the profession. Ensuring that it then becomes reality requires widespread ownership of and responsibility for both the dream and the strategic plan for its achievement.

The CPA Vision Project has gone to great lengths to ensure that the voices of as many American CPAs as possible are heard, wherever and in whatever context they practice. It provides a framework for collective daydreaming designed to promote strategic thinking and build consensus along the way. The framework incorporates research and planning professionals; users of CPA services; other financial professionals, such as economists and chief financial officers; elected officials; academics; and others whose insights are respected by the profession.

Framing the Future
A key structural element in this framework is a series of more than 200 day-long "Future Forums" that were held in every part of the country during the last quarter of 1997. These dynamic, interactive, professionally facilitated visioning exercises involved more than 3,000 CPAs in grass-roots and ad hoc forums, under the aegis of the state CPA societies. Leadership forums also were held, as well as those for AICPA council members and committees; strategic partners, such as CPA firm associations; minority accounting organizations; accounting educators, and students.

The foundation for these scenario-planning exercises—the forces that have the potential to affect the profession's future and the core values, competencies and purpose—was distilled from research gathered during an earlier phase of the process. Focus groups and discussions with CPAs in all practice areas, users of CPA services and members of the Vision Project's council of outside advisers, as well as a variety of research into global forces and the profession's future, provided input.

On January 12-13, a National Future Forum attended by delegates from each U.S. jurisdiction will convene in Phoenix to distill the collective output from all the Future Forums and other research. The delegates' task is to draft working CPA vision and core purpose statements. Although this will represent a modest degree of ratification, the project still has a long way to go.

The statements will be exposed to the profession for comment throughout the spring and summer before they are modified and adopted. The vetting process represents an opportunity for further discourse. Dissent and debate are healthy parts of consensus gathering. The project will then move into the implementation-planning and implementation phases.

The appellation Vision Project is an oxymoron. "Project" implies a finite undertaking, with a fixed start and finish. Visioning, on the other hand, is a never-ending process because it is focused on a moving target. The future is always beyond the horizon, which is always moving relative to your position.

Seizing Responsibility

"We should all have to be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there."

—Charles Franklin Kettering

The question is, how much responsibility are you willing to assume for your own future—the place where, as the inventor of the modern cash register observed, you will spend the rest of your life? Will you lie down on the tracks and get run over, wait for someone to assign you a seat on the train or take the first-class ticket the CPA Vision Project is offering?

Assuming that you, like your profession, prefer the third option, understand that it's not enough to "buy in." Buying in is an endorsement of someone else's ideas and efforts, and you can just as easily "buy out." To make the Vision Process succeed, you have to own the vision and the implementation effort by investing time, effort and emotion in them. You have to be involved and committed.

If you participated in any of the Future Forums, focus groups or other research efforts—or if your answer to the test was "yes"—you can deepen your ownership through the following efforts:

  • Share your experience with colleagues, clients and members of the professional community. Expand the discourse. Stimulate their creativity and encourage them to become owners of the vision.

  • Continue to develop future thinking, focusing on the criteria for success in the future.

  • Stay in touch with the process, continuing to share your thoughts and insights and support the momentum.

If you are not among the owners—or if your answer to the test was "no"—it's time to get aboard.

  • Get up to speed on the process. Read the coverage in the Journal and mailings from your professional associations, including the Horizon Perspectives newsletter. Log onto the process Web site ( ) for a process calendar, Horizon Perspectives online, articles, resource lists and answers to frequently asked questions. Request additional information from the AICPA and your state society, which offer a variety of articles, white papers, videos and other information.

  • Tell the CPA Vision Project team what you think. The Web site provides a feedback section and other ways to weigh in with your opinions and share your experiences, including online polls and moderated discussions.

  • Develop a future-oriented mind-set. According to cultural anthropologist Jennifer James, a new age requires a new mind-set. So make your peace with the process of change. It takes more energy to fight it than it does to harness it. Tune in to what's going on in the world around you, and bring it back home to your own situation. Become a forward-looking thinker with an open, questing mind.

  • Start daydreaming.

Let your imagination go. The future is there for the making—and the taking.

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.


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