CPA INSIDER

The year ahead: CPAs share their ambitions and goals

New skills and opportunities are on accountants’ radars for 2021.
By Kelly Hinchcliffe

The year 2020 brought extreme hardships: A global pandemic and the economic crisis forced CPAs and accounting firms to reassess their roles, spending, and work structure.

As we enter 2021, we wanted to hear from CPAs across the country about their ambitions and goals for the new year. What are they looking forward to this year? What skills and technology would they like to master? And what business opportunities do they think might be available?

Here are their stories, hopes, and dreams for a better 2021, as told in emailed interviews in late November and early December 2020. Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.

Career goals

What would you like to accomplish professionally in 2021, and why?

Suzanne Forbes, CPA, James Moore Certified Public Accountants and Consultants, Daytona Beach, Fla.: With so many of our team members working remotely, one of our primary concerns is being intentional about shaping our firm culture. Currently due to COVID-19, about 70% of our team members are working from home. Even after COVID, we anticipate a larger percentage of remote team members than in the past. It's critical to the future of our firm to actively manage our culture to ensure we are meeting the needs of all of our team members.

Jeremy Thibodeaux, CPA, partner in Ericksen Krentel's Accounting and Audit Services Section, New Orleans: Gaining some stability, even though that may be a dream. For years now, I have been constantly on the move, always pushing myself and our firm to the next thing. For instance, right now we are converting as much of our software as possible to cloud-based applications, partially in response to COVID but also because we recognized even before COVID that we needed to migrate more to the cloud. I think we have adopted seven cloud-based applications since January 2020. It is a lot to take on but also a lot for our staff to absorb. I think it is imperative for everyone in our firm, including myself, to take a breath once we get through the adoptions and really dive into the applications to fully understand them. From a technical standpoint, I really enjoy working with my nonprofit clients, not that I don't enjoy working with my other clients as well. While I have a deep understanding of nonprofit organizations and the challenges that they face, I feel that there is still so much that I have to learn, nuances that can deepen my understanding and help me provide greater quality to our clients.

Robert E. Grote, CPA, partner at Grassi Advisors & Accountants, Jericho, N.Y.: With each passing year, my role as a partner and CPA becomes more and more focused on advisory services. In 2021, this adviser role will take on an even greater purpose as I help my clients innovate and plan their business continuity and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Even after being in this profession for more than 25 years, I anticipate some "firsts" in my career as I help manufacturers who have completely reinvented their assembly lines during the pandemic to eventually merge or shift old and new product lines post-pandemic. A large part of my professional success during 2021 will be measured by how well my clients are able to weather the ongoing storm and emerge stronger than before.

Technology skills

What technology skills will be most important for your job in 2021? Is there anything new you'd like to learn?

Forbes: We are looking to automate as much data extraction and reporting as possible using Power BI. Any time I see an Excel spreadsheet, the first question I ask is, "Can we automate this report using Power BI?" While we've made great strides in this area, we still have much to learn. 

Thibodeaux: I have been dabbling in the data analytics space for a couple of years now but have not been able to immerse myself in it. I plan on doing that during 2021. I believe that data analytics is not only the future of our audit practice but also a viable service line to help grow the firm. The efficiencies that we can gain and the value that we can provide to our clients will be immeasurable if we fully commit to a data analytic culture within the firm. It doesn't even have to be anything that complex. It's amazing the insights that you can gain just from using some relatively simple advanced functions in Excel such as PivotTables and VLOOKUPs.

Nancy McClelland, CPA, owner of The Dancing Accountant, Chicago: I have prided myself on being at the forefront of accounting technology for a long time. We have a rich tech stack and solid implementation resources for automating accounting, bookkeeping, point of sale, payroll, retirement, and similar systems. However, internally, our own systems are very disjointed. Because of the challenges of staff growth and migrating away from legacy software, we do not follow the same advice we give clients — to make sure all the apps in our tech stack 'talk to each other.' Therefore, technology-wise, my goals align with my career goals: focus on internal needs and improving workflows to make us more efficient. This includes migrating time-tracking and billing software, using Zapier to automate client onboarding and database population, and switching file upload software to automatically connect with our cloud file servers.

Grote: A priority in 2021 will be identifying and learning the best technologies that allow our firm and clients to make confident data-driven decisions, automate processes, and deliver services and products more efficiently and cost-effectively. This will be done through a greater use of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation that allow for greater accuracy, less human error, and better utilization of our people and resources. As I develop and introduce new skills and processes to my staff, I can simultaneously consider them for my clients' needs and make recommendations that are far more available and user-friendly than they have been in the past.

Professional development

What professional development goals do you have for 2021, and what learning opportunities are most helpful to you?

Forbes: Remote training has both its advantages and disadvantages. We have been able to access technical training easier without travel; however, it is not as engaging. It's difficult to meet others in the profession via Zoom. We rely heavily on our membership in AGN [a global not-for-profit association of accounting and advisory businesses] to provide practice management relationships at the partner level. Meetings were in person but since COVID have been done online. We meet usually three times a year to discuss issues facing the profession and our firms. Our goals for 2021 will be to make sure we didn't miss critical training during the pandemic, and to further our use of technology by using data analytics and tools such as Power BI.

Thibodeaux: I'm a big advocate for constantly improving yourself. I do not believe that we ever stop learning. Pre-COVID, professional development was a big part of my career, whether that be reading books, magazines, or articles or attending conferences and seminars. That has all come to a screeching halt during COVID. Obviously there is limited opportunity for in-person conferences and seminars, but I have also struggled with finding time to do the development on my own time that I used to excel at due to the personal challenges that I have been facing as a result of the pandemic. Hopefully during 2021 I can get back the professional development activities that I enjoy so much.

Grote: While staying current on technical and regulatory changes is always important, it is my involvement in industry associations and learning opportunities that helps me the most in my role as business adviser to my clients in the manufacturing and distribution sector. With social distancing, changing consumer behaviors, and supply chain disruptions continuing to impact the sector in 2021, I expect even more opportunities to not only learn from other advisers and businesses in the space, but also to actively collaborate and contribute to the solutions that help the industry overcome the year's many obstacles.

Business opportunities

What are your business goals for 2021, and why?

Forbes: Our goals focus around our people/culture and smart growth. We don't want to grow for the sake of just numbers, but instead we're looking at obtaining and keeping the right clients and the right team members. As part of smart growth, we are continuing to research and implement advisory services our clients ask for. Also, we're planning for physical and mental health programs for our team members. COVID has raised our awareness of mental health issues and the impact it has on all members of our team.

Thibodeaux: I really do believe that we have an opportunity to turn our audit practice from a commodity service into a strategic service for our clients. I believe this is what sets us apart from our competitors. I have been leading our transition to the audit practice of the future for the past couple of years. I believe that we have the technology in place now to really allow us to turn a corner and make big strides in 2021. As I said previously, I believe data analytics will play a big part in what we do here. One of our audit managers is taking the lead on developing our data analytics side with some guidance from me. Our plan is to really turn that into a standalone service line within the next 12-18 months and also have it become a huge part of our audit practice.

McClelland: I started offering free Zoom Q&A sessions to my clients and colleagues every week, and some of these I shared on the blog. The feedback has been incredible. It reminded me how much I love teaching, and gave me renewed interest in offering low-cost educational materials and sessions specific to small business owners (and the bookkeepers and accountants who assist them). I'll be exploring this direction more in the coming year.

Grote: Even in a crisis, it is always important to keep moving forward. In addition to helping my clients evolve and grow their own businesses, I will be looking for new opportunities to expand our manufacturing and distribution practice in geographies and market sectors outside New York. Grassi's New Jersey office and new locations in Massachusetts and Florida allow us to more easily reach the manufacturers and distributors in those markets that could benefit from our industry experience and value-add services. I will continue to lead our M&D practice toward expansion in key sub-sectors as well, including food and beverage, aerospace and defense, building materials, and other areas of specialization that we have on our team.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Kelly Hinchcliffe is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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