Lessons in building the accounting pipeline from ENGAGE 2021

Hosted by Neil Amato

This week's podcast episode brings together the voices of three presenters at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021. One common theme in their interviews is the talent pipeline — how more candidates can be drawn to the profession, how existing talent can be retained and trained in a more tech-driven business environment, and more.

Hear from AICPA board Chair Bill Pirolli, CPA/CFF/PFS, CGMA; Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, executive vice president of business engagement and growth for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants; and former AICPA board Chair Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA.

Also, Hood explains the goals of the recently formed Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Bill Pirolli's inspiration to become a CPA.
  • What Pirolli has learned while navigating the uncertainty of the past 18 months.
  • Tom Hood's recap of the Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group's approach to managing an extreme acceleration of trends.
  • The talent concerns of the advisory group's members.
  • What Kimberly Ellison-Taylor learned in her stint as AICPA board chair.
  • Why Ellison-Taylor says, "We have to go to uncommon places to get uncommon talent."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. On today's episode I'm bringing you three high profile guests who took part in the recently concluded AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021. You'll hear those interviews after a word from our sponsor.

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Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is JofA senior editor Neil Amato. At this recording in the last week of July, I'd like to say we're coming to you live from Las Vegas. I can say that, but it's only half true, as our first guest is on-site at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021, and I'm virtually part of the event. That first guest is AICPA board chair Bill Pirolli. Bill, welcome to the podcast, and tell me first, how did you develop a passion for building the accounting profession's pipeline?

Bill Pirolli: Thanks for having me, Neil. I've been a practitioner for over 40 years, and I've always been passionate about helping people find their way into this great profession. I love to mentor future leaders, and help them find their path to success. I think my own journey into the profession, however, is what really motivated me. I was inspired into this profession by an accounting professor in the local community college where I went. I would not be here today if he hadn't given me the advice that I needed to transfer to Bryant College and get my degree, and become a CPA and go into public accounting. I credit him with grabbing my hand and turning me into an accountant.

And as a profession, we all have a part to play in keeping the pipeline strong. We need to send our associates back to their high schools to talk about their successes, and embrace community colleges as a strong feeder for the profession. We need to rely on our five- and six-year associates to go back and talk to the freshmen and sophomores, and tell them about their success they're having in the profession.

Amato: When I say CPA Evolution, what comes to mind for you?

Pirolli: To me, it's really about future-proofing the profession by providing candidates the skills they need to succeed in the current environment. The new model will allow us to adapt to the skills needed like technology, AI, and data analytics. It will also help serve to keep the profession dynamic and attractive to students thinking of entering the profession. Again, speaking to the pipeline, I think that CPA Evolution is a part of increasing the pipeline.

Amato: What are the skills the CPAs of the future will need, and how has that list changed over just these past few years?

Pirolli: Sure. Well, we've always focused on the deep technical skills needed in the profession, and that really will never change. That's a threshold issue, but really the half-life of a skill today is less than five years. Continuous learning will really become the norm, and going forward will really all be about technology. I can't imagine any future problem where technology won't be part of the solution.

Take the DAS project that we're in the middle of right now. We're re-envisioning the way we audit using technology like AI, data analytics to adapt the audit to the realities of how business operates today. But also soft skills and communication and leadership will be very important as the Baby Boomers like myself retire and new leaders emerge. It also takes different skill set to manage people in a hybrid virtual world. So the ability to adapt will be very important, and the ability to manage people, not just manage tasks, will also prove to be very important.

Amato: You use that word "adapt." I think that's key to my next question. What has navigating the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic taught you?

Pirolli: Well, it taught me when you thought it couldn't change any faster, it does. For over a year we've really had more questions than answers, and our clients look to us to be their trusted adviser. When the CPA Horizons 2025 Report — and by the way, it's already 2025; we've advanced that far — it listed our core purpose in the profession as making sense of a changing and complex world. I think we kind of nailed that over the last 18 months or so, and our skillset really rose to the top during the pandemic, and we earned our place as being critical to the economic recovery worldwide. Change is the new norm, and we need to build on what we've accomplished because it's not going to slow down.

Amato: Exactly. I'm not sure I've ever heard it said like that, that we're now in 2025, but it's a great point.

Pirolli: If you go pull up that report and read it, it's 2025. That's how far and fast it's going.

Amato: Bill, this has been great. Great to have you on the podcast. Thank you very much.

Pirolli: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Amato: Bill Pirolli mentioned DAS in our interview; that stands for Dynamic Audit Solution. It's a good way to tease to another Journal of Accountancy podcast series on audit evolution in action. Part 2 of the monthly series published in late July, and you can expect Part 3 of the series in August. Now, back to the ENGAGE interviews.

Now joining me on the podcast is a repeat guest, Tom Hood. This week, you've been meeting with an impressive group of people, the Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group that you and Barry Payne, and I guess others, have put together. It's a group that seems to work well together. They're still doing the virtual and in-person mix of meetings. Tell me after that Monday get-together, what are some of your takeaways from what the group discussed?

Tom Hood: Neil, first of all, it's great to be here with you. ENGAGE, by the way, there's just this palpable sense of energy that people are live again. So I've been running around. The ability to take selfies, and hug people and shake hands — it truly tells you how much we missed it.

But this Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group, this was our third meeting. We formed the group back in May, and a couple of the critical takeaways: First of all, this group is major corporate CFOs that have all said we need to work to help transform the finance and accounting profession in the corporate accounting and finance arena.

All of them feel passionately that this is our opportunity to elevate and accelerate our transformation to what we've all talked about, this value-added, forward-looking, windshield-view finance and accounting professional.

That's the idea behind this group, and what we're trying to put together. Yesterday was about half the group. We had 12 in-person, and we had another probably eight on Zoom. So hybrid meeting, and it really went well. For me, the takeaway was the group really came together. Two prior Zoom meetings, and then this hybrid one, and you could see the group — literally, no one afraid to talk, to represent different opinions. The big thing they talked about was how can we accelerate our role as value creators in our organizations, and that was incredible.

Amato: There definitely was this notion of value creation, of being a value partner, which is a next-step business partner. It's also part of an acceleration of trends, and I think you have some trends that are in three sets of three that this group is addressing. Do you want to talk about those?

Hood: Sure. Yeah, so the first bucket is the major ones that we've been facing in finance and accounting for a while but has accelerated through COVID, and that's digital transformation, that acceleration of that. The second one is the need for new skills, upskilling to basically support the new functions around that digital transformation. Then the third bucket is what we call role stretch, and that came out a lot yesterday again. That's this pressure we feel being pulled to be protectors, guardians, and compliance, and then moving forward into value creation. That stretch is what everyone is feeling, and how do we close that gap, if you will, to help everybody move faster to that value creation role.

The second bucket gets to what is a result of COVID, and so the number one is how do I maintain a strong culture in a hybrid/remote environment? The second one is health and wellbeing of the team, as we've endured this crazy time frame plus the medical challenges that have faced everybody's families and friends. Then the third one gets to the idea of the uncertainty in this disruptive environment.

Then the final one, the third bucket, gets to some of the longer-term trends that have been moving faster. For instance, talent is now becoming more and more acute every day. The accounting talent shortage, people, the giant — what's it called? The Great Resignation — that's a big issue on their mind. ESG, and sustainability reporting is an accelerated trend, and diversity, equity, inclusion. Those are probably the three major ones in that emerging trend bucket.

Amato: On that topic of talent shortage and pipeline. Pipeline is what I discussed with Bill Pirolli, who obviously is someone you know. Someone also on-site at ENGAGE, in another part of this podcast. Do you feel like pipeline is one of those things that companies are almost, I don't want to say desperate, but they're having to pull out a bunch of new strategies to get people to join their workforces?

Hood: Absolutely, and this group validated that. Every one of them raised their hand and said, talent is becoming more and more critical. I think it parallels the notion of how do we get the talent, whether it's from university or recruiting in the general workforce? Then how do we keep the talent? Retain. That's about how do we continue to train them, offer them a sense of purpose and those kinds of things. That was all part of this conversation with these big finance chiefs.

Amato: Obviously, there's more to come with this group. I know you have a scheduled meeting, trying to be in-person in December, maybe getting another meeting on the calendar, but what's your goal, looking ahead to 2022 with this group?

Hood: The goal is really to begin to publish or lead thought leadership around these concepts. How do we become value partners in our business? How do we keep finance with a seat at the strategy table? How do we begin to address the skills? And they're different skills. This idea, if you listened to the group yesterday, the old tools aren't serving as well anymore, so we're going to need new tools and new concepts. A lot of talk about business models. A lot of talk about how do we begin to think about platform businesses? And different metrics that aren't only financial. That's a big area that we want to dive into, and this group is going to guide us. Then when we get together in that big meeting, we're hoping to have about 100 finance executives, and really co-create the beginnings of the finance of the future.

Amato: Tom, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule at ENGAGE to join us. Anything to add in closing?

Hood: I just think everybody listening needs to put ENGAGE on their calendar for next year. I think it's going to be in the June time frame. But this is going to be the conference for our entire profession. Our job is to make it bigger and better, and really cross-pollinate all the wonderful disciplines across our profession.

Amato: That was Tom Hood, the executive vice president of business engagement and growth at the Association. Next up is Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, a former AICPA board chair, a presenter in multiple sessions at ENGAGE, and a member of the Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group. Like Bill Pirolli and Tom Hood, Kimberly's passion for the accounting profession and its pipeline really shows in her words and her enthusiasm.

Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm pleased to be joined now by Kimberly Ellison-Taylor. Kimberly is a former AICPA board chair. She's now a CEO of a consultancy. To say that Kimberly is a speaker in demand, I'd say is quite the understatement at ENGAGE this week. Kimberly, as I said, you're the CEO now of consultancy KET Solutions. As we approach 18 months since the onset of the pandemic, in what areas are your clients seeking the most help?

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor: That is a great question, Neil. First, let me just thank you for inviting me to speak with you. It is always a pleasure. My firm is relatively new, but I can tell you what I've seen in the marketplace. That would be help reinventing and re-imagining where they want to be, both at the personal level and also from a business perspective. I think people are increasingly aware that disruption happens, not just at the organizational level, it certainly happens at the individual level.

We've been talking about where do you want to be? How do you look around corners? How do you future-proof yourself and the organization so that whatever comes next, Neil, that we'll be that much more prepared for it. And I think that is where we can provide strategy guidance in helping clients along the way.

Amato: What would you say your time as AICPA chair taught you?

Ellison-Taylor: It taught me a lot about the commitment and dedication of our members and firms, both large and small, who specialize and focus on various different industries, that we are committed absolutely to the public's interests. And everything that we do from a regulatory perspective, whether it's helping firms learn how to implement new regulations, or it's helping them meet new compliance guidelines, or whether or not we're helping them with their audit in general or tax or advisory services that they're requesting.

We really are doing it, I think, to serve as their trusted adviser and to also help the workplace, and the marketplace as well. I just think we have multiple things that we're really concerned about, and I'm really excited to have been a part of such an amazing organization that has so many different interests and threads, and to helping firms, members, and the community.

Amato: You're very much a people person. I'm wondering how you've adjusted to a lower frequency of those in-person contacts. Also, as you have had more in-person meetings maybe lately, do you find yourself out of practice on interpersonal skills?

Ellison-Taylor: Not at all, Neil, because I was very fortunate or unfortunate, depends on how you want to look at it. I was home for much of that time with my husband and my two sons. They got sick of me, I'm sure, because I was the talker in the family and talking about, "Hey, so what did you think about what happened today? What are you thinking about college? Are you're excited? Are you looking forward to going to college?"

But I would also say on Zooms with my colleagues, I just reach right through Zoom meetings, Teams, whatever form or platform we're using, and really try to express how happy I am to see them. And to really still provide that connectivity and those check-ins that we all really need, and we need it especially during such an uncertain and chaotic environment.

For me, it was about stopping and just saying, "How's your family? How are you? How are you managing? What are you doing to stay safe? What are some things that you've learned about yourself?" I think we had to take that minute or 10 minutes of every meeting to just do that check-in and make sure our colleagues were OK.

Amato: Did you forget some interpersonal skills as you got back to in-person contact?

Ellison-Taylor: Well, I didn't, but I have to remind myself to ask people, "Are we hugging, are we rubbing elbows, are we shaking hands?" I think that is the polite thing to do, because even if people I used to hug before, it doesn't mean they want to hug now in this environment, and I respect that. It is certainly a matter of just checking to see what people's preferences are. But short of that, Neil, I think it's like riding a bicycle or driving a car. I think you remember it, and it's a muscle that might be rusty, but you still get to use it and it clicks right in.

Amato: Well, as the person in my household who's definitely the talker as well, I can relate to what you said about them getting sick of you.

Ellison-Taylor: Yes.

Amato: Bill Pirolli, the current AICPA board chair, is urging professionals to reach out to students well before college to get young people to understand, appreciate, and ultimately join the profession. What do you think about that?

Ellison-Taylor: First of all, I'm a huge fan of Bill Pirolli. He is an amazing leader, and I am so excited that we have him leading our profession during such a time as this. Awesome for us that we have Bill. I totally agree with him. I decided I was going to become a CPA in the third grade. I know that Bill and I both have had nontraditional career tracks. I think we just have to tap into some talent that we've not even really considered before. What I've often said is that we have to go to uncommon places to get uncommon talent. I hope that through my own example of growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, thinking about how many places or firms would have bypassed me in their systems gives organizations pause.

I did not go to a university where they had a big business program. I did not even major in accounting. For some recruiting processes, that might would have me overlooked. I passed the CPA Exam later in my career than some of my colleagues today, and I will tell you that that may have had me overlooked. We have to really remove those artificial barriers that would prevent, I think, amazing talent from coming into our profession. Instead of figuring out how we maybe weed people out, like we used to talk about some of those early accounting classes, we have to figure out how we cultivate an environment where people are attracted and they want to be in our profession, and that we should do everything we can to help that along.

Amato: Kimberly, thank you so much for making time in your schedule. Anything you'd like to say in closing?

Ellison-Taylor: I want to encourage all of our listeners to please find students that you can mentor. You are the best catalyst and ambassador of our profession. No one can tell our story like you, and we need you absolutely out there sharing how amazing the profession is. I look forward to seeing more volunteerism, more mentorship, and certainly, more assistance worth helping us get the pipeline that we need as we go forward into the future.

Thank you again, Neil, for having me.

Amato: In other news, some confusion was lifted recently for practitioners who performed single audits of healthcare entities. Ken Tysiac has a story about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services clarifying rules for Provider Relief Fund recipients. Also, the IRS has supplemented its guidance on COBRA premium payment assistance and the corresponding business tax credit under the American Rescue Plan Act.

And, a century after John W. Cromwell Jr. became the nation's first black CPA, black role models continue to open doors in the profession. In the ongoing black CPA Centennial series, freelance writer Anita Dennis talks to several CPAs, including Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, about growing the pipeline. You can find these articles and other news on journalofaccountancy.com. Thanks for listening to the JofA podcast.