Future of Finance takeaways: Talent, transformation, trust

Hosted by Neil Amato

With the pace of change accelerating on numerous fronts, finance leaders are aiming to stay ahead on trends such as hybrid work, lack of talent, and other issues. A group shared ideas and hopes for the future at the Future of Finance Summit last week in Austin, Texas, and this podcast episode summarizes the key thoughts that emerged from the event.

The speakers in this episode are, in order:

  • Shifra Kolsky, CPA, CGMA, the chief accounting officer and controller at Discover Financial Services;
  • Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, the CEO of AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants;
  • Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the founder of KET Solutions and a former AICPA chair; and
  • Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, AICPA & CIMA's executive vice president–Business Engagement & Growth.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Kolsky's overview of her company's finance transformation steps.
  • The emerging idea of finance leaders as storytellers.
  • Finance leaders' hopes and top issues for the profession in 2023.
  • Melancon's observations about the comments of three young professionals in a panel discussion.
  • Why Ellison-Taylor said she saw an "activated" profession at both Digital CPA and the Future of Finance Summit.
  • Hood's comparison of long-range planning to "watching a movie out of focus."

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 at


Neil Amato: This is Neil Amato with the Journal of Accountancy. This is another episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm joined today by Shifra Kolsky. Shifra is a CPA who holds a CGMA designation, and she is chief accounting officer and controller at Discover Financial Services. Shifra, thank you for being on the podcast.

Shifra Kolsky: My pleasure, Neil.

Amato: We are recording at the Future of Finance Summit. The event has just wrapped up in Austin, Texas. I want to get, Shifra, some of your impressions of the event. But first I'm going to go back to a discussion you had on a LinkedIn live with Tom Hood on a topic that is addressed at this summit: finance transformation. First, could you tell us a little bit about some of the specifics of that transformation as it relates to your organization?

Kolsky: Sure. Our transformation actually started because we were on a 35-year-old general ledger that was no longer going to be supported, and so we were forced into making some change. But as we embarked on that journey, we decided to really take advantage and start looking at the broader landscape of our finance infrastructure and try to make decisions that would make us ready for the future and to really look at things to simplify and to scale down the number of different applications we were using and to really try to find ways, again, to set us up for future success.

Amato: That setting up for future success is just one part?

Kolsky: The general ledger conversion was the first part, and we have since looked at several other elements within our overall finance architecture, and our next leg of the journey is really to simplify our source-to-pay process and systems.

Amato: The journey continues, and you could say you're on a journey in concert with some of the other finance leaders at the Future of Finance Summit. What to you, are some of the key messages you've heard in these past few days or some of your key takeaways?

Kolsky: I think one of the biggest takeaways for me, and I think it was consistently messaged throughout is that we all have very similar issues that we're facing. As we're looking towards the future, what does the workforce look like? What does the work itself look like? What are some of the things in the broader ecosystem that are changing and how are we going to be positioned to respond quickly to them? What's fascinating to me is, large company, small company, it doesn't matter — we all have very similar issues. One of the fabulous things I think about the conference itself is being able to hear from others some of the strategies that they're taking, some of the ideas that people are trying, and being able to bring that back to share with my team.

Amato: Are there any specific quotes, either from a fellow attendee or one of the speakers that stand out to you from the event?

Kolsky: I would say they're probably different things from different sessions, but all thematically consistent. One of the first speakers actually talked about how the formula for managing change is expectations plus accountability. One of the things that a speaker who was talking about DE&I and the importance of creating psychological safety in the workplace. One of the things she said that was fascinating to me is just how many people have impostor syndrome that you just wouldn't expect. I guess one of the things from the final session that stood out to me was that everyone understands the world through stories, and if you're not shaping the story the way that you want it to be told, someone else will come along and shape it for you. You need to actively be thinking about how to create the narrative for what you're trying to accomplish.

Amato: Yeah, I think that's one of the themes that finance as storytellers is emerging and continuing to be a strong trend. Thank you very much for that summation, anything you'd like to add in closing? It's been great to have you on the podcast.

Kolsky: I think it's been a fabulous experience just being able to talk to peers at other organizations and really just share ideas and have that sense of common purpose.

Amato: That's great. Shifra, thank you very much.

Kolsky: My pleasure.

Amato: Joining me now in the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Barry Melancon, the CEO of AICPA & CIMA. Barry, you've been at the Future of Finance Summit here in Austin. We're wrapping up on Friday of the event. First, thanks for being on the podcast, and second, tell me some of the themes you're hearing, some of the messages that you'll take away from this event.

Barry Melancon: Well, one of the first things is the incredible talent that was in the room from all of these different major companies and people in significant leadership positions coming together to talk about the future of finance. I think that's a very important element. Just no matter where you are in the profession, whether you're in a small firm or a company, a big company, a small company, a big firm, everything we do in the profession is going through significant evolution or the watchword transformation. One of the most significant things was how much that is happening in the finance.

We talk about the future of finance and the evolution of finance, and it needs to change and evolve at every level. These were really very significant leaders in corporate America that really talk pretty openly about how they were transforming finance, what they thought, where they thought it was going, and frankly also how difficult it is and how many challenges they have. The Future Finance of Summit is really a setup of how do we really stay on top of all of that, and then take that learning and that wisdom that is collectively gathered and offer it or spread it to as many of our members who are tasked with that or might be in the future tasked with that in whatever size organization they're in.

Amato: Is there anything in particular that stood out to you in the session with the young professionals?

Melancon: Human capital is an element that is top of their list. In the U.S., there's just a lot less people going to college, not just in accounting, but we have more than a million less students in four-year universities, we have about 22% less people in community colleges and so that's not all accounting majors, that's all majors. But what was interesting with the young people who spoke to that — these were young professionals. There was some difference of opinion. I think we tend to batch Generation Z and say this as a monolith of perspective.

One was clearly focused on, this profession is great because it's going to give me a 40-year runway. That's not the stereotypical answer we talk about with Generation Z. He actually admitted, I'm probably going to be a little different than some of my peers. The other two talked about how important hybrid work was. How they're doing something that is fun and has purpose in what they're doing is very important, and I think that is more of what's the common discussion about Generation Z.

The other thing though, all three of them were — every one of us who has been in the profession for a long time, we could be incredibly proud of them. I mean, they were extremely dedicated, passionate, articulate, very thoughtful. Sometimes as this happens with all generations, we think of a certain way of the generation that is following and it's not like my generation, whatever my generation is, and that leaves it to be maybe more worrisome. I really don't think we have a whole lot to worry about from that standpoint. But there are different attitudes there, and there are things we need to adjust to as a profession.

Amato: We're about to be in 2023. What do you see is two top issues facing the profession in that year going forward?

Melancon: Well, it's hard to narrow it down to two, Neil. But the reality is that human capital will continue to be a big issue. It's not just a U.S. issue, it's an around-the-world issue. There are just very few countries in the world that have a big population of young people, a total population that's a high percentage of young people, however you want to look at it. The competition for the minds of very bright new generation is very tight. Also generally they're expecting a profession that will be highly agile, and our profession needs to be committed to that.

In one bucket, it's the human capital element, and the other bucket is all of the major projects that we have are about transformation of the profession. How to rethink about the audit. How to rethink about assurance services in general. How to rethink about client advisory services or CAS and small firm activities. How to rethink about what's the change that's going to happen from a tax perspective. I could go on and on and on. But the reality is all of those things cobbled together are about how a profession transforms in a world that is highly driven by digitization, that is changing dramatically how data flows and data analytics will flow from that. It's different mindsets of human capital.

But what is also most important about that is we must be a profession dedicated to trust. Because the reality is we live in a society that doesn't have a lot of trust in anything, and yet we are a very trusted profession. That's a huge advantage for our profession. It's what society at large wants and needs, and so we're well-positioned from that standpoint.

Amato: Barry, I think that's an excellent summary. Thank you very much.

Melancon: Thank you, Neil. Good being with you.

Amato: I'm happy to be joined again on the podcast by Kimberly Ellison-Taylor. We are speaking in person, which I think is great. We're going to recap a little bit of Digital CPA, but also the Future of Finance Summit. Kimberly, first, thank you for being back on the podcast. It's good to see you just across the table.

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor: Neil, it's always a pleasure. I love podcasts, but I have to admit seeing you in person is even better.

Amato: Well, that's great. It's been a good week at Digital and then the Future of Finance Summit. I wanted to get your opinion on some of the things you're hearing, some of the themes that are emerging from this conference, and then also looking ahead to 2023. What did you hear out of this week from these two events?

Ellison-Taylor: Wow, Neil, there's so many things to unpack with what you just said. I'll start with what am I seeing? What am I hearing? I will tell you, I saw our colleagues activated, motivated, to provide even better service, to provide higher quality, to figure out how to help their clients anticipate change and minimize disruption in their various business areas. I'm really inspired also by the number of people who showed up in person.

For Digital CPA, it's always an opportunity to really stand at the intersection of technology and accounting in a way that's going to be very responsive to business model changes, responsive to talent management concerns, greater efficiency, more effectiveness, and ways to just overall have better practice management. From a Digital CPA perspective, amazing, and I will tell you, it was like a reunion. It was great to see people so motivated, relationships reinforced, reenergized, people inspiring each other, learning from one another, lessons learned, leading practices.

Amato: Speaking specifically about the Future of Finance Summit, this group from many companies all over and hearing the keynotes from Jeannine Brown, Kerry Brown, and others, what are some of the messages that stuck with you from that event?

Ellison-Taylor: When you consider that in 2023 and the Accounting Today top 100 most influential people of accounting's top thoughts, they were around talent. Kerry Brown and Jeannine Brown, no relation, they both talked about talent. Talent continues to be of primary concern for leaders across the entire profession, and it just goes to show that if we want the best and we want to motivate our team to feel included, to feel that they can speak up, to want to come into the office, to want to share their ideas and perspectives, that we have to be intentional about providing psychological safety and intentional about our communication.

There was so many questions coming from the audience. The leaders were engaged. Even when we had a panel of young members actively asking, what can we do? What do you need? How can we better support you? I think there is an overriding theme that's coming from everywhere around talent, and I was glad to see it as a key area of discussion at the Future of Finance Summit.

Amato: It is called the Future of Finance Summit. The future, as we record, is coming very soon, but it's 2023. What would you say is your hope, whether it's for the profession or just in general, your hope for 2023?

Ellison-Taylor: That's a big question, Neil. It's interesting because I always say the future is now. It used to be that when we set the future, it felt like three to five years away. The future is the next minute because we have to be able to look around corners. I think, for our profession, my intentional hope and prayer is that we will be more agile. We will be adapting to change that much faster because we are responsible for being trusted stewards.

People count on us to be responsive to regulatory changes and help them navigate the environment of complexity, to help them determine better forecasting, so that they can predict more about efficiency, effectiveness, and transformation initiatives. They are counting on us to help them determine mergers and acquisitions and better manage their cash or take on initiatives like ESG.

We don't have any time the rest on past laurels. We have to continue to move forward, continue to learn, continue to be committed to figuring out the best way we can be responsive in an uncertain environment.

Amato: Anything you'd like to add in closing, Kimberly?

Ellison-Taylor: I really appreciate that Digital CPA and the Future of Finance Summit were pretty much dovetailing one to the other because it provided me a bird's-eye view of what the practitioners are actively working on to add more robust opportunities to their solution offerings, and at the same time, from an internal C-suite leader perspective, that opportunity to see how the finance leaders are looking to be better value partners and are looking for opportunities to service as their particular internal business collaborators as well as their external customers.

No one is taking it for granted. Everyone is looking at it from a technology perspective. They're looking at it from a process perspective, and also a people perspective. I know that when you leverage management accounting and public accounting together, that we really are working from one end of the spectrum to the other to be even better tomorrow than we are today.

Amato: Kimberly, thanks very much.

Ellison-Taylor: Thank you, Neil. It's always a pleasure.

Amato: Tom Hood is now joining me on the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Tom, this group got together in person at one of these events about a year ago. They continue a transformation journey. They have some of the same issues but also some new ones. Tell me some of your key takeaways from the event.

Tom Hood: Awesome, Neil. If I had to summarize this year, which double last year, over 100 senior finance leaders with us. Last year, at the very end, Pascal Finette was our closing keynote speaker. A futurist, but really practical if you will. But he said last year at the end, the future is unwritten. It's up to us to write that future. I have to say that this year, we wrote another big chapter in the future of finance with this group. Because the beauty is, we've been co-creating this with this group of our Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group, and that group of about 50 senior finance executive, CFOs, chief accounting officers.

We started with trends, they ranked it, created this agenda, and we've been getting a lot of cases. What's different about this year is, we ended up with major keynotes around subjects of talent, leading a great culture in a remote and hybrid workforce — these were all chosen by the group — ESG, DEI, and of course, digital transformation. Those are probably the big themes for this year. We had keynotes lined up with every one of them. I know you've interviewed a few of them, and then we have breakouts where the group actually shares best practices, shares what they're doing in their own transformations.

Here's my conclusion. First of all, we added about 50 new people to the group, and it was as if they had all been here last year. The instant community that came together, and that's what they gave us feedback around. They felt like they're part of this tribe, which I love because that's what we wanted. Collaboration, which is the critical component to accelerate learning in an age of acceleration of trends and the pace of change. That's how we do this, and they loved it.

Then this idea that we're all walking the same journey, slightly different based on the different company, different industry, different size companies, but we're all walking this finance transformation journey and this movement to what we now call the chief future officer. That's the role of the CFO. Now, we filled in a bit of what that future looks like, and this group is helping us fill that out. That's what's so exciting.

Amato: You mentioned some of those keynotes, Kerry Brown, also Jeannine Brown, and others. Really good topics. But you're right, that's one of the things that I saw that people thought was important, which was we are facing some of the same issues. If we can get this group together and communicate, it's going to be not easy, but it's a better path to getting through those and leading into 2023. That's where I'm going with the next one. For this group and for the profession, what's your hope for 2023?

Hood: My hope is, when you start thinking about creating a vision for the future of finance, which is what this group told us they want to do and help us co-create. It's needed everywhere because everywhere we go, CFOs are facing the same trends. What they're saying is, it's not like one trend is a big deal. It's that they're all happening at the same time. We're constantly polling those questions and making sure we've got the top trends they want to discuss. That's number 1.

I think the big thing I hope for next year, Neil, is that when you're doing visioning and trying to create this future trajectory, it's like watching a movie out of focus. Every year, from last year to this year, we turn the camera lens, and it comes in a little bit sharper. This year, we got a lot sharper. We filled in a lot more of that future vision looking out to 2030. My hope is that next year, two things happen. We sharpen that lens one more big time and get even more clarity about what we all think our collective future is.

Then secondly, that we start to spread the impact which you've been a big player in helping us do by having these podcasts and communicating to our profession, but we want to impact our whole profession. We've had a couple of state seat basis size, asked us how they can get involved. It's not just about the large corporate CFOs, it's about all CFOs all the way down to the middle-market small business. That's my wish that we actually help influence everybody and accelerate our trajectory to that chief future officer role.

Amato: That is well said, Tom. Thank you very much.

Hood: Neil, it's been a pleasure. As always, I look forward to more of these with you. Thank you for being on site with us for these couple of days.

Amato: Glad to be here. I appreciate it, Tom.