CPA leader takeaways: Listening, self-awareness, flipping the pyramid

Hosted by Neil Amato

A group of finance leaders took an inward focus at the recent Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tenn. They also explored their vision for the finance function out to 2030. The group focused on listening, self-awareness, and staff development, among other topics. This episode will be the first of several discussions from the summit, which brought together a range of corporate and not-for-profit executives.

The guests in this episode, in order of appearance, are:

  • Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, executive vice president of business engagement and growth for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants;
  • Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, former AICPA board chair and the founder of KET Solutions;
  • John Griffin, CPA, CGMA, senior vice president and controller for AARP;
  • Calvin Harris, CPA, senior vice president of finance and CFO of the National Urban League.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Hood's reasons for optimism and the "a-ha" moment for finance leaders in Nashville.
  • Ellison-Taylor on why finance needs to be "skating to where the puck is going to be."
  • The controller of AARP on the difference between data and information.
  • The importance of "giving our teams time to be their best selves," according to the CFO of the National Urban League.

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: Welcome to this special edition of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This episode is the first of several that will feature voices from the Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Coming up after a brief sponsor message, you'll hear first from Tom Hood, executive vice president of business engagement and growth for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, and then former AICPA chair Kimberly Ellison-Taylor.

Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. I'm recording from Nashville, Tennessee, site of the Future of Finance Summit and the Digital CPA conference. Those events have wrapped up and here to help with a sum up and some key takeaways from the event is Tom Hood. Tom, in a few words, what did you get out of these events, specifically the Future of Finance Summit?

Tom Hood: Neil, It's great to be here with you. I'm just feeling on top of the world. The summit ended and the energy was incredible. I think it's the beginning of a community which was our hope. We had probably about 50. These are 50 large corporate CFOs, non-profit CFOs.

They came together and started to say, "What's the future of finance look like?" That was the whole purpose. We cast the vision out to 2030. And in a nutshell, so that the key takeaways is finance needs to move faster towards being that value creator, right? Value business partner, windshield view. We'll always have the rearview mirror, but we need to start using automation to take care of that and move us more into that future. Everyone came away saying, we've got to focus on our people even more because the pace of digital transformation is overwhelming. Many people on top of all the dynamics of COVID. So that was probably the second biggest takeaway, the need to focus on people. And then third was to get involved in things like ESG and sustainability. There was a huge conversation about that and how finance could lead in that area. Those three big things everybody is excited about, and I couldn't be happier.

Amato: Later in this episode, we'll have some of those finance professionals and their takeaways. One thing that stuck with me was something that was said: "Technology is never going to take the place of creativity." Obviously, technology is going to be important in all of our jobs but, what do you think about that statement and kind of how it balances with the importance of people?

Hood: I think it's spot on, first of all. And I think that was a big "aha" for everyone here was that many of them, and maybe more important, their teams, are worrying about, you know the whole robot apocalypse, that the automation is going to take over accounting and finance, because it is automating a lot of our stuff. But they had this concept. The other day they talked about inverting the pyramid. Now the baseline is all about data collection and getting it in the financials and all of that. If you flipped and then the data analysis at the tip of that, if you flipped that pyramid upside down, all the data analytics and the value-creating activities are going to be at the top in the remit of the CFO and their teams. It's a big value-added. But at that pace, because we're driving it through the technology thing, It's rough on people, and we always focus on the tools first and the people last.

And at this conference, we've talked a lot about the power of mindset, skillset.

So, upskilling our teams ahead of those technology transformations and then self-care, that was the first time I ever hold a group of CFOs really focus on self-care, listening, that we have to go back and listen better to our people. There was one great one. I'm trying to think who said it; it might have been [Claire Bramley of Teradata]. She said she has a sign on her desk says, "Wait, why am I talking instead of listening?" I love that. That sums it up.

Amato: That's a great example of kind of the self-awareness that I think took place there as people realized, yes, they have things to say and they do have to communicate with their staffs, but part of that communication is just listening better. Tom, I'm going to make way for other voices and wrap up this segment with you. But glad we could be together, glad we could be together in person, and thanks for being on the podcast.

Hood: Awesome. Neil, so great to have you here and we'll be looking forward to future things with you. Thank you very much.

Amato: I'm joined by Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, a name that really needs no introduction, but I'm going to get right to it, Kimberly. You were a part of these events, part of this group that discussed the future of finance. Do you have any key takeaways from the meeting? Things that you've learned, maybe things that you can apply or maybe a wrap-up of what you feel like this group shared.

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor: Neil, there so many words that come to mind, but what I can tell you is that there is a recognition that our finance leaders and organizations need to continue to think about value creation. They need to think about in particular our people, our processes, and the technology to grow ourselves, to grow others, and then grow our organizations. And by focusing on those things, we can better anticipate change and the future and ensure that the finance organization is a better business partner and has relevance for years to come.

Amato: One of the statements that stuck with me is technology is never going to replace creativity, so obviously tech is going to be important. But it is also important to be able to develop our people and have those people integrate with technology. How is that done best?

Ellison-Taylor: Great points. I am a big fan of technology, as you well know. I think in terms of "and," not "or." And I think that the best complement is one where we are leveraging technology to have quantifiable insights that are complemented by the qualifiable insights from people, and I think that as we start to think with a digital mindset, we will see our processes in a whole new way. We'll look for opportunities to eliminate processes that no longer make sense. We'll look for ways to streamline and simplify and automate, leveraging processes like robotics process automation, and getting more value out of artificial intelligence and machine learning and doing it in a way that's very responsible, that takes into account privacy, of course, and also cybersecurity.

I would definitely agree with that statement that we're not going to have an environment where the Terminator is taking over every single system. What we will have is what I like to say, it's more like cyborgs or technology is enabling us to be better than we would be on our own.

Amato: We are recording this episode December 10th, late in 2021. From your time talking with this group, are there things that you feel like you can take and apply to work in 2022 and beyond?

Ellison-Taylor: Totally. We spent some time thinking about stakeholders inside the organization, the value propositions, and in particular, how finance can help, because there are very traditional notions of where finance gets involved. But if we believe that finance has the bird's-eye view in the organization, that we know the data, we have strategic insights. We're helping with scenario planning and modeling that we should be looking outside of the usual "finance does expense control." There were lots of conversation about that. Lots of conversation about how we ensure that we're skating to where the puck is going to be.

It was great, just hearing execution and hearing about these principles in action. Because it's one thing to talk about people. It's another thing to talk about talent and upskilling and how we're ensuring we're not leaving anyone behind. It's another thing to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, and where that fits inside the organization, especially as it relates to the war on talent, and especially as it relates to the Great Resignation, and how do we continue to be the leaders of our respective industries, while we have a number of agenda items that are only growing.

Amato: Kimberly, thanks for taking the time today. Anything you'd like to add in closing?

Ellison-Taylor: I would ask all of my finance colleagues to really get involved with this initiative headed up by Tom Hood, Ash Noah, and Barry Payne, and there are so many other amazing leaders and the AICPA CIMA organization. Please do get involved, follow up, look at the research, and continue to look at ways that finance can be an amazing, even better organization in 2022, hopefully on the other side of the pandemic and how we can prepare our organizations for whatever comes next. I am comforted by the number of leaders we had here this week, who were willing to share their time and also their experiences to help us move the ball forward for the entire profession.

Amato: Thank you.

Ellison-Taylor: Thank you, Neil, for having me. I appreciate it.

Amato: John Griffin is my guest on this segment of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. John is a CPA and senior vice president and controller for AARP. John, we're recording in Nashville, Tennessee, December 10th, where the Future of Finance Summit has just wrapped up. What are the things that maybe you heard and have made you think that you can apply to your role?

John Griffin: First of all, thank you for the chance to be here. I didn't know what I was getting into. I'm like, another AICPA conference? Do I get CPE for this? What are we doing? Until the other night, I realized, wait a minute, this is completely different. We have never done anything like this before, and the opportunity to meet with other financial professionals at a very high level who are engaged, who are concerned for their companies, concerned for their customers, their mission has been fantastic.

We've met together to talk about the issues and the problems of the day and realized that we're so similar. Even though I'm with a large non-profit, other people are for-profits, different aspects. However, from the financial side, from what we do every day as financial professionals, we have a lot of commonality. And that alone, just hearing from other people and knowing you're not the only one, has been wonderful.

Amato: You're in it together.

Griffin: Correct. The big thing that we've learned is that we see what's coming down the pike, and we know that we have to change. We cannot continue to act like we have before. What has made us successful to this point probably is not going to make us successful going forward. Frankly, that can be tough for financial people. We'd like to follow the checklist, we like to do what we did last year, we like to follow a pattern. We cannot do that. We really have to think outside the box. We have got to think in a different way, and we need to make sure that we are doing all that we can for our organization so that its mission can continue and thrive in what it needs to do.

Amato: One thing that was said that stuck with me and I'd like you to respond to: Technology is not going to take the place of creativity. What does that mean to you?

Griffin: No, I love that. Technology is not going to take the place of creativity. However, if we don't use technology, we won't have the time to be creative. So, I think we need to really balance that. What processes, what functions are we doing that just take too much time, take too much effort, take too much money? Let's focus on those, let's make them efficient, let's move forward.

Think of all the processing you do with just paper invoices. With your AP and your AR part of what we do, that alone just takes up so much people, so much time. But what if we had a centralized place where it all cleared in one way and it just took a few moments through blockchain or whatever? We'll make sure because it's really the data in the invoice that's important, not the piece of paper.

We really need to think differently about things. If we can make that more efficient, then the financial professionals can step in and say, "Let me add value to what we're doing." Let's analyze, let's look, let's project. Where is the future of our organization? Where are the concerns? Where are the potholes? Where are the opportunities? And make sure that upper management hears from us because we have the information. Well, let me say this, we have the data. Are we creating information and providing it to the right people?

Amato: What would you say is your biggest takeaway from this meeting?

Griffin: So the way I'm designed, I don't think I'm too different than many of the CFOs and controllers here. We love a checklist. We love to get things done. We love to act and to make things happen today. I think my biggest takeaway is that that's wonderful and we need to begin the process as soon as possible, but we also need to stop as financial professionals and we need to listen. We need to listen to our staff. We need to listen to the board. We need to listen to suppliers.

What are they talking about? What are their concerns? We just need to hear, and we're not good at that, generally. I know I'm not. But we really need to pause and listen to the concerns and maybe make that part of our transformation at the same time. We need to observe. How are things working really?

Let's get beyond the front page and let's dive down and really look at how is the business working. What are those things maybe we have missed before? So I think if we listen and observe, that's going to be the catalyst for truly effective change going forward.

Amato: I'm now joined on the Journal of Accountancy podcast by Calvin Harris. Calvin is a CPA who is senior vice president and CFO at the National Urban League. Calvin, thank you for being on the podcast. You're here in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Future of Finance Summit. What are the things that maybe you learned from this group or can take away and apply to your role?

Calvin Harris: Well, thanks for asking. One thing that immediately comes to mind is just how important it is for CPAs, CFOs, finance professionals to consider just the disruption that is already going on. Just with us being here in Nashville, I'm personally very excited to be here. It's the first time in three years that I've been around colleagues in person to just be able to network and talk and hear new ideas. Just being reminded of the disruption that's going on and how dramatically it continues to affect the finance profession, really stuck out for me. Being open to the change that continues going around us, that really hit home for me.

I think the other thing that really touched me a lot was remembering how important it is to decompress and make sure that my staff is doing that. For my organization, despite it being the pandemic, we've grown to historic levels. We're more than 112 years old, but our last two years of budgets are the biggest in the history of the organization. Because in our case, things that happened during the pandemic brought attention to the kind of work we do. We're actually bigger than we've ever been. That ends up being problematic and challenging because our staff is the same size it ever was. Remembering how important it is to give our teams time to be their best selves, to have self time, and also to make sure I'm practicing what I preach — that really hit home as well.

Amato: Thank you to all our speakers for their insight. This is a preview of sorts of what's to come from the Future of Finance group in 2022 on the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Thank you for listening.