In Brief

Many accountants believe there is a gap between the classroom and real-world practice. One approach accounting departments have tried to close the gap is the implementation of advisory boards, which consist of members in both public and private practice and strive to enhance the accounting curriculum and students’ skills. The authors discuss their advisory board experience and give suggestions for creating and maintaining successful advisory boards.

* * *

A common critique from potential employers is that, “Students are just not prepared for the real-world.” Discussions between recruiters and academics can quickly lead to the latter becoming defensive, ultimately ending in frustration and a large gap in understanding. Arguably, the individuals most hurt by this gap are accounting students. The purpose of this article is to discuss one method of closing this gap while simultaneously benefitting students: accounting advisory boards, which consist of practitioners dedicated to improving the education provided to students. Through advisory board meetings, academics and practitioners can come together to improve not only accounting curricula, but also the accounting profession. In this article, practitioners and academics will find effective methods for developing and maintaining advisory boards at their alma maters or other academic institutions, as well as a discussion of the purpose of advisory boards, tips for selecting a healthy mix of members, and characteristics of effective accounting advisory boards.

Why Advisory Boards?

Advisory boards can have positive outcomes for faculty, students, and board members. Three primary benefits include bridging the gap between academics and practitioners, creating networking opportunities and mentoring programs for students, and improving the curriculum.

Many believe that a gap exists between academics and practitioners. Practitioners often feel that academics “live in a bubble,” and academics often feel that practitioners are dismissive of academic theories. In the authors’ experience, advisory boards are one way to bridge this gap. Furthermore, the board’s work extends beyond meetings. Soliciting board opinions is useful at proper times, and the advisory board can be thought of as one of the department chair’s trusted sources of advice.

Recently, the board the authors serve on established a mentoring program for students. The time commitment varies from keeping in touch via email and an annual meeting or two for coffee to more frequent phone conversations and office visits. Students benefit from being able to obtain advice regarding their resumes, suggestions for elective courses, tips for successful interviews, and realistic previews of life as an accounting practitioner.

Practitioner input into the accounting curriculum and the selection of course topics has proven beneficial for faculty and students. One practice the authors have implemented is course review brainstorming sessions, where board members are matched with faculty in their area of expertise. Prior to the meetings, board members receive course syllabi and textbooks to review and provide input on. Such sessions have been very productive; for example, the authors noted a consistent comment from practitioners regarding the use of spreadsheets, and thus revised their Accounting Information Systems course to include a semester-long project utilizing Microsoft Excel. In addition, the authors also encourage students to develop their Excel skills independently to be better prepared for internships.

Board members have also noted that students generally lack adequate communication skills, both written and verbal. In the words of one board member, “Students need to be comfortable being uncomfortable in front of an audience.” In response, the authors have partnered with the university’s reading/writing center to develop writing instruction specifically for accountants, as well as with the communication studies department to assist students with their oral communication skills. Engaging the communication experts at the college has helped students become more effective communicators and encouraged camaraderie with teaching colleagues.

Selecting Members for Advisory Boards

Careful thought must go into the solicitation and selection of advisory board members. Important considerations include balancing members based on level of expertise and experience, ensuring a proper split between members in public and private practice, and determining the proper balance between alumni and non-alumni.

As mentioned above, one of the goals of the advisory board is providing suggestions regarding curriculum and course topics. Based on this goal, varying levels of expertise are important; advisory boards should include experts in financial accounting and reporting, information systems, cost accounting, and taxation. This is also helpful for the course review brainstorming sessions mentioned above.

It is also important to have members in different stages of their careers. Members early in their careers can provide suggestions for the knowledge, skills, and competencies required when beginning a career, while members in higher-level positions are able to identify the skills that are either increasing or decreasing in members at all levels of the organization. These more senior members also provide valuable advice with respect to strategic initiatives and long-term planning.

In addition, a balance between members in public and private practice is especially important. While it is often assumed that all students want to begin their careers in public accounting, this is not the case. Many students possess a strong desire to begin their careers in private accounting, including governmental and nonprofit accounting. Furthermore, large numbers of public accountants eventually transition to careers in private accounting. Consequently, having an advisory board with members in private accounting can help guide these students in terms of course selection and preparation. This balance is also helpful in pairing students with mentors based on projected career interest.

Being an alumnus of the institution should not be a prerequisite for serving on an advisory board. Having members with degrees from different institutions—from small liberal arts colleges to large research-oriented institutions—brings diverse experiences, reference points, and suggestions, expanding the source of ideas at board meetings. This is not to say alumni are not beneficial to advisory boards; alumni are frequently able to provide feedback on the program based on their transition from student to working professional. What is needed is a healthy balance. Though some members of the authors’ board are not graduates of the college, they are connected in other ways—their children or spouses attended the college, or they recruit students at their firms. Regardless, each board member should have a strong stake in the success of the accounting program.

Creating Effective Meetings

While setting proper goals and selecting the proper balance of members is important, creating and ensuring productive meetings is arguably the most important ingredient for a successful advisory board. As such, the frequency of meetings, structure of meetings, and the topics to be covered are important considerations.

The authors recommend annual or semi-annual meetings, such as one meeting in early fall and the other in late spring to accommodate those in public practice. Discussing the frequency of meetings with colleagues at other institutions has shown that two meetings per year is an effective number; annual meetings tend to leave suggestions stale or forgotten, and meeting more frequently results in member attrition. Semiannual meetings maximize attendance while also ensuring forward movement on agreed-upon goals and projects. It is also important to ensure that board members are able to attend via conference call if work commitments keep them from traveling to the college in person.

Meetings should begin with an update on the department’s activities, including student placements in internships and full-time jobs. Discussion should cover actions taken on issues brought forward by the board previously and discuss challenges to achieving the board’s mission. It is a good idea to invite members of the administration to update the board on campus-wide issues, student recruitment, and other topics to provide insight to the operations of the college. These discussions help board members understand the environment the accounting department operates within, enabling board members to better provide guidance and suggestions for improvement. Students should also meet with the board to discuss their experiences at the college and to get career advice.

Because one of the primary functions of academics is the creation and advancement of knowledge, time should be allocated for faculty to present some of their current research. The authors have recently implemented this practice with the goal of providing practitioners a better glimpse into aspects of an academic’s job outside the classroom. One faculty member presents a current working paper or recent publication with the hope the presentation develops into a discussion.

Student Impact

While advisory board members provide valuable input to faculty, they also serve as mentors to students. The mentoring program is designed to give students a realistic preview of a career in accounting and help them make the transition from student to professional. One of the advisory board members leads the mentoring program and matches students with mentors based on student career interests (i.e., public or private) as well as desired firm size (i.e., Big Four, large regional, regional, small). According to the director of the authors’ board’s mentoring program (a senior manager at a Big Four firm), there are many benefits for both mentors and the mentees:

The mentor program provides a great opportunity to connect students to professionals who can challenge students to think about their transition into their future career. I personally enjoy working with students and providing them a glimpse into the decisions I made in college and how those decisions resulted in the career path I’m on today.

When there is mutual participation from both faculty and practitioners, advisory boards can bridge the gap between the two groups and improve student learning and early career success.

Since introducing the mentoring program, the authors have noticed increased popularity among students. They are eager to join the program, and most participants receive their first job offer as a direct result.

Below are quotes from a sample of our students participating in the mentor program:

My mentor gave me quite a few useful tips on how to make a good impression at an interview. Not only did he help to improve my interviewing skills, he talked a lot about the public accounting profession and what to expect when I start. He even brought in a female coworker to give me insight on what it’s like to be a woman in public accounting.

My mentor is directly responsible for my post-graduate employment. He was a previous employee of the company I got a full time offer from. During my hiring process, everyone I encountered said how they had heard from him and that he had spoken highly of me. Having him use his alumni connections was crucial in my employment.

Finally, the authors are beginning to see those students who benefitted from the advisory board now giving back to the department. For example, a group of students has proposed a Young Alumni Advisory Board to the main board. The goal of the Young Alumni Advisory Board would be to keep recent alumni involved in the accounting department and serve as a resource for current students.

When there is mutual participation from both faculty and practitioners, advisory boards can bridge the gap between the two groups and improve student learning and early career success. Advisory board members help advance accounting curricula through topic and skill suggestions and serve as mentors to students, providing career advice and recommendations. For boards to work, however, finding board members that are committed to improving both the accounting program and accounting department is imperative. As such, the authors encourage readers to contact the chair of the accounting department for the college or university they are interested in and express the desire to serve.

Gregory P. Tapis, PhD, CPA, CISA, CMA, CFM, CFE is an assistant professor of accountancy at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.
John S. Delaney, DBA, CPA, CMA, CIA is a professor of accountancy and chair of the accounting department at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.