On May 17, 2017, this author had the honor of speaking on a panel at the second annual NYSSCPA/Hedge Fund Roundtable Sustainability Investment Leadership Conference in New York City. The conference was an introduction to the concept of sustainable reporting—the idea that the financial numbers do not provide a complete picture, and that nonfinancial information needs to be disclosed so that the public knows if the company is being run and managed in a sustainable manner. This is a great and much-needed addition to the existing financial disclosure requirements for public companies.
It was, however, disheartening to hear speakers say something to the effect of, “The CEO is not going to make it a priority to hire diversely, or make the company’s culture better, unless it’s required by law or boosts the bottom line.” The former is one of the main arguments for mandated sustainability reporting.
This way of thinking sums up what is generally wrong with the accounting profession, and why it lags behind others. Accountants have an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mindset and use backward-looking numbers to rationalize ignoring the need for change. In reality, sustainability reporting is needed, but as a tool to help look into the future and position the profession to be around for generations to come. CPAs must change from a backwards-looking historical profession to a forward-looking, innovative profession.
There is no question in this author’s mind that all professions and workplaces of the future will mirror society. The profession cannot continue to be led primarily by white males. Young professionals are leaving the accounting field for other industries because they don’t like the culture large and mid-sized accounting firms have entrenched. This is a crisis, but the profession is doing little to fix it.
Sadly, accounting firms are making a lot of money right now doing things the way they’ve always been done—forcing staff to work long hours, not caring about keeping them happy because the firm can just hire more college grads every year. Similarly, there is no need to worry about hiring diversely because everything’s going just fine. How long until this comes back to bite the profession? What happens when no one wants to become a CPA anymore because the profession doesn’t respect its young hires and doesn’t care about including women and minorities?
It is the duty of CPA leaders to make sure that the profession is in better shape when they retire than it is when they began their careers. These problems cannot be swept under the rug any longer. CPAs must look past short-term profits to long-term sustainability.
The good news is that making the change to a more diverse and more culture-oriented profession will also lead to happier employers, higher profits, and a better profession. This author has seen this happen at his firm by focusing all the energy and money most firms spend on recruiting and marketing on making sure the team is happy and learning. The clients pick up on this, too; firm members are often told that new clients selected BNA over competitors because its values reflected their own values—a family-oriented culture where everyone is treated with respect.
Managers in other firms can jump-start this process by spending time with their teams, getting to know them, and earning their trust. Stop using e-mail and, instead, pick up the phone—or better yet, go to their desk—and talk to team members. The next time a new hire is needed, make sure at least one minority candidate is interviewed for the position. Speak to accounting classes at a local college about why it’s important to have good, young CPAs making the profession stronger.
On the panel in New York, this author was asked where the future of the profession lies. My answer was that CPA firms are going to become modeled more like technology companies, which spend huge amounts of money focusing on culture and diversity. Suspending humility, I suggested that my firm might one day be known as the “Apple of accounting.” In response, a young African-American woman raised her hand and said, “You need to dream bigger than that—you must be better than Apple or Google, you have to become something greater.” That’s the type of leadership and forward thinking that our profession needs, something to strive for every day. The next generation should be saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a CPA.”