Let’s start at the beginning. What is the story of how you came into the NYSSCPA? How did you get your start?
My undergraduate degree was in English/Journalism and my early career included communications positions in the not-for-profit and healthcare industries. The Society had posted a job in the classified section of the printed New York Times seeking a communications professional. I was told that I was needed to bridge the gap between words and numbers in an often-misunderstood profession. I took on the challenge.
You’ve been at this organization much longer than most people stay at their jobs. What is it about the New York State Society that has kept you engaged all these years?
I ascended the career ladder quickly in the organization, holding a half dozen different jobs with increasing responsibilities over the years. With the right organization and the right opportunities, it is possible to find a tremendous amount of personal and professional growth with tenure in an organization. I was always fueled by the respect for and confidence in my talent by the leadership. The energy in the organization was never static for me; every day always felt different. Plus, it has also been gratifying to be in an organization long-term and to be able to see how decisions made play out in the future. I can point to our advocacy program in this regard and have been a firsthand witness to the maturity of our efforts and the respect our organization has garnered with the powers that be in Albany. I was always invested in our organization, but also in my own personal growth–and I found that balance.
Organizations tend to go through phases, life cycles, eras of certain types. If you were to break it down, what would you say the eras of the Society have been since you’ve been here?
Every era has been driven by and intertwined with societal change. During the 1980s, the women’s movement entered a new phase, characterized by both advancement and backlash. When I started with the organization, I was almost always the only woman in committee meetings and my contributions were often dismissed or regurgitated by a male committee member. It was then that my idea would find its wings. It took most of that decade to see progress. Eventually, the gender pay gap was front and center and firms were addressing maternity leave policies. The good news is that in the 1980s this was labeled a woman’s issue. Today it is a business issue as firms recognize female talent.
Similarly, the lack of underrepresented minority groups in the profession had been a challenge decades prior to my arrival on the accounting scene, but it took on increased significance in the 1980s. One of the first assignments I pushed for and then managed was our COAP [Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession] program, after a visit from a representative of NABA, which wanted a partner in New York. The NYSSCPA COAP program will be celebrating its 34th anniversary this year. I would like to think that this was a launchpad for more progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is still so much to be done.
The second era would be the turmoil surrounding ethics and integrity—the cornerstone of the profession. In the 2000s, we entered an era of corporate financial scandals beginning with Enron in 2001, a byproduct of which was the demise of a storied accounting firm; WorldCom in 2002 brought scandal to our own state; Tyco and HealthSouth followed shortly after; Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme again returned us to New York. People’s trust in financial statements and the role of CPAs was shaken. This led to increased regulation, including the onerous Sarbanes-Oxley legislation.
The financial scandals ushered in the era that questioned the relevance of the profession. The questioning of CPA integrity, plus the accelerating speed of technology, as the information age expanded, and technology became front and center. CPA value needed to be determined on a different level. A borderless world, through technology, shifted market demographics and added regulation challenges. At the same time, shifting demographics with millennials entering the workforce turned hiring and retention on its head.
As I leave the profession, it will be challenged by the aftereffects of the pandemic, business models and workforce models, talent shortages, and continuing DEI struggles, as it reinvents itself for the challenges of the changing business and social world while holding on to its roots.
What have been the biggest ways the Society has changed since you first came in?
As indicated above, there are now more women and more people of color in leadership positions; but still not enough.
What is something, though, that has never changed no matter how many years pass?
Our members, who exhibit an unwavering pride in their profession and demonstrate the importance of ethics and integrity, have never changed. Also embedded in this profession is a strong desire to give back. Our members have often heard me describe them as having a huge Society heart, as I witness the hours they give to the Society for the betterment of themselves as individual professionals and for the profession as a whole.
From one non-accountant to another, what is it about the accounting world that you’ve found so fascinating to maintain an interest for so long?
For me, it was my love of association work in general, not so much the accounting profession per se. All of us in the association world, fall into this career by choice and opportunity. I didn’t major in association management in college. At risk of sounding a bit bookish, I was hooked when I studied Alexis de Tocqueville in graduate school and his writings on the “art of joining” in voluntary associations as the “fundamental science” of democracy. He cautioned about guarding against excessive individualism, the tyranny of the majority, and the effects of too much centralization by simply joining together in groups with a common purpose. Those in associations are striving to be part of something greater than themselves. I found that to be true of the CPA profession.
What accomplishments are you most proud of? Some favorite projects or initiatives in your career?
I will always be proud of the COAP program, the tremendous work we have done in advocacy, and the awareness programs we have had in place to proactively transform the profession and to make CPAs understand the need to be part of this transformation to succeed in the future.
How have YOU changed over the years? What are lessons you could only learn through experience?
I have learned to not be a perfectionist. Part of that revelation was driven by ever-increasing workloads, but I also found that I would sometimes miss the big picture and exhaust myself in pursuit of a perfect deliverable. This was a vital change when I became CEO. It was important that I became more of a driver and a team leader.
How have your views on the accounting profession changed over the years?
The profession will always be held in high esteem. I have a greater appreciation of its magnitude in that it is not just a service provider that exists in a vacuum but is interdependent on economic, political, and societal relationships and attitudes.
What will you miss most about the Society?
Over the decades, many CPAs and other colleagues who I have met across the nation will be my lifelong friends. I will miss the intensity of meetings and discussions followed by social activities that bonded us beyond the profession. I will miss current staff members and many over earlier years who contributed so much to moving the organization forward and who have stayed in touch, enabling me to take some pride in their accomplishments. I cherish the notes I have received from them over the years.
What will you enjoy most about retirement? What’s something you’re glad you won’t have to do anymore?
I am most looking forward to more balance in my life, time to read all the books I have on my nightstand, to enjoy our family. It will also be interesting to not wake up every single day thinking about CPAs!
Have we heard the last of Joanne Barry? Will you remain active in the accounting arena?
The first thing I will do is take a long vacation; it has been several years. I have been asked about some consulting jobs, but that is yet to be seen. I will spend much time with my family at our beach house and follow the profession from afar. I have spent time over the years on charitable organization boards and will spend more time in that capacity as well. Oh, and I am writing a book. Many of our members are curious as to whether they will be in it.
In the long sweep of history, what do you want your legacy to be? When they think of your tenure, what do you want people to remember?
I’d like to think that I was somewhat of a trailblazer for women in this professional association. The Society had never had a female CEO. I worked hard to recruit both women and underrepresented groups to leadership positions within the organization. I stabilized the organization financially, built a strong balance sheet so that it solidly emerged from the challenges of the pandemic. I pushed the messaging that we could no longer be your grandfather’s CPA society, if we are to endure. We need to hold on to the roots of our 125-year heritage but be inviting and inclusive of new and different generations. I pushed to launch the COAP program, working in conjunction with NABA. As the profession emerges from its proactive transformation in the years ahead, I would like our CPAs to remember that I had a part in pushing for that evolution—in defining the profession of the future.
The biggest challenge the profession faces is making itself relevant to young people who have so many lucrative and gratifying professional options.
Going forward, what do you think will be the biggest challenges young people just entering the accounting world will face?
I would answer the question the other way. The biggest challenge the profession faces is making itself relevant to young people who have so many lucrative and gratifying professional options.
Conversely, what do you think is the biggest advantage they carry when entering the workforce?
The fact that they are all digital natives with a huge appreciation of the role technology must play in all aspects of the future will serve them well. Also important is their focus on supply chains, climate challenges, and their implications. These issues will be inextricably intertwined with the profession of the future.
What must the profession do in order to retain its relevance and not go the way of buggy whip manufacturers?
The profession must put as much reliance and emphasis on looking forward as it traditionally has on looking backward to conduct an audit or prepare a tax return. CPAs must leverage financial data to drive innovation, investigate the future, and develop business plans that promote growth for their clients and businesses. They must get comfortable providing forward-looking information with the help of artificial intelligence and data analytics. That will be a large part of the long-term value proposition CPAs offer their clients by helping them shape their business models and operations to optimize value creation.
This interview was previously published in The Trusted Professional, November/December 2021.