In the post-pandemic era, accounting professionals will need to transform their skill set, with new tools and a new way of thinking about client service
As the pandemic and what comes after continues to transform the accounting profession, CPAs need a new mindset, skill set, and tool set to thrive, says Tom Hood, executive vice president of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA).
Hood recently spoke with the Thomson Reuters Institute about the future of the accounting profession in the post-pandemic era — a theme he addressed in a presentation at AICPA’s recent 2021 ENGAGE conference and in a whitepaper and course from the Business Learning Institute.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the global economy in early 2020, accountants were deemed essential workers because of their important role in sustaining business operations, tax collection, and the overall economy, Hood notes. In the months that followed, many accounting firms helped their business clients navigate unprecedented business challenges and leverage federal relief packages, including the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
“CPAs had to immediately shift from preparing taxes to consulting on these things,” Hood says. “Through that period until now, $7 trillion went through accounting, tax, and payroll systems, because those systems administered the relief. That’s why the profession was declared essential.”
This experience battle-tested accounting firms’ ability to deliver meaningful advisory and consulting services — and demonstrated the value of this business model to clients, he added. “The firms that got it, they formed squads to study the law, attended town halls with the AICPA, and learned the latest stuff — then they would feed it to team members who were on the front lines with the clients.”
Accounting firms and their professionals saw their status in the eyes of their clients rise during the pandemic. “CPAs helped their clients, their communities, and our whole economy because of the way they responded,” Hood explains. “It was our defining moment… . That’s when we moved from essential to indispensable.”
Today, Hood says he is concerned that accounting firms are reverting back to their old operating models. “There’s inertia pulling us back to the way things were, and we cannot let that happen,” he says.
Hood observes that the pandemic accelerated three trends that currently are transforming the profession and requiring accounting firms to hold the ground they’ve gained while re-inventing themselves to compete in the whatever comes next. These three trends include:
- The expansion of accountants’ role as strategic business advisors — Accounting firms and CPAs were able to add value in a whole new way, Hood says. “They’ve figured it out. Now lock that in, and go even further with that consulting perspective.”
- The rapid adoption of tax and accounting technology — Hood cites research suggesting that the use of artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, the cloud, and other technologies advanced five years during the pandemic. “2020 is the new 2025,” he notes.
- The push to permanently provide a flexible, remote work environment — “Young professionals have been asking for that flexibility for the past 10 years,” Hood says. “It’s time for CPA firms to reimagine and rethink how we’re going to go forward and build on what we’ve learned.”
In his whitepaper, titled The Next Normal, Now! Moving from Essential to Indispensable, Hood outlines seven skills that accounting firms and CPAs needed to make this happen, including:
1. Strategic guidance
Accounting firm leaders need to cultivate emotional intelligence, empathy, cross-cultural intelligence, and business savvy to help clients, colleagues, and employees navigate the ongoing disruption and transformation.
2. Anticipating and addressing evolving needs
With widespread automation taking on more day-to-day operational tasks, finance professionals have the opportunity to anticipate and solve rapidly emerging business problems. “Complex problem-solving, adaptive thinking, and even future forecasting will be expected of top finance professionals,” Hood writes in the whitepaper. “These roles will be transformed into centers of innovation.”
3. Analysis and critical thinking
The ability to assess data in order to unearth important patterns and trends and develop actionable insights will be an essential skill.
4. Two-way communication
“As a finance professional, you need to master the ability to ask questions, listen objectively to various viewpoints, consider the information at your disposal, and respond appropriately to various stakeholders across multiple communication channels,” Hood writes.
5. Integration and collaboration
As accountants evolve into more strategic and creative roles, the ability to collaborate across functions — working with subject matter experts, department heads, and other professionals with various skills and specialties — becomes increasingly important. This type of collaboration is essential for mastering complex dynamics and forging big-picture solutions. “In a world where companies operate globally and employees increasingly work remotely, mastering virtual collaboration and management skills — sharing ideas and information with people in other places through various methods — also will be important,” Hood writes.
6. Tech-savvy leadership
Intellectual curiosity about the latest technologies and their potential application are critical for accounting firm executives to lead their teams, advise clients, and sustain a competitive advantage.
7. Functional and domain expertise for a new era
“Reskilling as a finance professional has traditionally meant continuing education and learning new aspects of the profession,” Hood explains. “As automation changes the very nature of our work, skills like communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and leadership will be increasingly in demand.”
While much of this may seem like new territory — perhaps even territory that is somewhat difficult to traverse — these seven skills also unlock exciting new opportunities for professional growth for all CPAs as well as a honing of abilities to greatly add value to client relationships.