By Tom Hood, CEO, Maryland Association of CPAs
We are entering the Age of Automation—one of the greatest technology shifts of all time. As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning become mainstream, they are beginning to affect virtually every area of our daily lives, including our jobs. These technologies enable data science, automate insights, and eliminate manual tasks, freeing finance leaders and teams to focus on improving and growing their businesses.
The changes mean finance and accounting professionals need to have new skills to understand how machine learning and other advanced technologies impact business performance, compliance, and strategy.
At the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, we have been gathering research from leading experts and bestselling authors, including Institute for the Future, World Economic Forum, CPA Horizons 2025, The Second Machine Age, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as empirical evidence from thousands of certified public accountants (CPAs) and finance and accounting professionals. Using this data, we have identified seven skills finance professionals will need to master to successfully navigate this new era.
Communication is often called a “soft skill,” a label that understates its importance. Top-down communication structures are no longer effective, if they ever really were. 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. Fostering ongoing dialogue with your constituents also is essential to getting the best information possible to solve problems and identify opportunities.
Closely tied to communication is the ability to lead. As the rate of technological transformation accelerates, your clients, colleagues, and employees may feel unable to keep up. They may worry about how new technology will affect their businesses and jobs. These feelings and concerns may make communication more emotional and challenging than typical workplace exchanges.
Understanding the needs of those around you will require a combination of emotional intelligence, empathy, cross-cultural intelligence, and insight. At various times, finance professionals must be reassuring voices, visionary adopters, motivating mentors, and shrewd negotiators. Those who hold these leadership skills may find greater success in helping their teams navigate this fast-paced era of change.
As automation technology frees you from the rote and manual aspects of financial work, you’ll have more time to focus on efficiency- and revenue-building activities. Delivering value to your organization and clients will require the ability to read and understand data, and think about it critically and strategically. As you work with more AI-powered systems that will help you spot large-scale patterns and trends, the ability to turn numbers into insight will give you essential knowledge into creating a roadmap for the future.
In addition to data analysis, you’ll also need to recognize emerging requirements around you. Critical thinking will be necessary to help you ask the key questions to gain deeper understanding about which indicators are important and which are anomalies.
Another outcome of widespread automation adoption will be a new demand on finance professionals to innovate and develop creative solutions to business problems. This is good news in that it allows you to contribute great value to your organization and clients.
At the same time, complex problem-solving, adaptive thinking, and even future forecasting will be expected of top finance professionals. These roles will be transformed into centers of innovation.
As you fill a more strategic and creative role as a finance professional, you’ll also find that cross-functional collaboration increases. More than ever, finance professionals will need to work closely with people who have other skill sets and specialties. As the world becomes increasingly complex, you may need to work closely with subject matter experts, department heads, and other key players who can inform your work and help you develop the big-picture ideas that will be expected of you.
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.
While it might seem obvious, virtually no job will be untouched by technology. To best spot new developments and recognize how they can benefit your business, develop and maintain both an enthusiasm for new technology, as well as intellectual curiosity about what’s coming next. As machine learning becomes more sophisticated and new applications emerge, looking for ways to maximize their potential within your own or your client’s organization can give you a competitive edge that less tech-savvy finance professionals don’t have.
Of course, even with enormous technological advancements, finance professionals must be skilled in their areas of expertise. Various roles require particular education, certifications, and competencies. In addition, this area of work often requires a code of ethical and moral behavior that earns the trust of those who put their finances and, sometimes, livelihoods in your hands.
Reskilling as a finance professional has traditionally meant continuing education and learning new aspects of the profession. As automation changes the very nature of our work, skills like communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and leadership will be increasingly in demand. While it may seem like new territory—perhaps even territory that is somewhat difficult to traverse—these skills also unlock exciting new opportunities for professional growth.
Tom Hood has been the CEO of MACPA & Business Learning Institute since 1997. He is considered one of the most influential leaders in the global accounting profession. Accounting Today Magazine named Tom the Second Most Influential Person in Accounting for the past eight years. They said this about him, “Hood uniquely combines three vital traits: He sees the future of the profession clearly; he discovers or creates supremely practical ways to move the profession toward that future; and he generates tremendous enthusiasm for the move in everyone he meets.”
In 2012, Tom was named one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers and now has over 800,000 followers on LinkedIn and Twitter. He was also one of the first five thought leaders inducted into the Accounting Hall of Fame by CPA Practice Advisor.
His passion is helping CPAs and organizations be future-ready through his work at the MACPA and the Business Learning Institute, which provides state-of-the-art learning curriculums, strategy, and leadership development for the Top 500 CPA Firms, Fortune 500 corporations, non-profits, State CPA Societies, and even internationally.