Since taking on the role as Chairman of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) in October 2016, Kimberly Ellison-Taylor (CPA, CGMA, and Global Accounting Strategy Director for Oracle America) has focused on making sure CPAs and CGMAs have the knowledge and resources to help clients and businesses succeed; advocating for policies that protect the public interest; and attracting and developing the next generation of talent.
Her scope expanded a few months ago when she also became Chairman of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association), the global association created by members of the AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). Ellison-Taylor’s dedication and thought leadership have been making waves: last week, Accounting Today named her one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting” for 2017.
We spoke with Ellison-Taylor about the future of accounting and finance, as well as what the Association is doing to power a unified, dynamic profession ready to meet the demands of an evolving world.
Q: Congratulations on your new role, and on being named as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting.” Can you tell us a little bit about the Association and its mission?
Thank you. About five years ago, the AICPA entered into a joint venture with CIMA with the shared goal of advancing management accounting globally. Together, we launched the Chartered Global Management Accounting (CGMA) designation to recognize management accountants who have reached the highest benchmark of quality and competency. Our partnership was successful, and we knew we could do more together to position the entire accounting profession—both public and management accounting—for continued relevance in changing times.
That was the impetus for the creation of a new global Association, which our members overwhelmingly voted in favor of in June 2016. The Association integrates the strategy, management and operations of CIMA and the AICPA to drive excellence within the accounting profession around the world.
Representing 650,000 members and students across 179 countries, the Association is focused on powering trust, opportunity and prosperity for all. We do that by creating greater awareness and opportunities for our members, enhancing learning to focus on the competencies accountants need to succeed in the future, and providing the tools and thought leadership to help them get and stay ahead.
Q: You talk about the profession in “extraordinary times.” What do you think is the biggest driver of change, and how do you see it impacting the finance profession?
The future is exciting and presents a great deal of opportunity. And to capitalize on this opportunity, we have to anticipate change and position ourselves to stay ahead of it. This is the message I take forward as I travel across the U.S. and around the world talking with our members and students. I talk about the potential impact that technologies—such as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and machine learning—will have on the accounting and finance function of the future. Instead of waiting on hold for a call center agent to help with a basic tax question, could you simply ask Siri or Alexa? Could those repetitive, time consuming processes be easily automated, leaving you time to focus on higher value services?
We accept that our roles are changing—as they are across professions and industries—and that the way we function tomorrow will be different from today. The question is, how do we continue to evolve our roles so that we maintain our trusted advisor status? We want our members to anticipate the impact of technology and leverage it where appropriate. In my thinking, if you're an executive or someone who's aspiring to be in leadership, you don't have the luxury of not being well-versed in what technology can provide from a competitive perspective.
Digital transformation and change management are especially important so that team members are able to spend more time on decision-making and influence. With a solid foundation in place, it is an extra benefit that enables more proactive responsiveness to our rapidly changing environment.
It also makes the business more consistent. Leveraging digital technology will reduce what I call “episodes of greatness”—where your Baltimore office might be doing great, but your Toronto office isn’t, and you don’t even know what’s going on in California. With automation and better information, there's a level of consistency and predictability that can drive better outcomes and reduce cost.
Q: Are there particular skills that accountants and finance professionals need to develop to stay relevant in today’s digital business environment?
Absolutely. Maintaining relevancy in this increasingly digital world is top of mind for most accountants, regardless of their practice area.
It’s not surprising that in this year’s CPA Firm Top Issues survey, firm leaders identified “technology” and “staffing” among the areas that will have the most impact on their practices in the next five years. And the biggest thing keeping them awake at night? Finding qualified talent.
To identify the types of skills that are most in demand, we consulted with hundreds of CEOs, CFOs, academics, government and other stakeholders around the world. We asked, “What skill sets do you need in your team now and in the future?”
Our research revealed that organizations are looking for professionals who can solve complex problems, think critically, be creative and inspire their team. This insight directly shaped the development of the CGMA Competency Framework, which defines the skills finance professionals need to succeed.
We also launched a public consultation with more than 3,000 finance professionals worldwide to understand how those skills should be applied. That research informed the development of the Global Management Accounting Principles, which complement the CGMA Competency Framework.
All of this research told us that what today’s business leaders want from their finance teams is a holistic view of the organization. They are seeking finance professionals who can analyze the data and draw out the insight that has impact. They need professionals with strong people, leadership and communication skills to influence decisions that drive value. These are the types of skills that we help finance and accounting professionals develop and master through the CGMA designation and program.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by “influence”?
This year, we partnered with Oracle on a research project where we surveyed almost 500 finance executives across North America. What we found is that the operating model of finance is changing. The most successful companies are moving from a focus on operational efficiency, which is “doing things well,” to operational agility, which is the ability to predict what’s coming next and change course to meet it head-on.
The research revealed that the most agile organizations share three main characteristics:
And the ability to influence and lead the business requires partnering skills, people skills, cross-functional skills, rapid decision-making and strategic thinking.
It also requires access to better information, which is one of the reasons that many finance teams are looking for non-traditional skill sets. They’re looking for professionals with technology skills—the data scientist, the big data analyst, the statistician. Finance teams that are agile are those that can synthesize information from a number of different sources across the company—whether that’s sales, marketing, customer service, product—and use that information to develop and measure non-traditional key performance indicators. The companies that measure those KPIs are more likely to report increased revenues and increased profitability.
Q: It sounds like it all comes down to having the right talent and the right skill sets. What can businesses do to make sure they’re attracting and retaining the best and brightest?
Digital transformation helps keep your employees happy, and this brings us back to the challenge that firms are facing when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. Millennials and Generation Z have indicated that they want work on exciting, client-facing opportunities or strategic initiatives. Generally speaking, they expect to have all the tools that they’re used to in their daily lives—their mobile phones, apps, their cloud services and so on.
Finally, leveraging technology and next-generation talent are connected in helping to minimize disruption. Leaders must continue to evolve their organizations’ people, processes and technologies. For most, if not all, organizations that aspire to be around in the next 3, 5, 10 years in the future, there are no other options.