Accounting Insights from CPAPA’s Top Thought Leader Symposium

The Top Thought Leader Symposium, hosted annually by CPA Practice Advisor, brings together leading consultants, vendors, and accounting firm representatives from across the country. This year, remote work, COVID policies, and staffing shortages dominated the discussions. Find out how top accounting leaders feel about those topics—and more—in my recap.

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Last Updated July 5, 2023


Top Thought Leaders Share Key Accounting Insights

The Top Thought Leader Symposium, held annually, brings together many of the profession’s leading consultants, vendors, and accounting firm representatives to noodle on key trends and opportunities in the year ahead. CPA Practice Advisor once again facilitated the symposium, which was held jointly with their “Top 40 Under 40” designees this year.

With the shadow of COVID still pervading, much of the discussion revolved around identifying today’s current “normal,” but with a more expansive range of debate and considerations due to the broader participation represented by the two groups.

The group discussed many topics throughout the day, but the six themes dominating most discussions are listed below.

Accountants’ Consensus on Remote Work

Hybrid-remote work is here to stay—permanently—and firms need to adapt.

Hybrid work environments are here to stay, so firms must learn to optimize this trend by identifying and managing the capabilities of their personnel to do their best work both individually and for the firm (when collaboration was needed).

An unexpected finding was that many senior members who had fought remote work pre-COVID found that the solitude made them more productive, particularly if they already had good remote technology in place.

Consequently, some newer staff comfortable working remotely pre-COVID found it challenging with omnipresent family members and roommates having different priorities impacting their work schedule and concentration.

Not surprisingly, those in metropolitan areas (with longer commute times) stated they found greater satisfaction working remotely. In contrast, those in suburban or rural environments with easier office commutes did not mind popping into the office on command.

The general agreement was that all firms would benefit from incorporating hybrid work environments into their work mix, and flexibility (like choosing your own hours) was essential. Still, each situation was unique to that firm member’s environment, and the group cautioned firms to step back from traditional stereotypes.

Accounting Firms and COVID Policies

If firms knew another pandemic was on the horizon, they would better prepare staff with remote work training and technology.

Speakers were posed the following question: “What would you do now if you knew another pandemic was coming?”

Their answers included:

  • We would mandate the adoption of digital business tools (portal, eSignature, digital collaboration, etc.) by all clients and staff.
  • We would promote a virtual culture, including better training on working remotely and implementing the proper technology.

Some suggested firms formally have innovation meetings to review service offerings, technology utilization, and working more effectively in a remote environment (i.e., scheduling and managing personnel). The group also suggested more emphasis on monitoring employee mental health and understanding family situations, promoting a stronger firm culture.

Download An Accountant’s Guide to the Remote Work Era

Retaining Accounting Staff

Senior staff members retiring early and new-to-the-profession accountants leaving (for a multitude of reasons) has caused a massive staffing shortage.

Most firms continue to experience understaffing, leading many senior members to get the work out the door without involving younger staff in the more exciting, educational discussions. Staffing issues were exasperated by COVID and tagged by the media as the “Great Resignation,” but in reality, were not so succinctly defined. While some accountants did bail on their careers and retire, many went to do something different, migrating to other industries or other parts of the country which provided a better family or financial environment.

The group was concerned that a generation of up-and-coming practitioners was lost to the accounting profession before they could get involved in the good stuff that comes with more years of experience (i.e., client accounting advisory services.)

While some believed that onshoring opportunities would evolve to allow people living in suburban and rural areas to be hired by firms to address staffing shortages, the group was also concerned about the decline of new accountants entering into the profession.

Accountant Pipeline

Firms and universities need to start working together to give a realistic view of what accounting is really like in the field.

Attendees felt that the current accountant pipeline model was ineffective at making accounting attractive as a career or preparing new hires to work in the real world. Universities must update their curriculum to provide practicality and application of fundamentals to not “bore people” away from a career in accounting.

Firms must also step up by offering internships, job shadowing opportunities, and promoting the more exciting components of the accounting profession. The group also felt that firms would need to increase compensation packages to make the work more attractive and compete with current corporate salaries and other high-paying degrees.

Educating Accountants on Advisory Services

Advisory services are the future; industry educators need to pivot from presentations about advisory service concepts to actionable, delivery-of-service training.

While attendees generally felt that advisory services are the future of the accounting profession, the consensus was that there was no clear way of skilling up all personnel in the firms to provide such advisory services. Realistically, some people may not be capable of doing such work. Get our list of skills needed for building an effective CAAS team.

The group noted that many conferences and industry trainers were good at teaching advisory concepts but weren’t delivering specific actionable, how-to’s to practitioners to use in the field. Technical training also needed to be emphasized, including building advisory tech stacks (including APIs, machine learning, robotic process automation, and data visualization tools such as Microsoft Power BI), which are increasingly automating business information systems.

Download 8 Steps to CAAS Practice Transformation

Private Equity at Accounting Firms

Venture capital is once again flowing into the accounting profession — but some are concerned that the debacles from 20 years ago are bound to repeat.

Venture capital is once again flowing into the accounting profession with the announcement of the EisnerAmper acquisition, which the group felt presented a dual-edged opportunity.

On the one hand, such deals allow firms to shore up their retirement commitments to senior members and have the cash to invest in growing their advisory practices. On the other hand, senior members with strong technical skills no longer have a traditional partner track and have begun looking elsewhere for the career track they originally bought into. These senior members leaving has created staffing shortages … and has started impacting service delivery.

Some proponents believe that private equity will allow firms to regroup and possibly evolve the practice model to be more corporate and pursue growth opportunities in advisory (while spinning off audit). Again, this was balanced with the concern that the debacles of the private equity experiences of two decades ago would repeat.

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