Five trends up-and-coming financial leaders expect for the CPA profession
The future of finance
One of the ways the finalists for Canada’s CFO of the Year™ Award distinguish themselves is by becoming true strategic partners to their organizations. The finalists each recognize the many ways the business operating landscape is changing—whether a result of new technologies or new business models. But how do up-and-coming business leaders view the future of Canada’s accounting profession and the financial community in general?
We recently spoke with two up-and-coming chartered professional accountants (CPAs) for their views on that important question: Tosin Akinwekomi, Director of Organizational Change Management at RBC, and Roslyn McLarty, Co-founder of The GIST, a digital sports media company targeted at women. Both are 2018 winners of CPA Ontario’s Emerging Leaders Award and members of FEI Canada’s Young Luminaries program, which offers mentoring by top industry leaders to up to 50 high-achieving young finance professionals.
We also spoke to Tashia Batstone, Senior-Vice President and leader of the Foresight initiative spearheaded by Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada), an ambitious consultation effort to help define the future of the accounting profession.
Tosin and Roslyn are examples of the different types of career opportunities available to CPAs. Tosin began his career in finance roles for the federal government before moving to internal audit at a bank, and then to a consulting firm before returning to the financial services world at RBC to work on strategy and transformation. As for Roslyn, she started The GIST after working in the deals and assurance practices at PwC Canada.
Given their experiences, what are some of the top trends they see for Canada’s accounting profession?
1. Diversified career paths
For Tosin, it’s important to recognize that those working in the profession are more than just number crunchers.
“I feel like there’s generally a misconception about what accountants do or can do. Our training also allows us to be able to work in so many different spaces, to think about how the business moves forward in terms of strategy, in terms of new market, in terms of new customers. Numbers back it up, but we’ve all got to be able to work in all these different disciplines,” he says.
For Roslyn, that means a growing role for CPAs in entrepreneurship and at start-up companies, a type of business she believes she and her colleagues are a particularly good fit for.
“When you form a start-up, there’s obviously no existing structure,” says Roslyn. “There are no processes. There’s no risk management or reporting. CPAs bring an ability to look at the start-up from a finance lens and to think through the business model, the cost and investments associated with building the company, the allocation of resources. In such an uncertain environment, CPAs can add so much value both from our technical experience and also from the way that we approach problems and approach building a company.”
2. Data analytics take centre stage
“Data analytics will allow us to build on our abilities as business advisors,” says Roslyn.
As Tashia notes, CPA Canada is seeking to boost the importance of data analytics by adding them to its list of competencies for 2019. She adds that there is both risk and opportunity for the profession around information analysis and management.
“Our work on the Foresight initiative highlighted that the world is moving to an economy defined by access to big data and the accounting profession needs to consider the role we play in helping to ensure data is high quality, fit for purpose and can be trusted to guide effective decision making. With our experience in providing consistent and comparable financial information, CPAs are uniquely positioned to take on these new roles. If we don’t embrace these opportunities, there is a risk that others will and we could become redundant,” says Tashia.
“However, I always look at the flip side of risk as opportunity. For me, the integrity of data, data governance standards and making sure the data is valid, reliable and trustworthy is vital because this will allow decision-makers to make informed decisions and drive success. That provides the profession with a huge opportunity to leverage on its skills around analysis, standard setting and assurance provision to remain relevant going forward. I don’t think that all CPAs need to be data scientists. What I do believe is that we all need to understand the science of data. That’s what’s really important.”
3. Increased competition
For Tosin, a big change is the growing role of people from other fields, like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in the finance world.
“As a profession, I think previously some of the work that we do, we had a monopoly on this type of work,” says Tosin.
“If you’re talking about data analytics or data science, a lot of the people that are at the forefront of this and now moving into finance departments and into an internal audit department or an accounting department, some of them don’t have an accounting background. Some of them are from STEM.”
“This reinforces why Canada’s accounting profession is future focused,” explains Tashia. “We want to ensure that the Canadian CPAs continue to bring the skill sets demanded by the marketplace to the table and strategically help organizations unlock and create value.”
4. Technological fluency
As Tosin sees it, technology will affect finance professionals in many ways, including when it comes to integrating it into their own work and analyzing the impacts of developments like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) on their organizations more broadly.
“Right now, AI and technology are big buzzwords, but whatever it is that changes in business, accountants will need to be on the forefront of understanding what that is, how it impacts the market, how it impacts customers and what that means for businesses that they work in,” he says.
For Tashia, the impacts will be significant and mean a big shift in thinking for the profession, particularly when it comes to what people learn and what they focus on.
“Are there areas of our business that traditionally were core to us in the past that today are no longer as relevant or can be done through the use of technologies such as AI? Has the world shifted enough now that there are probably areas where we can say, ‘AI does this. Technology does this. We don’t need CPAs to learn all of this’?
5. The urgent need to upskill and take risks
As Tashia points out, the impacts of technology are twofold. Accounting professionals will need to not only break from past practices and thinking, but also develop skills in new areas that will be in high demand.
“We have to approach things differently,” Tashia says.
Tosin expresses a similar view. “Being a change management leader, I think I’m seeing some of the challenges in that we’re trying to get our group of auditors here at least ready for this next wave of basic RPA and basic AI. It’s the ability to understand that I need to learn something new, and I need to let go of some of the things I’ve always done in the past,” he says.
Ever the entrepreneur in the start-up world, Roslyn has a novel view on upskilling CPAs based on what she has seen elsewhere: “I really love that I could listen to a podcast featuring other CPAs who were entrepreneurs in the venture space or angel investors and hear about things like raising money or structuring a financing round as a start-up. As a CPA in the venture space that’s doing just that right now, it’s extremely relevant.”
“They’re less inclined to feel they need to stay put and dedicate themselves to a single employer and are more interested in pursuing what they enjoy or are passionate about,” she says, referring to millennials and Generation Z.
For Tosin, the changes underway underscore the need for finance professionals to take more risks, something Roslyn feels the coming generations may be more willing to do when it comes to their own career paths. And that, she says, will be beneficial for both the profession and society more generally.
“While maybe there are some downsides associated with that, I think we’ll end up with people doing more creative and non-traditional things with their CPAs that people find really energizing and fulfilling. At the end of the day, that will result in them doing bigger and better things out in our society.”
About Canada’s CFO of the Year™ Award
Presented by Financial Executives International (FEI) Canada, PwC Canada, and Robert Half, Canada’s CFO of the Year™ Award is given annually to recognize and honour the best in financial leadership.