Speaking of generalists

How do you stay current as a generalist in 2014? Here are a few guidelines.

What does it take to be a generalist in 2014? Simply put, a lot. An increased focus on corporate governance, standard setting and audit quality since the global financial market collapse of 2008 has certainly turned the spotlight on the profession and upped the ante. But even before the market meltdown, regulators and policy-makers across industries around the world have been expanding their reach. This trend of increased regulation shows no signs of slowing down.

For generalists, it means the stakes have never been higher and the amount of information they need to know has never been greater. Susan McIsaac and Vicki Darragh are generalists and cofounders of McIsaac Darragh Chartered Accountants in Amherst, NS. They share a few key lessons and best practices on how to stay current.

More is more. As a generalist, you have to be well-versed in the main practice areas. This typically includes audit and review engagements, corporate tax, T1s through tax season, tax planning throughout the year, financing, projections, HST issues and business advisory. It also means understanding the standards and regulations that impact your clients.

Embrace professional development in all its forms. This should include making the most of industry-sponsored learning opportunities and drawing from your community. For example, the AC Group, a network of 13 independent accounting firms in Atlantic Canada, connects members and provides opportunities for joint professional development. "It’s important to pick and choose," says Darragh. "I tend to take more of the tax courses and [McIsaac] takes more of the assurance webinars and seminars." When you’re working with others it’s OK to divide and conquer the different subjects you need to know and share your knowledge.

Know your market. For example, if you’re in a smaller market with few public and multinational companies, you don’t need to add the extra level of complexity that comes with IFRS. Take a close look at your client base, its industry sector and the type of advice your clients need.

Know what you don’t know. It’s important to know the policy choices clients have made and the regulations that may affect them. You don’t need to know all the details but you do need to know what your abilities are and when you may need additional help. It’s OK to tap the expertise of a specialist in those cases; the objective is to get it right. It’s up to you as a generalist to make sure you access the tools and resources to do that.

It helps to have the DNA of a generalist. Do you like the excitement of having a variety of challenges? Do you like moving from one project to the next, often several times a day? Do you like not knowing what the day will bring? If you answered yes to these questions, you have the personality profile of a generalist.

There is a key advantage for clients working with a generalist: a breadth of experience across a broad range of issues, industries, sectors and settings. This gives individual clients access to a robust and expanding source of knowledge from a business advisory perspective.

"We can make parallels or go back to a challenge we dealt with in the past, build on it and bring that to each client," says McIsaac.

Make sure to communicate the benefits and skills you bring to the table as a generalist because clients may not be aware of all your areas of expertise.