The ideal candidate

Today’s employers are looking for team players who can behave ethically, think strategically and act decisively. New CPAs come well prepared on all counts.

SEEKING A TRAILBLAZING, ETHICAL SUPERACHIEVER. Must be a critical thinker, astute problem-solver and adaptable to rapid change. Ability to number-crunch a given. Interested candidates, please submit your resumé to humanresources@zxycbaltd.com.

Long gone are the days when a professional accountant was expected to sit in the back offices of an organization crunching numbers. Today’s accountants are key members of the management team, tasked with making critical recommendations about a company’s future. They have a prominent voice in determining the strategic direction of the business. Often they move beyond the traditional role of providing financial advice to leading the company as the CEO or starting their own business.

It’s not surprising, then, that employers are looking to the new chartered professional accountant for that ultimate candidate — a professional who is smart enough to interpret massive amounts of complicated data and who possesses the business acumen to put it to optimal use for the betterment of a company or clients.

WELL-ROUNDED BUSINESS LEADERS

“CPAs need to be great business advisers,” says Bill Thomas, CEO and senior partner, KPMG in Canada, and chair of KPMG’s Americas region. “To achieve this, not only do they need to have technical capabilities, but they must demonstrate these abilities in a way that makes sense to business owners. That requires solid business acumen, industry knowledge and communication skills. When you couple these softer skills with great technical competence, that’s when you start to differentiate one business adviser from another.”

“When you look at what accountants are doing these days, it’s not just about putting numbers into a spreadsheet and interpreting them, but about figuring out the strategic impact of those figures and the direction in which an organization needs to move,” says Liza Worthington, chair of the CPA profession’s Interprovincial Practical Experience Committee, which develops standards and implementation guidelines for the CPA practical experience requirements. “We’ve taken the best of three legacy programs to develop a well-rounded business leader with a strong accounting background.”

In developing the CPA Professional Education Program (PEP), Worthington says, the profession consulted employers of all sizes via focus groups and interviews on what they’re looking for in today’s workforce. “[Employers said] candidates need to have both excellent technical skills and the professional competencies to lead, make decisions and act ethically,” she says. They noted that candidates must also have excellent oral and written communication skills, in addition to the ability to self-manage, lead others and work effectively in teams.

Sandy Hilton, director of professional education at CPA Canada, believes these soft skills now far outweigh technical requirements on employers’ wish lists. “The more conversations I have with employers, the more I hear that they assume the technical knowledge is there,” he says. “Employers now say candidates won’t be successful unless they have those softer skills.”

Bill McFarland, CEO and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, concurs. “Technical skills are table stakes,” he says. “We want students and people with strong communication skills, high integrity, confidence and a willingness to adapt to change, continuously learn and improve and challenge the status quo while working in diverse teams to find the best solutions that add value to our clients. Education doesn’t end at university. It is only the beginning and our responsibility at PwC is to develop all people to their full potential by giving them the right experiences, coaching and in-house training.”

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Toronto-based Shuaib Shariff is a 25-year accounting veteran who originally trained in the UK and has spent most of his career at CIBC Canada, most recently as senior vice-president and CFO for Canada region. He says employers are now “juggling a whole bunch of balls in a globally connected environment.” That means successful CPAs will have to think tactically and strategically as opposed to following direction from the top. “It’s about being nimble and able to connect the dots for your employer,” he says. “There’s the need for broad abilities while still being able to drill down to focus on a particular segment.”

While he admits it sounds cliché, Shariff believes being a team player is more important today than ever before. “It’s about being able to interact with folks at every level of the organization and in every discipline,” he says. “So much is driven by your ability to perform on a team. Employers want folks who can see beyond the edges of their own desks.”

Bryan Lillycrop, vice-president and controller of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., is the PEP leader at Loblaw. He has nine candidates currently enrolled in the CPA program and six who have already graduated. While the designation plays a part in his choice of candidates, he says his star recruits have shown true purposefulness in planning their career paths to date. “Beyond the pure letters beside your name, I want to make sure the experience you’ve gotten on the path to getting your designation really shows the breadth of what you can do.”

Even more than showing leadership potential, Lillycrop believes aspiring CPAs must have the ability to cope with rapid change — an ability that is becoming increasingly critical in business today. “I wouldn’t say the skills are that different but there’s more of a ‘need it now’ approach,” he says. “We have the ability in this day and age to analyze big quantities of data and that’s what’s expected.”

Dan Chun, owner of accounting firm Chun & Co., based in Kelowna, BC, describes the pace of technological change over the course of his career as “mind-boggling.” When he started his CGA training in 1980, computers were in their infancy and most information was input manually. “Now a quarter of my staff members don’t even work in the office and I could go to Mexico for two weeks and work from there if I wanted to,” he says. “You definitely couldn’t do that before without lugging a whole bunch of boxes with you.”

“When I look at the workplace, I see our biggest change is coming through digital transformation,” agrees Charles Henaire, deputy CFO, chief accounting and control officer at Great West Lifeco in Winnipeg. “The volume and pace of change from even five years ago are unbelievable.” When Henaire got his CA designation in 1991, changes at GWL centred on consolidations and acquiring insurance companies. Now, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, regulatory compliance and financial reporting have heightened across the industry and stakeholder demands are constant. Henaire says companies are also dealing with a different type of consumer who puts a priority on timely, accessible information. “Where I see the real value of the new profession is that this generation has grown up in real time and is comfortable using technology,” he says.

BEYOND AUDIT AND TAX

Henaire says the new program provides a consistency of training across the board and has reduced some of the internal confusion around the requirements associated with legacy designations in the past. “I do believe there is more clarity now that we have one accounting profession,” he says. “Accountants used to be pigeonholed and it’s starting to resonate with users of CPA services that it’s not just about audit and tax.” Add to that the fact that, with the new practical experience requirements, companies can now train potential CPAs straight out of university. “Big companies like ours take a long time to understand, and the more we can help develop someone internally, the more strength that gives us.”

As CPA PEP enters its third year, Hilton says focus groups and interviews with employers across the country will continue, to ensure the program continues to hit its mark in preparing CPAs for the workplace. “One of the biggest challenges we have is trying to figure out how to leverage online technology to really help students acquire those softer skills that employers identify as being critical,” he says. “Developing that problem-solving framework that involves those rich discussions with a mentor works well in the classroom, but these types of experiences are challenging to replicate in an online world.”

Fortunately, current training providers such as GWL and other employers are helping in this regard. “We don’t require [candidates] to do their education and practical experience simultaneously, but I’d like to see more of that so CPA candidates can leverage the academic studies with their practical experience,” says Hilton.

Lauren Gallimore is a CPA candidate currently completing her PEP while working full time at KPMG in Lethbridge, Alta. She feels the program is preparing her adequately for every situation in the workplace. “Aside from the technical competencies, the ethics and presentation skills are also stressed so you’re prepared to act in a professional way and make decisions,” says Gallimore, who started at the firm as an accounting co-op student.

While she has no plans to leave, Gallimore likes the fact her CPA designation will give her more freedom to move across the country and across businesses. “You’re not stuck in a corner. And as a student just starting out, you don’t have to decide between designations anymore.”

Marshall Lang, who began the CGA program in Ontario, is now a financial accountant at the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., and is currently completing his practical experience requirements, with plans to write the final exam in September. Finding time for his studies while holding down a highly demanding job is a challenge, but Lang appreciates the more “holistic approach” the new program provides. “There is always more than the numbers to consider,” he says. “CPAs have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders to their employers and to the community at large.” With accounting standards changing, Lang says employers will also be seeking CPAs who will guide them around regulations to avoid possible pitfalls.

Lang expects the program will continue to improve as time goes on. “We have to take into consideration that this is a new program and it will evolve as the new CPA does,” he says. “For now, as I progress in my career, it’s giving me a good foundation as I don’t know where tomorrow is going to take me.”

As the financial industry continues to transform in the face of global competition and technology, GWL’s Henaire says it will be the forward vision of the new CPA that will be the profession’s greatest strength. “It’s one thing to look in the rearview mirror to examine the numbers and quite another to look at how to push an organization in the future to bigger and better things.”

About the Author

Rosalind Stefanac


Rosalind Stefanac is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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