Leaps not steps
Thank you and good morning.
As I started off this morning, I can’t begin to express how honored I am to stand before you, stepping into the role of the 106th chair of the American Institute of CPAs. Our profession has a long and proud legacy, and I’ve had the pleasure of serving it in many roles over the past 33 years. Today, I’m humbled to assume the Chair position held by so many talented, insightful, selfless, amazing leaders who have come before me.
I’m especially grateful and honored to have two of the best among them escort me to the stage today. Kimberly Ellison-Taylor and Tommye Barie, you are true leaders in every sense of the word – dynamic, visionary, decisive and inspiring. Without your support, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.
Eric, I want to thank you for your tireless efforts and preparedness as chair. You are truly an Eagle Scout at the core of your being - a steadfast and purposeful leader who we can always count on to do what’s right for the profession. Your challenge to “be early to be on time” reminds us that we have to keep moving ever-faster forward. And because of you, we are better prepared for whatever the future may hold. It is a privilege to be in a position that allows me to continue building on your momentum.
Indeed, the strength and relevancy of our profession in today’s marketplace is a testament to the foresight and dedication of so many visionary leaders in the past who never wavered in their commitment to leave this great profession better than they found it. Leaders like all of you. And in these extraordinary times, it will take extraordinary leadership – no, courageous leadership – to position our profession for the same sustained success, prominence, relevance and trust for generations to come.
The digital era has brought about a blistering pace of change that’s transforming the world around us. This pace of change is not incremental – it’s exponential. And therefore, incremental movement within our profession is not an adequate response to counter it. Believing otherwise, in my opinion, borders on gross negligence.
To leave this profession as strong – or stronger – than we inherited it, we must take leaps, not steps. We must race to the horizon of possibility and seize every moment of opportunity. We must look for every window that is opening in response to any door around us that is closing. We must go where there has been no footpath before us to follow. Where we achieve a common state of being uncomfortable with our discomfort. And where we are not thinking about our own self-preservation, but rather the preservation of our profession. This is no easy role to fill, but this is what leaders do. This is why you are here.
I recognize that the changes occurring daily in our lives, our work environment, our country and our world can be hard to process at times. It can be frightening. But when you get past the thoughts of “how do I survive,” this is also an exciting time. And the change management we continue to talk about at every meeting regarding our profession isn’t just one act, one issue, one obstacle – but many converging upon us at the same time. We don’t have the luxury of addressing one issue and calling it a day. Because every day we are battered by a world that thrives on disruption – that wants to leave us behind. But here’s the thing: That world does not know us. It does not respect our resilience. And while that world may think it understands what we do, it does not come close to comprehending who we are and how fast we will evolve.
We can count on meeting great resistance with strong, emotional responses from some of the wonderful and talented members within our profession. But we can either face that pushback now or wait to meet a far more critical and damaging backlash five to seven years from now. If we don’t seize the moment and keep pace with market expectations today, only a few years from now, you can expect if our decisions are around incremental change, that someone will ask you “You were an active leader in our profession about five years ago, you had to see this coming. You had to have anticipated the likely outcomes that we are now facing. What in the world were you thinking?” and more importantly “what in the world were you doing instead?”
With the courageous leadership and support of council, state CPA societies, state boards and other critical stakeholders, I commit as chair to build on our ideals of integrity, objectivity and competency and address the challenges we are facing with intensity, boldness, transparency and urgency.
I truly believe there has never been a more exciting time for our profession, full of opportunity. But to capitalize on the potential of these times, we have to open ourselves up to them. To reimagine what we do and how we do it. To push us past our boundaries. To push us past our comfort zones. To push us past our conventions.
My path to this stage today exemplifies unconventional. I attended the same school as our 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, then called Southwest Texas State University, where I earned a degree in marketing with a minor in computer science. I took one accounting course as a freshman, and that was enough to convince me that accounting wasn’t for me. But at the time, I only saw accounting for what was taught in that one class - I certainly didn’t see it for what it really is.
My first job out of college was at IBM. As I mentioned at breakfast, Michaelle and I started working there on the same day. We were unstoppable, quickly becoming one of the most dominant sales teams in the region. But as great as IBM was – and it was a fantastic company – after a few years it became obvious that I wanted to start my own business. I found in my sales role that my passion wasn’t really about selling, but in solving problems and helping organizations implement difficult change. So I left IBM, taking three other professionals with me, and started my first entrepreneurial venture, a technology consulting company.
It was there, working with my first two clients – both familiar Fortune 500 companies today – that I came to realize the power of the CPA. In both situations, I watched the accountants not only perform accounting-related work, but also advise my clients on ways their organizations could evolve to become more successful.
At that time, the CPA advisors really didn’t understand the intricacies of the technology projects I was creating and managing. They openly admitted that. But it didn’t stop my clients from seeking their opinions on the work that I was doing. That’s when I realized that the CPA license gives you carte blanche to enter into any service area, any job function, in any company. I was working for two CPA CFOs (my clients), and I was being advised by each of their CPA advisors. It was very clear to me that I needed this powerful designation in my arsenal if I wanted to be successful long-term. So, I went back to school to get the education and experience I needed to earn my CPA license. It was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it has opened so many doors for me, just as I know it has for all of you.
The world is a lot different today than it was back then. Through my work consulting with CPA firms and state societies, volunteering with the AICPA and the Texas Society of CPAs, and working closely with many state CPA society leaders over the years, I’ve had a front row seat to see how the profession has continued to adapt to meet changing market demands. I’ve seen us begin to move beyond the handling of basic accounting, tax preparation and compliance to moving towards providing higher-value advisory services to our clients and employers.
But we can’t be content with the concept of just “moving towards.”
The role we play as trusted advisors has never been more important. Our clients and employers are challenged to stay ahead in a time when rapid innovation and change is the new world order. They need us – not to help them get through it, but because there’s no end to it. They need us to be with them, side-by-side, helping them navigate the complexity and uncertainty that is the world we live in today.
This means we need to know and understand what our clients and employers want, ensure we understand where they are and what has happened, but not let the compliance work consume our focus to the point that we abandon our greatest charge – to help those we serve navigate their futures. I share with every firm and CFO I work with one simple concept: If you want to be employed or have clients five years from now, you better be offering advice with every single service you deliver. And if you are not trying to help your clients or employer navigate their futures, be prepared to be replaced by someone who will.
And so, we must take leaps, not steps, to fulfill our potential and be more tomorrow than we are today. Be better tomorrow than we are today. And be the leaders that have the courage to leave as vibrant a profession behind us, as did those we followed.
Some of you are aware that I’ve been practicing martial arts for 30 years. While many of you may hear that as a physical machismo self-aggrandizing self-promotion, it’s mostly a reference to a state of mind. Once you become a black belt, you join the “yu dan ja whey,” which means you no longer have excuses. The practice is about focus, discipline and intention. It’s about a duty to do the right thing and be accountable for whatever results come from your actions.
There’s one principle I’ve learned through my practice that I see as being particularly relevant – and critical – to our profession’s ongoing success at this time. It’s so fundamental to our school that my martial arts master requires all his students to review it every time we show up to train.
It’s “Let go of what you think you know.”
The concept is not new. Barry has referred to a similar notion of “Learn, Unlearn and Relearn” during the past few years. The critical distinction between the two phrases, in my view, is that most of us won’t bother to unlearn and relearn until we are convinced that we are wrong about something or we realize that something we are doing isn’t working any more.
Letting go of what you think you know starts with the premise that you might be wrong about everything, and that your current level of success is predicated on what you know now. And understand that any improvement, especially jumping to a new level of performance, must start with the realization that “what you think you know” will create defensiveness and bias regarding what you hear and therefore what you are actually willing to learn or consider changing next.
Just a few months ago, every single senior black belt in our school, each with at least 30 years of practice, spent more than an hour relearning how to do a back-stance – something you are taught as a white belt the first day of training. Think of the humility you experience unlearning and relearning something that you are so confident you know well and that you have been teaching others for decades.
We are big on humility. If there is one lesson I get to learn over and over, it is “with each new level of understanding, I gain the ability to relearn how to do something better given that I have a broader base of knowledge to build on this time around.” This mindset requires you to put your ego aside, shut down your defenses and listen all of the time, no matter what you have achieved or who you are. I know that everyone has something to teach me. When you take this approach to learning, it is far easier to not just make an incremental improvement, but to jump instantly to whole new levels of performance.
This leads me to my next point: We must accept that our technical aptitude alone is not enough.
It’s true that our skill and expertise in accounting, assurance and tax is what currently sets us apart as a profession. But just because our current knowledge base has allowed us to be successful to this point, it doesn’t mean that we can become complacent about it being enough to sustain our future success.
Artificial intelligence, robotics and blockchain are dramatically transforming the work we do. We can’t stop, or even slow down, the fast-moving wave of technological innovation and adoption. As I have said in many speeches over the years, we have the choice to either ride the waves of change or be beaten down by them. We have to step-up our game to not only embrace technology but recognize that soft skill improvement – better put human skill improvement — is not optional.
Essential skills such as critical thinking, judgement and leadership are paramount to our success. And at the same time, as new legislation, regulations and laws emerge in response to this new world, we have to stay current so that we can advise our clients and employers not only as to how those changes will impact them, but how they can leverage those changes to their benefit as well. This powerful combination of our technical expertise, technological understanding, and enhanced human skills are foundational to positioning ourselves for a brighter future.
Several years ago, one of the themes of our Council meetings was “The ‘and’ strategy.” By making sure we maintain the competencies that have set us apart, and augmenting those with the ability to help those we serve shape their futures, our profession doesn’t take one small step, but rather one giant leap forward.
And that brings me to the idea that We must challenge our own ideas of what it means to be an “accountant.”
Fortunately for us, we have long ago shaken the public perception of the green eye shade accountant. However, not individually, but as a profession, we’re still fighting our own biases as to what it means today, and what it should mean in the future, to be an accountant. These personal biases – if as leaders we can’t evolve them soon – will limit our ability to move at a fast-enough pace to allow us to continue to ride the wave.
Our profession looks radically different today than it did a century ago. And it looks very different than it did just 20 years ago – in the best possible ways. We are stronger because we allowed ourselves to adapt to changing times. But as the world moves not incrementally faster, but rather exponentially faster, so are the demands being placed upon us. Our profession has to look dramatically different 10 years from now for us to have something of value to pass on to our younger generation of professionals. And not only do we have to allow it, we – all of us in this room – have to drive it!
We must build our core service areas of assurance, tax and finance to provide higher-value strategic guidance in new areas our clients and employers need. We must expand our tax practices to meet the growing need for a more holistic, integrated life-planning approach for individuals. We must extend assurance into emerging areas of critical importance such as cybersecurity risk management, sustainability and supply chain. We must go beyond espousing that we are trusted advisors to becoming trusted advisors. We must constantly reimagine the services we provide so that we can, every day, continue to take care of those who count on us. And we must do all of this while simultaneously driving up trust and long-term value for the organizations we serve.
And finally, we must embrace the mindset, best captured in the best-selling book title, “if it ain’t broke, BREAK IT!”
The world around us and the pace of change doesn’t stop just because we want it to. Or stop to let us catch our breath. Or stop because we are already overwhelmed dealing with the work right in front of us. When sparing in martial arts, when I am out of breath from being tired, my opponent doesn’t back off. But rather, no matter how tired that opponent might be in that moment, they will put forth every ounce of energy they have to step up their engagement and capitalize on my weakness. Change is like that. It is a battle to not lose your breath, to be able to continue to be resilient against the force. Change just keeps coming – just like the next wave – and if that next wave is one that we are not prepared for, it could be the one that will generate devastating damage to our profession.
For more than a century, we have weathered the relentless pounding of the waves because of our willingness to boldly pursue the future – to go toward the whirl of disruption instead of seeking safety in the port of comfort.
We’re fortunate that what we’re doing today as a profession isn’t broke. But to be as relevant tomorrow as we are today, we have to be willing to break it. We have to have the discipline and focus to anticipate and prepare for the next wave and continue to prepare for each one after that. Because complacency with our success will not lead us where we want to go, and it most assuredly will not lead us to being faster, better, stronger, bolder.
If we act now, and we break – and continue to break – what is not broken, we will never have to leave our present position of riding on top of the wave. And we will be in position for, what I believe, will be the greatest ride of our professional lives.
I want to wrap up by sharing this last thought:
For the people in this audience, you have either risen – or are quickly rising – to the tops of your fields. Our profession doesn’t define you. Your individual reputations and accomplishments actually define our profession to those around you.
But the idea of creating a vibrant future is not about meeting the needs of those with a short work horizon, like mine and many of yours, but rather about blazing the trail to evolve the CPA profession for those who follow us. Our profession has been morphing for centuries – from the very early days of the abacus to the 10-key calculator to cloud computing and now AI. Change in our profession is not new, it is just happening faster.
Our profession’s future lies in our ability to change at the speed of business. We need to adapt quickly and move forward together. We need to shift our thinking from what our profession is and what we do today to what our profession should be and what we need to be doing tomorrow. We need to fully embrace in this era – not with words, but with actions – what it means to be trusted advisors working in highly technological environments while maintaining our roles as protectors of the public interest.
We must move forward, not in steps, but in leaps. And I am humbled to be part of such an exciting evolution.