A quiet evolution has been taking place in corporate finance departments following the economic collapse. Faced with tighter budgets and a growing need to innovate faster, mid-size and Fortune 500 companies are asking more from their accountants, controllers, CFOs and all other finance-minded employees. Like it or not, there’s no room for socially-awkward bean counters anymore.
Five to ten years ago, most mid-sized companies and large corporations wanted technical accountants – CPAs with a strong understanding of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) who could do financial reporting and ensure compliance, said John Gramer, managing director at the Mergis Group, a Randstad Company. Accountants were buried in the back office, siloed from the rest of the organization that often looked at them as adversaries – number crunchers who stifled innovation.
“Ninety percent of my time was spent putting down numbers and erasing them,” said Gramer, a former accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers who joined the recruiting field due to the lack of next-level thinking needing in accounting at the time.
The work-life for CPAs had changed dramatically in recent years, as have the requirements for getting a job in corporate finance. The evolution has been gradual, but didn’t erupt until recently. There are several factors at play.
First, there was the financial crisis, which forced corporations to undergo massive belt tightening and cut overhead positions, said Brett Good, district president of Robert Half. The end result is that finance-minded employees were required to wear multiple hats. Technology is another factor. Traditional number crunchers are being consumed by technology, or in other cases their responsibilities are being off-shored.
Simultaneously, corporations began to recognize that to be successful in today’s fast-paced business world, finance departments need a place at the planning table, said Arleen Thomas, senior vice president of global markets and management accounting at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
The AICPA has been working with companies like Shell, Coca-Cola and BT Group to help understand their needs and develop a new archetype for the corporate finance pro: the management accountant. These employees aren’t just capturing data, but are working on the front end, helping define strategy and calculating potential ROI on projects, Good said. Before a product goes to market, accountants will analyze all the risk factors and probability scenarios, and communicate those to major stakeholders, Gramer added.
Management accountants also help define budgeting philosophies, encouraging innovation by being more creative with assets and willing to let projects mature, Thomas said. “Financial teams must partner with the business, not just be historical record keepers.”
The clearest example can be seen at the top. CFOs, which used to always be CPAs, don’t necessarily need to have a technical accounting background anymore, Gramer said. “They’re innovators now – eyeing new products and new partners,” he said.
The AICPA partnered with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) two years ago to create a designation for these business-minded accountants: the Chartered Global Management Accountant. Roughly 140,000 accountants now hold this designation.
The fallout from this evolution has changed the responsibilities of corporate finance professionals, as well as the skills necessary for the job. If you’re shy and don’t have people skills, corporate accounting may no longer be for you.
“When we take job orders, rarely are clients just looking for a financial analyst with expertise in a particular software,” said Good. “We’ll get three or four key requirements that revolve around soft skills.”
“You better be able to communicate,” said Gramer. “Traditional bean counters with traditional bean counter personalities can have trouble finding work.”
Unlike years ago, corporate accountants are interfacing with marketing, product teams and even senior level management. “I can tell which one of my clients will want a candidate based almost entirely on their presentation skills,” Gramer said.
Corporations aren’t blind to the need to foster quality people skills. In 2008, just 8% of CFOs said they offer soft skill development initiatives, according to a Robert Half survey. Nearly 20% provide them in 2013.
One supporting factor in the progression of the corporate accountant is that the talent pool is much stronger and more capable of carrying out front-level project management tasks.
“For quite a while, numbers-oriented talent got siphoned off into technology,” Good said. "Fast-forward to today, and much of that talent is moving back into finance and accounting." The talent drain from Wall Street is improving the candidate pool as well. The upward pressure for pay isn't hurting either, Good said, nor is the fact that the work is much more interesting than it used to be. “Quality candidates are seeing multiple offers as well as strong counter offers,” he said.
The numbers don’t lie. This year has seen the highest number of enrollments in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs on record. Companies can only hope the students can do more than just spin numbers.