The Changing World of Trusted Advisors

by Kathleen Hoffelder, NJCPA Content Editor – May 6, 2019
The Changing World of Trusted Advisors

Accounting professionals today are faced with new kinds of data and analytics, different ways to communicate, increased use of social media and generational differences in the office. To keep up with the changing needs of the profession, today’s CPA needs to be less of a traditional accountant and more of a trusted advisor to their clients and corporate colleagues.

Creating the Environment

So how can firm leadership and other management prepare for this new CPA role? For one thing, they need to create an environment in which professionals can thrive. That means CPA firms and corporate accounting departments need to generate learning opportunities for staff of all levels. “Allowing team members to participate in client meetings and creating opportunities for shadowing can give the incoming leadership first-hand knowledge and experience servicing clients in a business advisor capacity,” explains Todd W. Polyniak, CPA, partner at Sax LLP, who heads the firm’s accounting and auditing department and Innovation Committee.

While there is no one-size-fits-all guide to becoming a trusted advisor, Joseph Tarasco, CEO and senior consultant, Accountants Advisory Group, LLC, notes that if mutual trust exists between clients and staff, there is the basis to become a trusted advisor. “Without mutual trust, there is no trusted advisor relationship. At the core of a trusted advisor relationship is a high degree of reciprocal trust with the client and partner — it’s not a one-way street,” he says.

And that relationship can take a long time to nurture. As Joseph Hunt, a member of the audit staff at SobelCo, explains, it’s important for CPA firm leadership to inform young professionals early on about the role of a trusted advisor. “Trust is not built during the span of one tax season or one audit, it is built over years,” says Hunt.

Leveraging Generations

The trusted advisor role is more complicated than ever, especially with five generations in the workforce and five ways of working with clients. Learning can occur on both sides of the generational timeline, however. As Hunt reminds, “the skills of partners and longtime professionals cannot be ignored by early career professionals who want to do it their way.” Though there are always methodologies that can be improved or tweaked, it’s important to understand that the way management “has treated their clients is the reason the firm is still around,” he adds.

Differences can be positive, however. “As a general rule, individuals from different generations have various perspectives on ways to approach projects and client service. This change can pose challenges to a growing firm but can also open up a number of opportunities if handled correctly,” adds Polyniak. He recommends allowing for more interaction between the age groups by removing any artificial silos that would normally and naturally separate groups by age. This, he says, will help bring out the best in each of the generational groups.

Tarasco agrees. “Leveraging the strengths and cultures of a multigener­ational workforce by encouraging them to learn from each other creates more opportunities for partners to delegate work, create programs that encourage generations to work together and share knowledge, and create future succession plans,” he says.

David Malek, director of marketing at Darden Restaurants, also sees benefits from tapping into a multigenerational workforce as CPAs move into the trusted advisor role. According to Malek, “testing ideas against opposing points of view are how the greatest ideas get developed. Leveraging the distinctive strengths of every generation and enabling them to learn from one another creates an additional collaborative environment.”

Indeed, diversity in the workforce, whether by age, race or other factors, can assist CPAs in dealing with diverse clients. As Jason Dorsey, president and co-founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics and NJCPA 2019 Annual Con­vention & Expo keynote speaker explains, diversity “is a huge advantage for the firms that choose to embrace it. I think it’s also particularly important as millennials are the most diverse generation in the work­force — at least until Gen Z fully enters the CPA ranks.”

Applying Technology

Even the most forward-thinking and tech-savvy CPA can struggle at times with new technology and how it may make a task more efficient. Becoming a well-regarded trusted advisor does mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone when it comes to technology.

But Amy Vetter, CEO of The B3 Method Institute and another NJCPA 2019 Annual Convention keynote, reminds that new technology, in and of itself, won’t help CPAs thrive in their new role as trusted advisors but it can make tasks easier and more cohesive when used correctly. “It is important to step back from the business when implementing new technology. The reason is, you don’t want to end up changing everything to do the business the exact same way as before,” she says.

And CPAs, firm leadership and cor­porate management do have to put some thought into what areas of their work could benefit the most from technology. According to Vetter, “rather than replac­ing technology, understand what you are trying to solve for first. Do you want to start specializing in certain industries or markets? Is there a certain profile that you have found that creates more success than when a client doesn’t meet that profile?”

Artificial intelligence (AI) and new data and analytics can spark new life into old ways of doing business. But according to JT Kostman, Ph.D., managing director of Grant Thornton Labs and an NJCPA 2019 Annual Convention keynote, new ways of thinking about technology are required. Accountants, he says, need to learn how to partner with AI symbiotically to use these tools and not compete with them. “They need to divest themselves of those aspects of their work that are better done by machines; reserving their time to provide those skills that are solely in the provenance of people…the very things that, after all, are what we value from our most trusted advisors.”

As Dr. Sean Stein Smith, CPA, assistant professor at Lehman College explains, technology enables CPAs to offer higher-level advisory services, establish and defend margins in these new services and truly add value to client organizations. “Assisting clients with evaluating current progress and future directions in a manner that is personalized, customized and real time is what clients expect and will keep them coming back for more,” he says. 

This article appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.