4 Tips for Becoming an Invaluable Accounting and Finance Professional
Barry Payne DirectorExternal Relations — Management AccountantAICPA-CIMA
The ideal employee for finance teams is someone who knows numbers and is comfortable with emerging technologies.
A digital mindset is becoming essential for navigating the constantly evolving world of accounting and finance, but what does that term even mean?
“Back in college, when I first heard the term ‘digital mindset,’ I thought: ‘That is not a term that means anything; it's just corporate lingo,’” said Ashley Petryk, CPA, a Beta Gamma Sigma alumna who works in finance transformation at Elastic, a leading platform for search-powered solutions.
“I used to think a digital mindset was this huge list of technologies I needed to learn, but now I think of it more as a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable people and organizations to dream up possibilities and solutions to problems.”
If you’re a student or recent graduate working in business, accounting or finance, there are arguably more opportunities and potential career routes than before.
“There are infinitely more possibilities for people who go into accounting and finance to touch more parts of their organizations and have a much larger impact than we’ve ever had,” said Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner, CPA/CITP, CGMA, DTM, vice president of Finance and HR at International Legal Technology Association (ILTA). “We’ll need a collective effort to ensure people have the right strategic skills, so they are better prepared when they enter the profession.”
Petryk and Kittner entered the accounting profession thinking they would mostly be doing technical work in a silo. But they ended up thriving in strategic roles at the intersection of multiple functions. Here’s how:
1. Embrace tools that make work interesting
While you don’t need to know about every emerging technology, you should be aware and embrace the tools that allow you to offer value above and beyond tasks that can be automated.
“There is so much more value to add as someone who speaks the language of business and knows the numbers,” Petryk said. “For example, instead of just reporting that cost of sales for the month went up, the future accounting professional will explain and demonstrate the ‘Why.’ ”
Petryk recommends five tools for accounting and finance professionals as a starting point:
- Excel: Every company and almost every department uses it. Aim to learn these commonly used formulas: VLOOKUP, SUMIFS, INDEX MATCH, pivot tables, macros and conditional formatting. If you really want to impress, learn how to use the “Get & Transform Data” function (formerly known as “Power Query”).
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP): Home of the general ledger and all the data behind it. Organizations use this software to manage day-to-day business, so check out some YouTube videos or Udemy courses for an overview of what this software is like. Companies commonly use SAP, Oracle, or NetSuite as their ERP system.
- Alteryx: Many roles require Alteryx, and it’s a huge plus for accounting and finance. Alteryx is a no-code tool to intake, blend, clean and join data for later analysis. And it can do much more.
- Robotic process automation (RPA): This software can mimic human actions, and like Alteryx, it is a low/no-code tool. For example, RPA uses optical character recognition to read information on a PDF invoice, enter that info into your ERP system and generate a journal entry for you. It’s easy to learn and an invaluable skill to have. UiPath, Automation Anywhere or Blue Prism are some of the most popular RPA options out there for the Fortune 500.
- Microsoft® Power BI and Tableau: Companies frequently use business intelligence (BI) software and data visualization tools to see the big picture of data — often data from ERP software.
You can find resources for these tools on YouTube, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, Khan Academy and Coursera. And the AICPA® Store
offers a vast range of resources across specialties; you can filter your search by topic, type and number of CPE credits.
If you have limited time each week to keep up with new technology, Kittner recommends Earmark CPE and 100 Days of No-Code. Earmark CPE allows you to earn credits by listening to accounting and tax podcasts, and 100 Days of No-Code provides bite-sized lessons and a community that encourages you to keep developing your skills.
2. Develop essential interpersonal skills
As many repetitive tasks become automated, soft skills — or “people skills” — will become more important for accounting and finance professionals.
Here are skills Kittner and Petryk have found most essential:
- Communication: Every aspect of business requires communication — within your team and across departments and functions. If you need to boost your confidence in speaking to a crowd, Kittner recommends joining Toastmasters International.
- Empathy: Many accounting and finance roles involve providing customer service to clients or stakeholders. Petryk emphasizes the importance of understanding the person’s goals and desires to then develop solutions that meet their needs.
- Storytelling and presentation skills: Nonfinancial professionals, especially, will benefit from storytelling to understand what the numbers mean.
- Problem-solving and critical thinking: Whether it’s creating solutions to clients’ problems or developing strategies to streamline processes, problem-solving and critical thinking are essential.
- Learning mindset: Stay curious and adopt a learning mindset to embrace new technology and other aspects of professional development.
Kittner and Petryk added that they both use their foundational CPA knowledge every day on the job, especially when it comes to compliance.
“As CPAs, we have an understanding of what would get us in hot water with an audit firm,” Petryk said.
“That’s invaluable and that’s frequently the knowledge base I find myself needing to tap into at my current job. So, it’s not a scary thing that the core accounting job description is starting to shift, because you can add so much other value. Your job will not be going away, it will just be changing.”
3. Explore a variety of roles
Petryk shared that she carried unnecessary guilt early in her career about testing the waters with different roles and companies. Now she knows there are benefits to being either a specialist or a generalist.
“There’s no harm in that jack-of-all-trades mindset because it helps you understand a variety of viewpoints and figure out what you like,” Petryk said. “I tried everything, and it allowed me to see the big picture and understand the role of finance within various organizations.”
Petryk completed internships in Fortune 500 public companies, small private companies and public accounting firms. After graduation, her work ranged from the Big Four to internal audit for a railroad company to accounting manager at a software startup.
She recommends doing a variety of internships and following your curiosity through as many areas as you like.
“You can take a few different paths,” Petryk said. “You can niche down and focus on, say, revenue accounting, but if you’re going for something that’s a finance transformation role, there are benefits to being a jack-of-all-trades.”
4. Find employers who provide time and space to grow
Petryk strongly recommends seeking internships and employment with companies that will not only facilitate learning and development but also give you time and space to grow.
“Offering learning and development means nothing if they don’t give you any bandwidth to do it,” she said.
Petryk recommends aiming for a 70/30 split, where you spend 70% of your time on your core job and 30% of your time developing yourself. “And that doesn’t mean working extra hours at night,” she said. “Part of your job is to keep learning. When you sit for the CPA Exam, you’re signing yourself up to do continuing education for the rest of your career.”
She encourages everyone to search for companies that will invest in them and to make sure their stated values line up with reality.
One more pro tip: If you’d like to prepare yourself for the future of finance, check out the Digital Mindset Pack. As a BGS student member or alumni, you’ll receive 20% off!