A Conversation With...Leslie Murphy

When Leslie Murphy ascended to chairwoman of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in October, she pointed to the looming shortage of public accountants as a serious challenge facing the profession.

Added pressures stemming from compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is causing strife and turnover, creating an environment in which one in six CPAs left his or her job in 2004, she said during her inaugural speech.

But despite the challenges, Murphy remains upbeat about the future, as more college students are seeking the profession as a career, she told AccountingWEB in a recent interview.

"We have a very flexible working environment," she explains. "Young people are attracted to that, as long as they are in control. They want to work hard, but they want some flexibility. Our challenge is to start focusing on that."

Conversely, public accountants need to stop beating themselves up over the cyclical nature of the work, such as the arduous hours logged during tax season, Murphy opines, and instead stress the positives of the profession.

"Those late nights were when some of my best friends were made," she said. "At 10 o'clock, we would shut the lights off and go out for a burger and a beer."

These days, Murphy is a partner and a member of the senior management team of Michigan-based Plante & Moran, the nation's 10th-largest accounting and consulting firm, where she has worked for 30 years.

While interest in the accounting profession may be on the rise among college graduates, another new hiring trend appears to be emerging: rehiring former employees.

Accounting firms, like most companies, always have returned to the well to court quality employees. But firms now are making more of a concerted effort to maintain relationships with alumni, Murphy said, as another way to combat the dearth of experienced workers.

The grass always looks greener on the other side, until someone becomes ensconced in a new setting. Then the old job may not look so bad, Murphy points out.

Employers benefit from former workers returning because they are familiar with their work and know they can be productive immediately, Murphy said. For the employee, they know what they're walking back into and what is expected of them.

Firms can avoid those situations, though, by planning ahead and painting a picture of what an employee's future might hold there, according to Murphy.

And, to ensure accountants don't get too stressed during tax season and begin wishing they had chosen another career, Murphy offers a bit of advice.

"You have to learn to say no and you have to delegate," she said. "We all have to figure out what our de-stressors are. We all have them."

Maximizing the potential of technology and working from home sometimes may ease the burden, Murphy said.

Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has only added to accountants' workloads. It requires public corporations to assess their internal accounting controls to ensure their financial reporting is accurate - and requires accounting firms to vouch for those controls.

That work is starting to lighten, Murphy explains, as firms navigate through the process for the first time and get more acclimated to the new rules.

As chairwoman of the AICPA's board of directors, Murphy presides over the board and a governing council that consists of roughly 250 AICPA members elected from every state. The council meets three times a year, and the board of directors, ultimately, establishes policy for the profession.

Her role is also part ambassador, in which she visits state accounting societies and universities.

Said Murphy: "I spend a lot of time in airplanes and giving speeches."

She became involved in the AICPA in the mid 1990's after her promotion to a group managing partner position of the Southfield, Mich., office. It was then that Murphy followed through with her desire to give something back to the profession by volunteering her time on the AICPA’s former Management of an Accounting Practice Committee. The group later morphed into the Private Companies Practice Section.

Here’s what Murphy had to say about what she views as the most exciting and interesting aspects of being an accountant, and what she enjoys most and least about the job.

“First and foremost, the professional aspects of what we do have always been the most fascinating to me. As a professional, the clients’ interest comes before your own. We have this need to balance this public-interest component, along with this desire to help the clients. What I like about it is we have this code of ethics that tells how to behave in this relationship.

“The other components that really are essential are the constant changes and varieties in what you do. There is constant change and variety in what we do, in terms of our responsibilities.

“The other thing is the team aspect. We work in teams. At its core, there are a lot of apprentice components. You learn on the job.

“What I dislike the most is losing really good people. When I see that somebody is very talented and has a lot of interest, but for some reason it doesn’t work out, it’s always a disappointment to me.”

On what impact the increasing convergence of accounting standards and global regulations have on professional certifications, like CPA, and potential career paths:

“This will continue to expand the opportunities for everybody. Our skills are mobile and in demand. That global world is also demanding other things, like convergence between accounting and information technology. They are very much integrated in this type of environment. That gives us greater opportunity that will appeal to a broader group of people. Most people are going to have multiple careers. They aren’t going to be at a place for 30 years like I have been. There are so many different directions you can take it. It really multiplies the opportunities for different careers within the profession.”

And lastly, Murphy addresses the AICPA’s support of Section 404:

"We have to go back to the core purpose of what Sarbanes-Oxley was aimed at. It was aimed at trying to better protect investors and the public interest. At its heart, that is what 404 is ultimately focused on. It deals with internal control systems. We believe that documentation and better ownership, and the people who interface with those systems, will ultimately strengthen internal controls, which will be better for the investors."

“Where the cost is going to settle in is, of course, the issue. I don’t think we know what the cost of the system will be. In the beginning we had very little guidance in how to implement it. With all new things, it has to evolve. And it’s early; it’s very early.”

Written by Scott Olson, AccountingWEB Contributor.

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