CPAs Give Themselves Low Marks in Key Business Skills

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A recent survey from the Indiana CPA Society’s CPA Center of Excellence underscores a key irony for many of today’s accounting professionals. While many CPAs serve clients or small businesses that are entrepreneurial in nature, and many CPAs are entrepreneurs themselves, the survey found that most of those same CPAs score themselves poorly on key business skills, such as leadership, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.

The national benchmark survey, which was conducted earlier this year, asked more than 600 CPAs in public accounting to self-evaluate their level of proficiency in each of seven core competencies:

  • Communications
  • Leadership
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Anticipating and serving evolving needs
  • Synthesizing intelligence into insight
  • Integration and collaboration
  • Knowledge sharing

The first six were identified in the American Institute of CPAs’ Horizons 2025 report. The seventh competency, knowledge sharing, was added by the Indiana CPA Society.

Key findings of the CPA Center of Excellence report, What Competencies are CPAs Lacking? The Great Skills Divide: Where CPAs Report Being vs. Where They Think They Should Be, include:

  • Only 4 percent of CPA managers ranked themselves high in leadership.
  • Thirty-five percent of managers ranked themselves low in relationship building.
  • Less than half of all CPAs ranked themselves high in communication skills.
  • Zero percent of senior/staff accountants ranked themselves high in critical thinking.

The Indiana CPA Society said the survey provides the first-ever baseline for core competency levels for which CPAs and their firms can measure themselves against.

Gary Bolinger, CEO and president of the Indiana CPA Society, said the survey results confirm that CPAs need to develop these core competencies to stand out in today’s variable business environment.

“In the past, many CPAs could get by on technical skills alone, but with the complexity of business today and the emerging needs of clients and employers, CPAs must possess an expanded skill set in order to serve new roles and advise clients and employers in new ways,” he said.

It’s particularly paradoxical, Bolinger noted, that many CPAs say they lack entrepreneurial skills when that skill set is especially important in helping them relate to their clients, their employers, and even their own firms and businesses.

“Not having entrepreneurial skills can result in missed opportunities and the inability to succeed and expand in a highly competitive marketplace,” he said.

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by many of the survey respondents, according to the report.

“As a new partner who worked in the private sector, I am shocked at the lack of business acumen applied at the partner level,” one survey respondent said. “We need to think and operate as a business.”

When it comes to improving their business acumen, however, very few of the CPAs surveyed expressed any hope that traditional continuing professional education (CPE) could help them improve their “soft skills.” In fact, Indiana CPA Society officials said, the survey only underscored the current CPE’s inability to solve the “great skills divide,” with an overwhelming 96 percent of respondents reporting existing CPE “does not totally align with their needs.”

And recent college graduates, for the most part, don’t seem to be any better prepared on the core competencies, according to Bolinger and some survey respondents.

“It is clear that improvement in these areas will help these young CPAs in the potential advancement to partner track in public accounting or a C-level position in business and industry,” Bolinger said.

Traditional CPE is failing to meet CPAs’ needs in these critical areas, Bolinger said, because its “hours-based” approach to learning is no longer relevant to today’s accounting professionals. Instead, Bolinger said, the CPA Center for Excellence, armed with the survey evidence and the expressed desire of CPAs in all areas of practice to bump up their business skill set, recently launched its Insight Toolkit for HR and Career Development.

The toolkit aligns with the CPA Center for Excellence’s overall promise to offer “better” CPE and to assist individual CPAs and their firms in the assessment and development of the profession’s core competencies, as well as to encourage intelligent collaboration.

“Not all topics today ‘fit’ in some prescribed time format.  More importantly, that isn’t the way people learn in today’s environment. The hours-based approach is simply no longer effective or appropriate,” Bolinger said. “The CPA Center of Excellence is a leader in transforming the current system and is working with the Indiana Board of Accountancy to facilitate change by offering a pilot program that allows the CPA Center of Excellence’s competency-based online, interactive course modules to count for waivers of up to 16 hours of CPE.”

About Deanna Arteaga

Deanna White

Deanna Arteaga is a professional freelance writer and public relations specialist who for the past six years has covered CPA industry trends for AccountingWEB. She also writes about CPA firm marketing, higher education and professional development for CPAs, and workplace trends in the accounting profession. She has more than 20 years of journalism and public relations experience, including her tenure as a former newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago where she covered breaking news, municipal politics, and state legislative issues.

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Nov 11th 2015 20:06

That's kind of funny since I am of the opinion that there is more than enough demonstrated arrogance already in the profession. Apparently, some feel that they are applying for the position of Supreme Ruler as well.

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Nov 11th 2015 22:45

The fact that CPAs lament about the unavailability of CE credits tells where they reside on the scale of being a trusted advisor. Most in the profession are merely subject matter experts not trusted advisors. There are books and non-CE courses to develop soft skills - be a professional and invest in yourself, don't complain about a lack of CE as the reason for not developing leadership, management, communication, listening, networking and business development skills. That is completely unacceptable for a true professional advisor. CPAs for the most part are not entrepreneurs because they are driven by fear, not by the opportunity for success which is what drives entrepreneurs.

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