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Unwavering in disruption: Reflections on an extraordinary year

In this interview, Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, President and CEO of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association), reflects on an extraordinary year and the steps we must take to prepare for 2021.

You have described 2020 as a “historic” year for the profession. Can you explain what you mean by that?

We faced a level of disruption none of us had ever experienced before. As a trusted profession, accountants were looked to for guidance and stability. We were on the front line of the pandemic’s economic effects, and our expertise, abilities and the relationships we have built were put to the test. I am especially proud of how the profession rallied to support small businesses during this challenging period.

We could effectively respond to this crisis because of our long history of anticipating change and adapting. The profession is — and has always been — transformative, evolving to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing environment. For more than 133 years, we have grown our services and skills to remain resilient against disruption and turn that resilience into results for our clients, communities and companies.

How is the Association helping members and students navigate the pandemic?

In March, we launched the AICPA coronavirus resource center, and shared tools, resources, and learning to help members stay informed as the pandemic unfolded — the weekly AICPA Town Hall webcast series continues. To make sure members continued to have access to our learning, we converted our in-person training and conferences to online, including our premier ENGAGE conference, held this summer. We also created a dedicated resource center for management accountants and a 5-part Agile Finance webcast and whitepaper series, developed in partnership with Oracle, to address issues specific to those working in business and industry.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped many businesses get through the pandemic. CPAs were key to preparing loan applications and navigating businesses through the loan forgiveness process. To help CPAs implement the program, we created a resource page, forgiveness tools, and in September, we launched a next-generation PPP Forgiveness platform for CPAs and businesses. We will continue to help members navigate the confusion around the forgiveness process.

Students were also under enormous stress, particularly when it came to their exams. We worked with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and Prometric to evoke an emergency testing window. We accelerated our efforts to move the CGMA exam online, implementing a remote option in May. We also instituted a new hardship grant for accounting students.

We take our responsibility to members and students very seriously and are committed to providing the tools they need to be successful — no matter the environment.

The Association is key to sound policymaking around the world. Can you tell us about some of the U.S. efforts from 2020?

With help from our members and CPA State Societies, we successfully advocated for many key relief programs and efforts throughout 2020. Highlights include:

  • Successfully advocated for the extension of the April 15 tax filing and payment deadline to July 15
  • Urged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to update and modernize e-filing signature requirements on key forms — specifically requesting e-signatures during the coronavirus pandemic — with the goal of making this temporary relief permanent
  • Successfully advocated for public accounting to be designated as an essential service
  • Created an AICPA PPP Coalition of small business payroll providers to facilitate information sharing and ease-of-access for loan funding
  • Urged the IRS and Treasury to issue guidance on the employer retention credit, sick leave and medical leave credits and PPP loan forgiveness
  • Mobilized members and state CPA societies to push for deductibility of PPP-funded expenses
  • Supported state-level activities, including the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing‘s interstate practice report and development of state-level coalitions to address local threats to licensure

We have always had a strong voice in advocacy, but this year, we have been more essential to public policy changes in the U.S. and beyond than ever before. The level of activity is historic for the profession, and it will continue well beyond the end of the health crisis.

The Association did not just focus on COVID-19 in 2020. What are some of the key initiatives we made progress on in 2020?

The pandemic did not disrupt our efforts to reimagine the profession. 

We made significant progress on CPA Evolution, a joint effort with NASBA to reimagine CPA licensure. This year, both the AICPA Governing Council and the NASBA Board of Directors voted to support advancing the initiative. We are moving forward with implementing the core plus discipline licensure model.

The AICPA, CPA.com and CaseWare International have developed the Dynamic Audit Solution. This year, we delivered a minimally viable product to participating firms, and we plan to deliver our first end-to-end commercial release in mid-2021.

Through CPA.com, we also launched the .cpa domain, a new secure domain exclusive to CPA firms. It signals a clear connection to the profession, driving trust in an increasingly uncertain online environment.

In January, we created a Global Career Hub for both management and public accounting. Since launch, we posted more than one million jobs and developed career resources to help members and students navigate COVID-19.

As a digital-first organization, we continue to reimagine how we deliver insights, tools and services online. We created a new streamlined digital experience, so members and students can get information quickly and customize it based on their preferences and needs.

We expanded on our Future of Finance series with the Finance transformation: the human perspective report published in partnership with KPMG, examining the impact of digital technology on the finance function and its people. We recently released an update to the report focusing on the pandemic’s effect on digital transformation.

This year, I signed a call to action in response to climate change on behalf of the Association, demonstrating our profession’s commitment to combating climate change and our support of members working to address climate risk.

What is your advice to members and students as they prepare for 2021?

Focus on people.

The strength of the profession depends on our people. So, we must continue building the human resilience needed to navigate through — and beyond — the disruption facing us. Wellbeing and mental health should be top of mind for firms and businesses, particularly as the crisis drags on into the new year.

2020 has reminded us of the importance of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. By tapping into different cultures and perspectives, our profession is positioned to solve even the most complex and challenging issues. The Association is committed to fostering a culture of belonging, and we offer resources, tools and training to help firms recruit, retain and advance diverse talent in the profession.

Adapt and expand your services and focus on value.

Once this crisis has passed, the world will need new and different things from us. The profession is positioned to embrace new and emerging opportunities to deliver value.

We saw tax CPAs take on more planning and advisory services during the start of the pandemic. Formalizing these services can lead to new revenue streams, reduced workload compression and stronger client relationships.

Technology has been transforming our profession for years, and even more so during this crisis. There are opportunities for CPAs to serve clients and businesses through assurance and advisory services in areas such as information privacy, blockchain and cybersecurity.

COVID-19 also heightened awareness for supply chain risk management. CPAs can provide advisory and assurance services on organizations’ systems and controls and help companies assess and mitigate supply chain risks.

There is an increasing demand for companies to demonstrate their commitment to people, community and the environment. CPAs can provide sustainability reporting and assurance, and through integrated reporting, help organizations articulate their value beyond profit.

Commit to learn, unlearn, relearn.

As we learned this year, we must be willing to adapt. That means recognizing the skills we have today may not be enough for the future. In fact, according to the most recent World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, 44 percent of the skills employees will need to perform their jobs effectively will change by 2025. To reskill and upskill, we must commit to a cycle of learning, unlearning and relearning. We saw through the pandemic the value of being a nimble profession, and this adaptability will continue to be important.

We help equip members and students with the technological and people skills needed for the future through our Go beyond disruption professional development series. In addition, the Digital Mindset Pack, Powered by AICPA and CIMA research, can help members leverage the technologies that are rapidly transforming finance, accounting and tax functions.

Do you have any final thoughts for our members before we close out a truly extraordinary year?

This year was tough for everyone, but it has also provided the profession opportunities to support our clients, businesses and communities in new ways. Accountants are leading in economic recovery efforts, and our ability to do so is because of your hard work. As trusted advisers, you restore confidence amid disruption. Thank you for all you do.

None of us could have fully prepared for 2020, and the path ahead is unclear. While we may not know what is in store for 2021, that does not mean we can stop where we are now. Together, we must reimagine the world we want to create, then build that future.

Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, President and CEO of the AICPA and CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

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