A Look Inside a Virtual AICPA Engage


AICPA ENGAGE took place last week virtually. It was the first time that this conference has been completely virtual. The AICPA managed to do an excellent job at coordinating technology, allowing for interaction, and fostering the community-type feel that we all have grown to love about this conference. The presentations were strong and informative, and the keynotes hit home.

The biggest complaint I heard about this conference was the price tag. Lucky for me, a conference ticket was provided in exchange for volunteering my time to speak at the conference. I attended a wide variety of sessions and had an equally seamless experience in them all. The technical content drew speakers of amazing quality, elaborating on extremely specialized and technical areas of tax and accounting. I won’t bore you with the details of how excited I was over a basic M&A tax session, but instead share key take-aways.

I always look forward to hearing Barry Melancon speak. As the President & CEO of the AICPA, Barry has had a significant influence on our profession. I have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times now and he truly is one of the greatest minds in our industry. Barry stressed a few pieces that I believe highlight not only the AICPA’s mindset shift, but also a shift in what the industry is embracing.

Barry has been a big proponent of bringing back the full Advisor mentality that CPAs used to represent. There were some dark days in our industry that led to compliance and commodity orientation – I believe we are past that. The value of true and strong accounting and finance professionals lies in their ability to function as a trusted advisor to businesses. Barry’s discussion hit on the shift back into this role. He then pushed into a discussion about the future of core service offerings and how firms are no longer providing just commodity type compliance in the audit and tax arenas. Of course, he said all of this more eloquently than I can paraphrase.

A few years ago, at AICPA ENGAGE, Barry was on stage talking about cloud accounting being the future. I took personal offense because at that point I had been running a cloud accounting firm for over 5 years – cloud accounting was not the future – it was the present or even slightly behind the abilities of then-available mainstream technology. I wanted to hear a conversation about robotic process automation leading into true artificial intelligence. Well, I got that this year! Not only did he acknowledge the advancement of technology in other fields is leading into advanced analytics for accounting, he also encouraged everyone to advance their technology skills. He stated, “technology is changing what the definition of accounting really is.” Well Barry, I would argue that technology has already changed the definition of accounting and that two years from now we will see more actual machine learning and artificial intelligence available to SMBs and mainstream accounting professionals.

I attended another powerful keynote by Sarah Elliott. Sarah’s session was the keynote for the EDGE conference inside of ENGAGE (since this whole conference is basically six in one). EDGE’s focus is on career development and leadership development. Sarah never disappoints. She frequently speaks about the dimension of possible – a mindset where you are open to the positive opportunities and embrace an underlying theme of kindness and love. Sarah should be a motivational speaker, and if you ever get a chance to listen to her speak – take it. You will come away with a million ideas of how you can control outcomes and create opportunities through the power of your mind. She stressed the importance of listening and a coaching mindset. She broke down the levels of listening abilities and schooled the audience (after a polling question) on how we all think we are better listeners than we actually are. And, we should practice to become better. Sarah hit a sore spot asking if anyone feels like they spend all day solving other people’s problems or “firefighting.”

I am not sure how she saw directly into my soul, but she did. She stressed the importance of coaching teams without telling them what to do – ask questions and actual listen to what they say. A coach assumes you are the expert and does not just answer the question or tell the other person what to do. A coach empowers them to work through and solve their own crises. A coaching mindset leads to empowered teams.

There was even a panel discussion titled “How to Advance Women into the C-Suite” that was not all white. Yes, the AICPA put together a diverse and riveting group of women. Scharrell Jackson stood out during this panel as a passionate woman that has faced significant adversity in her career. Scharrell explain that she frequently asks “may I ask a clarifying question,” which seems like an innocuous interjection that we should all expect in meetings. However, when she says that, people assume she is questioning them because she does not believe them versus trying to truly clarify and understand the discussion. The assumptions about her as a strong black woman in the room overrode the logic of people; she said that she received feedback that her questions were offensive. This story hit well with the audience and panel members alike, launching into a phenomenal debate about how perceptions of women and minorities before we even speak, color how people will react to the words that come out of our mouths. I have personally experienced very similar feedback, that I’m intimidating because I ask questions. The panel advised that people work on awareness of inherent biases and work together to provide opportunities for advancement for all women.

David Cieslak and Randy Johnston did two great presentations on technology. Cieslak focusing on how firms will utilize big data with AI in the future to make us better advisors. He predicts that algorithms will be able to pull information from cross sections of industries and personal trends to bring insights to advisors sooner. My key take-aways from both sessions are that new gadgets will be available at reasonable prices, tablets are evolving, and software companies are building mind-blowing automation into their everyday products.

David Grau Jr. dropped some serious knowledge about exit planning and firm sales in his session, “Exit Planning M&A Strategies for Today and Beyond.” Have you ever wondered if it makes sense to start a value pricing, recurring revenue services line (aka CAS)? Well, the valuation of your firm would significantly increase if you did. His trending shows that currently, recurring revenue is valued at 2.7 time gross revenue, while project work is valued at 0.7 time gross revenue. This session made me happy that my entire business model is formed around monthly recurring revenue. He also broke down how financing is working on average with sales of professional services firms and how it works with bank debt as well.

Jonathan Traub did a session titled “Tax Policy in the Time of Coronavirus,” that succinctly broke down the new laws, some proposed legislation, how the relief bills have affected budget deficits, and which states are likely to vote in congressmen in each party. He hypothesized the direction that legislation will take after the upcoming elections later this year. The effect of the bills is staggering:

And finally, the main keynote highlighted Daymond John, yes the Shark Tank entrepreneur. He was interviewed during this session specifically about his experiences, viewpoint, and opinions. Daymond spoke some truths; see below.

“…a lot of entrepreneurs, they come into something and they have a very specific skill. They know how to run nightclubs. But they don’t understand necessarily all the other [pieces] in there so many aspects of business. You have to be a marketer, a manufacturer, CPA, legal expert, salesperson, distributor, warehouse expert, social media person, and I share with them people in finance and people, to find people that will teach you and learn with you. Teachers in school, even though — They told me how to finish projects, my teachers today are no longer professors. My teachers today are my CPAs, are my attorneys, you know, my real estate attorney is different from a acquisitions attorney. My CPA, my CFO, my COO, I have three teachers there. My social media expert, I am a student of all these people and I tell people, especially with financial intelligence because that is the only thing that is going to be consistent, that’s the only thing that is going to matter is the numbers. I always tell them that’s how you get financial intelligence is by finding a bunch of CPAs and seeing how these things correlate.

This particular discussion sparked some debate on twitter. It seems that many accountants love the concept of being a teacher and some do not – the client is the expert in their own business, right? I thought the insight that entrepreneurs should maintain an open mindset and value the advice from the accounting advisors resonated with how I want to operate with my clientele.

Daymond went on to recommend a few books around branding:

In his final thoughts about what keeps him up at night, he expressed a sentiment I think we are all struggling with. Even extraordinarily successful entrepreneurs worry and especially in uncertain times. To close out the keynote Daymond expressed:

How am I going to continue to power shift and pivot during these times, how am I going to concentrate on the 20% that is creating 80% of my joy, life revenue, how am I going to take affordable steps in new areas without jeopardizing [what I have already built]?”

Overall, the conference embodied the human connection to this industry that made a big difference in the dark days of Covid-world.

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Liz Mason is a serial entrepreneur, a giant nerd, and an involved accounting vanguard. She is the Founder of High Rock Accounting, Rebel Rock Accounting, TheDepartment.Tax, and a few other related brands. Liz speaks on a national stage, guests stars on podcasts, and writes frequently. To further her passion for the advancement of the accounting profession, Liz currently serves as a Xero National Ambassador and as the Content Strategist for Tax Practice News. Liz started her career in tax at Grant Thornton (at 20) and automated a portion of her job landing her in the national tax practice. She spent a decade in large public accounting firms working on highly technical tax consulting before branching off on her own. Liz utilizes her creativity and passion at her company to uproot traditional practices and replace them with innovative concepts. She finds joy in efficient technology and her core belief is that everyone and everything can continuously improve (she says "be better" too often). When Liz isn't planning world domination in accounting, she is a die-hard skier, down for any adventure, plays the ukulele, reads everything, and has a good sense of humor. If you're looking for her, you can find her traveling the world and enjoying new food and cultures with her young son. Follow Liz and High Rock Accounting on Twitter at @LizzyNorMa and @HighRockCPAs.