Bullish on Accounting
"Lead early and often" and learn how international business works, advises alumnus and AICPA leader Leslie Murphy.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Changing demographics, an increased emphasis on corporate financial accountability and younger workers' desire for a healthy balance between work and personal life add up to one thing: "It's a great time to be an accountant," says American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) leader Leslie Murphy.
Demand for accounting services and the profession's image and pay are all up, Murphy told 13 Master of Accounting students at a recent Dean's Seminar at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. The off-the-record sessions held during the school year give students an opportunity to meet business leaders and learn about their careers.
Accounting has changed since Murphy, BBA '73, now group managing partner with Plante & Moran, interviewed for her first job more than 33 years ago.
"There were few women in the accounting program. When a professor heard my plans, he took me to lunch and said, 'You can't be serious. Women don't go into public accounting.' In 1972, there were only a couple hundred women CPAs in public accounting in the United States."
Still, after a four-hour assessment test with Plante & Moran, Murphy left with a job offer. "I was the first 22-year-old woman Plante & Moran hired. My passion is to help businesses solve business problems, and that led me to a firm serving small and mid-sized businesses. I started as an auditor, working primarily in real estate and construction. Clients weren't used to working with women. The firm would call clients and ask permission to assign me to their account," recalled Murphy.
Plante & Moran, now the nation's 11th largest public accounting and management consulting firm, was and remains a people-oriented firm, known for its mentoring and founder Frank Moran's core values. When the firm grew to seven people and Moran no longer could provide the individual attention people needed, he introduced teams. "It works. Everyone feels cared for," said Murphy.
She co-founded the firm's Personal Tightrope Action Committee, which recommended some of the firm's employee-friendly policies, including assigning expectant mothers buddies — mentors who are not supervisors, offering flexible schedules for pregnant women and new parents, and providing child care on Saturdays during tax season.
When a Plante & Moran staff member wanted to prepare for a competitive bike race and asked for a leave of absence and then to work part-time, "We realized the race was as important to him as parenting responsibilities are to others. We approved his request," said Murphy. Not surprisingly, Plante & Moran has been on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for the past eight years.
"Life and work must be more integrated," she said. One of the decisions she made early on was to hire someone to buy her groceries and to run errands. "Some people thought I was crazy, but I decided I would rather work than grocery shop. It also gave me more time with our kids."
"We know that your generation is not going to work the way we did," Murphy said. "By 2020, we'll be short 14 million white collar workers in the U.S. We have more demand for our services than ever before. We'll need to focus and adapt; those who adapt sooner will be the winners. The shortage will force innovation. We have existed in business on an overtime model. There has to be a fundamental shift in this business model." Outsourcing, delegation to lesser-trained staff and more automation of basic tasks are some of the options she mentioned.
As chair of the Board of Directors of the AICPA, Murphy represents 340,000 members throughout the United States. "There is so much going on in the profession. One issue we face as a nation is the estimated $345 billion tax gap. The IRS needs to close the gap without additional staffing. They need to get more efficient in their audit and enforcement activity. The solution will likely challenge privacy issues. The IRS would like direct access to bank and credit card records," she explained.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, with its new regulations, has caused an enormous strain on the profession, Murphy noted, creating burnout among auditors who worked through early implementation of the law. In many cases, they worked without sufficient guidance and without knowledge of how inspectors would accept their approach.
When asked by Vaishali Shetty, MAcc '07, about ethical challenges, Murphy answered: "There really is not a right way to do a wrong thing. Find your voice. Ask questions. This profession requires a huge amount of judgment in many gray areas, but we cannot, must not ever compromise our ethics."
Murphy noted that when tax shelters came out that lacked what the firm considered economic substance, Plante & Moran advised clients not to invest. "We also said if they chose to move forward with the investments, we wouldn't prepare or sign their tax return. It is not as difficult as you think to make those kinds of judgments, and you sleep a lot better at night."
Murphy also encouraged students not to be scared of Sarbanes-Oxley's Section 404 dealing with internal controls. "You will learn more about the operation of the business by getting inside the companies than you ever will through a standard audit process."
Also, she advised the students to learn how international business works. "We work with a number of foreign-owned companies operating in the U.S. In this global marketplace, we’re seeing a huge outflow of capital from the United States and need to understand how this influences U.S. commerce."
Cortney Hilliard, MAcc '07, appreciated hearing Murphy's comments on the changing political and economic landscape of public accounting related to legislation and globalization. "I thought the event was an excellent opportunity for students to obtain a high-level perspective of the accounting profession while gaining insightful career advice," Hilliard said.
"How do you make an impact early in your career?" asked Jeff Glazer, MAcc '07.
"Lead early and often," Murphy answered. About three months after she started, Frank Moran asked her how things were going. Her team partner and buddy relationships were strong, she responded, but other newcomers weren't faring as well. At Moran's request, she developed a process to interview employees 90 days after hire so that situations could be improved sooner rather than later.
"If you identify something, you will be part of the solution. I raised my hand and offered to help. I spoke up and mentored others. It helped me advance," she explained. "There isn't a firm in this country that doesn't believe it could use more leadership talent. Plan for your own development and ask for help. Companies are anxious to help develop their future leaders."
Although she has received other offers, including one that came with a $1 million signing bonus, Murphy said it always came down to "Where could I have the most impact? Who is going to support my personal growth? I knew the environment at Plante & Moran was supportive and decided to stay there and accept new and different challenges inside the firm."
The Ross School's 10-month Master of Accounting program at the University of Michigan prepares graduates to sit for the CPA exam in all 50 states and offers opportunities to develop a tailor-made course of study to satisfy individual career objectives.
For more information, contact:
Mary Jo Frank