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Apr 30, 2020

Technology, Workforce Helping to Evolve the Tax Profession

In a podcast related to his feature in PICPA’s Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape, this year’s digital-only special edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, Walter Gavula, director of talent development for Drucker & Scaccetti in Philadelphia, discusses why tax organizations need to evolve with their workforce in the areas of upskilling and alternative work arrangements.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor



Podcast Transcript

In PICPA's Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape, our upcoming special digital-only edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, we explore how CPA roles are changing with the continuing growth of technology and business practices. One of these roles is the role of the tax professional. In this feature on the topic, Walter Gavula, director of talent development at Drucker & Scaccetti in Philadelphia, discusses the ways organizations have to adapt in the areas of leadership accountability, upskilling, and alternative work arrangements in order to keep up with the times.

What would you say are some of the factors that are forcing the role of the tax professional to evolve?

[Gavula] I think there's definitely a couple things that stand out in my mind. First, just the multiple regulatory and legislative changes that are happening, not only across the U.S., but across the world, really have broad uncertainty and complexity, which is causing businesses to rethink where and how they can most effectively operate. This obviously creates opportunity for tax professionals to evolve. A second thing that comes to mind too is the whole rapid, evolving technologies and the impact that's having on the way we work and live.

Technology advancements have really permeated our culture across the world and have changed the way we operate as businesses. I think stemming from those first two things, it's also important that all of these things have really increased the focus that we have, and organizations have, on process improvement in order for us to be more effective and efficient in what we do and how we get work out the door faster and quicker.

How do you define leadership accountability, and how does this concept shift the behavior of tax departments in organizations?

[Gavula] Leadership accountability is so critical because, again, I think the attention to the needs of the people are the most important things and roles that a leader undertakes, in my perspective, in an organization. I described in the article how people tend to follow and mimic what their leaders do and the extent to which what they see happening, employees see happening, they will also do. So leadership accountability to me is, if a leader is not embracing and talking about the changes that we just talked about relative to the regulatory environment and technology advances, then they're really not helping those tax professionals grow and learn and develop. They're also not leading a charge for change in their organizations and to prepare for changes and to get people ready for that.

That to me is part of leadership accountability. I think, at the end of the day, if leaders are not doing those kinds of things by embracing and getting people to follow what they're saying, then the leaders are not necessarily going to be driving the employees in the direction that we want them to go. The potential there is frustrating employees, getting them to not necessarily be excited about being there or learning a new skill set, and the opportunity there that creates for people to potentially leave. Having that leadership accountability and embracing those changes and things we talked about is critically important, not only for tax departments, but for any organization.

What would you say are some of the tools and techniques organizations can use to ensure that leadership accountability is high?

[Gavula] There's several things I know that I've used and that we're using within our organization. I think one of the first things is to hold people accountable. I think you need to set goals for them and demand development around what those goals are. The extent to which people understand and know that it's an expectation to ensure leadership accountability, that's an important piece to this. Setting goals and expectations is important. I think another piece that I talk about is providing 360 degree assessments and getting a full range of perspective on leaders that give them the sense of how they're doing from a number of different perspectives, not just normally the perspective that they deal with. That's another piece or another tool that I would use. Some of the things that I know I've done and we are doing is putting a manager or a leader in charge of a significant change initiative. I think it shows leadership accountability, that it's a big change, it's something that's happening and that other people are seeing that leader embrace that change.

I know recently, within our organization, we implemented a new scheduling system and along with the person primarily responsible for that, we did have a leader of the firm who was also helping to drive that change. That really helped people understand that it was important and that leader had some skin in the game regarding that. I'd say one other thing, too, that's really important is leaders need to be accountable, as I said, for helping to develop people and developing mentor or coaching programs that offer support for employees to help navigate their careers. I think that is critically important as well.

That's something that I've had experience with and we're actually doing in my organization right now, where we've created, what we call pool coaching opportunities, in which we have leaders of our firm who were involved in improving their leadership accountability as well as employees career development by giving them the opportunity to work with individuals and to learn and grow based upon the level that they're at right now. I think those are just some examples of things that are good techniques for organizations to follow to create some leadership accountability.

In today's environment, how important is it for tax organizations to invest in the professional development or, as you call it, the upskilling of their existing staff?

[Gavula] It's really critically important for a couple of reasons. I think first we're in a tight labor market. Even in the situation we're in right now, qualified people are going to be in demand. From my perspective, I think it's much wiser for a business to keep and develop existing staff than it is to maybe recruit new employees and hope that they have the skills that you need, so that is one area. Another piece is it's becoming a competitive advantage for organizations to essentially do this. Many organizations are now using the upskilling word or professional development to deal with the whole perspective that we're seeing around technology and growth throughout the world. Just as an example, I know PwC recently, I think they announced about a $3 billion commitment to upskilling all of their employees and many other organizations are doing the same thing.

I think the third piece there, that I would say is also important, is that it's what our business is now demanding to be competitive in the digital age. We need to require and ask our employees to learn for life and have that learning for life mindset. I think those are critical things that we should be focusing on going forward relative to the whole development and upskilling piece.

What are two or three of the key areas in need of upskilling if tax professionals are going to succeed in a changing environment?

[Gavula] I think there's a couple there that really jumped to mind for me. One is a shifting of consulting and advisory skills. Creating that consulting advisory skill mentality. It's true that most of our tax professionals come at it mostly from a compliance perspective and that's fine and that's what's needed today. But when you just think about the opportunities that exist, even with the pandemic, we're seeing it within our organization where there's opportunities that we probably need to explore around consulting and opportunities relative to enhancing the services that we provide to our clients in a different way than just purely compliance. I think the goal there for us is to what I like to call from hindsight to insight, and to really move to foresight, getting thinking about consulting and advisory skills a little bit differently than we have had before.

A second one is if you're not embracing data analysis and statistics and technology innovation, you're going to be behind the eight ball. That's something that definitely needs to be occurring. I think, in this environment that we're now in, not being successful and understanding change management and recognizing the need to change and to be innovative to help drive that change and support that change and have new ways of thinking, you're going to be behind the eight ball. Those are some of the skills. I think they're really important.

Sometimes people might know that they need to upskill and yet they struggle to do it. Maybe because they don't have the time or something along those lines, they struggle to commit to it. What are a couple ways that organizations can ensure that employees are motivated to follow through on the need to upskill?

[Gavula] I agree completely. I think one of the things that we have to avoid is that upskilling just doesn't become the buzzword of the day. I think because it is a new word and it's like, okay, that's the newest word that we now focus on, but it does have critical pieces. I think what organizations can do, and I know what we're trying to do, is incorporate it into the daily life of what we do day in and day out. Is it a part of your entire process that you would consider your employee life cycle from recruitment to development to promotion and those pieces to it, if you embed it into what you do day in and day out, that's going to be critical. One of our core values is always growing as an organization. That nicely fits into the concept of upskilling and developing. It's an expectation that we have.

I think, again, probably putting in some new opportunities that might not exist for organizations or updating them is another thing that can help in the organization upskill. For example, one of the things that I've done and am doing right now is looking at how we want to focus on competencies for individuals and competencies are more than just technical skill sets. These are competencies that are going to make you successful beyond the technical world that you're a part of. So, those kinds of areas and focus on change management and emotional intelligence and those things that we typically don't think of are ways that organizations can help build that in. We're going to be going through a process of evaluating our people on competencies and then that helps us to create an opportunity for them to develop skills and to create opportunities to build that into their goals and their development.

You mentioned the coronavirus pandemic a little bit earlier. As we have found out with the coronavirus, alternative work arrangements are essential for just about any organization. Why are they particularly important for tax organizations?

[Gavula] I think it's just because of the nature of the industry. I think we would all agree that working in public accounting isn't easy. It's not an easy gig. The hours can be long and demanding and it's easy for people to get burnt out with that. I worked in public accounting for a number of different years in different organizations and that's a traditional thing that we see over and over again. I think the important thing also is, it's not just the employees, it's also the family members and friends and partners of people that work in public accounting that are also impacted by that. It's critically important that we ensure that we have the work-life balance for our people, particularly during heavy, busy-season times and throughout the year. I know that we recently reevaluated what our alternative work arrangements are, before this whole pandemic that's come about.

But also for the very reason that we know our workforce is different than it was even a year ago, and it will be different two years from now, three years from now. We know that we have single moms and dads or new moms and dads or people who are dealing with elder care issues for individuals. It's a completely different world. It's important for every organization, but you add on top of that the environment of a tax organization, it becomes even more critically important to focus on that.

In your role as director of talent development at Drucker & Scaccetti, what have you personally seen to be alternative work arrangements effect  on recruiting? Are candidates interested at this point if organizations can't promise work flexibility? Is it a deal breaker at this point?

[Gavula] I think the best way to answer that is candidates are very, very savvy nowadays. They can pick and choose where they want to go and they're doing their analysis against what they like and what they dislike about an organization. Absolutely, people are looking at opportunities to, not only advance their careers, but to have an effective work-life balance. Having that perspective and building into it, work-life flexibility is critically important for us and I would say most organizations. We've got a diverse group of people that have different issues that they're working with at home. We need to balance that and deal with that the best way we can and I do know that candidates that we look at, whether they be younger in their career or more mature in their career, are focusing on that as a critical, I'll call it, "benefit" that is important for them.


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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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