A CPA designation may as well be the golden governance ticket. From small not-for-profit organizations to large corporations, it seems everyone wants a CPA on their board. And it’s understandable—in an increasingly complex world, organizations are looking for directors who bring innovation, systems thinking, and experience navigating ambiguity and disruption. CPAs make thoughtful, well-rounded directors who bring a variety of skills and experience to the director role and are well equipped to help navigate these complex issues.
However, it can be easy for CPAs to be typecast as the “token accountant,” even though they bring so much more to the boardroom. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you leverage your qualifications and experience at the board level:
Sell your full self
Before you join a board, ensure your resumé paints the full picture of your skills and experience and showcases your unique talents beyond finance and accounting. Consider any business advisory experience, situations that required you to navigate complexity and change, and leadership experience to highlight what you bring to the table beyond your accounting expertise.
Share your skills and interests
Board service is a two-way relationship. It is important to bring your skills and expertise to the table and apply them thoughtfully to the board’s work; at the same time, this is a learning and development experience for you. If you want to learn about governance or human resources or broaden your skills to set you up for future board roles, make sure to let the chair know so they can help you set up meaningful development opportunities.
Once you find the right board, be sure to share your skills, experience, and interests with the chair and your fellow directors (and find out what they bring to the table as well). This doesn’t always get translated through the recruitment process and is important to share.
Show your range
All directors should diligently prepare for meetings and come prepared to ask questions and share their perspectives on a range of topics. While you will naturally contribute more on certain topics, be sure to challenge yourself to contribute to all discussions. Engage in research or seek the help of a fellow director to dive into less familiar territory, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of management if you need to clarify anything before the meeting.
Regardless of their breadth of expertise, directors often stick to what they know best and hesitate to delve into areas where they have less knowledge. From our experience conducting evaluations for hundreds of directors, however, we consistently hear that directors want their peers to contribute more on topics outside their core area of expertise. Directors are chosen for more than their technical skills—they’re selected for their judgment, business wisdom, and strategic perspective. And in fact, in many situations, the most innovative ideas and thought-provoking questions come from directors who bring an objective, non-expert perspective.
Leverage your approach
As a CPA, you likely bring a rigorous, analytical approach to your work that can be applied to all areas of the director role. Show your thoroughness in preparing for board and committee meetings, apply your ethics to real-life challenges, and showcase your commitment to lifelong learning by taking a proactive approach to your development.
At the same time, be conscious of how you may need to adjust your approach for the boardroom. For example, as an auditor, professional skepticism is critical. As a director, however, it is important to approach your role from a place of trust—both in the intentions and in the competency of those providing information—while still ensuring that you’ve sufficiently analyzed the information available to make a thoughtful, informed decision. And if you notice typos or minor errors in financial statements, raise these issues offline to keep conversations focused at a high level.
Don’t go it alone
In some sectors and organizations, you’ll find that boards have a breadth and depth of financial and accounting expertise. In others—particularly the not-for-profit sector, which is where most directors land their first roles—you may find that you’re the only director with accounting or financial experience. This can put a lot of pressure on you, which can be especially challenging in your first director role. In such cases, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone—the full board is responsible for oversight of finance and audit functions.
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If you find yourself serving as chair of the finance and audit committee, be sure to set clear expectations for committee members with regard to preparation and contribution. When the full board discusses financial matters, ensure that there’s robust discussion, bringing in multiple perspectives. If you find that finance and audit-related discussions are falling flat at the board table, figure out why and discuss possible solutions with the board. The situation might call for different reporting, board or director education, or targeted one-on-one coaching with directors to help them better understand the materials.
Leverage leadership opportunities
Depending on your board’s composition, you might find yourself being asked to chair the finance and audit committee early on in your tenure. This is a great opportunity not afforded to many new directors, but it’s also a significant responsibility. If you suspect you may be asked to take on this role, be proactive and shadow the current chair. Round out your financial expertise with chair-specific training to ensure that you’re prepared for all aspects of the role, from facilitating meetings to partnering with the CFO. Learn how to be a great chair so you can draw on this experience in the future.
Find a great mentor
One of the benefits of being a member of a profession is that you have access to a broad network of peers. Many CPAs have extensive board experience, and they make for excellent mentors. Find a seasoned director to help you work through issues and test ideas, and to support you in your development as a director. If you find yourself under pressure, whether as the finance and audit chair or as the only financial expert on the board, reach out to a skilled mentor for help navigating challenges.
Make it count
In a complex world, CPAs are highly sought after as skilled directors who can cut through complexity and navigate change. Be intentional in leveraging your experience and talents to show that you are much more than the “token accountant” on the board.
Teresa Budd is a facilitator in WATSON’s Governance Academy, which delivers governance education programs to both individual directors and boards. A governance consultant with 20 years’ experience in governance and law in both Vancouver and Toronto, Teresa has worked with private and public companies, Crown agencies, municipal corporations, member-based organizations, regulatory bodies, and not-for-profit organizations. She conducts governance reviews, board evaluations, and corporate secretarial practice assessments and also supports multiple boards as an outsourced corporate secretary.
Governing with Intention™ is a three-day workshop that will combine content from WATSON’s Governing with Intention™ and Chair with Intention™ courses to equip current and future directors with the skills needed to navigate the modern boardroom. More information is available on the CPABC PD website.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of CPABC in Focus.