Life-long learning is at the core of competency and competency may be the most visible, expected and measurable attribute that sets a good CFO apart from the typical accountant. Unfortunately having the “CFO” title or even having the CPA designation does not guaranty competency.
I passed the CPA exam over 30 years ago. What I had to know to pass the CPA exam then is a very small fraction of what I have had to learn in order to remain competent. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles now occupy almost ten times as many pages as they did then. In the process, I have had to specialize (i.e., restrict the work that I do) in order to feel confident that I can provide the services and results that my clients need and expect.
CFO’s aren’t the only group with this challenge, I once read that many of a computer programmer’s skills learned in college are almost obsolete within five years after graduation. In a paper published in 2007, the authors, Jim Allen, Rolf van der Velden found that “the average ‘half-life’ of competencies acquired during tertiary [post-high school] education may lie somewhere in the range between 10 and 15 years. . .”
This study and my experience indicates that not only do we have to have a plan for renewing our competencies, but perhaps just as importantly, we should develop a core of intellectual tools or skills that will never become obsolete. These skills, while not always directly related to our specific career or job, are more general in nature (e.g., analytic, problem-solving, social, leadership and attitudinal skills) and give us the ability and judgment to actually use what we know to provide the results that our jobs or clients demand.
I have found that individuals in our profession who do not develop and hone these “general skills” tend to get caught up in the “rut” of their job. They suffer from what I call “one year of experience ten times” rather than ten years of experience! As a result, while they may be able to produce accurate, basic financial reports, they struggle to provide real information that is useful to the business owners and managers, thus their value to the organization(s) that they serve is questionable.
As a profession, CPA’s are fortunate because we are required to participate in a minimum amount of continual professional education (CPE) experiences each year in order to keep our licenses current. This gives us the opportunity to self assess and take the courses that we most need in order to maintain our competency. Unfortunately, I’ve heard far too many fellow CPA’s admit (and in some cases boastfully announce) that they take the easiest and cheapest CPE that they can find. What a waste of time, money and effort! What a shortsighted and destructive perspective! Unfortunately these “professionals” won’t be sufficiently competent in a few years and their prospects for advancement or even employment will be limited. Even more unfortunate, however, is the damage that they will do to their employers / clients and to the reputation of our profession.
A long-term, and what I believe appropriate, view of life-long learning dictates:
- That we acknowledge what we don’t know. My friend Chuck Coonradt of The Game of Work calls not knowing what we don’t know “unconscious incompetence” – what a great phrase and how true! In order to know what we don’t know, we have to learn what we should know. I like to use a portion of my education investment on update courses and general information about accounting, finance, business and economics.
- That we use some portion of our educational budget to keep sharp and up-to-date in the areas where we most commonly practice so that there is never a question about our competency in our practice specialty.
- That we spend time learning skills that will help us in the long-term. This is where learning about enabling technologies and the latest financing and accounting techniques allow us to take a step beyond minimal competency towards “expert” status.
- That we start viewing life-long learning as an investment rather than a cost. It is an investment in our future and the return on investment is real and easily measurable over time.
Remaining competent sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? Well it is, actually and that is the way life works. We cannot achieve greatness in any aspect of our lives by dedicating only the minimal amount of effort required. Beyond the confidence that we gain from knowing that we are truly competent and that we can deliver exceptional results to our clients or employers, we also receive the added personal benefit of being in greater demand and that equates to higher value (i.e., compensation).
Let’s not ignore the value of a great reputation as we consider gaining and retaining competency in the work that we do – especially in a small community like Utah. Believe me, your personal and professional reputations regularly precede you as you apply for a new job or look for an introduction to that new, prized client. Your goal is to have your reputation be the only thing that the new employer needs to know about you in order to make the decision to hire or retain.
Take it one step at a time and log your progress. You will be surprised at how quickly you can recover from stagnant and frustrated to competent and confident. Good Luck!