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No matter how aspirational they are, management accountants face a series of roadblocks in the course of building careers in organisations. Experts reveal the four key obstacles that need to be addressed in the course of becoming global leaders

Much soul-searching about personal and professional responsibility and identity has followed the heady days of the 2008 financial crisis, and many questions about leadership and accountability continue to be raised as the European and US economies falter again.

If management accountants (MAs) had more influence in their organisations, would things be different? What are the obstacles facing management accounting professionals as they seek to be recognised as global leaders?

A CIMA international investigation conducted during 2011 by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology asked 1,158 CIMA members and industry managers about their current roles and future vision for the identity of MAs.

We focused on “the issues that MAs face in operating as leaders” and “the impact of the recession on their professional identity”. While challenges and obstacles remain, overall CIMA members are optimistic about the future of the profession.

MAs are now better placed to move to leading positions in their organisations than ever before (CIMA, June 2010). However, the core meaning of the profession seems unclear to many people, including MAs themselves.

Traditionally, accountants in movies and the media are typically portrayed as boring, dull bean-counters, or cast as honest and law-abiding followers.

These stereotypes are hard to shake, despite advertisements and social media attempting to turn around existing perceptions with creative and futuristic images of “extreme” accountants (CIMA, 2010).

These competing qualities projected by the media create confusion about the identity of MAs to those outside the profession and lead management professionals themselves to ask a number of fundamental questions: Who are we? What do we want to be? Do we have a leadership role in such uncertain times?

Overall, CIMA members and senior managers and managers in HR, IT, marketing and engineering described their two top issues. The majority of 1,381 issue statements broadly fell into the four bundles of obstacles.

Obstacle 1: Limited confidence from accounting training – Seeing as leaders
In the confidence stakes, CIMA members indicated that they often lack the self-confidence to take on a leadership role and that they are observed by other professionals as “not interested” in doing so.

This can be seen as lacking ambition from outsiders. In the CIMA QUT study, 19 per cent of issue statements (266 out of 1,381) pointed out that accounting training practices often drive this perception.

According to CIMA members, they were “being taught as just accountants who keep the record” and “not trained to look for solutions outside their brief”.

The traditional emphasis on “accounting standards”, being “process-driven” and “short-term” analysis often hinders MAs from thinking outside the box and translating numbers to strategic solutions.

CIMA members particularly felt that they need more commercial exposure and entrepreneurial thinking to break out of the old accounting moulds, and to boost their confidence.

The second issue relates to MA’s emerging roles. MAs are often negatively perceived as professionals who are “too broad”, but “not sufficiently technical”.

CIMA members, as well as industry managers, agreed that MAs need “in-depth” finance/accounting knowledge as well as “wider” management skills.

Transcending their hard skills with leadership, responsiveness, adaptability, communication and soft people skills was identified as critical to future success, but also as areas where MAs often lacked training opportunities and experience.

“Management accountants are placed by an organisation on a ladder to move up towards success. These people need to improve their communication, problem-solving and business competencies. They should be better prepared and skilled for leadership positions.” (HR manager, manufacturing industry, India)

In all, the respondents in the CIMA survey emphasised the need for both hard and soft skill development, and the support to build their confidence and knowledge so that they could “see” as leaders.

Obstacle 2: Resistance in organisations – Influencing as leaders
According to 10 per cent of issues statements (145 out of 1,381), an additional obstacle is the perception that MAs do not adequately understand business and operations.

Without the breadth of knowledge and experience in a wide spectrum of business areas, MAs find it difficult to gain cooperation and trust from other business areas. Industry managers felt that MAs “block operational initiatives” based on costing rationales, while MAs suggest that dealing with non-financial decision-makers is challenging as they often ignore figures.

However, both groups agree that MAs need to “get out of the office” to learn more about hands-on business. Most of all, CIMA members argue that they need to convince senior management that MAs are “right-hand” advisers, thus promoting MAs’ value-adding role and strategic capability.

An overall suggestion to overcome the resistance was that individual MAs need to train themselves to translate numbers into strategies and to use their influencing skills “to get the message across”.

By working their way into the hearts and minds of management, MAs can become critical players in strategy formulation.

“They are advisers to operational managers and executives. They need to prove that they understand the business and have the ability to influence the business and communicate in the right way to get the message across.” (CIMA member, senior management finance, construction industry, Australia)

Obstacle 3: Limiting external image – Being seen as leaders
The inherent image of the accounting profession and the lack of recognition of MAs have become a tough obstacle to MAs, particularly since the financial crisis, according to 21 per cent of statements (290 out of 1,381).

Internally, CIMA members raised concerns that they are badged as “just accountants” and “bean-counters” rather than as leaders.

Externally, industry managers expressed that accountants are perceived as neither “accountable” nor “accurate”, and even as “unethical” after the financial crisis.

Some core qualities of accountants seemed to have turned unfavourably against the leadership image of MAs since the recession.

“I suppose they (MAs) need to fight the stigma of being associated with financial accountants, in that they clearly have different characteristics and attributes more suited to leadership roles.” (Senior management, technology industry, UK)

According to CIMA members, a major reason for this perception is the lack of differentiation of MAs from financial accountants. Consequently, business communities misunderstand MAs’ strategic roles.

“Irrational prejudices from a misunderstanding of the worth and value of management accountants.” (CIMA member, senior management finance, public sector, UK)

A strong issue raised by CIMA members is the misconception that financial accountants and their qualifications (e.g. CA and CPA) are superior to MAs.

MAs are often seen as a “second cousin” number-cruncher or “soft alternative”, according to the CIMA QUT study, instead of being recognised as business strategists.

This underlying perception seems to hinder MAs in securing CFO and CEO positions in a competitive market. According to 130 CIMA members and 30 industry managers, strategic and value-adding roles of MAs and the CIMA brand need to be marketed worldwide to overcome the misconception.

Obstacle 4: Unstable (opportunistic) global market – Selling themselves as leaders
Thirty-one per cent of statements (428 out of 1,381) relate to global market and its impact on the MA profession.

Since the financial crisis, there has been a general loss of confidence and trust in financial markets. Industry managers indicated that MAs’ skills are perceived as being unable to predict financial futures accurately and to interrelate analysis with company-level decision-making.

The unpredictable global market, with fewer job opportunities, has become a hard-yard obstacle for MAs to face.

However, 158 statements from CIMA members suggest that they are optimistic about the profession, because while industry managers perceived that the image of accountants generally was damaged by the financial crisis, it did not particularly impact MAs, or possibly even increased the awareness of MAs’ contribution as the key to organisational survival.

By comparison, only 47 statements from CIMA members were concerned with negative impacts, such as distrust and redundancy at work. In comparison, industry managers were split almost equally, stating 73 positive/nil and 68 negative impacts on the future professional identity of MAs.

“The recession has offered MAs the opportunity to demonstrate how we can add value to a business by behaving more as a business partner, interpreter and communicator of forward-looking strategies and profitability business decisions.” (CIMA member, self-employed, retail, UK)

Some CIMA members said that senior managers now spend more time with their MAs discussing strategies and results. The financial crisis boosted MAs’ roles in cost control, strategy formulation, forward thinking and business improvement.

However, CIMA members felt that they now need to provide more timely forecast, risk management, contingency planning and corporate governance roles in this unstable market.

“The recession has enhanced the importance of management accountancy even more than it was previously.” (Non-CIMA member, senior management, accountancy, USA)

“The recession has shown that management accountants are willing and flexible and have a can-do attitude. I have had the misfortune to be made to feel that my qualification was second grade by chartered accountants and now I feel that I was right – I am the best placed to succeed.” (CIMA member, senior management, accountancy, UK)

It is a good time for well-prepared MAs to position themselves as leaders, stepping up to the obstacles of “seeing”, “influencing”, “being seen” and “selling themselves” in their workplaces. The future desired qualities and emerging strategies for professional identity of MAs will be available in a later 2012 report.

References “Management accountants’ skills match those of leaders”, Insight, CIMA, June 2010. “Risk manager or risque manager?”, Research Executive Summaries Series, volume 6, issues 2, CIMA, 2010.

Dr Jai Kim, professor Caroline Hatcher and associate professor Cameron Newton – QUT Business School, Queensland University of Technology

Photograph: Getty Images

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