When I was studying at school, I was excited about the career that awaited me. I joined the Big Four because it offered me many opportunities to build a career. I had no idea I would stay for 35 years, but I stayed because I got to be a part of so many interesting trends in the business world. I was able to learn about capital markets and derivatives, mergers and acquisitions, technology and now the purpose of a company in relation to all stakeholders.
As CEO and Global President of EY, I am always proud to be part of this work. I know today’s students also want these opportunities. Luckily for our profession, I think accounting students graduating now have an even more exciting career ahead of them. In all my years in the profession, I have never seen a more important and inspiring time to be an accountant.
The reason is simple: right now we are facing multiple generation-defining crises. Between impending climate catastrophe, a global pandemic and worsening social and economic inequality, stakeholders around the world are calling on the business community to step up and do its part. After all, the private sector touches nearly every facet of society, which means we have a unique ability to innovate and mobilize for a common goal.
But to make meaningful progress, we need to be able to turn our ambitions into concrete plans, measure our progress and report on what works. It’s a place where accountants have always been essential partners. Now they have the opportunity to lead a significant transformation, both in their own field and in the broader business community.
Accountants move the world forward
Ever since Luca Pacioli invented modern accounting in the 1400s, the profession has helped the world move forward. Investors and creditors depend on financial statements to assess their potential risk and return, and accountants are the ones who give credibility to the information they need to make sound decisions.
But now our role is changing. Not so long ago, the Financial Times published an article about “warrior accountants” helping their companies pursue ambitious new sustainability agendas. The author, Gillian Tett, wrote that, “The new front of activism revolves around… the world of accounting and finance.”
There’s a lot of truth in that. At EY, we work with companies across all industries in all regions of the world. We’ve helped them set bold goals to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. In almost every case, accountants offer important perspective on how to shape those plans and turn those ambitions into reality.
It’s also true that today’s investors want more than financial data. They want to understand companies’ ESG investments, and to do that, they need reports they can trust. Any business can talk about big ideas. But if they want to turn those ideas into concrete actions and prove their value to stakeholders, they need a way to measure and communicate their progress.
The future of accounting
This is why accountants have become essential in transforming the future of businesses. By helping companies set real goals and share their milestones, they can inspire investor confidence and build trust among stakeholders.
But as relationships evolve, the skills required to do the job must also evolve. This means that, going forward, accountants will need to master areas such as carbon counting, assessing physical and transition risks related to climate change, and measuring progress on general ESG metrics. Regarding sustainability information, they will need to help companies improve their internal processes and controls as well as the collection and analysis of their data, so that their quality and reliability are of a level comparable to that of the information used in financial reporting. To meet the new demands of the field, organizations must invest in the development of established professionals.
As accountants become key players in the ESG space, universities are also beginning to rethink their approach to education. Not so long ago, it would have been rare to find a mention of sustainability in accounting curricula. But already we see the pattern beginning to change.
For example, Northwestern University’s accounting department offers courses in sustainability reporting and analysis. Harvard Business School offers a course on how climate change can affect a company’s bottom line. The University of Groningen Business School offers an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) assurance course. Additionally, the University of Sussex Business School has launched the MSc in Sustainable Finance and Accounting. Meanwhile, Green MBA programs are becoming more popular, with offerings at many of the country’s top institutions. Whether it’s an accounting-focused undergraduate degree, a master’s degree in accounting, or an MBA, all of these programs will need to incorporate sustainability, non-financial metrics, and a new way of understanding value. in their programs.
Universities are able to accelerate this transformation by adding more courses like this to their curricula. They can also go further by offering joint degrees or elective courses that combine accounting with areas such as sustainability studies. This way, the next generation of accountants will enter the workforce equipped to meet these sustainability challenges facing businesses today.
A new generation of accountants
But changing accountancy education is only part of the solution. The real change will be driven by the students themselves – and that change is already happening.
I have heard from a number of business school deans that they are seeing a resurgence of interest in accounting as a course of study and that more and more students are combining accounting with studies in sustainable development or related subjects. There is also a growing movement of early career professionals who understand that accounting can have a significant impact and are pushing their organizations to take important steps forward.
We must maintain this momentum. A new generation of accountants can bring the discipline, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills needed to shape the future of business. In doing so, they can help businesses become more sustainable and impactful for society.
I have always been proud to be a CPA. It’s a job where you become the guardian of the financial health and integrity of the companies you serve. Now, today’s “warrior accountants” can deepen their impact on their businesses and communities. They can connect the work they do every day to a larger purpose and build a fairer, stronger and more resilient future for all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Carmine Di Sibio is the President and Global CEO of EY, one of the world’s largest professional services organizations with more than 300,000 people serving clients in 150 countries around the world. Appointed in 2019, Di Sibio led the development of NextWave: EY’s global strategy affirming its goal to build a better world of work and its ambition to create long-term value for all stakeholders. Di Sibio co-chairs EY’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, which strives to maximize the power of different opinions, perspectives and cultural references within the organization. He leads EY’s commitment to be net zero by 2025, having become carbon neutral in 2020 and carbon negative in October 2021. In a first profession, Di Sibio also appointed EY’s first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer. EY to drive internal and external efforts. He is a board member of Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), which encourages companies to foster inclusive growth. He is co-chair of the New York Jobs CEO Council, which promotes collaboration between business, education and community leaders to prepare diverse New York communities for the future of work. He also serves on the boards of the Foundation for Empowering Citizens with Autism and Family Promise and is a member of the Colgate University Board of Trustees and a member of the Board of Visitors for Wake Forest University Business School. He has a background in auditing and remains a certified public accountant. Di Sibio holds a BA in Chemistry from Colgate University and an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business.
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