The core skills required of the new management accountant

Where once the management accountant would work in isolation, delivering reports filled with numbers on spreadsheets, today they are more likely to be embedded in a business unit or working with project teams.

Analyst, communicator and business partner. Meet the new management accountant.

As financial data has moved out of the silos within organisations, the management accountant has followed. Where once the management accountant would work in isolation, delivering reports filled with numbers on spreadsheets, today they are more likely to be embedded in a business unit or working with project teams. 

Recruiters are now likely to advertise for a “business partner” and “analyst”, rather than the long-established industry title of “management accountant”. 

The driver for this is strategic because boards and management are looking for people with solid accounting skills who can take data and draw from it insights that can be communicated effectively to the business. If this can be done in real time, so much the better. 

Predictive, forward-looking data 

These changes, hastened by technology tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, have been major catalysts for transforming the role of the management accountant. 

Attendees at the CPA Management Accounting Conference series held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in August 2018 heard how technology has transformed the role in recent years, and has meant that the management accountant needs to develop new skills around presentation, communication and leadership. 

William Young CPA, Australian head of COS Capital in Melbourne, hosted a panel that argued management accounting is a social science, where practitioners needed to “socialise and understand the business and build relationships”. 

Young, who has progressed from a management and tax accounting job to a broader role in investment and strategy, says there is a sense of opportunity and excitement in the profession as the role has changed. 

“There was definitely a feeling at the conference and on the panel that there are wider and broader horizons now for management accountants,” he says. 

“The change has been very rapid over the last eight to 10 years, and I think that with the development of technology and with many functions being transferred to artificial intelligence, the further transition is going to become even quicker.” 

The management accountants of yesterday, says Young, were more involved with data preparation than presentation and analysis. 

Today, they must understand the business in greater depth and present ideas that can contribute to the bottom line. 

Moving up the management accounting ladder

There have also been changes to where the role is positioned within the organisational structure. Instead of having a back seat in the finance function at head office, today the management accountant is more likely to be found within business units, working with employees who are not part of the finance function, but who need finance-based insights to help their own decision making. 

“We see MAs in business units, we see them working closer with the business to deliver outcomes,” says Young. 

“They used to be the stick holders, coming down and pointing at numbers and saying, ‘this is not right’, but now they are required to contribute to the discussion and the plan on how to make it better.” 

All of this, he says, requires new skills, and while some of them are around data visualisation, presentation and analysis, others are “softer” and focused on interpersonal communication.

"People are presented with a lot of data but don't know what they need to make decisions, or where the levers are to pull to get them where they need to go." Venkkat Ramanan, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants

With this transition, people with more introverted personalities who would previously have become management accountants are finding different roles, for instance as financial accountants or in positions working more directly with data. 

“The MA role has evolved with that of accountants generally,” says Young. 

“Technology is doing a lot of the data entry work that MAs used to, and now they really need to move up in the business to become strategic leaders and providers of business solutions.” 

Accounting for change

Recruiters have seen both employers and job seekers respond to the transformation. Benjamin Jotkowitz, director of accounting recruitment specialist Benneaux, finds demand for management accountants in business units and in project teams, where they are needed to take data and bridge the communication gap with business leaders. 

For this, up-to-date data, systems and IT skills are critical, but Jotkowitz agrees with Young that the role is also about interpreting and communicating data insights. 

He says that hiring firms are using titles such as “business analyst” and “finance business partner” when they advertise what are essentially management accountant roles, and that candidates are responding to these positions with more enthusiasm. 

“Anything with ‘analyst’ and ‘partner’ in the title is more attractive than something just with ‘accountant’, which is now more behind the scenes,” Jotkowitz says. 

“The younger generation wants to be seen as analysts, but this carries an expectation for someone to go out into the business, and sometimes candidates do not have those skills. 

“But to be an analyst is more attractive for them as they also think about their futures.” 

He believes the next step in the career progression of management accountants will be a move into financial planning and analysis, and possibly into commercial management. 

Riding the wave

The career of another conference speaker, Sue Murray FCPA, is an example of the transformation of the role. 

After 30 years in management accounting jobs, Murray is now the business estimating and pricing manager at BAE Systems Australia, where much of her work revolves around understanding the commercial viability of projects. 

Working with engineers and scientists, she says, is inspiring because they have many ideas. 

“Where the management accountant is critical in this process is looking at the multiple ideas, then building and testing a business case around them so we can target the ones that have the most commercial merit.” 

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They need to be able to form up and sell a value-creating position that is supported by the underlying data analytics, and shape that into a cohesive story that people can understand very rapidly. 

Management accountants, says Murray, need to produce more than data. 

“It is not only the ‘what’ or even the ‘so what’, but also the ‘so what now?’ telling businesses not what happened, but what should happen into the future,” she says. “If you just put sheets of numbers in front of busy leaders, they are likely to dismiss and ignore them.” 

Advances in data visualisation software can enable MAs to use dashboarding and infographics to boil a story down to its essence and get it across to a meeting of busy team members. 

“These tools have the ability to take a lot of data and turn it into something that is quite easily digestible,” says Murray. 

“This has been a really positive change.” 

Value on the up

Management accountants have an important role in ensuring the integrity of data as well as using it in different ways for the business, says Venkkat Ramanan, regional vice president – Asia Pacific of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants

“We have to co-exist with the business if we want to be relevant as business partners,” he told the CPA Australia Management Accounting Conference

Ramanan says that despite predictions that technology would take over jobs, “technology won’t take over the human conscience”. 

Key ways to get value from data include drawing out insights around the customer and how to develop the value proposition, enhance efficiency and monetise existing and new products. Ramanan forecasts a move from tangible to intangible value, where finance works with others in the organisation “to influence and show the impact of decisions on the business”. 

The management accountant’s technical skills remain vital to confidence in the quality of information presented to the business, and he says the finance team can use expert technical skills to develop and deploy solutions and enable change management. 

People skills

In a world full of data, the real skill comes in understanding what is important and relevant, David Wayne, principal of small business consultancy Roaring Trade, told the conference. 

“People are often presented with a lot of data but don’t know what they need to make decisions, or where the levers are to pull to get them where they need to go.” 

He advocates a granular approach that involves breaking down priorities to better understand how to achieve goals. 

The management accountant as team player will favour people who can draw the most from their teams. 

Wayne says successful managers empower people to act on a shared vision that comes partly from data, but also from team contact, often in daily team “huddles” or meetings where everyone is encouraged to contribute, share ideas and solve problems. 

“Acknowledge people for what you have asked them to do and they will do more,” says Wayne. “The return on investment is phenomenal.” 

He says a healthy team environment is one where people are acknowledged for volunteering information, and where they are prepared to look for information outside of normal sources to provide them with more ideas and options. 

People also need to be allowed to try something new and to fail “without recrimination”. 

All of this, says Wayne, is important in empowering people to act autonomously and make their own contribution. 

Changing expectations of management accountants have expanded the role and are requiring more of its practitioners in terms of analysis and communicating within the business. 

It has become more rewarding for those who enjoy being at the heart of decision-making within their organisation, recognised for their ability to find and analyse the data that is key to its viability and future success.

Technology will continue to change accounting, and management accountants will be challenged to reshape their role as they influence the direction and strategic planning for their organisation.

Read next: Harnessing data analysis to shape stories: the rise and rise of the management accountant


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