The CPA’s Role in Accounting Policy

By Jason S. Hayes, CPA, CMA, CGMA – April 26, 2016
The CPA’s Role in Accounting Policy

I’m not a classically-trained accountant. I’m an English major. Yes, English. Elbow patches and all.

I have an undergraduate degree in American and British Literature. I spent three years post graduation working on getting my book published. (Don’t Google the book. It doesn’t exist.) Then I decided that working in the publishing industry was an acceptable alternative. If that was my path, business classes would help balance out my knowledge of early 20th century American literature.

I distinctly remember one graduate business school open house when an accounting professor said (I’m paraphrasing), “Most people don’t realize basic accounting is not that hard. But people think it is or don’t like it.” That stuck with me. Accounting is easy, but people don't like it or think it's too hard? And many are willing to pay someone else to take care of their finances? Perfect!

Nine years later, I earned a Master of Science in Accounting and earned my CPA and CMA. I held positions as a financial statement proofreader, external auditor, revenue accountant, SEC reporting manager and now an accounting policy manager.

Here’s my take on my recent role as an accounting policy manager:

What It's Like to be an Accounting Policy Manager for a Large Public Company

This type of role can be exciting and fulfilling for accountants. That's especially true for those with natural inclinations toward technical inquisitiveness, problem solving and a high level of comfort with uncertainty. You may find yourself reviewing a new or unusual transaction with only technical guidance, a business specific fact pattern and no historical process or previous accounting conclusion. On the other hand, you could be answering ad hoc questions from non-accounting business professionals about current accounting policies. Or offering guidance on new policy implementation. You also provide advice and details related to accounting policy elections as it relates to a specific business transaction or event. Fun, right? That’s a general “roles and responsibilities” overview.

The overarching principle is to ensure internal compliance with accounting policies and external compliance with the regulatory and standard setting environment. The role requires technical research, analysis and writing to evaluate any potential impacts to the company’s accounting policies as well as documenting the company’s overall position. I believe these types of responsibilities make for more dynamic work because you are constantly dealing with new guidance or different business-related fact patterns.

An accounting policy role can vary based on company size, industry, regulatory environment and whether it’s public or private. Here are skills complementary to an accounting policy role that benefit any accountant’s long-term career ambitions:

Be a Teacher and Student

You don't need to memorize all technical guidance. Being able to learn and then teach something new is paramount in any profession, but essential to an accounting career.

A good place to exercise this skill is by conducting CPEs once you gain knowledge and experience in a certain accounting subject. You learn through technical research and from colleagues working in that field. Be comfortable learning new or unfamiliar topics, then interpret guidance and ultimately teach it well. You’ll have learning opportunities by working with very insightful and knowledgeable accounting and business professionals. Conversely, you’ll have teaching opportunities while preparing and conducting CPEs and ensuring the company is both internally and externally compliant with that subject matter. This skill is best honed by experience and can lead to success in many career paths.

Know Your Audience and Communicate Well

Communication skills: The vague asset that shows up in every LinkedIn feed and post about leadership. It’s a skill you can improve, but won't be perfect. Communication skills are critical for accountants or any professional from entry level to the c-suite.

Think of all the brilliant, innovative ideas throughout history that weren’t communicated well and lost in history. See? Not one comes to mind. Now think of all the ideas that managed to tell a good story and make people want something they never knew they needed — like the Snuggie.

An accounting policy role offers a real world training ground to help you develop communication skills. One day you can communicate the same analysis and conclusion to various audiences ranging from senior management to independent auditors to non-accounting professionals.

Imagine a scenario where you meet with senior management in the morning who typically wants the bottom-line up front (with details to follow if requested). The next meeting could be with the partner, senior manager or manager of your independent auditors where you discuss specific codification paragraphs or evaluate “what-if” scenarios. You finish the day by explaining the analysis and conclusion to the non-accounting professional who doesn't want the bottom line or technical details. They need you to convey the idea and context of why and how they should align business operations with technical accounting or regulatory guidance.

Identifying and engaging with your audience turns a blanket with sleeves (or a backwards robe for that matter) into a Snuggie.

Jason  Hayes

Jason Hayes

Jason S. Hayes, CPA, CMA, CGMA, M.S.A., is a manager of corporate accounting policy at a Fortune 20 company. He is a member of the New Jersey Society of CPAs and a volunteer on the NJCPA Writing and Editorial Board.