Are you an accountant or a problem-solver?

The corporate finance professionals who climb the value chain will be interpreters and collaborators able to leverage data as a strategic asset while working across functional areas to solve problems and innovate, according to executives speaking Friday at the American Institute of CPAs’ Council meeting in Washington.

“Information is the new currency,” said Priyan Fernando, executive vice president, American Express Global Business Services. As the volume of information increases exponentially, CPAs can play a critical role in determining the integrity of information and analysing it. That gives accountants opportunities to find revenue streams and have an impact on the bottom line.

“We have a perspective that not many people have,” Fernando said, and that should help secure accountants a place at the table in the innovation process.

At the athletic apparel clothing company Under Armour Inc., that shift can be seen in the seating chart, as professionals are moving out of finance and directly into the business units, said the company’s CFO, Brad Dickerson.

“Collaboration is key,” Dickerson said. “The days of accountants or financial people sitting at a computer and sitting at their desk all day are long, long gone.”

The demands on finance to play a strategic role are also shaping the required competencies and, in some cases, pushing accountants to move beyond their comfort zone, panellists said.

While there’s a need for people who see predominantly in black and white, Dickerson argued, those who want to move into leadership roles need to be able to cope with and manage through grey “because there’s so much grey in business.”

How do you define yourself?

The key question for finance professionals is “are you a problem-solver or are you an accountant,” said Kenneth Kelly, senior vice president and controller for McCormick, the global spice, seasonings, and specialty foods company.

“If you think about companies today they are really managed by function. You have the accountants, you have the marketing people, the operations people. But they are really run by process,” Fernando said. “People who can look beyond their silo across processes can be extremely useful to the organisation.”

Kelly offered an example of how that’s happening at McCormick. The company has what it calls multiple management boards—self-sustaining groups of people from all levels of the staff and various units that come together for six-month stints on certain issues, typically issues related to business processes. The groups help breed collaboration and leadership and expand knowledge of the business. At the close of the six months, the board members vote on who should remain and those rated in the bottom 20% aren’t invited back to the board.

Human capital and other nonfinancial assets

The three executives on the panel agreed that employees are key nonfinancial assets for their companies. And they said vendors and suppliers can also play a role in innovation. Kelly said businesses need to share information across the supply chain to gain efficiencies.

He said key nonfinancial assets—people, brands, thought leadership or distribution networks—must be understood and tracked, but he questioned whether they should appear on the balance sheet. He argues that assigning a value to those assets is work to be done by investors.

To measure and manage one nonfinancial asset—people—American Express Global Business Services evaluates individuals on return and appreciation, Fernando said. Return measures their performance. Appreciation speaks to their potential.

High-performing, high-potential workers need different reinforcement and motivation than employees elsewhere on the grid, Fernando said. Meanwhile, the company has re-engineered work spaces to make them more flexible and fun, moving away from dedicated work spaces and expectations of being in the office while placing more emphasis on evaluating outcomes.

In the battle for talent, Dickerson said, employers will need to figure out how to attract and engage current workers to an increasingly virtual workplace.

Kim Nilsen ( is executive editor of the CGMA Magazine.