Editor’s note: This article is part of the “Top Finance Skills” series, featuring insights from finance leaders across industries on skills finance professionals need to have to be competitive in the future. To receive weekly updates on this series, sign up for our CGMA Advantage newsletter.
Glen Elias, CPA, CGMA, has seen a lot of things change in the accounting and finance profession over the 30 years of his career. But for him, no matter how quickly technology advances or business changes, finance professionals still need a solid grounding in base-level accounting skills and experiences to be successful.
Elias is the CFO of Precision Pipeline, a Wisconsin-based subsidiary of MasTec, a global infrastructure engineering firm based in Florida. MasTec reported $6.3 billion in revenue in 2020. Precision Pipeline builds major pipeline projects across the country, some running for hundreds of kilometres. Precision Pipeline is a project-based organisation, and its head count can change dramatically, depending on the number of ongoing projects.
As CFO, Elias is responsible for the accounting function, IT, HR, and equipment accounting for Precision Pipeline and has a staff of 35 that reports to him. Over the last two years, Precision Pipeline has been introducing robotic process automation (RPA) and other digital accounting technologies to its finance function.
FM magazine recently spoke to Elias about what he sees as the most essential skills that accountants and finance professionals need to succeed in today’s workforce, what he looks for when hiring new talent, and how he is encouraging his team to upskill to meet the needs of today’s finance department.
What’s your career trajectory been?
Glen Elias: The first five years of my career was two to three years in public accounting and then two years of internal audit. My goal was to get a good base of public accounting and internal audit. My thought was that I'd always be able to leverage those things no matter what I did.
To this day, that base level of knowledge and learning has never left me. I always tell people with an interest in accounting that "even if your intent is not to stay in public accounting, it's still a very good starting place".
Then I left and went into industry. I worked a few years in several industries, mostly in financial reporting in the real estate industry for about a year and then in the cable industry for about two years. Then I made the switch to what I'd call the "built environment". Some people will call it the AEC industry or architecture engineering construction. Others will call it the "built industry". But it's basically designing and building things.
I got into that industry back in 1999 and never looked back. I spent the first part of my time in that industry in international accounting, financial reporting for companies that had operations overseas. But more or less since I've been doing financial reporting, CFO-type roles. Probably about 12 of those years I've been a CFO in this industry, either for a small private company or for a division of a larger public company.
If you were just starting your finance career now, which skills would you be focusing on? In other words, what do you see as the most essential skills for new accountants and finance professionals to develop?
Elias: I have two kids and one of them potentially has an interest in accounting, and I tell him, "You know, if you're serious, make it part of your plan to get a base-level understanding. Spend a few years in public accounting because I think it builds the best base for anybody that wants to be an accountant." So that would be one thing.
The second thing I would say is to focus on technology. As I look back over my 30 years and the way we used to do things from a very manual perspective to today, I can't think of anything that we do in our company that doesn't have some technology impact or use. And so, I would say to people, "Get an understanding of how to use technology in the accounting field because that's what we look for."
Nowadays, any position that we hire for, even a staff-level accounts payable person, if they come to us from a background where they utilised technology, that is more significant to us today than it would have meant 15 or 20 years ago.
How do you see those very practical, traditional accounting skills as being essential right now? Because there is this idea of, "Oh, I’ll just learn Power BI, and then I can do whatever I want." How do those fundamental skills play into your finance department?
Elias: My experience in working with people who have an auditing background and those that don't is that the people coming out of public accounting question more. They might find something significant quicker than someone without that background. I'm speaking mostly for myself as well, but if you were to talk to people about me, they would say, "Glen respectfully questions everything."
If you went into accounting without the auditing instinct to question and analyse, it could put you at a disadvantage when matched up against someone with that experience.
With finance embracing technology and things like RPA, what are the key skills and experiences that you're looking for in talent in 2021?
Elias: With a few exceptions — maybe on some more junior-level positions — but for midlevel and senior positions, we still look for some experience in public accounting for all the reasons I previously noted. We are public, so we found that having someone with that experience makes them that much more valuable from day one. That's a big thing we still look for.
On the technology front, we look for people with experience with RPA or bots, even if it is just for a year. There are two reasons for that. One, if they have it in their background, it's easier for them to embrace it more fully here. The other reason is that we found those with prior RPA or bot experience tend to be on the lookout more for ways to use it than someone without that exposure.
Speaking of technology, how are you encouraging skills-building and upskilling within your current team? How are you ensuring your team has the skills to deal with new technologies as you introduce them, and how are you coping with any pushback that may entail?
Elias: With a very methodical, well-planned strategy. Communicate upfront so that people know how it will be rolled out.
What we did to make sure it succeeded, and I think this was smart, was introduce it in a very palatable, nonthreatening way: "Hey, this is coming. This is new. We want you to open your mind and learn and not jump to, 'What does this mean for my job?'" That was probably two years ago.
Throughout the following year we had some training, some light interaction with several of our corporate groups. They [company leaders] would demonstrate how one of the other service lines was using it so that we could see the value in it. Then they had us talk to people in the other service lines who had implemented it.
That really helped because it was no longer someone at corporate telling us that we had to implement these things that would save time and save work. It was, "Hey, I'm talking to a peer, who probably felt the same way that I did if I feel a little apprehensive about it." And some of those people became the biggest proponents of it.
Then at the end of the second year we said, "We understand RPA. We understand what bots are. Now let's brainstorm about how we can use it more." That process was very, very open. We basically went in a room and started throwing things on the board.
We started listing processes that we thought were good candidates to automate. And then went through a process of narrowing it down to the top three to five things.
The other good thing was that it was done in a collective way. We wanted people to come along with us, and there was a lot more buy-in as a result.
That’s the technological side, but you're also talking about soft skills such as collaboration and communication. How do you see the evolution of soft skills for a finance professional? And which soft skills do you see as most important moving forward?
Elias: It's something that we worry about a lot because, with all the talk about automation, sometimes the conversation about soft skills gets either completely left off or deprioritised.
These aren't going to be surprising because, again, they're probably the ones you hear a lot, but teamwork, for one. People might say teamwork is less important because of things like RPA and you can maybe silo the work a little bit. But in our experience, it's been just the opposite. We're very big on when we succeed, the team gets the credit.
We promote teamwork maybe even a little bit more now that technology is a bigger part of what we do and now that COVID has been here so long. So, working in a team is being selfless. We tend to look for and try to promote people with that mindset. That's another thing we promote in our group. When we close the books, it's to close the books for all of us, not just for me.
Communication is probably the biggest. It is the thing that I worry about the most after getting past the worry of being able to function and work remotely. Email and text messages can be an ineffective way to communicate under certain circumstances. People don't always say the right thing via text, or sometimes it's misread.
The big thing now is, "Hey, I still want to see you, right? If you're not in the office, can you put your video on?" We try to keep our video on because of that human interaction. No matter how many robots we build and implement, they're not human.
Rapid fire questions
What's the number one skill that a finance professional should have?
Which are more important for a finance professional in 2021, soft skills or tech skills?
Elias: Tech skills.
What's the most important action that finance professionals can take to advance their careers?
Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.
— Drew Adamek (Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.