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What is a CPA?

Well…we’re the only ones licensed to perform financial statement audits. The federal government requires it for public companies, and the states issue the licenses. But is this what defines us? Is our identity basically defined by regulatory statute?

“Bringing integrity to information.” That’s sorta what an auditor does – makes the financial information believable, adds credibility. And even if we don’t perform audits, the public turns to us when it wants an honest opinion: when it needs to be objective and independent.

“Making sense of a changing and complex world.” That’s what the CPA Vision Project proposes. I have very deep respect for the folks involved in the project, though this statement sorta leaves me wanting for more. “Making sense of a changing and complex world” feels a little vague, and lacking in a sense of direction to me. I sorta feel like it’s a definition for being “human”: we’re all just trying to make sense of the changing and complex world we live in. But what makes the CPA unique? What do they bring to the table that others don’t?

“Accounting is the language of business.” We’ve all heard that one before. But is it really? Are there some realities of “business” that accounting fails to, well, “account for”? And all languages evolve — in what ways has our language evolved? Fair value accounting perhaps? Are the pictures we paint with numbers now, clearer or muddier than the ones we painted 25 or 50 years ago?

Let’s circle back to the auditing idea for moment: auditing requires a particular skill set, and a particular understanding. The goal is to be able to take a high level view of things, and trace it all the way down to its implications for the individual transaction. And, in turn, to be able to see an individual transaction, and trace its significance all the way up to the high level view of things. To see both the particular and the general, in context. That requires a lot of knowledge about how things work, and how they work together; how they act and interact; what pushing on one side of the financial apparatus, causes to come out the other side. We could call it perspective: seeing both the forest, and the trees.

Maybe it’s here that we find our calling. We are about the business, of business. We are detail visionaries. Our visors look both downwards, and forwards. We are, dare I say…creative accountants.

So perhaps there are two ways to organize things: (1) You can organize things after they’ve happened, or (2) You can organize things in order to happen. If we’re not careful, we could get ourselves stuck in the former. But I propose the latter is where the true value to our customers is at, and what the CPA of the future should be about: helping people organize things to happen. But the ultimate test about whether we’ll be able to assume this identity, of course, is whether we can, well, organize ourselves to make this happen. How bout you: are you in?


Adrian Simmons is the Chief Creative Director of David G. Simmons, CPA in the Washington, D. C. Metro area. Look for Adrian’s article on Thriveal the first Monday of each month. You can also follow Adrian on twitter at @AdrianGSimmons .



  • On 10-01-2012 at 9:41 am, Kevin McCoy said:

    The last paragraph sums up our quandry so well. I love how you worded it. Great job.

  • On 10-01-2012 at 9:44 am, Jody Padar said:

    That’s why CPA’s always add value to TAX! The CPA value is the planning not in compliance! Sorry…you know I hate auditors!

  • On 10-01-2012 at 10:25 am, Benjamin Sargent said:

    Great summary, I find myself thinking about the same thing a lot when people ask “what do you do exactly.” As a small business CPA, it’s easy to say “I do taxes”, but in reality when I’m doing my job well taxes are a byproduct of the real service which is helping a client understand their business. Now I just tell people that I help businesses understand where they’ve been, where they are and if they really want to know: where they are going. “Oh, you’re a business consultant?” nope I’m a CPA, I do that stuff for fun. They job isn’t about numbers, it’s about people and communication. we’ve been able to train robots to do all the number for us.

  • On 10-01-2012 at 11:10 am, Adrian G. Simmons said:

    Thanks Kevin — appreciate it! 🙂

    And right with you on the planning part Jody — so true.

    Agreed Benjamin: we’re trying to find a way to explain ourselves to help people understand what we’re about — it’s a new day!

  • On 10-01-2012 at 12:32 pm, Michael Wall said:

    Great artcile Adrian.

    Benjamin – You’re right, it’s easy to default to say “I do taxes”, but when you tell them what you really can do, they get very interested. Keep it up!

  • On 10-01-2012 at 6:45 pm, Kara Haas said:

    Great points, Adrian. Love “We are about the business, of business.” and echo Kevin’s props on the last paragraph. Inspiring, insightful and came across my desk when I needed it the most!

  • On 10-01-2012 at 9:37 pm, Adrian G. Simmons said:

    Thank you Kara for your very kind words, and I’m glad it was able to help brighten your day. 🙂

  • On 10-02-2012 at 2:49 pm, Greg Kyte said:

    Everybody’s going off on the last paragraph. Yeah, it’s good. Great job. But I like the monicker “Detail Visionary” in the seventh-to-last sentence. Don’t just skip to last paragraph, people. That’s kind of cheating. You’re better than that.

  • On 10-02-2012 at 4:23 pm, Adrian G. Simmons said:

    Thanks Greg, and agreed: no cheating — it’s just, un-accountant-like. 😉


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