C- Suite Profile

Barry Melancon: Tackling accounting’s recruitment and retention future head on

International Accounting Bulletin (IAB) sat down with Barry Melancon, president and CEO of the joint AICPA-CIMA international association to discuss his career journey and his outstanding contribution to the development of the accounting industry. Santiago Bedoya-Pardo reports.

There are but a handful of individuals that are known throughout the world for their sustained contribution to the accountancy profession, and Melancon is one of them, having received the IAFA 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award in June.  

Melancon’s career spans 44 years, having joined the profession in 1979, first working for a small CPA firm in Louisiana and quickly progressing to partner. He then joined AICPA in 1995 and, under his leadership, the organisation has grown to become the largest professional accountancy body in the world. Following the merger with CIMA, a strategy designed to elevate management accounting globally, the combination now boasts around 700,000 members and students worldwide. He also played a key role in the establishment of the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation (CGMA).

Throughout his career, Melancon has sought to advocate for ethics and integrity as core values of the profession, helping shape policies aimed at protecting investors, enhancing transparency, and elevating the standards of the accounting profession. These efforts, as acknowledged at IAFA 2023 by his colleague Ash Noah, AICPA VP and managing director of management accounting & ESG, have played an instrumental role in rebuilding trust and confidence in the financial markets, reinforcing the fundamental principles upon which both the profession and the world’s economies thrive.

Together with his work at AICPA-CIMA, Melancon has further taken on a wide number of key roles in the financial services sector. These include:

  • Global chairman of the Board of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC);
  • Chairman of the XBRL-US;
  • Founder, chairman, and and board member of the Global Accounting Alliance (GAA), the Centre for Audit Quality (CAQ) and the US Government’s Transformation Initiative;
  • Board member of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Centre for Capital Markets Competitiveness; and
  • Delegate to the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).

Given his long-running career and commitment to the profession, the IAB first asked Melancon about his views on the main changes and shifts he has witnessed over the past 44 years, and how these relate to the wider world.

Melancon said: “I think if you had to pick one thing, it’d probably be the speed of change. I think that the profession is always changing. I mean, it is a profession that goes back 130 years – It is sometimes stereotyped as not having changed much at all. But in reality, the business world has changed dramatically. Society has changed dramatically throughout different phases, and for different reasons. And the profession has always done a really remarkable job in adapting to these changes.

“It deserves credit for its adaptability. If you take that 44-year period of time during which I’ve been involved in the profession, and look back to 1979, you didn't have microcomputers, you barely had what we knew as mainframe computers and things of that nature. Only with the 1980’s did we see the whole Microsoft evolution and revolution, with microcomputers, DOS operating systems, and so on.

“The reality is that there are a lot of things that are different. The profession is the most global of all professions, and its global nature in that 40-year period has really ramped up. When you look at the largest firms, their global networks and the next tier of firms and their global index networks, there are just numerous examples of that. Businesses, being more global than ever before, are also more interdependent than ever before. And all businesses need accountants, making the profession the most global profession in the world right now.”

Having touched on the changes and shifts experienced by the profession since the late 1970’s, the IAB sought to further explore the adaptability mentioned by Melancon, an adaptability which to him characterises the profession at large. These changes are palpable to this day, as seen with the advent of new AI technologies, such as generative AI.

Further commenting on the profession’s adaptability, Melancon said: “I think one of the reasons why we have been able to characterise ourselves as adaptable is the way in which we approach the profession. Our perspective seeks to keep in mind that all of our actions are in the public interest.

“We have a notion that we need to be actively embracing new things, we need to be responsive to the interests and needs of clients, stakeholders, and different groups in society. Keeping this in mind is very important for the profession. I believe our job, our profession, is something that is very meaningful to society, to both people and institutions, and by keeping ourselves aware of new trends and developments we can keep ourselves relevant to them.

“I also believe that this is true thanks to the huge influx of young people into our profession on an annual basis. If you look at the Big Four firms, or any global network, these entities have a huge percentage of their workforce coming from the younger generations. And this is not new, it has always been the case, whatever the younger generation of the day has been.

“This influx has been supported by the structure of the profession. When you run an organisation and you have well over 50% of your workforce coming in from the newest generation possible, it facilitates a bottom-up production of evolution and change within a firm.”

While the profession has always been characterised by this youthful intake, there have been numerous recent reports that the profession is facing a struggle to boost its intake of younger people. Addressing this issue, Melancon said: “The intake crisis is not just an issue for the United Kingdom, it’s an issue all over the world. There are some pockets throughout the world where the profession is doing a little better, yet these are the exceptions rather than the norm. One of the key factors leading to this is, I believe, cyclical, as has happened before.

“You can go back to the late 1990’s, in which we were living in a world characterised by what we then labelled the ‘.com’ boom. During this period, you had a huge migration of the young, especially in the West, who started moving to technology-based companies. We’re talking about the period that saw the birth of the Googles and the Amazons, the rebirth of Apple. It was a very attractive prospect for young people because it was energising, it was new, it was different.

“The opportunities this brought along, with people becoming millionaires overnight, became very attractive to young, smart people coming out of university. It was analogous to what we’re seeing today. Nowadays it’s AI, a couple of years back it was blockchain, and certainly before that, cloud computing. Technology has been a major driver behind these changes. You have a lot of people seeing these shifts in technology and the opportunities that come along with them, so you now have people reassessing how hard they work, what they do, and what they want to do with their lives.

“These shifts have had an impact on the profession. It’s hard to work in the profession if you go to work at a firm in the early stages of your career – it’s hard work, it’s a hard learning curve. Different firms and different businesses could offer higher starting salaries, making these roles more attractive to younger people. We have to understand the people who are joining the workforce today, the people who spent much of their late teens during the pandemic. Their whole view of the world is different. We need to find the best and brightest and make sure we offer them attractive opportunities.”

While Melancon outlined the steps firms and networks can take in order to boost this intake, IAB asked him about the best ways to not only attract young talent but identify the most competent candidates for early career roles in the profession. Understanding the strategies being employed by entities such as AICPA-CIMA, an organisation boasting over 700,000 members and students, is vital to grasp what the future of talent acquisition and retention holds.

On this, Melancon said: “First of all, each market is different. However, one of the things we have done is to change both the CGMA exam and the CPA exam to further embrace technology into the competency, set at a very significant level.

“In the case of CGMA, we’re seeking to deliver this new learning and assessment process alongside something called FLP – the financial leadership programme, which, by integrating new capabilities, seeks to attract young people with a new range of skills.”

As the conversation drew to an end, IAB sought to explore Melancon’s views on the past, present, and future of the profession, , asking what advice he would offer his younger self as he joined that small, Louisiana-based CPA firm in 1979.

Melancon concluded by saying: “Looking back, what I think I would tell myself - and this is something which I believe I in many ways thought – is that the impact of the profession is fantastic. The diversity of the profession is fantastic. The range of things you do and the people you meet is one of the strongest assets of the profession. However, I would not limit myself to that.

“I want to believe that I’m a person who has always embraced change, pushed change. In many instances people may have felt that I pushed for it too fast or too hard, but, no matter how far or how hard you push for that change, there probably needs to be more.

“A further point I would tell myself is that, at the end of the day, everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes, people in the profession make mistakes, governments make mistakes, businesses make mistakes. I think we can’t be afraid of that. We need to understand that the world is a very imperfect place, and if we keep in mind what our mission is, and that it is in the public interest, we can play an increasingly important role in the world of business, in society, and I think we need to remind ourselves not to lose sight of that.”

IAB, together with its sister publication, The Accountant hosted the IAFA 2023 Awards, which took place in London in June 2023.

Main image: Barry Melancon, president and CEO of the joint AICPA-CIMA