Michael Bryant, Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer (CFO), NASBA, attended college for one thing…to get a job. And, so he did. But, he had bigger plans than just “getting a job.” Bryant quickly realized that once he passed the CPA Exam and got licensed, he had something that no one could take away from him, which became a very big asset to his career path. Now, as the NASBA Vice President and CFO, Bryant, uses his skills, knowledge (and comedy improvisation skills) to strategize and collaborate with his colleagues. In the interview below, find out how Bryant became interested in accounting, why he became licensed as a CPA, what your accounting education doesn’t prepare you for, and much more.

When did you first become interested in accounting?

My parents lived in the depression era, so I grew up with the notion, “You went to college to get a job.” So, I decided to attend college at Middle Tennessee State University, and I knew I wanted to be a professional of some kind. I did not feel drawn to the medical profession and I thought about becoming a lawyer. I found law to be intriguing, but I struggled to get the right answers in my business law class, so I felt I did not seem to have a natural propensity for interpreting the law! It felt much more subjective than accounting. I like things to be resolved and I like to solve puzzles, and accounting gave me some element of completion in what I did.

Choosing accounting as my major was more of a practical decision, it was something I had ability in and it seemed like a good career path. I was accepted in the accounting program, I liked it and I exceled in it. I found that many people struggled with it, but I found it came natural to me.

What surprised you most about the inner workings of the accounting profession? What did your education not prepare you for?

The ability to socialize in a professional way. The soft skills side of the profession was not focused on very much when I was in school. I’m referring to skills like listening to others, communicating ideas in a non-threatening way, and being open to new ideas and tolerating different viewpoints. I imagine today’s graduates are much better at all this than I was! Another surprise was because, I had never been around business people growing up, and didn’t know there was an etiquette to business. Social graces as simple as dining protocols were new to me. Like me, some people aren’t exposed to those until later in life. Those are good areas to improve yourself. I have sent both my children to Cotillion classes so they will have the basics in those areas.

Why did you take the CPA Exam and become licensed? Why was this important to you?

Choosing a career that provided the opportunity to prosper financially was certainly a factor in my decision to be a CPA. I wanted to be able to experience the freedom to do what I wanted to do away from the office, but I knew I was not a Bohemian, Jack Kerouac kind of person at heart. I liked the security of having a steady job and a profession that offered a lot of job opportunities. I also liked that I was going to get to meet business people from all different areas of commerce. I’ve met bankers, politicians, CEOs, CFOs, marketing directors, property managers, etc. I’ve met so many people throughout my life because of the path I chose.

Did you ever run into any roadblocks while embarking on the journey to become a CPA?

The time required to prepare for the CPA Exam while balancing a career is certainly a roadblock to overcome. There is a relatively brief period of full immersion you must commit to. Once you get over that obstacle, pass the Exam and get licensed, you have something that no one can take away from you. That becomes a very big asset no matter what career path you take. It shows not only competence, but also the ability to set challenging goals and achieve them. That’s what getting through that period provides for the rest of your career. It’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.

What would you say to someone who is on the fence of getting their CPA license?

I would say it’s a structured path that results in the ability to launch any career. It provides you with the language of business and the ability to understand the financial information that management uses to make decisions. I think if you are drawn to fairness in the world, and if you have a strong character of ethics, those would be reason to pursue the CPA license. Society relies on CPAs to ensure that accurate information is available. Without accurate information, do you know, for example, if your 401k is correct? It’s wide open what you can do as a CPA, and if you want to work internationally, it provides an awesome opportunity for that. Because of the international reputation of the CPA license, there are companies all over the world seeking such licensed individuals.

I do think that it is an even better career path than years past because a lot of the grunt work is gone. Today, it is more focused on analysis of what the numbers say, and bringing value to all parts of an organization as a “business partner.” We aren’t that thick-glasses and pencil-protector stereotype that we used to be labeled as.

Looking back at the entire process of becoming a CPA, is there anything you would do differently now that you are licensed?

It would be to connect and to network more with the business community. I got my Exam out of the way within five months of being out of school, and two years later I was licensed. In this bubble of time, I was spending a lot of my time with other accountants. I wish I would have networked outside of my firm with other business leaders, and that would have opened other avenues of community involvement and, possibly, other career opportunities.

Being a CPA is not limiting at all unless you don’t network and neglect looking at all the possibilities for careers.

What is it like working at NASBA and being the CFO?

My job at NASBA is fast-paced and challenging. My basic role is to execute the strategy of the CEO. The CEO reports to the board of directors, who by hiring the CEO has essentially demonstrated their support for the strategy he or she brings. That’s the overarching job that I have. You learn a lot…what works…what doesn’t work, and what your external stakeholders need and deserve.

A recent project I have been involved in gave me an awesome opportunity to make a difference in our physical workspace. I saw how the transformation of our office space to a more open environment had a major change in our culture. Working with several professionals in the world of design, furnishings, and construction, I oversaw the project that redefined our office space into an environment that reflected our values of openness, collaboration and transparency. The change was significant and with change, one inevitably encounters resistance. As a leader, one must set a vision and establish the fact that that’s where we are going. It’s much too easy to listen to naysayers and change the vision on their behalf. We stayed true to what we wanted to accomplish and the results have been nothing short of phenomenal.

Many CPA candidates aspire to one day be in your shoes as a CFO. What have been some of the most important steps in your ability to reach this level in your career?

The most important steps are your willingness to learn, your openness to change, the skill of being a good listener, trusting your own common sense, and aligning yourself with your colleagues. These are the defining differences between many people who progress up and those who don’t. Also, putting the necessary work into an idea or path that the organization needs to take, requires the ability to influence. That is an essential element to becoming an executive. And it goes without saying that this influence must be coupled with good judgement.

Pursue things you love even if it’s not business related. My wife got me into improvisational comedy when we were dating. I loved the craft improv and loved making people laugh. What I learned in improv helped me as much in business as it did in my personal life. The first rule of improv is to say, “Yes and…” By saying yes, you acknowledge that you have heard what the person said and you can now add onto that idea. While applying the “rule,” to everyday business, it tends to lead to innovation and better choices rather than those who choose to say “no” or look at every idea with skepticism or criticism.

To connect with Michael Bryant, find him on LinkedIn.

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