Ep. 235: Brian Hock - Certifications: Your Ticket to Career Success and Growth

September 25, 2023 | 24 Minutes

In a rapidly evolving accounting landscape, how can professionals demonstrate their skills and experience to stand out? Certifications! In this episode, veteran accounting educator and President of HOCK International, Brian Hock outlines the immense value of professional certifications for career-long growth and development. 

Learn how certifications like the CMA provide a standardized body of knowledge to showcase specialized expertise. Discover how the right certifications position you for success as technology and demands transform. Gain perspective on certifications as a strategic investment in your future, increasing opportunities and earning potential over the length of your career. 

Brian draws on extensive experience preparing accounting students and professionals for certifications to offer advice on overcoming barriers like cost or study time. He provides encouragement that passing rigorous exams like the CMA, while requiring dedication, is very achievable with the right preparation and planning.

If you're looking to get strategic and maximize your career potential in accounting, this episode is a must-listen! You’ll come away motivated to pursue professional certifications and equipped with insights to choose the right certifications for your goals.

Full Episode Transcript:
Adam:            Today on Count Me In, we have a great episode in store. Our guest is Brian Hock, president of Hock International and an experienced accounting educator. Who has been teaching finance and accounting certifications for over two decades. Brian provides keen insights into the value of professional certifications like the CMA, and how they can benefit accounting professionals throughout their career.
He discusses the importance of certifications in demonstrating specialized knowledge and skills, as well as how certifications, like the CMA, help professionals stay current in a rapidly changing business landscape. Brian offers advice for overcoming barriers to obtaining certifications. Emphasizing the long term career rewards, that make certifications a smart investment. With technologies and an evolving talent gap impacting the accounting field, Brian's perspective is extremely timely. Now, let's welcome Brian Hock.
Adam:            Well, Brian, we're really excited to have you on the Count Me In podcast today. And, just to jump right in, can you share with us, with our listeners, why are certifications so critical, especially in the field of accounting?
Brian:             Well, first, Adam, thanks for having me. It's great to be with you. The question of certifications is one that is very important for somebody's career. And the way I explain it is that there are however many thousands and thousands of universities around the world, and they all have different quality of an accounting program, accounting professors, the classes that they teach. 
And, so, just because somebody has an accounting degree, we aren't really in a position to know what that person knows. What they studied, how they studied, how well they did. But a certification is a specific body of knowledge. A specific syllabus that is the same for everybody who takes it anywhere in the world.
And, so, the term certificate, it's a certification because it's that standardized test that everybody who's passed it has passed the same content. And, so, it's a person's way of showing what they know separate from their university. Because a lot of universities may be very good universities, but they're not known outside the city, the region that they're in. And nobody outside that city or region is aware that the person has such a strong accounting education or finance education. But a certification shows that.
Adam:            It does, and, I think, we're hearing that a lot more. Especially, in the world of accounting, with so many different things happening. So many new technologies coming out there. One of the biggest things we're hearing about is things like the talent gap. So how are certifications helping bridge that talent gap, especially in the finance and accounting sector?
Brian:             Well, a good certification helps bridge that by staying current, and this is something that I know CMA does. I've been teaching CMA for almost 25 years, and it's a number of syllabuses that I've taught. Because what accounting and finance professionals need to know, what they're using on their job, has changed over time. 
And, so, with IMA doing such a good job of keeping the CMA syllabus up to date and relevant. That is part of that talent gap being addressed, by making certain that the people that come out through CMA have those skills. And the obvious example is AI wasn't in the syllabus 20 years ago, but it was put into the syllabus in 2020.
And, so, technology is a big one, as technology changes. As the skill set that people need to use that technology changes, data analytics, visualization, are in the syllabus now, but they weren't ten years ago. And, so, a certification that keeps its syllabus current addresses that gap by making certain that the people who come out of that certification have those current, and practical, and relevant skills that are needed in the market today.
Adam:            Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Now, you have been in this accounting space, in the certification space, teaching people certifications for a while. How have you seen that demand change over the years, and what trends you see us going towards in the future?
Brian:             I think one of the things that's happened, and continues to happen, is more and more what I would call a specialty certification. You take something like CMA, and it's accounting and finance, at a fairly broad scope. It's not specific to receivables, or payables, or bookkeeping, or a specific type of banking.
But now you have certifications that are specifically about fraud examining. You have certifications that are about a controller position or a specific element of a business. And those are wonderful certifications for people that are a little further along in their career. That have some experience and know what it is that they're going into.
But when we talk about young people just starting their career. The certification that they need is one that's going to keep as many doors as possible open for them, as long as possible. And when I talk to a university student, I say, "Well, if you know that you want to go into investment banking, then that's the certification you need to pursue."
"If you know that you want to go into some particularly niche area, then, find that specific niche certification."
But most people, until they've been five or 10 years in their career, don't know what they want to do for the next 20 years. And, so, there are niche certifications that are developing, which are for later in somebody's career after they know where they're going. But we still have the same certifications around the world that were there 25 years ago. ACCA, SEMA, CPA, CMA, that are those very strong foundational certifications, that keep a lot of doors open for the people who have them.
Adam:            So do you think there's a benefit of getting into certifications when you're still in school or just about to graduate? Is there a benefit there?
Brian:             The benefit starts whenever you start studying. And, so, if you're going to get the benefit from the certification, you want to start as soon as possible. And that's really while you're still at university, if you can. Even just studying for one of the certifications, one of the parts, is important.
And, also, if we look at all of the different learning outside of certifications that IMA has available, students at university can do some of those classes. Do some of the classes about data analytics and visualization and get those, even if it's not a certification, get that process of learning and demonstrating to your potential employer. That you are serious about your career, and you know that these are the issues that employers need, that employees need to be able to do. And, so, starting the earlier you can, as early as you can, is the best.
Adam:            Yes, and it's great when you can start that early because then you, kind of, know the trajectory of where you're going. And one of the things we're hearing about and people are writing about, especially, in the finance and accounting industry, is that there is a talent shortage in accounting. There's not a lot of people going into this. How do you think that's impacting the industry, and what are some things that we can do to help address it?
Brian:             Well, it's interesting; one of the things that a shortage like that should do is it should drive up salaries, simply because of supply and demand. It seems like that hasn't happened quite yet. I have a son in college, who's making these decisions about majors, and it's a question of what are the salaries that you can get from the different business majors that's coming out of university.
I think one of the things, from an accounting standpoint, is we talk about people, young people, should do what they love and follow their passions. Well, for a lot of people, their passion is something they may not be very good at. Whether it's sports or music or something. But we need to remember that any business that's involved in that industry has accountants.
And, so, I say, you may love basketball, but you may not be very good at it. But a basketball team, a basketball league, has an accountant. You may love music, but you can't sing, you can't play an instrument, but every record label, every music company has accountants.
And, so, it's a matter of helping people recognize that an accountant is really working within an industry. And whatever industry you like, whatever your passions are in the world. If it's in automotive, you like cars, you don't want to be a race car driver. You can't be a race car driver. But all the car companies, the race teams, have accountants.
And, so, it's a matter of helping people see that it's more than just tax. It's more than just making debits and credits all day. But you can connect to what it is that you love to do with accounting or finance.
Adam:            I've never heard anybody say it from that perspective, and that opens up a huge world because every industry has a business aspect. So even if you're not good at that specific thing, that all the people making the millions of dollars, making records, or whatever, but there's people behind the scenes who are making the business run. And there's so many assets of that business that are available to you. Whether it is accounting or some other field that you're like, "Hey, I'm interested in that part aspect of it."
Brian:             Well, and even if you take into account nonprofits, and somebody wants to do something that's giving back, specifically, to a specific cause or area. Well, there are nonprofits that operate in those areas.
And, so, volunteer within that nonprofit, I mean, maybe, they have a job in the accounting or finance, and that depending on their size. But whatever it is that you enjoy doing, there is a job in accounting or finance that is connected to it.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, oh, that's great. So coming back to the conversation about certifications. You said a lot of the good certifications are ones that, kind of, open the most doors for you. And they help accountants stay up to date with rapidly changing things, and they're making sure their syllabus stays there. In light of increased things, like increasing automation and technology advancements. How can you stay relevant? Because certifications are very large and it's hard to keep them up to date with the most rapidly changing things.
Brian:             Well, this is a big thing right now, AI and Chat GPT, whatever version they're up to. And a lot of people just at the various conferences with IMA that we were at, recently. The question is; are accountants going to have a job in five years, five days, five weeks, whatever the case may be? And, I think, the answer to that is absolutely yes.
All of these changes in technology are just continuing the changes that have happened in technology, in the past, in that they are tools. It's not going to make a decision. It's not going to be able to interpret, for example, when we talk about ratios, anybody that has a definition or the formula for a ratio and the financial statements, can figure out what the ratio is. I mean, you find fixed assets, you can find the number. So calculating a ratio isn't that difficult, it isn't that challenging, and that's something a computer can do. 
But the question is, what does that ratio mean? And if that ratio means something negative for the company, what is the correction to it? What do we need to do to respond to that, to react to that, to fix that, to address that, whatever the case may be?
And, so, AI and these new tools may be able to manipulate more data more quickly than we can. They may be able to see patterns in the data that we aren't able to see. But it still requires a person who understands the business, understands the industry, to take that information and make it into a useful decision for the company.
And it's something, too, that when we talk about capital, budgeting, and various other things within the exams. We talk about there's a quantitative element, the number. You make the calculation, and the net present value is positive, the net present value is negative. But then there's also a qualitative element to that as well. "If we make this decision, what happens?" 
"If we open a factory…?"
"If we close a factory…?"
"If we expand…?"
"If we contract…?"
And, so, all of those qualitative factors, I'm not sure that AI is who we want making that decision. Yes, I'm happy to have the computer calculate the ratios for me.
But I don't think I want the computer to make the decisions about what we do as a result of those ratios. Because there are so many things that go into that, other than the simple calculation that was made in that quantitative analysis. 
And, so, if somebody is starting their career and they want to make certain that they have a job five years, 10 years, from now, you need to know how to use those tools. If you can't use those tools, you're going to be at a tremendous disadvantage. A little bit like if we were to say that you didn't know how to use Excel at all. And you go to a job, and they ask, "So how are you at Excel?"
And you say, "Well, I've heard of it, but I'm really good at math. I've got this great calculator; I don't need Excel."
Well, no, that's not the case, an Excel is a tool that helps you take your great math to the next level. And that's what all these other tools coming out on a daily basis are. We need to know how to use them, and apply them, and make them relevant to the decisions that we need to make. But they may replace the calculations, the data entry, the routine work.
But if we're studying CMA, that's not the work we want to do ourselves anyway. We want to be the ones that work with those numbers after it's been sifted through, and analyzed, and all of that. So you need to know how to use these tools because they will help you do your job better.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, yes, they do, they help you do your job better. And, like you said, they are tools. They're not replacing us; they're tools to help make some aspects of our jobs easier. So that we can enhance our strategic, and other aspects of our job that are things that we humans still do, at least, at this point.
Brian:             One of the things that we need to keep in mind, when we're talking about our job, or our career, or the future, is it all comes down to adding value. Are we able to add value to the organization we work for? And we can do that if we don't spend time calculating numbers that can be calculated by anybody. Calculating a ratio is not a high-level skill. But if we spend all of our time at work calculating ratios, we're not really adding value to the organization.
If we have the tools that allow us to make those, calculate ratios, or whatever it is that we're calculating. Then we have more time to take that information and actually add value to the organization, by understanding what that information is, how to use that information, how to make decisions based on that information, to add value to the organization. And all of these are just tools that help us have more time and better information to add value, which is why we're going to continue to have a job.
Adam:            Yes, for sure. Now, certifications are quite an investment. And, maybe, we can discuss a little bit, what are some of the barriers that might prevent individuals from pursuing or attaining certifications, and how can those things be overcome? Because every aspect of the world, people live in different areas. There's many different barriers that can occur, at times.
Brian:             I think I'll break it down into two broad categories of barriers, and then how we address each one of them. One of them is, obviously, a financial barrier.
And this comes to the fact that different countries, different economies, different scales. And, so, for some people, young people, an accounting student at university, a finance student at university, the cost of taking CMA may become a barrier. I'm a young professional that just got married, has a child, and doesn't have a lot of disposable income. IMA helps with that, student scholarships, I know, for university students.
But even when we look at the amount of money that it costs, and even if we do without any discounts or anything like that, just we register and we pay. We need to keep in mind what the return is on that investment. And if you say you buy materials, you register, and you earn two and a half thousand dollars. Well, that return is going to be for the rest of your career. So if you make even $1,000 a year more, which is a low number, but $1,000 a year more over 25 years. You have a $25,000 return on a $2,500 investment.
Okay, time value of money in the $1,000 is 25 years from now. But still $25,000 return on a $2,500 investment is very good. And, so, when we're talking about that financial investment, it's a question of perspective.
Yes, in the short term, it's a large amount of money, and I don't want to discount that or minimalize that, in any way. But when we keep in mind what that potential return is when you pass, and have 25,000, 25,0000, whatever that number of a higher salary through certification is. It makes it a very good case for whatever you need to do to get that registration done. You don't buy your coffee at the coffee shop every day. You don't go on vacation one time. I mean, you make those sacrifices for the longer term benefits.
The other barrier, I think, for a lot of people is it's a big syllabus. It's a difficult exam. There's a low pass rate and people are just afraid to do it. They're afraid to fail, or they don't want to fail. But this is something, I mean, I've been doing CMA for almost 25 years now, and it is a difficult exam. We want it to be a difficult exam, it should be a difficult exam. If it's not a difficult exam, it doesn't provide any value. So it is a difficult exam, but it is also a very passable exam.
And, so, if you start and you're worried and you're intimidated, you make a plan, you make a schedule. You're trying to find 200 hours to study for part one and 200 hours to study for part two, and you do it step by step. This is not something you have to learn today, tomorrow, or this week, it's a marathon. And that marathon requires commitment, and dedication, and a plan, and a strategy, and your spouse's understanding, that you're not going to be as available for going out and having fun all the time.
But this comes back to the return on investment. You spend two years studying, but the benefit is not only a salary benefit but it becomes also your career is better. You're in better positions, you're traveling, all of those benefits come. And, so, yes, it's an investment; it's a monetary investment, it's a time investment, it's a nerves and stress investment. But it's going to benefit you from the time you start until the time you retire. And, so, if you know you want a career in accounting or finance, start today, if you haven't already.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, that's huge. I like the marathon analogy. If you talk to any marathoners, the hardest part is those last six miles, that 20 to 26 miles, or 26 and a quarter miles, that's the hardest part for them. Because getting up to that 20 miles' point, you're good.
But then you have to finish, and finishing is sometimes the hardest part. But once you finish, when they cross that finish line. You see pictures of marathoners, they look exhausted, but the elation on their face, and I'm sure it's the same for passing a certification, is like, "Hey, I've gotten to this point and now I can see the benefits from that."
Brian:             Yes, you spend two years, a year and a half studying. But you have to keep in mind why you're doing it, and it's the whole rest of your career you get the benefit. And we also talk, I think, too, often, we talk simply about CMA and certification, and that's obviously a big part of it. But if you then look at what you get for the rest of your career from continued membership in IMA. The opportunities, the networking, it's where you find your next job. It's where you find the person you're going to hire.
And, so, when you add all of that in not only the certification, but that whole professional organization that you're a part of, that you're a member of, that you benefit from, it's something that you need to start. You're not alone, other people have done it before you. They've shown it's possible. You know it's a benefit.
So you just keep in mind why it is that you're doing this and how it's not a one-time bonus that you get from your employer, if you pass the exams. But this is something that's going to be the rest of your career. And if you're just out of college, this could be 40 years that you're going to benefit from this two years of studying and the little bit of a financial sacrifice you had to make.
Adam:            Yes, it's that community that builds from either your local chapter, you go to local conferences, or the annual conference or whatever it is. You can build that community, and that community can become almost like a second family, as you grow in your career.
Brian:             Yes, well, and as you grow in your career, your employer, before they promote you, they want you to have experience in leadership, or in management, or decision making. And it's hard to get that in a company. But you volunteer with your IMA chapter, you volunteer with IMA, and you have that opportunity to meet people, to lead things, to organize things. To get that experience that every organization is looking for in their people. And you have the opportunity to do it in a way that really benefits you and your career as well.
Adam:            Yes, I think that's a huge benefit of professional accounting organizations. IMA, obviously, this is an IMA podcast, but whatever your specific field is within the accounting industry. Whether you're like, "Hey, I'm an internal auditor, so I'm going to join the CIA." Or whatever those things are.
You want to be able to have those different elements. And those things can help motivate and incentivize individuals to gain certifications. Because you see your colleague, "Hey, my colleague got the CMA, got the CPA" got whatever the certification is. And they say, "Hey, I want to join that; I want to participate in that."
Brian:             Positive peer pressure.
Adam:            Yes. So, Brian, this has been a great conversation. And as we wrap things up, what are some takeaways that you want our audience to remember, as we wrap up the conversation here?
Brian:             Well, when we're talking about certifications, and I've said it enough already, I may as well repeat it one more time. Is the time frame that you benefit from the knowledge and the skills that you learn. I mean, it's not only the certification, it's the skills that you learn while you're preparing for the certification. That this is something that's from now until the end of your career. And if something is able to benefit you that long, why wait to get it? Why wait to start that process? 
And, so, it's a matter of keeping in mind the perspective of this is a short-term investment of time. It's a significant investment of money, in the short term, as well, but the payback for it is ongoing. The increase in salary, the increase in your performance, the opportunities in your country, outside of your country, it's almost immeasurable. And it's hard to calculate the return on investment because the return is so high and the investment is so small. If you're in the field of accounting or finance, certification is absolutely the best investment that you can make.
Adam:            And, as we've already said, it significantly starts to close that talent gap that we've seen, and also will help with the talent shortage. As people can, as you mentioned before, be able to get into different industries because every industry needs an accountant to run the books.
Brian:             Right. And as technology changes, it's still somebody who knows what that information means, knows how to use all of this data. Think how much data companies collect now from their customers, their suppliers, their employees, the production process. So this is massive amount of data. But somebody has to be able to sort through it and understand what's relevant, what's not relevant, and how to act on it, to add value to the company. 
And, so, learning the skills in your certification, staying current through continuing professional education, and staying current in the profession. AI is going to come, AI is going to develop, all these tools are going to develop. But the person who knows how to use them and knows what to do with all that information, is going to be the one leading the organizations. The one certainly that's going to have a job, for as long as they want to work.
Adam:            Definitely. Well, Brian, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate your insights, and we look forward to having you back in the future.
Brian:             It was my pleasure, thanks for having me.
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