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Article: Learning for a living

Here’s my June CAMagazine column, about a new initiative that I have underway in my life.

Learning for a living
by Jim Carroll, CAMagazine, June 2010

So what does a CA who has evolved into a global futurist do for his next gig? Go back to school, of course.

It’s truly become an unusual job I’ve taken on over the past decade. At this point, I travel about 100,000 miles a year, speaking at 50 to 60 conferences or leadership meetings all over the world.

It’s a very odd feeling, standing backstage at the Theatre for the Performing Arts at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, about to go out and speak to 4,000 people. I can’t help but wonder, as an accountant, how did I ever get here?

I got here, I suppose, by somehow combining the inherent skills that any CA possesses in quickly sizing up business strategy issues and the ability to cut through the clutter to provide concrete guidance on strategies that should be pursued. Albeit, in my case, in a very different way.

And even as I ask myself that question backstage, I find myself wondering, what do I do next? I certainly don’t see myself keeping up the same pace of travel, yet I can see a natural transition in my role.

Over the past several years, I’ve been engaged by an in-creasing number of global Fortune 1,000 organizations to help them understand the trends that are going to impact them in the future and the innovation strategies they need to adopt to ensure they can keep up with fast-paced change. In other words, providing high-level guidance on strategic issues. So why not do that as a board member?

That’s why I’m now a student in the Directors Education Program, jointly developed by the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and the Institute of Corporate Directors. I’m learning the intricacies of being an effective director, acquiring new knowledge and upgrading some older knowledge (for example, much of what I know about financial disclosure needs to be re-placed, since I wrote the UFE more than 25 years ago).

Going down this path fits into one of the key career trends I speak about onstage, that learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century. Another trend I’ve been talking about for years is that most adults will have four or five different careers throughout their lifetime. I certainly don’t want my knowledge to stagnate, and hence, it was an easy decision to get back to the books.

Where will it lead me? I believe the process of corporate governance is going to undergo significant change in the next decade. I’m already in a role where I provide unique insight to a senior management team to help shape the strategic direction of the organization. As boards focus more on the future and less on the compliance issues of the past, there is a natural progression in terms of my role.

This line of thinking is borne out by an increasing number of discussions around the topic. For example, the folks at BoardSource, an organization actively involved in providing governance guidance to the nonprofit sector, noted in a recent article that “transformative governance means engaging in breakthrough thinking that embraces emerging trends and developments and asking the question, ‘What does this mean for governance?’” And the Harvard Business School touched on the issue in an article, challenging readers about the role of an audit committee with the question, “An organization’s books may be in order, but its performance may be going down the tubes. What’s to be done?”

What’s to be done is that corporate and not-for-profit boards take a more active role in linking future trends to the strategy pursued by the organization. Since I already seem to be doing that, I think this should be a fascinating next step in my truly odd career.

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