Johnson, new head of NJCPAs, feels challenges add up to opportunities

Whether it comes to attracting more diverse workforce — or implementing new technology — incoming CEO says profession is at pivotal point

Aiysha “A.J.” Johnson.

Aiysha “A.J.” Johnson, the new CEO of the New Jersey Society of CPAs, sees an organization that has established itself as a force for good for its members — and a source of impact for business leaders and elected officials.

She sees a group that has connections with the biggest and smallest accounting firms in the state.

She sees an organization that has a well-established brand — and a pipeline for the future.

Most of all, Johnson sees opportunity.

As she steps into the position full-time this week, Johnson said the organization is on such solid ground, it can fully embrace and engage the challenges the profession is facing:

  • Attracting (and more importantly, retaining) women and people of color;
  • Understanding (and utilizing) artificial intelligence;
  • Raising the profile (and the pay) of the profession as a whole.

“I think that we are in a very interesting time right now for the profession,” she said. “That’s why coming to the NJCPA is very exciting for me, because I can continue to support the profession and push for it. I know there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of issues impacting us.”

Johnson succeeds Ralph Thomas, a grand figure who guided the organization for more than two decades. And she does so with a lot of expertise.

Johnson will bring a wealth of association management experience to the NJCPA as she transitions from her role as executive director of BKR International’s Americas Region, where she was responsible for overseeing the implementation of all strategic efforts for BKR accounting and business advisory member firms in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. She also has more than 20 years of experience working for nonprofits, including professional and trade associations, building strategic partnerships and developing member value strategies.

Prior to BKR, Johnson held various leadership positions, including director of brand experience and marketing. She also worked at Vizient, the nation’s largest health care performance improvement company, supporting members with complex benchmarking needs. Throughout her career, she has organized meetings domestically and internationally, convened CEO roundtables and led organizational change and governance efforts, technological transformation and member development.

Johnson said these types of meetings will be a key part of her early efforts at NJCPAs.

“I see a key to building upon our success will be listening to all of our members who are represented throughout the state and working closely with a team and the board,” she said.

“From a strategic perspective, we’re looking to continue to elevate our brand and ensure the voice of CPAs is being heard. That means being involved with various business organizations as well as having a voice within New Jersey and the Legislature.”

Being out in front in a purposeful way is important — and impactful — Johnson said.

“Being a CPA is not about just sitting behind your desk and crunching numbers,” she said. “I think that we have to tell a different story. We need to be able to show the different environments in which CPAs are making an impact. And I think that we’re very much positioned to do so. And I’m looking forward to that.”

Johnson, who earned her Bachelor of Science in health education and promotion at Western Illinois University and a Master of Arts at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice at the University of Chicago, recently spoke with ROI-NJ about her new role.

Here is more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the state of the profession.

A.J. Johnson: I think we’re at a crossroads in the profession. This is going to be very critical in the next few years as we bring more young people into the profession. I think we need to tell our story.

ROI: How do you mean?

AJ: This is a people profession. CPAs are working on behalf of large companies, small businesses, nonprofits, you name it. And at the end of the day, the impact they have is huge. As an example, CPAs played a very critical role during the pandemic. I think that they helped to keep small business alive. And they have a part to play in keeping our economy strong. And I think that … we focus on that.

It’s about working with our educators. We need to get students to experience a day in the life of what it is really like to be a CPA — we have to tell that story; we have to talk about the impact.

We need to get folks who are very smart and talented excited about being part of this profession.

ROI: A big part of bringing people into the profession is increasing the number of people you are drawing from. Accounting traditionally has been challenged when it comes to attracting people of color. What impact can you have there?

AJ: I think the key thing is to keep the conversation open. A lot of people will not understand the value of diversity, at least not right away. But there’s a lot of research that has been done that, when you bring diversity of perspective and diverse individuals, that those are really opportunities. I strongly support diversity.

I think that diverse individuals will be able to help fill that pipeline if they feel that they’re included. The inclusion piece is going to be really important, because you don’t want to fill a position, and then have to go back out and recruit because you’re not paying attention and you’re losing the talent you’re bringing in. So, there’s a business case for diversity, but everyone needs to be able to see themselves at the table.

That’s why we have to keep that conversation open. We know there are challenges, but we have to work toward it.

ROI: Another challenge comes with women. It’s not a challenge to draw them to the profession — but keep them. What can you do there?

AJ: There’s some truth to that idea — and I think that it speaks to what I just mentioned about diversity. It doesn’t matter which group you’re talking about, if you bring in people and you can’t retain them, you have to ask why. With females in particular, it often speaks to the flexibility.

When we’re talking about women, we’re often talking about having families and balancing that with the long hours. There has to be examples of females at the managing partner level who can say, ‘I did it, and here’s how I did it.’ And the profession has to be supportive of flexibility, because life happens.

We have to think about self-care in general. I think that that’s really important. If we can take some of that into the workforce, I think we can be competitive. But, we have to change the narrative and look at opportunities.

ROI: Of course, looking right back at the profession is artificial intelligence. AI is going to impact every profession, but some feel accounting is one where its impact can be high. What are your thoughts?

AJ: Technology is a disrupter, but it’s also an opportunity.

ROI: There’s that word again, opportunity: How do you mean?

AJ: AI is an opportunity for people to work differently. We know that there are opportunities for enhancements, such as looking at the audit and AI being able to generate predictive results. It might be an opportunity to see variances or potential for fraud and things like that.

I don’t think AI is going to replace the profession. I think that we’ll use the technology in different ways in order to enhance the profession. We just need to be able to embrace and address the technology — in the same way that folks had to transition to work-from-home and allow their teams to do that.

I think just having that awareness, and not being blind to the fact that it does have impact, is important.

ROI: OK, last question. You had built a terrific career — what made you want to pivot and do this job, lead this organization?

AJ: What attracted me to the role is that I have built a lot of amazing relationships already with individuals in this organization who are at different firms. To have the ability to go deeper in NJCPA and really represent the state of New Jersey and the interests of CPAs at the state level, I think is very rewarding.

To be able to really look at these issues that we just talked about — and be a part of positive change while elevating NJCPA and creating awareness — is a special opportunity. That’s why I’m so excited, because we haven’t figured out all of this stuff. But we’re working toward it.

As someone who studied organizational management, this excites me. I’m attracted to working for organizations that are truly mission-based and driven by a specific purpose. I’m really excited to work with the team.

I know that Ralph has done wonderful work over the past 23 years. I’m looking forward to really getting started listening to our members and building upon the success.