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The 2019 NYSSCPA Awards: Distinguished Service Award Winner J. Michael Kirkland Renowned for His Generosity of Spirit

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 13, 2019

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If you have attended any Society event in the last decade, particularly if you’re in the New York City area, it is highly likely that, at some point in time, you have run into J. Michael Kirkland, former Society president and the winner of this year’s NYSSCPA Distinguished Service Award. Even if that’s not the case, you have almost assuredly run into someone who knows him and has at least one story involving him. This is because, for years, he has been a consistent and expansive presence in the Society, having served it in virtually every capacity imaginable—board member, committee member, chapter president, Society president and any other designation you’d care to think of.

Why? According to Kirkland, because he likes to help.

“The most valuable thing a CPA can give is their time, and I’m more than willing to give up my time to share what a wonderful profession we have,” he said.

Kirkland did not set out, however, to make such a mark on the Society. He first joined it in the early 1980s, shortly after getting his license, at the behest of another former Society president, Francis T. Nusspickel, with whom he was working at Arthur Andersen. Kirkland became a member of the Minority Recruitment Committee, a predecessor of today’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He moved to London a few years later, but still maintained his Society membership throughout more than a decade that he was there. This paid off in 2002, when he returned to New York and saw that the Manhattan/Bronx Chapter was seeking new board members.

Kirkland said he wanted to get involved with the Society, not because it was a résumé builder but because he attributed much of his professional success to being a CPA and thought it was important to give back. Once he was seated on the board, he began developing a reputation as someone who was always eager to help, which, in turn, led to others reaching out to him even more.

“Anytime I saw an opportunity to help, to provide some input, I’d volunteer for it, and suddenly people would just call me—‘Mike, would you do this and consider that’—and it just worked out that way,” he said.  “I did it with a great deal of humility and gratitude, because people are looking to me to do certain things.”

A very short list of the Society service opportunities that Kirkland has agreed to take part in includes the Board of Directors, the Foundation for Accounting Education (FAE) Board of Trustees, the Moynihan Scholarship Fund Board of Trustees (he is currently chair-elect), the Industry Outreach Task Force, the Awards Committee, the Banking Committee, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Executive Committee, the FAE Curriculum Committee, the Finance Committee, the Quality Enhancement Policy Committee, the Sustainability Committee—and, of course, extensive work in the Manhattan/Bronx Chapter. When asked what his favorite thing was, he motioned around the room and said, “This space!” referring to the Society’s 14 Wall St. offices.

In the early 2010s, the Society was looking to move out of its midtown location. As the leader of the task force to find a new space, Kirkland and other members combed the city for a suitable location that was both convenient for the members and within the Society’s budget, eventually settling on its current location, both for its affordability and its proximity to multiple subway lines. The move took place in July 2013.

“I learned a lot and worked with a lot of good people. … We found this space, and I think we got a very good deal for this space. I’m very proud of that,” he said.

With all these experiences, Kirkland has become known as a mentor and guide, not only for the Society itself, but also for the profession as a whole, particularly since he retired from the financial services industry. From the moment he joined the Society, he has been deeply involved in guiding young people into and through the profession, particularly those from traditionally underrepresented communities. He makes it a particular point to regularly meet and speak with students and young professionals, and encourage them to become active members in the Society.

Kirkland told a story about a young woman he met who joined at his suggestion. Shortly after becoming a member, she lost her job in the nonprofit sector. Kirkland recommended that she join the Not-for-Profit Organizations Committee; she did. Then he asked whether she was going to meetings, and she replied that she only called in. He encouraged her to go in person, as there were “movers and shakers” there. So she did. Once there, said Kirkland, a man sat next to her and asked what she did, and she explained that she was looking for work. The man said he might have a job for her, and Kirkland said she got the job.

“Does it happen all the time? No. But if you’re not at the table, it doesn’t work,” he said.

Kirkland believes that, particularly for minority populations, it’s important for him to be a role model—to show that success is possible and that he is proof. He noted that he was the second African-American Society president, including Bert N. Mitchell, and that their presidencies were 25 years apart. He wants to show that “it can be achieved; the proof is in the pudding.” He is currently serving a two-year term as president of the Accountants Club of America, an organization focused on building relationships and community within the profession. During his term, he plans to increase the organization’s brand recognition among underrepresented groups.

“My niece asks me, ‘Why do you do all this?’ And I told her I want to demonstrate … that it can be done, that if you put yourself out there, there is nothing you cannot do, but you just must make that first step,” he said.

It is that “first step” that Kirkland finds himself repeatedly encouraging younger people to make. He noted that he was recently at a Society event where he found several young African-American and Latino professionals talking to each other in a tight cluster.

“So I walked over and said, ‘What are you plotting?’” he continued. “And they looked around and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Kirkland,’ and I said, ‘Why aren’t you mingling with the group? I’m glad to see you here, but … why do you gravitate only to people you know? Go out to other people and let them know what you do and find out what they … do. Don’t just be a wallflower.’”

He noted that, since his presidency, the number of people of color both in the Society in general and on the Board has been “way up,” which he has found very encouraging, as “now you have a population to pick from to be a future president of the State Society.”

Despite all of these accomplishments, however, Kirkland said he was “gobsmacked” when he found out he had won the award. He found just being nominated to be a humbling experience, let alone winning.

“I was overwhelmed someone would consider me. To have won the award, that was just amazing,” he said.

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