Real-world lessons

Three PwC alumni prove that those who can do can also teach.

I had a wonderful run with PwC and I would not have had the same career opportunities had it not been for my experience there

- Joe Dionisio

James Flagg is a tenured academic with nearly 25 years of experience training aspiring accountants and auditors at Texas A&M University. Denise Hanes is a PhD student and a first-year auditing instructor at Bentley University. Joe Dionisio is a veteran healthcare executive who’s teaching classes at Penn State University as a post-retirement “encore” career. Despite their very different backgrounds, all three share something in common: They’re all PwC alumni, and they’re all committed to using their experience in the corporate world to bring the study of accounting, finance and administration to life.

Here, Flagg, Hanes and Dionisio discuss how they use their business networks- and even stay engaged in professional practice-to keep their curricula on the cutting edge. They also share stories about how they found their paths to the teaching profession, insights about what they love about working in academia and tips for others pondering making the transition from briefcase to backpack.

The straight talker: Joe Dionisio

With 40 years of high-level experience in the field of healthcare finance and management, Joe Dionisio knows exactly what he wants students to get out of his always-full classes in Penn State University’s Health Policy and Administration program. “In every course I teach, I tell the students that my objective is not to teach them how to think outside the box. My objective is to teach them what’s in the box, because they’re raw, and they truthfully don’t know,” Dionisio says.

The industry veteran’s deep knowledge of his subject matter combined with his sense of humor and knack for weaving illuminating anecdotes into his classroom lectures have made him one of the most popular and respected professors in the College of Health and Human Development. Last spring, just a year into his tenure, graduating students invited Dionisio to give the commencement address and recognized him as the faculty member who had most influenced their lives. “It was an emotional moment for me and my wife,” Dionisio recalls, “and it made it all worthwhile.”

Dionisio’s career in healthcare—and his working life as a whole—began at Price Waterhouse. He joined the Pittsburgh office after graduating college in 1969, and nine years later he was put on a team charged with “developing a healthcare presence where one didn’t previously exist.” He swiftly cultivated a clientele of community hospitals and advanced academic medical centers, making partner at the age of 31 and going on to lead PwC’s healthcare practice for the entire Ohio Valley region.

“I had a wonderful run with PwC,” Dionisio says, “and I would not have had the same career opportunities had it not been for my experience there.” But in 1989, the Allegheny Health System, based in Pittsburgh, offered Dionisio a position on its executive team. Seeing an opportunity to get off the road and take his career in a promising new direction, Dionisio made the leap. “There was a great deal to learn,” he says. By the time he left Allegheny a decade later, it had grown from a single advanced medical center into a statewide integrated- delivery system including 15 hospitals with 40,000 employees. During his last two years with the system, Dionisio helped lead a major organizational restructure that culminated in a merger with another healthcare organization.

His next stop was helping a distressed healthcare system based at Harvard Medical Center in Boston turn its financial fortunes around. About a year into the job, Dionisio was appointed president and CEO of one of the system’s affiliate hospitals, New England Baptist Hospital. He held the position until his retirement in 2008.

Dionisio grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State, and he knew he wanted to retire there. During his last year with New England Baptist, Dionisio recruited a summer resident from the university’s Master of Health Administration program. “I wanted to mentor the next generation of leaders,” he says. The experience proved satisfying, and upon resettling in State College Dionisio reached out to the university to volunteer his time to the College of Health and Human Development’s Health Administration program. He served as a case competition advisor, a guest lecturer, a graduate course evaluator and an adjunct faculty member. Soon the school hired him as a full-time Professor of Practice, a title bestowed on a rare few faculty members who, though lacking a PhD, bring extraordinary experience to the classroom.

Dionisio teaches finance courses to both undergraduate and graduate students, preparing them for entry into the demanding, growing field of healthcare administration. The program’s broad-based curriculum covers everything from understanding organizational behavior to identifying diseases, and from analyzing healthcare statistics to complying with healthcare law. Graduates qualify for positions as hospital department managers; healthcare industry consultants for firms such as PwC; and managers of private physician practice groups, an area of growing demand. Dionisio’s finance courses are designed to prepare students to manage the financial affairs of medical departments and practices—not to be hospital CFOs, but to work with them effectively to deliver results. “I focus on understanding financial statements, preparing budgets and strategic plans, evaluating capital expenditures and financial performance and dealing with revenue cycle issues,” he says.

But for healthcare administrators, there’s always more to learn and more challenges to overcome, in part because healthcare is such a highly regulated industry, Dionisio explains. The government requires hospitals to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, to adopt expensive electronic record-keeping systems and to accept dictated Medicare prices—all of which constrain profitability. “There’s never been an easy time of it,” Dionisio says. “At any one time, half the hospitals in the country lose money.”

That’s why Dionisio makes sure to supplement his students’ textbook readings with examples and case studies that expose them to the types of knotty problems and tough decisions they’ll face on the job. “I’m a storyteller,” he says. “The textbook for my Introductory Healthcare Financial Management class has 12 chapters in it, and I tell real-life stories related to all of them. By the time the course is done, my students have been through a year in the financial life of a hospital.” While instructive, the stories also serve to keep students entertained and engaged. “I like to say that a third of what I do is showmanship, and the other two-thirds is content,” Dionisio says.

Besides earning Dionisio compliments from students for his “street cred,” his tell-it-like-it-is approach to teaching gives future healthcare managers a window on a profession that, while intellectually and ethically demanding, promises substantial personal rewards. “I tell my students that it’s an industry that needs expertise,” Dionisio says. “There are tremendous opportunities in this field.” With the Penn State program’s job placement rate reaching 100% last year, Dionisio’s credibility got yet another boost.

The scholar: James Flagg

Auditing is in a constant state of flux. You have to keep up with the latest trends and developments, not only to better educate yourself, but also to pass that information along to your students

- James Flagg

“Auditing is where my heart is,” says James Flagg. “I love teaching it.” The Texas A&M University professor has been following his heart for nearly 25 years, educating a small army of CPAs and publishing a long list of scholarly articles on subjects related to auditing, financial accounting, SEC reporting, fraud and bankruptcy. Like Dionisio, he traces his career path to his early experience working for PwC—or, in Flagg’s case, Coopers & Lybrand (C&L).

Flagg joined C&L’s Houston office in 1976, right after earning his MBA at Texas A&M. Four years later, he was transferred to New York to work in the firm’s research office. Before the introduction of the Internet transformed the way people access information, associates would call in from around the country with questions about accounting rules and how to interpret them. “I got to really enjoy doing the research and coming up with, if not the answer to a question, an acceptable answer,” Flagg says. “Because from an accounting and auditing standpoint, it’s never cut and dried.”

In 1984, Flagg came to a career crossroads. He’d accomplished what he wanted to as a manager at C&L and was thirsty for a new challenge. But a chance to make partner was still three years away. Reflecting on his love of doing research, he decided to return to school for a PhD. “I’ve never really been a betting man,” Flagg says. “I was thinking, ‘If I wait around, I might be a partner. But three years down the road, I might not want to go back to school.’ It was one of those defining moments.”

Flagg moved back to College Station, Texas, and enrolled in classes at his alma mater, Texas A&M, in September 1985. “Three years later,” he says, “I was walking across the stage getting my PhD.” The chair of the accounting department immediately offered Flagg a job, and he’s been with the department ever since.

The challenge of mastering an ever-evolving subject is, for Flagg, a big part of what he loves about his job. “Auditing is in a constant state of flux,” he says. “You have to keep up with the latest trends and developments, not only to better educate yourself, but also to pass that information along to your students.” In addition to learning—and then imparting—details of new regulatory changes, that means leading class discussions about trends that are shaping the profession and the world, such as technology and globalization.

Sometimes those discussions point toward fascinating what-if scenarios, such as the transition to continuous auditing methods. Long predicted by Flagg and other academics, continuous auditing would give auditors direct, continuous access to companies’ financial systems, drastically reducing the time and personnel required to complete an audit. Other times, coursework might touch on academic research related to hot current topics, such as the alleged practice by some companies of overvaluing employee stock options. “It’s not like we’re trying to find a cure for cancer,” Flagg says of the role academic research plays in public and commercial life, “but if we don’t do our jobs, it creates a huge impact on the market.”

Flagg also calls on his network of PwC colleagues to bring their real-world expertise to his classroom. “Students really get a lot out of it,” he says. “It’s one thing to have a professor stand up and tell you something. But if you have someone from the field echoing those ideas, they sink in a little bit more.”

Most of Flagg’s students are enrolled in the school’s Professional Program in Accounting, a five-year, all-in-one undergraduate and master’s degree program that readies graduates for Texas’ CPA exam. In addition to technical knowledge, the program focuses on teaching students critical-thinking and communication skills—to such success that it’s one of the largest feeders of student interns to PwC. “We jokingly say, ‘You can’t mess up a good product,’” Flagg says. “They’re good students when they come to us, and we add a few finishing touches.”

It doesn’t hurt, though, that more than two decades after leaving public auditing, Flagg keeps his knowledge of the practice sharp. He reads relentlessly, and he maintains a strong foothold in the corporate world. He chairs the audit committee of a public company- which has given him hands-on experience with current matters such as implementing Sarbanes-Oxley requirements- and he serves as a governor-appointed member of the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, the agency responsible for licensing Texas CPAs. As chair of the board’s qualifications committee, he advises the state on the types of courses and the number of credit hours students must complete to qualify to take the CPA exam.

Each year, he attends the state board ceremony, where newly minted CPAs receive their certificates. “Other board members always comment on how many former students come up and shake my hand,” he says proudly. “To have a student that I had in class years earlier shake my hand and tell me ‘thank you’-that’s very rewarding.”

The thing I probably value most in my role now is that I get to stay connected with the firm and the high-performing people there.

- Denise Hanes

The connector: Denise Hanes

Talk to Denise Hanes for five minutes, and it’s clear the self-described “mover and shaker” doesn’t waste time standing still. Indeed, Hanes has been diligently advancing her career since she was 10 years old, when she asked to shadow her aunt, a PwC partner, on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. A business major in college, Hanes, a Philadelphia native, went directly to work for PwC after graduating from Villanova in 2005, working in the assurance practice while spending her summers earning a master’s in accountancy. Three years later, and a senior auditor in the consumer products and technology sectors, contemplating her next move. “I definitely wanted to change what I was doing-to grow further,” she says.

That’s when Hanes heard about a program offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Large and small accounting and auditing firms throughout the country, including PwC, were pooling their resources to provide scholarships for employees who wanted to return to school. Hanes had contemplated getting a PhD in accountancy, and this seemed like the right opportunity. One of 30 applicants awarded a scholarship, Hanes enrolled as a PhD student at Bentley University in Massachusetts in the fall of 2009. Two years into her studies, Hanes’s goal is to complete her PhD by the time she turns 30.

Hanes’s dissertation focuses, in part, on improving auditors’ judgments related to fraud. In particular, Hanes is focusing on ways to improve auditors’ fraud knowledge. “Since actual material financial statement fraud is rare, most auditors do not have direct experience identifying it at their audit clients,” Hanes explains. “I’m looking at ways to supplement auditors’ infrequent experience with real fraud, to build knowledge of fraud and heighten auditors’ awareness. My hope is that this research will improve fraud judgments.” To find out, she researches existing literature and conducts experiments in the field-asking groups of auditors, for instance, to discuss various auditing scenarios and testing whether different decision aids change the conversation, making the auditors’ job easier or improving their results.

The experience can be nerve-racking. “When you’re collecting data from 100 senior associates at a firm, you’re always thinking, ‘I hope they care about my research!’” Hanes says. But making practical connections between academia and professional practice is the core principle of Hanes’s self-imposed academic mission—both as a researcher and, since she passed her department’s 16-hour qualifying exam last summer, as a teacher.

“Along with my own experiences as an auditor, I had a lot of exposure to the curriculum before I started teaching my own classes,” she says. “In my second year in the program, I sat through another instructor’s auditing course, and I was frequently a guest speaker. I worked closely with the professor to make sure I was comfortable teaching the material, and I was able to teach a few classes as well. That helped prepare me, and my practice experience adds another dimension to what I’m able to do in the classroom. It makes me more relevant to my students.”

To keep her knowledge up to date, she stays in close touch with former PwC colleagues, asking for feedback on theories she’s formulating, listening to what’s on their minds and inviting them to be guest lecturers in her classes. She says these relationships are indispensable. “The thing I probably value most in my role now,” she says, “is that I get to stay connected with the firm and the high-performing people there. A lot of the things I talk about in class are directly related to my experiences at PwC, and I try to bring people to the classroom who can speak in even greater detail about what you face in real-life practice.”

Her students reap the benefits of Hanes’s drive to connect the dots. Each of her classes is a lively mix of short lectures, discussions and case studies involving current issues; when a student has a question she can’t answer in the allotted 75 minutes, she creates a handout and posts it to the school’s online informationsharing site. For all the effort she puts in, Hanes gets something in return.

“People who have a lot of business experience might be set in their thinking and the ways they like to do things,” she says. “Students are much more likely to deliberate. They want to discuss the benefits of Method A versus Method B, and explore the consequences. Often, I ask them questions that have no right answer, but that spark a discussion about how they would approach different situations. It’s really interesting, because these students are often very motivated,” Hanes continues. “Everything is in front of them. They’re working so hard to get through the program, and they want to talk about the issues. It’s really rewarding to hear all the conversations that are going on and to be able to help mold their thinking.”

New career, new challenges

Dionisio, Flagg and Hanes all say that making the transition from business to academia requires hard work and willingness to adapt to a different way of life. Hanes advises business professionals pondering enrollment in a PhD program to expect a heavy workload- the CPA exam was a piece of cake compared with the 16-hour exam she took last summer, she says. And, as Flagg points out, the high productivity demands persist once you’re a tenured professor. “Contrary to popular belief, there really aren’t any days off from being a professor,” he says. “The days you’re not in the classroom are quickly and easily filled with either grading papers or conducting research.” Dionisio advises you also have to be prepared to do without perks accorded to corporate executives; without a personal secretary, he says he’s had to become more technologically literate.

But making that transition brings considerable intellectual and emotional rewards. Flagg loves the flexibility he has to schedule his days more or less as he pleases, stopping by the campus rec center at midday to play basketball-and to form mentoring relationships- with students. Now that Dionisio has been anointed one of the most beloved professors on campus thanks to his natural talent for teaching, he gets a kick recalling the doubt he felt standing in front of the blackboard for the first time-“I was as nervous as I’ve ever been,” he chuckles. And though Hanes considers it possible that she might return to auditing practice someday, she’s quite sure it would be only temporary; in academia’s “culture of learning,” she’s found her niche. “A university is such a unique environment,” she says. “As practice continues to get more and more complex, universities have the ability to prepare students to push boundaries and innovate. That can only bode well for the success of students and our profession.”