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Companies were advised to capitalise on human diversity to enhance finance functions and business performance at the recent Accountants for Business Forum: Diversity Driving Performance in Global Business.

This article was first published in the July 2012 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

‘Diversity goes beyond equal opportunities; it goes beyond gender, ethnic, social and sexual orientation and equality. It is all of these things and more. It is diversity of cultures, diversity of skills and experiences, diversity of ideas and business perspectives that help create and drive great finance functions and deliver even greater business performance,’ said ACCA chief executive Helen Brand in her opening presentation on the new ACCA report, Building a Better Business Through Finance Diversity, at the One World Hotel in Petaling Jaya in May.

‘In the knowledge economy, it’s the skills, knowledge and ideas that people bring to businesses which create a competitive advantage. It’s about people capability,’ she continued.

‘Diversity is such a critical component of capability. We want to deploy the best people in finance and the best people are simply not defined along some homogenous set of criteria. So diversity is a good thing and capability is at the heart of the story.’

The report lists five key steps for businesses to harness diversity within their finance functions. One, understand and welcome cultural differences to create what Brand refers to as ‘cultural intelligence’. Two, diversity starts with recruitment, so finance leaders can bring a mix of skills to their team by bringing in individuals from varying backgrounds, sectors, experiences and careers. Three, nurture diversity through providing job rotation and exposure to different markets, or what Brand calls the ‘corporate career lattice’. Four, embrace open ways of working and encourage different views to better identify risks and opportunities. Five, manage the tension between standardisation and diversity, which is especially important when many companies are establishing regional shared service centres.

Beware the tick box

Companies should, however, refrain from equating diversity initiatives with shallow PR or corporate social responsibility exercises. ‘Diversity is not about ticking boxes,’ warned Chiew Chun Wee, ACCA Asia Pacific’s head of policy, who was the moderator for the lively panel discussion.

Yeo Eng Ping, managing partner of tax services at Ernst & Young Malaysia, agreed. ‘In Ernst & Young, we see diversity and inclusiveness as a strategy and a pillar, and they are very much tied to our branding, our reputation and ultimately our financial performance,’ he said. Ernst & Young has won numerous awards for diversity at the global level and worked closely with ACCA Malaysia on this forum.

Yeo noted that diversity and inclusiveness (D&I) is embedded in Ernst & Young’s processes. ‘In recruitment, we are an equal opportunities workplace,’ she said. ‘We actively recruit people from diverse backgrounds, with different life experiences, because diversity is about the whole human experience. Ernst & Young is an organisation that provides services to clients where ideas and innovation are important. So we constantly look out for people who are different in order to “stir the pot”, agitate new ideas and bring them to the table for our clients. That’s how we bridge the link between D&I and, ultimately, our reputation and financial performance.’

Diversity should not come at the expense of corporate values, however; recruits should subscribe to the organisation’s corporate culture. ‘The whole point of being in people management is to make sure that your organisation has the best talent possible,’ remarked human resources specialist Adzhar Ibrahim, group head for people and ASEAN government relations at AirAsia. ‘When there is an assumption that your talent can only be of this demographic or this race or this gender, then I think you’re sunk. There is no template for diversity, no masterplan – just the assumption that we want the best people with the hunger and passion.’

The new report cites working effectively with human resources (HR) as essential to inculcating diversity. ‘The number-one rule for HR is to know how to run HR by adding different people to the organisation,’ Adzhar concurred. Walking the talk, he has people qualified in town planning, law, civil engineering and IT reporting to him, and the airline employs female pilots as well as female baggage handlers to capitalise on available talent. ‘Diversity is not just in the boardroom, but down on the ground.’  

Adding value

Values are the key. ‘We should not distinguish diversity from the fundamental values of an organisation,’ Yeo emphasised. ‘At Ernst & Young, we have maxims which cannot be compromised. Diversity must be anchored on values.’ Generation-Y recruits too must demonstrate these values; among the best practices for managing D&I across generations is to rely on social media and networking to promote open communication, said the panellists.

The discussion also touched on gender diversity, including Malaysia’s recent introduction of a 30% quota for female board representation in the corporate sector by 2016. Quotas can ‘break the habits and a way of thought that is ingrained,’ Yeo commented. ‘Putting in rules is a great catalyst; there are certain ideals that we want to achieve and such rules allow us to get there quickly. But the survival of women who make the board should entirely depend on their skills and abilities and nothing more.’

‘It’s a risk to not give women of childbearing age an opportunity,’ said Brand, who noted that quotas have produced successful and rapid changes in boards in jurisdictions like Norway and Australia. Drafting more talented women into the workplace requires more flexible attitudes and work schedules and is at odds with the ‘long hours’ culture,’ Brand continued. ‘But flexibility can have exceptional outcomes. We have to look at the outcomes rather than the inputs which can be extremely superficial.’

‘As a leader, I champion flexible work arrangements but you must deliver,’ said Yeo, a mother of two. For example, Ernst & Young’s HR policy offers young mothers a choice of flexible work arrangements. It can, however, result in tension and conflict in the workplace. ‘Diversity and inclusiveness come at a price,’ Yeo said. ‘It is easy to recruit people who are similar to you, because it’ll be easier to get things going. However, a leader needs to overcome this tendency and embrace differences and appreciate debates and other views.’

While Yeo acknowledged that there is value in building uniformity, ‘we live in a very globalised world today and we really need a diverse group of people within the organisation. Decisions may take longer to come about and there will be a lot of tension and conflicts on the ground. However, organisations should leverage on the ‘conflicts’ that can spark new ideas and boost energy and creativity.’

‘Having an open and inclusive culture is the way to grow diversity,’ she concluded. ‘We have to develop mindsets and habits for leading inclusively, and this will depend a lot on a strong tone from the top.’ 

Nazatul Izma Abdullah, journalist

Last updated: 7 Apr 2014