This article was first published in the March 2017 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Cassandra Crowley has chosen the theme ‘evolve’ for her term as president of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), the profession’s 117,000-strong trans-Tasman membership body. 

She wants to ensure that chartered accountants – and the organisation – remain relevant; the skills chartered accountants have, she says, are enduring and can be applied across a rapidly changing business environment, which is becoming increasingly global and digital.

‘The world around us is changing so quickly that if what we do as a profession, who we are, how we manage our practices and our businesses doesn’t change at a pace at least equal to what’s going on outside, we’ll be left behind,’ she says. ‘Every now and then we have to evolve a little bit to stay ahead of what’s happening, to support our clients, to add value to our communities.’

The organisation itself has evolved in response to changes in the profession and to globalisation. CA ANZ is an amalgamation of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia (ICAA) and the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA), formed in 2014 to provide the membership body with increased scale and resources. It entered into a strategic partnership with ACCA in June 2016. 

Crowley is not afraid to push boundaries to ensure the profession continues to evolve. Her appointment as president challenges any preconceptions that a president needs to be a man with decades of experience at a Big Four firm.

While serving her one-year term, Crowley will continue to work in her full-time role, where she also challenges expectations. Based in Taranaki, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, she is kaitumuaki (chief executive) of Te Korowai o Ngaruahine Trust. She is responsible for managing settlement money received by Ngaruahine, a Maori iwi (tribe), for historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document between Maori chiefs and the British Crown. Some of the tribe were surprised to see a non-Maori, or pakeha, appointed to the chief executive role. However, others welcomed the selection of someone with an appropriate skillset that was required at that point in time.

Crowley, who also holds a number of governance roles, says the job appealed because of the opportunity to make a difference, measured by an increase not only in shareholder value and profit, but also in social wellbeing.

Unconventional start

Crowley decided to study accountancy because of the business grounding it offered. She also studied law and IT, and is a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand. While there is accountancy in her blood (her mother is also a member of CA ANZ), she insists that didn’t influence her decision. ‘In fact, I swore never to be one,’ she laughs. 

‘In some ways I’m a non-traditional accountant – I haven’t worked in a Big Four firm and I have had roles that have used, in a practical day-to-day sense, both my legal and accounting backgrounds.’

Crowley admits it has taken courage to make non-linear career choices. The eldest of three siblings, she says the support of her family has been crucial. ‘When you have that base of unconditional love and encouragement, you have the bravery to attempt things, knowing that if you fail, there’s a solid base to return to.’

Her path to presidency began when she won NZICA’s Outstanding New Member of the Year award in 2010. She was encouraged to join an NZICA local leadership team, then NZICA’s council, and was part of the working group that considered the amalgamation of NZICA and ICCA. She was subsequently selected as a councillor of CA ANZ.

She says she pursued this path because she wanted to give back to the profession and believed she had an obligation to provide a different voice – ‘someone younger, someone outside of traditional practice areas’.

While every president is the steward of the profession, Crowley says she is concentrating ‘on understanding where the profession will be tomorrow. I don’t think that’s radically different from the concerns of other presidents, but I think I’m giving it a sharper focus’.

She hopes her appointment will address outdated stereotypes. ‘Some people perceive professional accountants to be a bunch of old fuddy-duddies.’

She adds: ‘CA ANZ isn’t an exclusive club. It means we are professionally connected in the interests of serving our communities, whether they be business communities, not-for-profits, policy-setting or taxation, and that service, ethics and skill is what makes us a profession.’

In 2016 Crowley won a prime minister’s business scholarship in New Zealand, the only woman among the nine recipients. She believes the challenges women face in the workplace often concern perceived complications around families, and sometimes women’s own hesitancy to put themselves forward. 

Blazing a trail

In the war for talent, she points out, companies now have to develop more sophisticated ways of populating their workforce, which includes offering greater flexibility in working arrangements. She notes that a happy employee is a productive employee.

‘The more that can be done to create business models and lifestyles that mean people are productive at work, and we have access to greater talent pools, the more successful those enterprises will be.’

As CA ANZ president, Crowley wants to help younger members see their interests better reflected. She hopes the CA designation will continue to be a passport to the business world. When asked what she is most looking forward in the role, she cites engagement with members and collegiality with fellow accounting bodies, including ACCA.

The coming year will be a busy one for CA ANZ, and Crowley applauds its practice of having one vice-president for Australia and one for New Zealand. ‘Each of us has various roles that we carry out in supporting the profession,’ she says. ‘The accent changes, but the model we have is really great at ensuring that those needs and voices are heard all the time.’ 

Jennifer Black, deputy editor of Acuity, the member magazine of Chartered Accountants ANZ