Accountants have long embodied a range of key attributes, but these must be constantly reassessed to maintain the profession’s critical contribution to society, says Peter Williams
This article was first published in the June 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
In a cartoon by Barsotti in a 1972 edition of The New Yorker, a man asks a woman ‘What is art?’ She responds: ‘Why do you ask? You’re an accountant.’
The accountancy profession has always been an easy target for snide comments, but the idea that it is just about numbers has never added up. ACCA’s research, Professional accountants – the future, articulates what accountants and their clients have always known: that a variety of key attributes come together to make a strong, enduring professional profile.
American-Canadian writer William Ford Gibson is credited with saying: ‘The future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed.’ Likewise, many of the attributes ACCA identifies as necessary for the professional of tomorrow have been here for generations. The battle is to make sure they form part of the DNA of all professionals.
And throughout the generations, the accountancy profession has dared to envision a future where it continues to play a significant role. Accountancy firms don’t grow into valuable businesses by accident. A sign of a vibrant profession is its ability to take calculated risks on markets that only with hindsight look like certainties – the accountants’ growth of the consultancy market is an example. Another key strength has been its willingness to source raw talent and potential – intelligence – rather than looking at moribund criteria, such as the right background or accent. The profession has also been at the vanguard of society’s challenging of perceptions over gender and race.
Technical competence and strong ethics form the bedrock of the profession. Professionals may at times get judgments wrong, but rarely do they get them technically wrong through lack of knowledge or understanding.
The accountant has always been willing to embrace the latest technology, too, because of intrinsic curiosity and a belief that using better tools can make the job easier. Embracing digital is just instinctive.
And while digital tools do wonders for technology, accountants still have to engage with each other and with non-accountant colleagues and clients. Which is why The New Yorker cartoon suggesting that the stereotypical accountant has no finer feelings may have been funny but was no more true in the 1970s than it is today. Individually and collectively, the profession demonstrates emotional and creative intelligence. Suggesting and solving business problems is so second nature that most accountants would barely register they have such talent.
As for emotional intelligence, we have all met professionals who have been able to judge the mood as well as the numbers and build on any situation for the common good. At a high level that is a rare gift, not just among accountants. More than at the individual level, the profession demonstrates emotional intelligence and leadership. It has a track record of judging when it has fallen short and when it is necessary to react decisively to waning public trust and criticism in order to deal with issues of legitimate public concern: take its response to Enron and the global financial crisis a few years later.
An individual’s character is made up of the mental and moral qualities they possess. These magnificent seven attributes describe and encompass the characteristics of the accountancy profession and can be constantly drawn upon. So, through re-evaluation, reassessment and re-ordering of these attributes, the profession builds on a heritage of sure foundations, restating and repurposing core values to ensure its contribution to society remains critical and immense.
Peter Williams is an accountant and journalist