Sunday 19 February 2017
Understanding how accountants are perceived
Accountants have traditionally played a stewardship role illustrated as looking at the past to formulate an accurate historical record of events at a company. Rapid technological advances over the last quarter of a century have permeated business and changed users' requirements for information. Everything is needed now! Accountants can no longer be seen to be in the background, recording events after they have occurred but have had to adapt to be at the forefront as advisors and partners for significant events. Often a period of rapid change leaves a situation where existing rules and standards no longer apply. And during these times we see the opportunity for exploitation while everything catches up. Enter large corporate collapses at the start of the 21st century (example Enron) resulting from greed and exploitation of a changing but as yet unregulated accounting profession.
The traditional perception of accountants sitting in the back office, away from the action was shredded when both the Chief Accountant at Enron as well as the Audit Partner (amongst others) were publicly implicated for their roles in the collapse. Accountants were no longer useful but harmless and were now meant to be approached with caution. This perception has continued to be fuelled by mainstream media reporting audit failures, accounting blunders and mismanagement by accountants. Not much is said about accountants putting their jobs and security at risk in order to protect investors or about wrongful termination lawsuits filed by accountants claiming they were fired for refusing to publish or approve fraudulent financial statements.
Are accountants the sum of all past accounting failures?
Most professional qualified chartered accountants have developed a formidable skill set which allows them to prosper in a range of activities from entrepreneurship to heading up larger multi-national organisations. Accountants are confident (arrogant, sometimes) about the renewed importance of what they do but still walk around with a sense of shame as if carrying the legacy of perceptions past. Why? Well, mostly because not much is said about the rewarding nature of accounting and the value added by accountants helping others.
How can we fix our own and society's perception of accountants?
In 2015, Steve Piper, Susan Clegg and Shane Lukas embarked on a research programme to document some good-news stories to re-create the perception of accountants. Their book titled, "The World's Most Inspiring Accountants" documents 62 case studies across 5 continents and 8 countries of how accountants changed the world. These case studies talk about the real impact, economic and societal, that accountants have had through the work that they do. What was great to see in these case studies was the documentation of the personal aspect, the emotional support given by accountants to their clients and employers.
What this book highlights is the range and scale of the impact that accountants are making across the world, economic and otherwise. Interestingly, one of the key messages was that accountants lack self-esteem and do not perceive themselves, personally, to be making a real difference, even though some may be aware of their work making an impact. While books like these are a step in the right direction, accountants need to stimulate a mind shift within themselves, not just around the importance of what they do but the impact they make because of who they are.